Monthly Archives: October 2014

Risk: not a game

One’s perception of risk doesn’t always match up well with the reality. Today, the sixth of October in the year two thousand and fourteen, the risk of Ebola dominates the news. It seems to be a scary time. This perceived risk has persuaded some elected politicians to call for travel bans, something you don’t hear about very often. So the risk must be extreme, right?

So far, one person with Ebola entered the United States. There may be a few more, even several more or a dozen or so before the crisis in west Africa is contained. But for perspective, last year’s flu season here saw 58,732 confirmed cases of flu serious enough to require hospitalization. Last year, 108 children died from the flu in the United States alone. Although it’s difficult to get a firm count, the total death toll from the flu here ranges from 3,000 to 49,000 every year.

The flu virus can spread from a cough or a sneeze, something Ebola cannot do. Ebola is more deadly than the flu if you catch it, but it’s not easily spread. Ebola is out of control in west Africa because it’s a desperately poor region with little capacity to deal with something new. Public health doctors here insist that the best way to protect the rest of the world from the Ebola virus is to snuff it out in west Africa where its numbers have mushroomed. Travel bans will only make it more difficult to send the health care workers needed there to stop the virus in its tracks. And given the slow and poor transmission ability of Ebola, screening travelers is a highly effective containment tool. Such screening would not be nearly so effective with the flu.

In the meantime, if you’re really worried about you or your kids catching a virus and getting sick, get a flu vaccination and keep your kids’ mumps, measles, and rubella and other vaccinations up to speed.


DISRUPTION: A review of the climate change documentary

The video opens with the following quote:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
—Frederick Douglass

This statement and its author tell us much about the documentary that follows. The focus is on action, in keeping with the title itself, Disruption. The target of the action is, clearly in this case, the fossil fuel industry and the political machine that protects and supports it. And quoting Frederick Douglass hints at the central environmental justice theme.

As a scientist, I am nervous when the discussion moves from a consideration of the science to how to achieve political goals. So, yes, I am not thrilled with the documentary’s fuzzy use of the “tipping point” concept, and avoidance of the more accurate term, “positive or reinforcing feedback.” Yes, I am anxious when specific storm events come to characterize climate change rather than global shifts in heat content of the oceans and the atmosphere. Yes, I am concerned with the touch of exaggeration I perceived when methane was described as fifty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (I believe twenty-five times is more like it). And I don’t understand why they left out sea level rise and long-term climate events like drought.

However, as a parent and a new grandparent I am more nervous with the risks we take doing nothing, or doing as little as we have done for the past decade to avert climate change. The risk is significant, the consequences likely to be severe, and many unknowns exist that could send us spiraling down paths to new unpleasant, perhaps catastrophic “normals” we could find difficult to avoid or change. I don’t want that for my children or their children.

The purpose of this documentary was not so much education as motivation. The clear goal was to spur individuals to take part in the upcoming climate change march in New York City, either directly or in their local community. Given the seriousness of the problem and especially our country’s negligence in taking sufficient steps to address climate change, I can live with a little rabble-rousing. I only wish it were done with more dispassionate logic, but passion is what they hope, and need, to arouse. On that point I have no dispute.

Next to large crowds on the streets, neighbor to neighbor efforts to share knowledge of the causes and consequences and solutions to climate change seem important as well. Consider participating in that type of activity in addition to marching in the streets.