Our planet is the patient. Climate change is the disease. What’s a doctor to do? First the framing for an answer:
Like scientists, medical doctors appreciate their own limitations. Yet they are tasked with making important decisions – possibly life-and-death decisions – despite not knowing for sure they’ve got it right. Wait and see? Try something? Try something else? All the while observing and thinking and investigating further. Doctors need to be willing to act boldly, willing to do nothing, and willing to change their minds. Because the health of the patient is what’s important – not a foolish consistency with past opinions. Think like a Scientist, Act like a Doctor:
Let’s assume our physician has the diagnosis right: anthropogenic climate change. This is a poorly-understood condition with an uncertain prognosis. Given the lack of case studies, the medical community looks to computer models to guide treatment. These models predict the course of the patient’s condition over time. Unfortunately, the models differ in their assumptions, calculations and conclusions and so provide little guidance as to how to treat the patient.
Some in the medical community take a “wait and see” approach to climate change. They’re aware of computer models predicting a dangerous worsening of the patient’s condition but note that other models are not nearly so gloomy. These doctors point out that most treatments carry their own risks, so it’s best just to monitor the patient closely for the time being - and not to jump to conclusions when the patient comes down with an occasional fever.
However, most in the medical community acknowledge the patient will probably get worse without some sort of intervention. But many physicians aren’t convinced the prognosis is dire without aggressive treatment and so opt for a conservative approach to managing the patient’s condition. These doctors tend to favor a low-dose drug regimen to reduce climate load, combined with lifestyle changes to boost the patient’s immune system. They will then monitor the patient’s condition closely and adjust the treatment regimen should she take a turn for the worse.
Yet other doctors are convinced that without aggressive measures this climate change disease will inevitably progress to painful debilitation and possible death. They want the patient to undergo a kind of shock therapy that includes powerful medications, major changes in diet, and strict instructions to avoid any activity that may increase climate load. These doctors acknowledge their approach is not without risk - e.g., drug side effects, nutritional deficits, and even harm to the patient’s mental health - but maintain time is of the essence and without quick, decisive action the patient would be even worse off. They also insist their treatment regimen must be given several years to have full effect and so are unlikely to ease off even when the patient appears to be doing well.
Most doctors remain skeptical of this extreme approach to treating the disease of climate change. They argue it’s premature to lock-in a specific treatment protocol when there is no professional consensus on disease dynamics, severity of impact or effective interventions. They also note that such an approach is much more expensive than the others, especially when factoring in the cost of treating side effects. Should it be used widely or become legally binding, fewer resources would be available for research and development of other treatments (both for the underlying disease and to manage symptoms). Even if more effective treatments became available, they may not be fully utilized given the “tyranny of past investment” - and the bigger the investment, the more tyrannical. Meaning it’s hard to change direction in the middle of a multi-year plan.
So what’s a doctor to do?