I have recently been thinking about the parallels between climate change and the obesity epidemic facing the United States and other industrialized countries. Both are the result of our society’s desire to consume, and there are similarities in how we might respond.
There are basically three ways to respond to obesity, and each has an analog for climate change. First, you can try to reduce caloric intake. Bob Park calls this the thermodynamic diet: take in fewer calories than you expend and you’ll lose weight. For the climate change problem, the parallel is reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it is hard. No one likes to diet, and many find it impossible to lose and keep off weight this way. Similarly, our society is not going to find it easy to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. That does not mean, of course, that it can’t be done, or that we won’t be happy with the results. I’ve never met someone who’s lost a lot of weight that isn’t ecstatically happy with the results, and I think there are many benefits for our society that come along with reducing CO2 emissions.
Second, you can simply say, “I’m overweight and I’m going to stay overweight. If I have any health problems, I’ll let the doctors solve them for me.” So if your weight causes hip problems, just have the hip replaced. If your cardiovascular system goes on the fritz, utilize the latest in cardiovascular care to get the problematic arteries unblocked or a pacemaker installed. If the risk of stroke rises, take the appropriate medication to bring the risk down.
A recent news report said that obesity is now a lifestyle choice for Americans. In other words, many overweight people have simply given up trying to lose weight by taking in fewer calories, mainly because they just can’t do it. They are now relying on the health care system to deal with the impacts of their obesity:
“But the nasty side-effects of obesity aren’t as nasty as they used to be,” Finkelstein said.
“When you have a first-rate medical system that can cure the diseases that obesity promotes, you no longer need to worry so much about being obese,” he told AFP.
That does not mean, however, that these people want to be obese:
“There are studies in which people have said they would rather lose a limb or be blind than obese. Being obese is not a desire,” she said.
“For many, this is a problem they have struggled with for many years … it gets discouraging after a while,” she said.
“I would not doubt that if you asked obese people if they could push a button and not be obese, close to 100 percent would say they would push the button.”
For the climate change problem, if we cannot reduce our emissions, we’ll have to adapt to the impacts. If sea level rises, we’ll build the a sea wall. If rainfall patterns change and we begin to run out of fresh water, we’ll build a pipeline to bring it in from another region.
My worry is that our society will choose to deal with climate change the same way so many are dealing with obesity: by choosing to live with the consequences. This approach is intrinsically risky because it assumes that we can effectively deal with the climate impacts. For obesity, there are some problems, such as massive heart attacks or strokes, that medical science simply cannot deal with. For climate change, there are some impacts that are simply too much for us to deal with. If we do go down the road of relying on adaptation, we had better hope that climate change is not too serious.
When the health effects of obesity are simply too big to live with, some opt to reconfigure their digestive system in order to lose weight — for example, an operation to reduce the stomach’s volume in order to prevent eating too many calories. For the climate change problem, the parallel to this approach is geoengineering: active and large-scale manipulation of the climate system. An example of a geoengineering approach is spreading sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere, which reflect sunlight and thereby cool the planet.
Much like the gastric bypass operation, geoengineering is a risky approach. There are many uncertainties in climate science, and in light of that, it seems like a bad idea for us to be “twiddling the knobs on the climate” — we don’t really know what the unintended consequences will be. We might end up with a bigger environmental problem than we started with.
It seems to me that best way to address the obesity epidemic is to convince people to consume fewer calories. Similarly, the best way to address climate change is by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s hope that, as a society, we are able to do both of these.