By Kermit M. Hovey, Jr.
Human-caused climate change is the prostate cancer of the planet.
“Say what?,” you might respond.
Well, first, I know a lot about anthropogenic climate change, having been a dedicated climate advocate for over a decade. Second, I know a growing amount about prostate cancer, having recently been diagnosed with the disease.
As I come to reflect on both of those personal challenges, I find hopeful and disturbing parallels.
For instance, prostate cancer and climate change both pose personal health risks. Climate change, as argued in an editorial published simultaneously in 200 medical journals across the globe in October, threatens all of our health in a variety of ways. These include death, injury, and disease from climate change–aggravated acute weather disasters; more gradual effects of sea level rise; the compounding impact of species extinction; disruptions to social and economic systems; and more. Prostate cancer, one of the top three cancers for men in the United States, directly threatens 50% of Americans in theory, and millions in fact.
Both are eminently detectable, treatable, and manageable, even if not always “curable.” The timing of detection, aggressiveness of the condition, and effectiveness of treatment impact the outcome. Detected and responded to in early stages — relatively modest interventions have high success rates. Detected and responded to late — more intense and costly steps may have lower success and more side effects.
Fortunately, the past decades of deliberate evidence collection and analysis (i.e., science) have developed greater knowledge of the symptoms of both. We know with greater certainty their impacts. We know more about what to look for, where to find it, and how to measure it.
Moreover, past decades of science have developed better strategies and treatment options capable of addressing both. For climate, with the benefit of cleaner energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, solar cells, batteries, and wind turbines have all become less expensive, more efficient, and increasingly widely used. For prostate cancer, with the benefit of increased effectiveness and reduced side effects, surgery has become increasingly roboticized, while radiation has become more precisely dosed and specifically targeted.
Of course, people afflicted by either can choose to ignore the science, the evidence, the warnings, and even the symptoms. Many prefer to overlook subtle, gradual, or even noticeable consequences. Sadly, the evidence and observations demonstrating both can be ignored for some time. Both proceed slowly until symptoms begin to accumulate and spread more and more widely with greater impact. Victims can deny the reality of the condition or defer treatment until the condition becomes serious, dangerously serious, and even terminal.
In the case of prostate cancer, the timing for effective treatment varies from case to case and person to person. In the case of the climate, virtually all of the “climate doctors” — far more than marketers’ legendary “4 out of 5 doctors” — agree that we need treatment and we need it NOW.
We can intervene at any time, but with passing time, the magnitude of symptoms, expense and difficulty of action, size of side effects, and likelihood of failure all generally increase.
As the symptoms of either become increasingly tangible, people may die of other challenges before the symptoms and consequences of these problems become serious or fatal for them. To be fair, this can justify forgoing curative therapies in favor of active surveillance, hospice care, or recognition that other conditions will lead to death first. However, in the case of climate change, the fact that people can die of old age before climate change consequences take their life doesn’t eliminate the need to address the climate crisis for the benefit of those who remain.
For me, in the case of my prostate cancer, the evidence is clear: The disease is really happening, really serious, really human-caused (at least by a dysfunction of my human body), and we can really still do something about it. The opportunity for a positive outcome is substantial. The costs and risks of pursuing treatment are there, yet far less than the costs and risks of denying the reality and refusing action.
For us, in the case of climate change, the evidence is clear: It is really happening, really serious, really human-caused (at least caused by a dysfunction of our human society and its economic, energy, and environmental actions), and we can really still do something about it. The opportunity for a positive outcome is substantial. The costs and risks of pursuing treatment are there, yet far less than the costs and risks of denying the reality and refusing action.
So whether confronting a threat to health from prostate cancer or from climate change, do what you can to take care of yourself and your world. Whether the caregiver you must turn to is an elected representative, corporate citizen, or medical doctor, insist on the care you need and deserve for as livable a life and planet as possible.
Among other things, Kermit Hovey is a Climate Steward, Citizens’ Climate Lobbyist, Wisconsin Creation Care Ambassador, 350 Wisconsin Climate Advocate, and Middleton Sustainability Committee Member.
An earlier version of this post appeared in the Middleton Times Tribune.