COD Newsroom/flickr

Essay: Meteorologists and the sacred position between people and science.

Whether doctor or meteorologist, when we fail to look at the systemic causes of the immediate problems in front of us, we are guilty of malpractice.

SEATTLE—At the core of medical and of public health training, we learn that you cannot just look narrowly at the problem in front of you, you are obliged to look for the systemic causes, how did the patient get into this state and what are the challenges going forward? Failing to do so is malpractice.


If an internist were to see a patient who is elderly and very overweight, and who came in complaining of a sore on her foot, one that wasn’t healing, and that internist merely prescribed an ointment and failed to address the very real likelihood that this patient has vascular disease and diabetes, and was in grave danger of gangrene and amputation, in that case an objective party would review this failure as medical malpractice.

It is not enough for the doctor to know a lot of science. It is equally important that the person who is put between the scientific world and the human being must show true diligence.

It is not enough for the doctor to know a lot of science. It is equally important that the person who is put between the scientific world and the human being must show true diligence.

I will assert the same is true for meteorologists, who are clinical practitioners. They are face-to-face, at least electronically, with the father getting his children ready for school, the farmer working out her planting and harvest schedule, the pilot and air traffic controller, or the mayor struggling with the decision about whether to require a full scale evacuation. You not only save lives, you save livelihoods.

Everyone wants to hear what meteorologists have to say. Much of the time they’re the only ones worth watching on television. We need them to be technically proficient, but we also need big picture thinkers who forecast, as the navy admirals do, way out beyond the bow.

I started my career as a pediatrician and then an epidemiologist focused on environmental hazards. Two decades ago I took the position as Director of the National Center for Environmental Health at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, arguably the highest public health and environment position in the United States. I was overseeing service programs like the childhood lead poisoning prevention, epidemic investigation of cancer and birth defect clusters, measurement of chemical levels in the American people.

During my first year at CDC, I assigned four epidemiologists to Chicago because of a serious heat wave. That investigation documented over 700 deaths. We learned much about the danger of social isolation, the effects of mental illness and poverty interfaced with climate disaster, and the importance of air-conditioning and the need for better designed buildings and places of refuge.

While at CDC I learned a great deal about climate change, especially from my colleagues at US EPA, NOAA, NCAR and others. I also learned from the doctors working in our refugee and international health group. I had underestimated the dreadful suffering that comes when 50,000 or 100,000 people are forced to move because of war or disaster. Look at the horrific suffering caused by the movement of a half million people from Syria.

Serious scientists and public health leaders, and Pentagon leaders, are gravely concerned about climate change. We fear that the violent storms, floods, droughts, sea level rise and loss of agriculture associated with climate change will cause migrations hundreds of times larger than the displacement from Syria.

An important aspect of this is that I really want to acknowledge and to thank meteorologists for very important work and outreach informing the public about weather threats. I would assert that both physicians and meteorologists are in a daunting and sacred position between people and the world of science.

In meteorology the systemic disorder is climate heating as a result of climate forcing gases. I worry deeply about the future of my country, about environment and health, about our economy and about our security threats. Some will likely say that it is not meteorologists’ job to report on longer-term and global threats, such as climate. In response here’s a medical story.

We struggled to deal only with individual cases, but we did not have a robust culture of alertness and intervention. After a series of tragic failures to identify children who were obviously victims of abuse, many of the states enacted laws that required that clinicians who “know or suspect” that a child is a victim of abuse, must report this to appropriate authorities within 24 hours. During my training this was drummed into us, but I naïvely thought that this was something pretty remote, that was in the newspaper, and that I would rarely see this.

I soon learned often and painfully that I was wrong. I was a skinny young red-haired pediatrician with lots of academic knowledge, but with limited practical experience. One evening while working in the emergency room at a busy city hospital, my next patient was a 10-year-old boy who clearly had been beaten. There were fist marks on his face and bruises on his body, but I was told that he had just taken a fall. I did a full exam looking for neurological symptoms, broken bones, blood in the urine and more, but the words “know or suspect child abuse?” echoed in the back of my mind. I decided to make the legal report and I called the social worker who helped me do the paper work.

I subsequently learned that the child was from a prominent family, and the son of a judge. The following day when I reported back to work at the emergency room, a burly man confronted me. He said he was the family’s private pediatrician. His face was red with anger and only six inches from mine. He began to berate me saying “No one calls for a child abuse investigation on one of my families. What you did was wrong. I’m going to have you fired.”

I wasn’t prepared for this, kept quiet for a bit, and then said: “Doctor, I can show you the law, it says: if we know or suspect child abuse, we are obliged to report. I could be liable for felony neglect if I failed to do so.” He did complain to the hospital administration, but after that I never heard another word from him.

I wonder if meteorologists are not in a similar role. Fellow citizens need meteorologists to keep them safe. When we fail to look at the systemic causes of the immediate problems in front of us, we are guilty of malpractice.

When we fail to identify threats to our children and grandchildren, we are guilty of child neglect, and in some cases child abuse. Just as with child abuse, when there is a grave threat, we need to speak with courage even when we don’t have absolute proof. That can be decided later. 

Will our grandchildren, and all grandchildren, berate us: “you should have known we were in grave danger; why didn’t you act in time to protect us?”

vancouversun.com

B.C. government failing to register groundwater users, say critics

Only 20 per cent of people in B.C. who use wells to get their water have bothered to register under the province's new mandatory groundwater law.

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Feisty barracuda caught in Alberni Inlet, far from its normal range

A menacing-looking barracuda has been netted in Alberni Inlet, thousands of kilometres from its usual home in the warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Biden's $2 trillion climate plan aims to correct racial disparities

Joe Biden on Tuesday released a $2 trillion plan to address climate change with an emphasis on correcting racial economic disparities.

thehill.com

Republicans say Biden energy plan will help GOP in rust belt states

Top Republicans are looking to target presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's $2 trillion climate and infrastructure plan.

insideclimatenews.org

A pandemic and surging summer heat leave thousands struggling to pay utility bills

High unemployment, stay at home orders and rising temperatures due to climate change are fueling energy insecurity and furthering the need for assistance.
www.eenews.net

'My eyes opened': Duckworth's environmental justice journey

Environmental justice is a relatively new focus for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a disabled veteran whose well-known war record makes her a sought-after voice on national security issues and puts her in contention as a running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
www.theguardian.com

Coalition backs 'cloud-brightening' trial on Great Barrier Reef to tackle global heating

A government-backed research program to make the Great Barrier Reef more resilient to global heating will spend $4.7m this financial year developing technologies that could shade corals and make clouds more reflective during marine heatwaves.

From our Newsroom

Big Oil flows a little bit backward

Pipelines have had a very bad July (so far).

Beyond the “silver lining” of emissions reductions: Clean energy takes a COVID-19 hit

With job loss and stifled development in the renewable energy sector, economists, politicians, and advocates say policy action is necessary to stay on track.

A fracking giant's fall

Chesapeake Energy was a fracking pioneer on a meteoric rise. Last week, it fell to Earth.

Our annual summer reading list, 2020 edition

EHN staff shares their top book recommendations for the summer.

Coronavirus is creating a crisis of energy insecurity

Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unpaid bills and energy shutoffs in many vulnerable US households. Indiana University researchers warn we need to act now to avoid yet another health emergency.

Ode to Jersey

From shark attacks to the "syringe tide"—a brief look at the highs and lows of New Jersey's environmental past.

The Daily Climate

Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers.

Don't get left in the rain! Join our Daily Climate newsletter!