Blog Global Health Center

The water will come: Are you denying this will impact you?

Written by Anne Glowinski, MD, a professor of psychiatry, associate director of the William Greenleaf Elliot Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and director of the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship

The Water Will Come… It is the title of an acclaimed book by Jeff Goodell. We gave it to one of our sons for his birthday this winter break; he left it behind in his room when he returned to college.

Hence…I know exactly where the book is.  However…I have not read it yet.

When students invited me to participate in a reverse competition panel on Global Warming in Bangladesh, Kyle, the student liaison specifically told me to not study/review/get smarter on this topic which is for sure outside the bounds of my usual knowledge expertise.

I mean I’m a scientist and I’ve been to Bangladesh but neither is particularly specific.

I obeyed and did not look anything up or read the book I knew where to find exactly in our house.
I wanted to.
I obeyed and did not.
Not because I’m a genius at following rules but because I was too busy with 30 other things.

As to why I would add one thing I know relatively little about to 30 other things: well…here is the truth…I’ve learned from my life and its unexpected twists, turns and surprises that it is a good idea to say yes to interesting new things in general and figure it out later.  Young people, I’m not taking about jobs here: those should be negotiated a bit and not just for salary. I’m talking about invitations outside your usual boundaries that intrigue and scare you a little.

I will continue being honest: I often do want to kick myself as I’m rushing to something that I said yes to months ago and it is most highly inconvenient the day of.

Nevertheless the rate of regret AFTER is close to zero %.
Not zero…but close (there was just that one disappointing documentary once really.)

So I did not review global warming’s impact on Bangladesh’s precarious environment and its people but I was thinking about people in general:

  1. People who do not believe that global warming is happening and even snicker smugly when we have wildly cold winters…despite the scientific predictions of more erratic weather conditions as a normal correlate of global warming.
  2. People who know it is happening but do not think it has anything to do with humans-just normal variation. Not completely unreasonable given our planet’s history except for the impressive mountain of evidence related to the impact of human activities on climate.
  3. People who know it is happening and that humans are involved and do not think about it and how this probably includes:
    1. Pessimists who just do not think much can be done so why think about it?
    2. People who only care about what happens to them and theirs and consider theirs to  be a very tiny circumscribed group.

I often have imaginary conversations with other people in my head to deal with the intensity of my thoughts. I would drive my family and friends bonkers if I shared all my thoughts so this works more or less.

I was talking to people in category 1 first and asking them (I swear) if they owned a smart phone? Many of them do. Who would you want to make the smart phone for you?  I asked them that in my imaginary dialogue which was over tea and in my sun room by the way.  A team with the technical ability to make the phone? or your grandfather and father who have no idea how to do it but have strong opinions about everything? (Sorry if your grandpa and pa are actually omniscient-I’m generalizing here.)  The same grandfather and father that you parrot when you say that global warming is a joke. You would not buy the smartphone they make; why are you expertifying and internalizing their opinions of scientific evidence?

Then I was talking to people in category 2 and it was a similar conversation: Who do you believe? Your opinionated relatives or a preponderance of experts who have now compiled evidence for decades?

I’m  mad at that group by the way: we could have mitigated the problem more if not for them. I’m not even talking about Category 3 people who pretend to be in Category 2 for political or other reasons and know very well that humans have had and continue to have a destructive impact on the environment that will make our world unrecognizable within decades.

I was talking to them as well, the category 3 people.
Telling the 3-a that giving up guarantees failure and that not giving up does not guarantee success or mitigated failure, I know…but it ups the odds of improvement.

The 3-b, especially those who over-represent people who believe religiously in love of one’s brothers and other humans (also plenty of representation in Categories 1 and 2)….I was telling them that everybody they leave behind, children and grand-children alike, will be profoundly affected. Emotionally, socially, psychologically, physically, materially affected. A few will enrich themselves for crisis related opportunities but most will suffer from living in a world where islands and cities sink or have sunk, animals we love have disappeared, coastal areas they love (if only to vacation in) exist no longer.  Their  children and grandchildren may not think fondly or proudly of their family members’ behaviors. They will wonder why you did not care. They will know you lived in a wired world where you DID have access to information and that your ignorance or choice to believe implausible sources without appropriate credentials was not excusable. They will likely know that.

Anyway….I don’t even like myself in those conversations.  I know too well that being self-righteous back-fires and is annoying as hell. I do know however that I get tired of diplomatic patience and tolerance when the waters are rising. It has not been an effective strategy to protect our world.

I’m just telling you the truth here.

Thank you for reading so far.

So what about the panel? I was “competing” with two internationally known infectious disease doctors (including Dr. Powderly who directs our WashU Institute for Public Health) and Rupa Patel who has helped implement PrEP protocols around the world, very active with Physicians for Human Rights, and the reason I started going to Bangladesh, is Joe Steensma a delightful professor of Practice at the Brown School (check out his Ted Talk here) and Marris Brenn-White a fantastic wild life veterinarian and global health specialist currently at the St. Louis Zoo.

Here is the thing: what we concluded (and the students said we “won” but they may have been generous as they usually are when faculty lend them time and attention) is that to even have a chance to damage-control this upcoming calamity which will affect us all but will affect some of the world’s poorest people first (such as the citizens or asylum seekers of Bangladesh) and among those, will affect the most vulnerable first (children, elderly, the handicapped,) we needed to at least do this -in addition to of course recognizing some basic threats related to water contamination and its ecological impact and the complex reality of human and animal displacement or disruption on a large scale:

  •  Understand the marriage of mental health to physical health; addressing these unsociably related consequences in silos is a losing proposition;
  • Broadly recognize the breadth and scope of the impact;
  • Know how to work in teams;
  • Re-emphasizing: learn how to work in teams;
  • Know how to ask for input and by whom;
  • Know how to seek expertise outside our own;
  • Recognize our short comings honestly;
  • Know how to communicate because boy, the communicating is going to get more complicated. For instance, fragile co-habitations in the same country of various ethnicities by allowing each a certain territory: out the window with global warming.

The risk of conflict on a larger scale heretofore unexperienced is high.

The water will come-we can not afford to ignore it.