Ethical crisis of climate change

By Anita Clar, Wisconsin State Journal

Dr. Jonathan Patz is an international authority on global warming, and it’s more than an academic study for him.

At home in Madison, he has installed solar panels on his house and grocery baskets on his bicycle. He drives a Prius hybrid but bicycles to work.

For Patz, who is a physician and holds a master’s degree in public health, the link between climate change and health hit him in the early 1990s when he was studying at Johns Hopkins University.

“I realized this is a huge public health issue that no one has really touched,” Patz said.

Since then, he has become a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Its most recent report, in the words of the New York Times, describes the mounting risks of climate change “in language that is both more specific and forceful than its previous assessments.” It is the focus of a meeting of world leaders that begins this week in Bali, Indonesia, where Patz will give a keynote lecture.

His most recent research documents the ethical crisis of climate change, showing the stark contrast between countries that cause global warming and those that suffer the health consequences from it, especially children hit by malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea.

“Our high consumption of energy is putting a huge disease burden on places that are quite remote from us,” said Patz, who is a professor in the UW-Madison Department of Population Health Sciences and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

“This is the key message from this paper: Those most vulnerable to the health risks of climate change are the least responsible for causing the problem,” Patz said.

The paper, titled “Climate Change and Global Health: Quantifying a Growing Ethical Crisis,” was published in the Nov. 12 issue of the journal EcoHealth.

“This paper is really a paper of ethics and morality,” Patz said. “What we are doing with our energy policy, especially in this country, is harming other countries, other populations, and that’s just not right.”

Researchers, including colleagues of Patz in the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) in the Nelson Institute, measured per-capita carbon emissions and compared that data with climate-related diseases in the most affected regions of the world.

Results showed a stark contrast.

Americans, for example, in 2004 had per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide that were six times the global average, but U.S. residents have a significantly lower risk of health effects from climate change.

Africa, where 70 to 80 percent of malaria occurs, has some of the lowest per-capita emission of greenhouse gases.

“Rich countries like the United States have caused much more of today’s warming than poor ones,” the study said.

David Travis, a climatologist at UW-Whitewater, said research like this helps people understand the effects of greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be seen.

“Any time we’re able to connect our emissions to specific impacts, it helps us better understand the implications of what we’re doing,” Travis said. “People have a hard time responding to something they can’t see.”

Patz is optimistic about the ability and willingness of people and nations to change their ways. International negotiations and binding treaties are needed, he said, and he will be raising the morality issue at the world climate conference in Bali.

One reason Patz is optimistic is that he sees people paying attention to climate change and making the connection between auto-centered communities, lack of exercise and production of polluting gases.

“I think already, at the community level and the state level, there’s tremendous political will now as people recognize the dangers of climate change,” Patz said.

He hopes people will do the little things that help — using compact fluorescent light bulbs, installing insulating blinds — while insisting their leaders move toward long-term solutions.

It’s vital that the United States lead the way, Patz said.

“If we don’t signal to the world that we’re going to change our way of consuming energy, there’ll be no motivation for the developing world to respond,” he said.

Other authors of the paper are Holly Gibbs, also of SAGE at UW-Madison; Jonathan Foley, director of SAGE; and Kirk Smith, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley.