Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Taking the Temperature on Global Warming

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Taking the Temperature on Global Warming

Article excerpt

Even though summer in my neck of the woods can get fairly hot and humid, not too many people are thinking about global warming right now. We are just grateful to be far away from winter. In fact, this past winter was so long and cold that I was thinking of global "cooling" back then. I was, that is, until my epiphany--on Earth Day, April 22, 2007.

While my newborn granddaughter, the child of two rabbis, was visiting, I went to the grocery store. As usual, the young clerk asked: Paper or plastic? I was ready to choose plastic, which is easier to carry, until I felt a surprising wave of guilt sweep over me. Would not paper be better for the future of my granddaughter?

That question naturally led to others. Is there any Jewish perspective on global warming? Has my profession of psychiatry been involved in any way in environmental issues? As it turned out, the practical question of paper or plastic was the easiest one to answer.

A little later, I discovered a possible ancestral connection. As family legend goes, the 15th-century Jewish philosopher Don Isaac Abravanel--a possible namesake--advocated for sustaining the Earth's resources.

All my musing brought me back to the possible involvement of my profession in environmental issues. But here I met with some disappointment. Searching and asking wherever possible, I could hardly find any commentary, interpretation, reframing, or advocacy by psychiatrists or organized psychiatry, despite all the increasing media attention on global warming.

Not even the psychiatric group devoted to social issues, the American Association for Social Psychiatry, had addressed the problem. Unfortunately, I have only myself to blame for the oversight. I was the group's president from 1998 to 2000.

But even since then there has been no response from our profession. Why, I wondered? Could it really be that we have nothing to contribute? Are we overwhelmed with the numerous immediate problems of our profession? Do we think the science is still inconclusive? Or is my concern symbolic of an "Impossible Dream" of windmills?

The Ethical Challenge

Despite some remaining dissent, there is greater scientific certainty that global warming is a real threat, especially as the years go on. Moreover, the February 2007 report of the UN. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated with 90% confidence that wasteful lifestyles and other human behaviors are the culprits. Well, if human behavior was--and is--responsible, the responsibility of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals seems clear.

That responsibility is an ethical one. It meets the American Medical Association's principles of medical ethics in Section VII: "A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health."

Although Hippocrates associated mortality and climate, there have only been pockets of medical interest since. Recently, Dr. George Lundberg, editor in chief of Medscape General Medicine, decried the lack of general physician involvement in a solution to global warming. Dr. Lundberg warned that future public health threats, such as heatstroke, famine, new diseases, and competition for survival in less habitable lands could be worse than the threat from nuclear war (Medscape General Medicine 2006;8:71). Although there might conceivably be tiny areas of the world where global warming may be helpful, the projections for most of the world are dire.

More than likely, the poorer--locally and globally--will suffer the most, as well as the elderly and very young. Inadequate health care systems will become even more so. We may already be seeing an initial wave of the effects of global warming in Bangladesh, where "climate refugees" are a consequence of land giving way to rising seas. Some analysts even speculate that the roots of the conflicts in Darfur and Rwanda may have less to do with ethnic tensions than with ecological change. …

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