As 2009 comes to an end, we naturally reflect on what has been accomplished, and what remains to be done. The major themes that seem to be seeping through include “Have we done enough?”, “Have we done more harm then good?”, “What side of our human nature will dominate the immediate future – goodness or evil?” While the answers to these questions can be debated, what appears not to be debatable is that change is all around us.
In the US, we appear to be moving toward passage of a large health care reform bill. The educational sector is experimenting in a very large way with charter schools. Our infrastructure is getting a major facelift through stimulus dollars. And we are signaling a willingness to engage in clean energy. In all of these areas we are beginning to show signs of acknowledging our weaknesses and attempting to apply measures that might indicate success. But as recent debates on everything from mammography screening to global warming indicate, change does not come easy to our culture.
Still progress is coming, albeit in bits and pieces. Witness the climate conference in Copenhagen this past week.(1) Here at least we saw the beginning of consensus on the facts.(2) Here they are:
1. Global citizens currently generate 9.1 billion metric tons a year of carbon into the atmosphere.
2. Of this amount 30% is absorbed by plants and soil, and 25% absorbed by oceans. The other 45% stays in the air.
3. 80% of the carbon dump comes from burning fossil fuels.
4. The problem with carbon in the air is that it absorbs heat bouncing off the Earth’s surface and radiates it back downward.
5. Studies of Antartica ice cores indicate that we haven’t had CO2 levels this high on Earth in 1 million years.
So if those are the facts, what’s the recovery look like, and what can we can we learn about transforming other sectors like health and education? Well here’s where it gets dicey. In these sectors we are dealing with reinforcing cycles – either by virtue of science or by virtue of human behavior of those in power. Five years ago we said crossing the threshold of 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon in our atmosphere could place us at a point of no return. Our level today? 385 ppm and rising by 3 ppm each year. Best guess now for 2050? 450 ppm, and that’s if we’ve cut our carbon emissions 80% by 2050. You see, it’s alot easier to dump carbon into the tub than it is to drain it out.(3,4)
And so it is with large human endeavors like health and education. It would be nice to just reverse the course tomorrow. But the reality is that the forces are so powerful that the best you can do sometimes is begin to walk your way back down the cliff. And looking back on 2009, that is what our country, and many others who share our planet are attempting to do. It is not perfect for certain. But it is something, and it is a beginning.
For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee
1. United Nations Climate Change Conference. December 18, 2009. http://en.cop15.dk/
2. National Geographic. The Big Idea: The Carbon Bath Tub. December, 2009. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/big-idea/05/carbon-bath
3. Sterman, J. Climate Change, Challenges and Opportunities. http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/606
4. Archer, D. The Long Thaw. Princeton University Press, 2008. http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8719.html