Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Changing Planet, Changing Health by Dr. Paul Epstein

The topic of global warming always gets a few people annoyed...there's some that do not think it's real or important enough to care about.  On top of that, any intelligent conversation about it seems to get sidetracked into a political stance that calls in lots of unrelated subjects and distracts from the focus.

So, what if a doctor were to examine the subject from an outside view, subjective only to his viewpoints as a physician, and left politics and policies out of most of the discussion? 

The answer is Changing Planet, Changing Health by Paul Epstein, MD.  While he does get into some political issues towards the end, for the most part the focus is on what happens when the earth gets too warm.  It's not simply warmer weather that is the issue, and it certainly doesn't go away when a large winter snowfall appears.  Rather, he analyzes the data related to weather change.  Areas that receive more heat than usual obviously have a drought.  But where does that water go that heated up?  It's not gone forever, but is evaporated up and into weather systems (water weighs much more than air) that dump that water somewhere else, leading to widespread flooding and furious storms.  Dry ground can lead to wildfires, which the resulting smoke can actually alter weather patterns, making the imbalances continue.

The pattern of extra water and invasive flooding sets up a domino effect in plant and animal life, and these combine with pathogens to exacerbate the change.  What Dr. Epstein shows is what happens next:  viruses appear that were dormant or unheard of regionally before.  Excessive plant growth alters feeding patterns of animals, causing less (or more) of them and thus further altering the previous balance.

His point is clear and crosses political lines.  Focusing on the delicate and fragile balance of the Earth's ecosystems, he shows how change perpetuated by pollution, poor resource management, and greed make for very real consequences in terms of health.  Asthma and allergies are only some of the results-major infectious diseases run wild when an ecosystem is out of balance.

It could be a dry read, but it isn't...anecdotal stories and hard data make it lively and potentially scary.  When one CDC expert goes to testify before Congress, she has most of her testimony redacted to prevent offending some of the audience.  How can the problem be solved if no one gets to hear the truth about it?

One website features an interesting interview with the author, wherein he suggests the political polarizing option of a slight (ACK! The horror!) tax increase to raise funds for better infrastructure.  In addition, he makes the case for the way European manufacturers have to prove the safety of their product-a far different stance than the US method.  It's an interesting article.

Just for a kick, NASA has some fascinating charts with average land and ocean temperatures here:

Special thanks to Kathleen Carney for the Advance Review Copy.


  1. Great review! Sounds like a very interesting book. I am a little confused though. Does the author talk about how daily weather changes effect our health over short time or when weather changes continue you get a climate effect (because weather and climate are different) and those changes in climate are what cause health problems? I hope my question is clear...I'm just curious to learn more before picking up this book because it sounds like something I might enjoy. :)

  2. Wonderbunny, good question!
    This deals with areas that are impacted by long-term changes in the weather that then alter the climate. Like when a rainforest dries out or when a previously dry desert area suddenly gets more moisture, and when that change continues for some time.