I assume that by now most readers have seen or read An Inconvenient Truth and accept the premise that global warming is upon us. I have witnessed many of the effects of global warming first hand, the calving of receding glaciers, thin polar bears unable to hunt for seals due to fewer ice floes, soggy icebergs melting like popsicles, and the lace of thinning ice that now surrounds the once almost inaccessible North Pole.

The red flags are all there — from dying tropical coral reefs to the devastating infestation of lodge pole pine in Canadian forests by mountain pine beetles. These beetles, which in the past would have been killed by harsh Canadian winters, have infested an area the size of Maryland. The warming of oceans and changes in their ecosystems have fueled Katrina and other Category 4 and 5 hurricanes that have almost doubled in number in the past 30 years. Torrential rain, drought, and wildfire take their toll worldwide on wildlife, agriculture, and mankind. Several hundred people in the United States died from record-breaking heat waves this past summer and the prediction is that deaths from global warming will double in the next 25 years to 300,000 annually. Poor air quality, and virulent bacteria and viruses, which expand into new niches, will impact health and contribute to mounting poverty. Global warming will have dire effects on agriculture — leading to job losses and increased expenditures of fuel for transporting and refrigerating produce coming from scarce arable lands. The average meal purchased in a supermarket has traveled 2,000 miles from farm to table.

In spite of publicity, only 36 percent of Americans worry a great deal about global warming, according to a recent Gallup poll. It is easy to ignore what we do not see, like dead coral reefs and dying polar bears. The rolling brownouts that disrupt businesses, power outages that spoil food and close down restaurants, and soaring gas prices hit closer to home. This should lead us all to question what lies in the future for our children and the children for whom we care. Shalom Schwartz, Ph.D., a psychologist in Jerusalem, notes that those who care about people they do not even know are more likely to find environmental crises upsetting. By contrast, people invested in fame and power are the least concerned about the environment (Galst, 2006).

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of something we think we cannot control, yet each individual can make a contribution, no matter how small, to slowing global warming. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each person in the United States emits 6.6 tons of greenhouse gases each year, 82 percent of which come from burning fossil fuels. Emissions per person increased by 3.4 percent between 1990 and 1997. Choices you make in your use of electricity, fuel consumption, and the waste you produce can affect 32 percent of your total emissions. Solid waste contributes to climate change through heat generated by anaerobic decomposition and the production of carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Disposing of items usually means they are being replaced by new products made by the use of fossil fuels.

The following list outlines some steps you can take to make a difference:

Fossil fuels

  • Double your mileage with a hybrid and pay for it with gas savings.
  • Proper inflation of tires can increase gas mileage by three percent.
  • Car pool, bundle your errands, set one day aside each week in which you do not drive.
  • Bike, walk, and use public transportation, if available.
  • Alter your work schedule to spend less time idling in traffic and commuting.
  • Keep thermostats low in winter, dress in layers, and discover flannel sheets.
  • Buy local produce.

Electricity

  • Replace old appliances with Energy Star efficient ones. The average refrigerator accounts for 15 percent of household energy use.
  • Wash clothes with cold water and dry them outside.
  • Install low flow showerheads and save 350 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Showering accounts for 22 percent of individual water consumption.
  • Cool your house and office with shades and trees.
  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs. Just one bulb saves 150 lbs. of carbon dioxide per year.
  • Turn off computers and other electronics when not in use.
  • Watch less TV.
  • When available, use green electricity produced by solar, wind power or biomass.

Waste

  • Buy recycled office and household paper products. If every household in the United States replaced just one roll of a 500 sheet virgin toilet tissue with 100 percent recycled ones we could save 423,900 trees, 1 million cubic feet of landfill, and 153 million gallons of water. An added bonus would be all the carbon dioxide that gets absorbed by the saved trees.
  • Avoid impulse buying. Consider the life of each product you buy and whether you really need it.
  • Avoid wasteful packaging. Try buying in bulk and bringing your own bags.
  • Get off junk mail lists, cancel subscriptions to periodicals you do not have time to read, and share books and magazines with friends.
  • Recycle! Recycling just half of your household waste can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide each year.
  • Eat less and serve smaller portions. The average family wastes 14 percent of the food it purchases.
  • Eat less meat. Meat eaters consume 15 percent of the world’s supply of grain. One hundred and ten gallons of water are consumed in producing a quarter pound of hamburger.
  • Compost vegetable waste. Acid loving plants love coffee grounds.

Miscellaneous

  • Plant a tree. It will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime
  • Change you cooking habits to shorten cooking times and save fuel. Consider a pressure cooker or steaming veggies in layers in one pot.
  • Write letters to those politicians and policy makers who are so invested in fame and power that they cannot see the forest for the trees. In case you are wondering what this column had to do with ethics, I would remind you of the ethical expectation that we strive to improve our communities: “A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to an improved community,” The Principles of Medical Ethics with Annotations especially Applicable to Psychiatry, Section 7.

Caring for our earth is an extension of caring for our patients and holding out hope for a better world that will sustain them. We should encourage all children to become good stewards of the earth. As Ghandi reminds us, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

References

American Psychiatric Association: Principles of Medical Ethics with Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry (1993). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, Section 7, p 8

Galst, L: Global Worrying: The Environment is in Peril and Anxiety Disorders are on the Rise. Plenty Magazine (2006). August/September, p. 60

www.epa.gov/globalwarming/kids (This is a good Web site to educate and involve children in the issues)

www.yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/ emissions.html

www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/fcons.asp

Dr. Schetky performs forensic examinations for the Maine State Forensic Service.