Sheline: Don’t wait to work on world’s health until too late

May. 15, 2013 @ 07:55 PM

The carbon dioxide level in our atmosphere recently went above 400 parts per million (ppm).  This should concern all of us. 

For all of human history prior to 1900, the level never exceeded 280 ppm, according to data published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There is no disagreement that burning fossil fuels contributes to the rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, and that rising CO2 levels cause a rise in the average global temperature, by the “greenhouse effect.” 

The warming atmosphere leads to more intense storms, floods and droughts, melting of polar ice and rising sea levels. The impact on humans will be devastating if this continues unchecked. One example: a 2007 study found that about a tenth of the world’s population live at elevations less that 30 feet above sea level.

For those of you who still have some doubt about whether we humans are contributing to global climate change, I would ask you this: What if it is true that climate change is real, and what if we are making it worse?  Do you need 100 percent certainty to act?

I am a family doctor in Durham. If my patient is sick with a fever and is coughing up green phlegm, I don’t wait until I’m 100 percent sure what is causing the illness before I act as quickly as possible to treat the patient.

The big oil, gas and coal industries in our country spend huge amounts of money to spread disinformation; to plant doubts in peoples’ minds about the facts of climate change. You might recall that the tobacco companies in the 1970s and 1980s used the same strategy, trying to convince people that smoking was not really so bad -- even after nearly all of the medical profession was convinced otherwise.

A single oil company, Exxon Mobil Corp., earned $44.9 billion in 2012, of which about a quarter was profit. They have a big incentive to produce more petroleum products, and spending millions to convince people that climate change is a hoax is peanuts to them. To get the attention of these companies, we need to hurt their profits. You can join a growing movement to convince people and institutions to divest their stock holdings in fossil fuel companies. Read more at The divestment campaign of the mid-1980s that was directed at companies with holdings in South Africa was credited as one of the main factors that ended apartheid. 

There are several reasons why we may feel powerless about this issue. One is: “What difference can one person make?” Recall when the Berlin Wall came down. It just took enough people to finally reach a tipping point and the Wall came down quickly. A second is “What difference does it make what the U.S. does, when China keeps building coal-fired power plants?” 

We need to set an example, to show other countries how to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. Also, if people stop buying their goods, China will listen.

A third reason is: “What are we realistically going to use instead of fossil fuels?” 

The answer to this last concern is spelled out in great detail by a Stanford engineer, Mark Z. Jacobson, in published articles showing how the entire world could convert from fossil fuels to clean energy by 2050: mainly from electricity made from wind and solar power. 

This will not be easy. But the United States has shown itself capable of amazing actions when our backs are against the wall. Gearing up our industries to produce tanks instead of automobiles happened within one or two years in WWII. Putting a man on the moon took less than a decade. Our backs are now against the wall again. 

As a doctor, I have noticed how people often do not appreciate their health until it is taken away. If we get cancer, nothing else matters very much. The health of our planet is similar. If we stress the planet’s health until it gets a sort of cancer, nothing else will matter much. Our best climate scientists predict that if our planet’s temperature rises by only 2 degrees Celsius, our world will be vastly different from what we know now. Huge storms, bigger than Sandy, will be common, oceans will become so acidic that most fish will die and ocean levels will rise as much as 100 feet. 

The numbers discussed in “Do The Math – The Movie,” by, are especially sobering. The current proven reserves of fossil fuels listed on the balance sheets of energy corporations, if burned, is about five times the amount that would raise the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees (C).

We still have a choice – to make a massive switch from fossil fuels to clean energy, before it’s too late. The biggest reason that I’m involved in this issue is my two children. I want to be able to answer to them, when they ask me in 15 or 20 years: “What did YOU do to help out our planet during that critical time in the early 21st century?” 

I want to be able to say that I did everything I could.  


Jonathan Sheline is a family physician who enjoys canoeing and hiking with his wife in North Carolina, studied environmental biology in college and is active in local conservation groups, including Transition Durham and