GREENSOURCE: Do you see parallels between today’s efforts to address climate change and earlier efforts addressing nuclear proliferation?
CHIVIAN: The lessening of the nuclear threat in the mid-1980s coincided with the awakening of the global environmental threat. This led us not to abandon the nuclear issue, but to expand our vision because we saw global environmental degradation—the loss of biological diversity and climate change—as being, in a sense, Armageddon in slow motion. One of the big problems of nuclear war was that it was truly unimaginable.
How could we think about it? But in some ways these global environmental issues, climate change, loss of species, etc., are even more abstract and much more technical scientifically and we don't really have a kind of visual model the way we had with
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Hiroshima and Nagasaki for people to say “I get it.” So in some ways it’s even more important for physicians to be involved in these issues—making the connection that all of this is ultimately a matter of public health. Doctors don’t know anything about climate change. It’s not taught in medical schools. We felt it was very important to start a center at an academic medical school that would include the environment as part of a physician’s education.
GS: How about the relationship between human health and the built environment. Can this motivate people—especially physicians—to protect the environment?
CHIVIAN: The opportunities are huge. I was very interested in meeting some people here [at Greenbuild in Denver] who are involved in designing healthcare facilities that pay attention to environmental issues. They should do this on several grounds. One is that it helps their bottom line; that’s clear from all kinds of studies. But also it’s that they should be an example for their communities in practicing what you could call the most fundamental form of preventive medicine which is to protect the community, the air, the water, and the interior of the buildings for their patients.
GS: To what extent can loss of global biodiversity be turned into an economic argument? How can more people be motivated to protect biodiversity?
CHIVIAN: Taxol [a chemical derived from the Pacific Yew used to fight cancer] is the biggest selling chemotherapeutic agent in the country. It’s one of the first natural substances to make a billion dollars in sales. Medical research isheavily dependent on biodiversity. Hibernating black bears, for example, are among the best models we have for studying how to prevent osteoporosis and possibly also Type I diabetes. That translates into huge amounts of money. We can also look at an ecosystem level. Look at the ecosystems that filter and purify New York City’s water and the creation of artificial wetlands to treat stormwater overflows.
GS: What’s the best way to motivate people to address climate change?
CHIVIAN: With corporations, it’s mainly the bottom line. BP [British Petroleum] spent something like $800 million retrofitting all of its facilities so that they’d be more energy efficient. I think at last count they’ve made a $3 billion profit from this investment.Concern for the environment is also clearly a part of it. On an individual basis, the enemy is often helplessness. “What can I do?” The problem is huge. What difference does it make if I drive a car that gets 10 mpg or 40 mpg? I’m just one person. So I think that helping people understand that we’re all part of the problem and we’re all part of the solution is crucial. The combined efforts of a community has enormous potential.
GS: The tide is turning. Green has become mainstream. But is it too late?
CHIVIAN: Well it’s too late to prevent environmental change. But it’s not too late to make it much less. The feeling that it’s too late is an enormous problem. We faced this with the nuclear issue. There’s a huge danger in all of the bad news. You can’t pick up a paper or watch TV without more bad news. But there are things we can do. The answer is to point out the cases that have been successes. For example, yes, commercial marine fisheries are in serious trouble, but off Massachusetts the halibut have come back gangbusters; striped bass have rebounded. And cities and companies around the world have been able to substantially reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The success stories are very important. Isolation and the sense that I’m the only one feeling this way is a problem. That’s what’s so great about the U.S. Green Building Council—you have 13,000 people here who agree that these issues are important. This is enormously powerful and empowering.
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