Imagine This

Imagine the following conversation between a physician and your family. The situation is that grandma is dying. She has stage 4 metastatic cancer spread over her vital organs. She has emphysema from decades of smoking. She is obese and diabetic. The cancer in her brain has produced dementia. Her breathing has slowed to the occasional big sigh followed by nothing. Every time the family thinks it is her last breath. The smell in the room is unmistakable.

A new physician walks in the room. Unknown to the family, she hasn’t bothered to look at grandma’s medical record. Smiling from ear to ear, this “doctor” makes a startling pronouncement. “Your grandma will start getting better, you watch.” At that point, grandma’s oncologist (MD) walks into the room. “I wish medical science agreed with you.” The new doctor is miffed at having her authority challenged and instantly shoots back, “Well, I don’t think medical science knows, actually.”

Would your family have new hope in the nonsense the new doctor proclaimed? Or would they be confused? Would it shake their confidence in their oncologist and end-of-life palliative treatment, or would the family insist on changing treatment to life-prolonging interventions? Would your family begin to think that modern medicine had missed something or was pursuing the wrong course of treatment? As the refrain of the movie, “Ghostbusters” says, “Who you gonna trust?”

These questions would be understandable. When seemingly equally qualified people disagree, confusion can emerge. When there is a difference in qualifications and authority, confusion and inability to act are often the result. In fact, this conversation took place* between the Director of Natural Resources for the State of California (playing the role of the family doctor) and the President of the United States (playing the role of the new physician). “Grandma” in this case is global climate.

When a political leader who has authority over a population sows doubt on science, casts false hopes, and causes long delays in action, people die. If a bishop or university president or CEO did this, the stakeholders would get rid of the offender.

Mars once had an atmosphere and enough water for rivers and lakes. Where is it now? What caused it to disappear? We don’t know the answers to the last two questions, but we should take our nearest planet’s history as a warning. It is possible to blow the atmosphere off a planet. It is also possible for the earth to go through intense warming cycles where the only human-habitable zones were at the swampy, tropical poles. The problem is, the cooling period following the warming time took tens to hundreds of thousands of years or twice as long as all of human history. That’s a long time between grandma’s deep sighs.

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