Does global warming trump all hot-button ethical issues?

September 30, 2008

Smoke billows from Chinese chemical factory, 22 Sept 2008/Vincent DuImagine you go to a conference on major bioethical questions — controversial issues like abortion, embryonic stem cells, assisted reproduction and euthanasia — and a keynote speaker uses all his allotted time warning about global warming. Is this the wrong issue to discuss — or the only one worth talking about?

The question arose at the annual conference of the European Association of Centres of Medical Ethics (EACME) that ended at the weekend in Prague. Dr. Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, told the assembled bioethicists they had to look beyond their usual issues to consider the far larger ecological threat he said could soon end up destroying mankind.

The issue is urgent for bioethicists, he said, because the healthcare industry in the rich OECD countries is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions. It also spends vast amounts to prolong patients’ lives, about half of it in the final months before death. “The more effort we put into saving individual lives, the more likely we are to doom the human race to extinction,” he said.

“Just being a little bit more green isn’t the answer,” he insisted. Rich countries will have to find ways to cut their carbon emissions almost completely within the next few years. His outlook for the healthcare industry was summarised in a bleak PowerPoint slide:

Possible changes in medicine

  • close most hospitals and concentrate on good-quality primary care
  • reverse the brain drain and send redundant health workers to developing countries
  • outlaw assisted reproduction
  • stop medical research undertaken for utopian or financial reasons.

If western countries closed all their hospitals, he said, life expectancy there would drop by only eight months.

“What is more important,” he asked, “maintaining our wealth and economies for 20-30 years until climate change wipes them out, or trying to ensure that as much as possible of the human race survives?”

18 comments

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It is really an alarming matter that massive carbon emissions have crossed the safty level,where our lives are subjected to be endengered.Beside this,another shivering issue that the healthcare organizations are contributing more carbon emission in addition, to this deteriorated situation. It is really a depressing event.The rich industrialized countries should be aware of it unquestionably. Not only that,they should take every mesure towards the restriction of highly carbon emiting and rapid industrialization. The environment where we breath to live,should be protected well first of all.

A good speaker will make people think about something new; however, this speaker evidently had everything out of perspective both from a green and an ethical point of view. Climate change means switching to renewable energy sources but that does not imply using less energy. Even with today’s technology solar power and biofuels would suffice, if the investment were made in their production. Meanwhile, especially in the developing countries, lack of or misguided family planning is dooming all efforts to reduce poverty, improve quality of life, or avoid vast increases in pollution. China has been slowly turning itself around with its one child per family plan, even though it takes decades to stabilize population growth. The rest of the developing world must follow its example to avoid disaster.

Posted by Stewart | Report as abusive

The world will not end if the earth cools several degrees. We survived the Medieval Warm Perion(10th century thru the 14th entury). The climate will be survivable even with various adverse affects. Some unscrupulous people are using the notion of global warming to push a radical social agenda which has nothing to do with the climate. Closing all medical facilities is an absurd notion. This reminds me of Pork Barrel politics and dreams of a utopian society.

Posted by Don Young | Report as abusive

It is way more morally wrong to suggest the closing of hospitals to a not rapid enough change to suffice for global warming. Global warming will not destroy the world in 20-30 years. What is morally wrong is that extremist people who use global warming as a way of tearing down modern society. It is the right of people today to have the option of healthcare and the option of electrical energy. The right thing to do is make these processes better for the environment, not destroy them.

Posted by Jarred | Report as abusive

[...] rest is here: Does global warming trump all hot-button ethical issues? Tags: britain, carbon-emissions, christian, Climate Change, embryonic-stem-cells, europe, [...]

Dr Nicholson was right to highlight some of the ways the healthcare industries of the rich industrialised countries are adding to global warming because if we want to stay on this planet we are going to have to make some stark life and death choices about issues that most people , including most bioethicists, have been pushing away for far too long. We all know we live too long nowadays and waste resources and consume and pollute beyond our fair share to do this and as predictions on everything from arctic ice melt to the amount of CO2 in the atmostphere are routinely proved to be over optimistic every industry should be looking at how to tackle global warming as a number one priority , we all should be, because unlinke this current financial crisis, also caused by our recklessness , greed , shortsightedness and stupidity, there may not be a solution to global warming that includes our survival.

If you really take the science of climate change as a fact, this is the only right way to act.

Posted by jorleh | Report as abusive

Wow – Wow – Wow

Science of climate change?
What happened to 28 years ago when you were all shouting about global cooling? Oh yeah – lets forget about when the sandal wearing socialists were promoting that side of the issue.

Close hospitals!!! Now thats the way to improve life – Capital Idea…

And I love the comments posted by ‘desik’. “We all know we live too long nowadays and waste resources” – Great idea Skippy, why don’t you step off the planet, astral plane, etc. The world will be better off – but there will be much less laughter.

I come to these websites to get a chuckle – thanks a million

Posted by GettingReal | Report as abusive

I am sure he is not suggesting shutting down the hospitals. What he is saying is that they are merely a psychological support to us and that the vast improvements to life expectancy have come from larger and safer food supply, eradication of childhood diseases, safer workplaces, etc.

From my experience in a terminal care unit, I do have to say I agree that there is a huge waste, not only in terms of energy, when it comes to the final months of elderly lives. These people who have reached the end of their life and are kept alive show no signs of having life. They are pumped full of meds, attached to at least one machine, and need their basic human functions attended to (eating, defecating, etc.).

It is kind of ridiculous that this conversation has to arise around the subject of global warming.

Let’s look at the wastes. As mentioned, the carbon footprint is huge for terminal care. Money, the families money and your money. The families pay a lot of money. If they have insurance, then you pay more due to the increase in premiums. The most expensive health care comes later in life. (Google: smokers cost less)

Let people die! Who is making these decisions anyways? To the families, is it really worth it to have grandpa around one more day when he can’t say one word and is high on pain killers.

Posted by Josh A | Report as abusive

Let me see if I can follow this ….
We should not extend medical care to those who are terminally ill because it “wastes resources” …… And a person’s life is weighed against a carbon footprint? Is this just strictly for the terminally ill? Or how about retardation, deformities, or others? Are we just going to deny medical care to the terminally ill or how about the aged also? Hell, all those people over 80 are just sucking the planet dry and what about those unemployed????

(Aufmerksamkeit! Jeder zum Dusche-Zimmer)

Josh, I’m afraid that you really do work with the terminally ill, which is a real shame. I can only imagine the care and support, or the lack of it, that you provide individuals and their families when they need it the most.
Josh, if you’re worried about primary impacts on health, surely you can’t ignore the impact of lifestyle and diet. Are you going to control these factors also?

This is the real danger with the agenda of this global warming mindset. Making real life decisions on limited and abstract factors like carbon footprints is foolish. Are there any benefits to higher carbon levels? (i.e offsets of higher CO2?) I hate to introduce real science into the discussion… but Google “Effects of increased CO2” and you’ll see studies that show increased plant growth and increase wheat and crop yields.

This is kind of complex stuff and encapsulating everything into “let people die” shows the environmental left as simplistic lightweights more compassionate and supportive for “mother earth” than their own grandmothers

Posted by GettingReal | Report as abusive

I suggest we keep the hospitals open just long enough to have Dr. Nicholson’s head removed from his butt.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

What a joke, Nicholson is his name, like the Nicholson in the madhouse of the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Well, it would be funny if it weren’t that tragic.

I’m floored to know some ill people are in the hands of that mad charlatan, some uninformed people are informed by that crazy “ethicist” and that the world is so enthralled by this AGW bigotry to condone such stupidity. The “debate is over” : that guy must be stripped from his position and forbidden any real exercice on real patients.

We had the Oath of Hippocrates, now we have Nicholson’s Cuckoo Oath of the hypocrites.

This is madness. There is no runaway greenhouse effect; it is a scare-scam from Al Gore. We have serious elected officials and “ethicists” (whatever that is) driving public policy in a way to reduce quality of life, and risk our economic security, over a fairy tale.

Move aside and let the grownups run the world.

Posted by Kevin | Report as abusive

Ludicrous. The science of climate change isn’t even remotely certain enough to justify such draconian measures, and having such dreck coming from a “medical ethicist” is appalling. The world’s temperature has actually remained flat for a decade now (with a large cooling in the past year), and many scientists predict that will continue for another 7-20 years based on the combination of a weak solar cycle and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation moving into its “cooling” phase. The GCM models that make these predictions have well-known problems – they don’t model clouds well, some assume constant relative humidity (even though measurements show relative humidity falling somewhat over the past 50 years), and they assume positive feedback from increased high-level cloud formation (despite satellite data which shows negative feedback from the mix of high/low cloud formation as the tropics warm). Most don’t include the PDO, either.

Bottom line: treating simulations of a system as complex as global climate as if they were gospel truth and using that information to justify 10s of trillions of $$ in expenditures and radical policy changes like “closing all western hospitals” is something that belongs in The Onion. Not at a serious conference on medical ethics.

Posted by Mike U | Report as abusive

This author is sick, twisted and evil. People like him are a far greater threat to the world than global warming.

Posted by i.blain | Report as abusive

I cannot believe that this seriously made the top of the list at the bioethics convention. Think about how unproven anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is (don’t believe me, check out the global temp drop for 2008). CO2 is an essential chemical for all of life. We need it. How many deaths are directly related to CO2 emmitted by humans? Compare that to the number of deaths that are directly attributed to lack of modern medical care. People who believe that global warming is the worst thing to happen to the earth need to think just once about being wrong. What if they are wrong and all of these extreme policies would negatively affect people for nothing. The mentality among AGW activists is that there should be no cost benefit analysis of fighting AGW instead it is whatever extreme cost automatically weighs ou the smallest of benefits. This is the wrong approach to almost every other issue but for AGW environmentalists do not see it that way and that to me is what scares me. The myopic fervor of environmentalists should be controlled more than our output of greenhouse gases

[...] with the myth that “In the days of Christopher Columbus, everyone thought the world was flat.” The Environmental Trump Card Alarming headlines continue to arise from environmentalists. At a recent bioethical conference one [...]

@ Stewart,
You said, “China has been slowly turning itself around with its one child per family plan, even though it takes decades to stabilize population growth. The rest of the developing world must follow its example to avoid disaster.”

Are you serious? China’s Communist party in in governmental control. We do not want to follow their example. It is NOT the government’s job to determine family size.
Parents (who support their own family) should be left the control to plan their family.
Parents who support their families through welfare and my tax dollars, maybe they should be limited to one child.

Posted by Brian | Report as abusive

“Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things.” -Russell Baker

Posted by BP | Report as abusive

Wow! How much passion there is to attack Dr Nicholson for merely raising awkward issues ! No attempt from the critics commenting here to process the fact that we could instantly double life expectancy for people in developing countries to our standards by just ensuring they got basic medicines and fed properly .

No, their valuing of human life is pretty selfish and selective and revolves around the personal ignoring the pain, suffering and death routinely brought about by inequality on a massive scale as this is just an impersonal fact of life to them , a given, that we must all, presumably , accept as unremarkable and take for granted because, well, we really dont want to discuss human problems as resource management issues do we ? even as the global population races towards a projected 9 billion by 2050 and our own innate grasp of the most basic of math must surely tell us that we are overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet.