The impetus to write this book arose as I was finishing The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health. As I wrote, it became clear that there was another, more important story that was larger than one limited to the consequences of burning coal—namely, the effects of climate change on health. Coal continues to exert important ill effects on health during all phases of its life cycle, particularly in countries such as China and India, but the tide is turning. All over the world, ordinary citizens, their governments, and in some cases the power companies themselves all seem to realize that burning coal is not an option if we are to move toward a more sustainable energy future. The once-limiting costs of wind and solar power have fallen precipitously even as some utilities seek to impose restrictive net metering fees on rooftop solar installations.
Utilities that take advantage of the solar option face new challenges. What will they do at night when the sun does not shine? Will a mix of improved battery technology and heat storage technologies fill this void? Or will research and development transform laboratory curiosities—such as the use of light to split water into easily stored hydrogen and oxygen—mature into commercially viable technologies? Wind turbines continue to improve, and plans are emerging to harness the energy of tides, waves, and rivers without building dams.
Chai Jing, a courageous and outspoken Chinese journalist and mother, produced a documentary called Under the Dome that she shows to huge audiences. Its impact was great enough that access to the documentary on YouTube was blocked in China. Now, China has entered into an agreement with President Obama to limit carbon dioxide emissions and has taken steps to initiate a cap and trade policy to control these emissions. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported data from the US Energy Information Administration that shows that the BRIC countries (Brazil, the Russian Federation, India, and China) all generate a larger fraction of their electricity from renewable sources than we do in the United States. Of course, we Americans use much more electricity per capita even as we generate decreasing amounts from coal.
With this information in mind, I approached Clay Morgan, my editor at the MIT Press, about a follow-up to The Silent Epidemic. He and his associates were enthusiastic, and we agreed on a timeline that would see the book in the hands of readers before the 2016 presidential elections. Clay, like me, is now enjoying his retirement, and I am in the capable hands of Miranda Martin, Beth Clevenger, Kathleen Caruso, and their colleagues at the MIT Press. I am particularly indebted to the anonymous peer reviewers whose trenchant comments helped make this a better book. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Melinda Rankin whose invisible copyediting skills improved the style and accuracy of the final text.
The task of writing this book was daunting. Unlike those who made climate science their life’s work, I became a clinical neuroscientist. In many ways, the research challenges I faced prepared me for the task I have undertaken. Success depended on reading trusted sources as widely as possible, making evidence-based decisions, resorting to clinical and scientific judgment when necessary, and moving ahead. I envy writers like Elisabeth Kolbert and others whose well-deserved stature enabled them to obtain support for their work, some of which has influenced mine. Kolbert was able to travel extensively and visit scientists as they worked. I traveled with my computer to the amazing library at the University at Buffalo where helpful librarians were usually able to provide me with papers from other repositories. It was rare to wait more than a day for a loan request to be fulfilled.
I am indebted to a great many individuals whose work I have relied on extensively during the course of writing this book. First and foremost are the authors of the peer-reviewed scientific publications that have provided what I hope is a solid, data- and evidence-based approach to my topic. Many of these authors have been extraordinarily helpful by giving permission to reproduce their work and sending me copies of papers not readily available at the University at Buffalo along with other relevant publications. The numerous scientists who contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Reports have been a constant inspiration and unlocked the doors to important lines of inquiry that are not a usual part of a neurologist’s training and experience. I am indebted to the often-nameless scientists who performed herculean work as they wrote, fact-checked, and reviewed reports published by governmental agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Energy Information Administration, and others. Although I have tried to rely on the peer-reviewed literature whenever possible, many outstanding organizations, including Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have made important contributions. Earthjustice receives special thanks for its work and support.
Who can’t help but be inspired by the following sources? In no particular order: James Balog, the genius behind the documentary Chasing Ice; Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, a book that everyone should read; Al Gore, whose An Inconvenient Truth reminds us how to use the bully pulpit; and Bill McKibben and all the good people at 350.org. If James Hansen’s voice had been heeded, this book would not have been necessary. There are scores of others that served as a source of ideas and inspiration.
During my rewarding and varied career as a physician–scientist, I learned to cherish the value of evidence-based decision-making. I try as hard as possible to be aware of sources of bias that affect thinking and behavior. I ask the same of others as we undertake the formidable task of planning for the future we want for our children, grandchildren, and the others who will follow us and who must live with the choices we make today. This generation may be the last one that has any hope of mitigating what some refer to as an impending climate change public health disaster or, from a decidedly more optimistic perspective, the opportunity to deal triumphantly with this public health opportunity. There are many win-win, no-regrets choices to make if we have sufficient wisdom to do so.
As I began final revisions of the book, Pope Francis visited the United States, where he addressed Congress and the United Nations. In his May 24, 2015, encyclical Laudato si’, he wrote: “Our sister [Mother Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”1 Five days later, a multinational group of health professionals wrote this about climate change in the preeminent journal The Lancet: “A healthy patient cannot continue with indefinitely rising levels of a toxin in the blood.”2 Religious leaders, climate scientists, and healthcare professionals all speak with a common voice.
I am proud to have been a member and supporter of Physicians for Social Responsibility for over three decades. I will donate all of the royalties from the sale of this book to PSR to help it in its mission to protect all of us from the greatest threats to survival.
Without the loving support of my wife, Anne, I could not have contemplated taking on the task of writing this book. She was always there, ready to provide the criticisms that improved my effort, find the mistakes that I failed to see, correct the spelling and usage errors that inevitably crept onto my pages (in spite of spell check), and bring me the odd cups of tea or coffee that helped sustain the effort needed to move ahead. It is almost inevitable that errors remain, in spite of Anne’s able efforts and those of my editors at the MIT Press. Those mistakes are mine alone.
Alan H. Lockwood