If doctors used climate science, part 2

By Daniel Collins 07/12/2009


When I was in Uganda last year, I ran into a local medical doctor working on climate change impacts in the water resources sector. I happened to be in Uganda with the Red Cross for the very same thing. The MD was an influential figure, and got a lot of good work done, but his grasp of climate science was flawed. At an international doners’ conference on water issues he presented, among other things, three data sets that he claimed bore the hallmark of climate change: a decline in ice cover of Mount Rwenzori, an increase in food shortages, and the decline in level of Lake Victoria.

For the ice cover, he presented three data points spanning 100 years. While the decline may be consistent with other more detailed observations, this emaciated data set alone was not evidence of climate change.

The food shortages data was a little more fleshed out. There were about 10 events, grouped by decade, for the 20th century. There were more events towards the end, suggesting an increase. However, not only was this trend also not statistically significant, but confounding factors were not considered. These being the increase in vulnerability of a growing population, and an increase in awareness of events.

The data on Lake Victoria, on the other hand, did show a statistically robust decline, but what was presented was only a few years of data from a record dating back to the 1890s. The full record shows a roughly flat line from the 1890s, a sharp rise in 1960-61 associated with an abrupt shift in Indian Ocean-derived rainfall, and a gradual decline since. No climate scientist has linked this decline to anthropogenic climate change.

The Ugandan medical doctor accepted climate change was real but ascribed too much to it. This contrasts with SciBlog’s very own medical doctor, who denies climate change, believing the science to be flawed. Regardless of conclusion, both misunderstand and misuse science.

I mention this, as should be obvious, to rebut the insinuation of MacDoctor’s earlier post: that climate science is flawed and that medical doctors know better. Not so.

A more medically and scientifically robust story of climate change and health emerges from a study by some of my former colleagues. Jonathan Patz, MD PhD from the University of Wisconsin, led a study on the potential global health inequities of climate change. By combining past WHO statistics of temperature-related diseases with global carbon emissions, the team highlighted that those most vulnerable to global warming are those least at fault. The same broadly applies to water-related risks.

What this all boils down to is this: Climate change is real, and is almost certainly caused by humans. Future climate change is a risk. Whether it will be good or bad depends on our values and vulnerabilities, and in part on our choices today, but we won’t find out how good or bad until it happens. Because of these different values, climate science is misunderstood and misused by advocates of all stripes, both ’for’ and ’against’. This is a shame. But as with the tobacco and detergent controversies of decades past, it will be science that wins.


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