Climate change: One mess kids have nothing to do with

Last month, I got an email from a friend who still lives in the New England town where we grew up together. “The snowbanks are over our heads,” she wrote, “just like when we were kids!” It brought back a flood of memories.

When I was little, the snowplows rumbled down our street all winter long. I’d lie awake at night listening for them, watching the snow pile up outside my window, with visions of canceled school dancing in my head. Those plows heaved up huge snowbanks. We carved out tunnels and caves so big that three or four of us could squeeze into them to plot our snowball ambush of the Thompson boys across the street. 

In our little college town, our house was just down the road from Fraternity Row, and every year they had a snow sculpture competition between the frat houses. Gods and beasts and mythical cities would rise out of the frozen landscape and tower over us, filling us with wonder and awe. 

Then, one year, there wasn’t enough snow for the sculptures. They had to truck extra snow in.  And a few years later, the competition ended all together. Over time, the plows were needed less and less. The snowbanks shrank. Snow days became a rare and unreliable thing. The fierce, white winter of my early childhood gave way to a milder, meeker, less magical shadow of its former self.

Was that taming of New England winters over the past 25 years a symptom of climate change? Or was it just a reflection of that random event generator known as weather? The honest answer is: “We don’t know.” That’s the problem with something like climate change — it happens slowly enough and gradually enough that day-to-day and year-to-year variations are much more obvious than the overall trend. When we’re talking about average temperature shifts of a few degrees over dozens of years, the short-term phenomena we see for ourselves are all but meaningless.

There’s a saying in medicine: “Anecdotal experience is not objective evidence.” We use it to remind ourselves not to do what human nature always tells us to do — to believe our own eyes. The fact is, one pair of eyes can only see so much. There are better, more reliable ways to search for the truth.

I’m Chinese, and I’m a physician. That makes me a member of two of the most pragmatic groups of people on earth. I don’t believe in ideology — I believe in what works. So please trust me when I tell you that the following statement is not political. It’s practical.

Climate change is real — and we’re causing it.

I know, I know — there are scientific studies out there that dispute that fact. Do you know how many? Three percent. The other 97 percent say that climate change is happening, and that we are causing it. That exceeds the level of consensus supporting almost every decision I’ve ever made as a physician.

So let’s play doctor. I’m the physician, you’re the parent, and your daughter’s name is Earth.

You’re bringing Earth in today because she has a persistent fever. You’ve always fed her the very best fossil fuels, but you recently heard on TV that they may not be safe. Lately, you’ve noticed that Earth isn’t acting like herself.  Her moods are volatile and stormy. She’s throwing worse tantrums than you’ve ever seen. Some parts of her are dry and parched, while others are constantly wet. 

As your family physician, this is what I tell you: 97 percent of the scientific literature says that your child is probably suffering from carbon emissions poisoning. If we treat her, there may be painful, temporary side effects, and a cure is far from guaranteed. On the other hand, if it is carbon poisoning and it goes untreated, the consequences will be catastrophic. Vital parts of her will disappear. Her moods will become increasingly volatile and extreme. She may be permanently damaged, almost beyond recognition. And the window for treatment could be closing even as we speak. Soon, it may be too late.

What should you do? Treat her? Wait for more scientific evidence? Call me a quack and storm out of the office? It’s your call.

This scenario is not as hypothetical as you might think. At current rates of climate change, chaos, famine and economic collapse aren’t centuries away — they will begin in our children’s lifetimes. This could determine their quality of life, and the shape of the world they live in. This could be our legacy.

There’s a ton of dirty work in parenting. Children make a lot of messes, and we spend a lot of time dealing with them. But there’s at least one mess they had nothing to do with. Let’s not make them clean it up.

Jeff Lee treats adults, children, and the occasional planet in Seattle.

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