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PSR Physician Visits Wilmington - Part Two: Making Decisions with a Long View and Unified Goals

By Rachel Lewis Hilburn
Original article with audio excerpts.

When North Carolina’s legislature effectively rejected the prevailing science on sea level rise more than a year ago, the state made national headlines for outlawing a natural phenomenon.

In spite of a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that sea levels along the East Coast are rising three to four times faster than the global average, state lawmakers passed the Coastal Management Policy Act in the summer of 2012.

That means that in the near-term, sea level rise will be calculated based on past trends.  

“And so a science-based discussion says not only we were on the right path with this particular theory that climate change or global warming was going to lead to sea level rise -- but that it’s probably happening faster than we wanted it to which means we have to act even sooner.”

That’s Dr. Andrew Kanter of the Nobel Prize-winning organization Physicians for Social Responsibility.  He says policy makers would do well to consider the long-range economic interests of coastal stakeholders in a different way.

“Well, it can’t be in the best interests of the real estate people to eventually lose all of their coastal-front property.  And as a goal that’s a short-term win over a longer-term win… If we give ourselves the opportunity to look at the other alternatives, there are win-win situations out there that will both solve the problem and provide this important economic investment.”

Part of sound scientific practice, says Kanter, involves collecting evidence over time and either correcting or confirming the original theory.

Hate-filled rhetoric, holding intractable points of view, or opting for short-term answers that will only be damaging in the longer view – all that has to evolve for the planet to thrive, says Dr. Andrew Kanter.  He’s a Medical Doctor, Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York, and immediate Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

When Kanter visited Wilmington recently, he stopped by WHQR.  Here’s Part Two of that conversation.

Physicians for Social Responsibility – or PSR – won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.  Part of its mission, says Dr. Andrew Kanter, is to educate the public about how small and interrelated the planet Earth actually is.

“We have gone way beyond the place where humans can do whatever they want and not have an impact on the environment and therefore the choices that we make are not short-term choices.  They’re long-term choices and they affect all of us equally.”

When Kanter visited Wilmington, he heard about the Stop Titan movement – a grassroots organization formed in 2008 to prevent Titan Americas from building a cement manufacturing plant in New Hanover County.

“Cement plants are the third-largest polluting industry.  They not only create a lot of air pollution and local effects related to heavy metals and sulfur dioxide and all these things that might be exposed to people around – but they also produce a huge amount of carbon dioxide – at a time when the planet is nearing the tipping point.”

Titan officials say that any plant built in New Hanover County would be the most environmentally responsible, technologically advanced facility in the world.  And the company itself boasts multiple awards for demonstrating environmental stewardship.

“This is not the time to be producing more things that are going to worsen the CO2.  And that CO2 is not just going to stay around Wilmington.  It’s going to go everywhere.  So choosing technologies and industry that will actually be more life-affirming as opposed to life-threatening requires a bigger picture.”

The economic implications are important, though.  With counties, cities, and towns looking for concrete economic growth plans, saying “no” to a company that is already here, eager to invest in the community, and create jobs seems – at best – unrealistic.

“If you just look at the decision by ‘how many jobs am I going to produce by this plant… is that good or bad?’  Well, of course, jobs are better. But if you look at it in terms of the bigger picture:  what are our alternatives?  What the kinds of things [on which] we make decisions now that will affect future generations?  It’s a very different equation and unlikely to have built that cement plant.”

The dust that comes off the Sahara in North Africa affects asthma rates in New York City and other parts of the East Coast, according to Kanter.  That’s one scientific example of what Kanter calls a remarkable demonstration of the highly inter-dependent nature of the Earth.

“Which means, then, that we really can’t just be selfish about what is only good for us.  And it turns out that it’s actually much more effective that if you want to be happy and live a healthy life to actually help other people live a happy and healthy life.  And that maintains the entire system, and you’re not just one small island.”

The lesson, says Kanter, is restraint – not consumption – and thinking about what we’re leaving behind.

“When you look at any individual point, it’s very easy to argue about whether a nuclear power plant or a cement plant is the best thing for the community because there are many different things that lead up to a person’s position on that plant.  But when you actually look at the fundamentals – these issues about life and caring about the planet – or the desire to have a healthy, sustainable future for our children – these are things that are universal.  You know, everybody is going to feel the same way.”

But with hotly divergent views and a political dynamic widely viewed by the public as dysfunctional – even vitriolic…

“It’s no longer possible to have the hate-filled rhetoric we have when discussing these problems.  Everyone has an important perspective to share with this.  And only through that shared perspective are we really going to find solutions that benefit everybody.”

Mission Statement

PREVENTING WHAT WE CANNOT CURE: Physicians for Social Responsibility is the medical and public health voice working to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and the toxic degradation of the environment.