Thursday, October 29, 2009
Dr. Helen Caldicott Speaks in San Diego
Says Global Warming Is an Emergency Requiring Drastic Measures
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
It’s been over a quarter of a century since pediatrician Dr. Helen Caldicott emerged from her native Australia to become one of the most eloquent spokespeople against nuclear power and nuclear weapons. She said back then she was engaging in “preventive pediatrics” by warning against the potentially cataclysmic effects of nuclear energy even in its so-called “peaceful” form. Today she’s past her peak as a media phenomenon — her October 23 speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest drew less than 150 people in a room that can hold over 600, and the only media covering it were Pacifica Radio, Free Speech TV and Zenger’s — but her message was, if anything, even more fiery and emphatic than ever. She said that global warming will make it impossible for earth to sustain human life — unless we start a nuclear war and destroy ourselves that way first — and only a worldwide mobilization to develop and use only renewable energy sources can save us.
“As I look at the climate bill in Congress, there are all those corporations with lobbyists swarming over it, and the Congressmembers aren’t representing us,” Dr. Caldicott said. She pointed out that the corporations opposing any action to deal with global warming are using the same public relations firms that for decades represented the tobacco industry in its attempts to cast doubt on the scientific link between smoking and cancer — and the P.R. companies are using the same strategies now that they did then, calling the science behind global warming “uncertain” and “unproven” and trying to persuade politicians that any serious action against global warming will be devastating to the world’s economy.
According to Dr. Caldicott, there are indeed doubts about global warming — but in the other direction from the corporate P.R. propaganda. If anything, she said, the situation is worse than the scientists have been telling us. “When the U.N. Panel on Climate Change wrote its recently released report, it was based on data from five years ago,” she explained. “Now a group in London says if we continue business as usual, the temperature will have risen four degrees by the end of this century. The Arctic ice cap is already almost gone, and the Greenland cap is melting. If it melts, the worst problem is the oceans will rise 15 meters (about 50 feet). One-third of the world’s population lives at sea level. If that happens, New York and Sydney will be gone. The glaciers in the Himalayas are receding — and they supply most of the fresh water for China and India.”
In a slashing and sometimes rambling talk — she asked for indulgence about the rambling by saying it was the last speech on her tour and she was feeling punchy — she attacked defense contractors, war in general, religion and the corporate media. She criticized the government of Australia for having kept out refugees fleeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and said “the Pentagon is elated” at the prospect of global warming because it will mean more conflicts between countries — and therefore a greater market for U.S. defense contractors like Lockheed, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.
“It fascinates me that in this society, if someone commits murder, it’s a crime — but this whole country is a killing machine and the soldiers are put on pedestals,” Dr. Caldicott said. “The kids who come back from war are traumatized, they drink and they beat their wives. As a woman and a physician, I don’t understand why men kill.” She called historical military leaders like Alexander the Great and Napoleon “psychopaths” and said part of the problem lay with her own gender: “Why did I fall in love with alpha males? So my babies would get really powerful sperm? The more I think of us, the more I think we are evolutionary aberrants, because we’re killing the planet.”
Dr. Caldicott said she’d recently returned from Alberta, Canada, “and I’ve never heard so many deniers of global warming. They are still chopping down trees — the lungs of the earth — like crazy. We’re chopping them down in Australia. Why do people like to kill? Why do they like to kill animals? We’re fishing the seas out.” At least part of the problem, she added, is the “exponential growth” of the human population from one billion 200 years ago to seven billion today. She compared the human race to bacteria grown in a laboratory, which reproduce relentlessly until they run out of nutrient in the culture medium — whereupon they die off en masse. “Are we going to destroy the world for money?” she said. “I think we are.”
As part of her presentation, Dr. Caldicott seized on two especially powerful motivators that make men fight wars: religion and sex. “Religion is a real bugbear,” she said. “I have to go back through history and look at the wars fought in the name of religion. There are mad people in the church, including 40 million people in this country praying for nuclear war. Why don’t the churches rise up and say we should stop killing people?” As for the war-sex connection, she said, “Why do men rape women when they conquer territory? I asked my dad, and he didn’t know. Why do they show men porno films before they go into war? The two things that get the limbic system to produce dopamine are sex and violence, and that fascinates me. As a physician, I want to find out why.”
While praising President Obama for wanting to rid the world of nuclear weapons, Dr. Caldicott acknowledged he’s “having a hell of a time” and said it’s largely due to the opposition of a Right-wing corporate media that, if she had her way, would be driven out of business. “I don’t believe Rush Limbaugh and these people should be allowed to talk on the radio,” she said. “When it comes to the future of the earth, I don’t believe in free speech. We’re important, but not as important as the 30 million other species with which we share the planet. The media companies and the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] need to address their responsibility for having people on the air who are threatening the survival of the earth.”
Dr. Caldicott said that, aside from Pacifica Radio and Amy Goodman’s syndicated broadcast Democracy Now, there are literally no U.S. media untainted by the corporations. “National Public Radio takes money from the nuclear power industry,” she said. “I want you to take on the corporations who are promoting global warming. Learn about it, go see your politicians and teach them. Senator Barbara Boxer is a good woman, but the energy bill is being corrupted by the nuclear power industry. They need to put me on TV to educate people about why nuclear power is not the answer to global warming.”
That last argument — the heavy-duty propaganda campaign by the nuclear power industry to promote its technology as “clean” and free of a carbon footprint — incenses Dr. Caldicott so much that she wrote an entire book about it and called it Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer. “Nuclear power is the bastard son of the nuclear-weapons industry,” she said. “A huge amount of fossil fuel is used to mine uranium. Milling uranium ore and treating it to produce yellowcake produces more CO2. Then to enrich it, you have to turn it into uranium hexafluoride gas and separate it into U-235 and U-238. They use coal-fired power plants to run the centrifuges that do this, and use CFC gas, which is otherwise banned worldwide, to keep it cool. CFC is not only an ozone depleter, it’s 20,000 times as effective a greenhouse gas as CO2.”
After the uranium is enriched to the 3 percent U-235 concentration needed to power a reactor, she explained, “it’s packed into fuel pellets, put into rods and taken to reactors like San Onofre, which is 30 years old. They pack 1 1/2 tons of uranium into a reactor, and they produce new elements which are all radioactive. The heat produced by the reactor boils water, which turns the steam turbines that generate the electricity. They started this because the scientists who invented the atomic bomb felt guilty and looked for a way to promote this technology for ‘peaceful’ use. Then it was propagandized as being ‘American’” — so effectively, she said, that to this day she gets criticized by people quoting the 1950’s playbook of the nuclear industry and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and telling her she’s being “un-American” for opposing nuclear power.
Dr. Caldicott also mentioned what happens to the U-238 — which can’t be fissioned like U-235 but still emits dangerous, highly radioactive alpha particles — after it’s separated out in the centrifuges. It’s turned into depleted uranium ammunition and used in warheads fired by American tanks. “America used 360 tons of depleted uranium in 1991 near Basra, Iraq,” she explained. “U-238 is very carcinogenic, and children are 100 times more sensitive to radiation than adults. Fetuses are 1,000 times more sensitive. The shells are pyrophoric (they start fires when they explode) and spread radioactivity in the air. My colleagues noted an increase in childhood cancers in Basra by 1995, and that’s now gone up 700 percent. Because of the sanctions and the war, doctors can’t treat patients. U.S. soldiers would into hospitals and shoot up both the doctors and the patients. The half-life of U-238 is 4 1/2 billion years. They’ve contaminated the cradle of civilization for the rest of time, and those children will be having those diseases until the end of time.”
While her main agenda was to address global warming, renewable energy and the evils of war and nuclear power, Dr. Caldicott couldn’t resist commenting on the U.S. health-care debate. “How did insurance companies get into medicine in the first place?” she said. “You should have free taxpayer-supported medical care like we have in Australia — ‘single-payer,’ the ‘public option,’ whatever you want to call it. Instead your tax money goes to the Pentagon to kill people.” Responding to the argument that under a taxpayer-funded, government-run health insurance system people couldn’t make enough money to make it worth their while to be doctors, Dr. Caldicott said, “Doctors shouldn’t be rich. I think teachers should make more than doctors because they’re doing more for the human race.”
As depressing as her presentation sometimes got, Dr. Caldicott stressed at the end that she’s an optimist and she believes the earth’s problems, though grave, can be fixed — and they can be fixed by the same human ingenuity that caused them. She said the solution to the energy problem is “a heterogeneous collection of solar power and wind,” and urged the U.S. to install solar panels on top of every building and parking lot. She also argued that the power grid needs to be improved, especially in the Midwest, to move this energy from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. As evidence that the U.S. could pull this off if it had the political will to do so, she cited its history immediately after it entered World War II in December 1941.
“Within six months of Pearl Harbor, America converted every factory to war production because of the emergency,” Dr. Caldicott said. “There’s a much worse emergency now. The Earth is in the intensive care unit, acutely ill. We’re all physicians to a dying planet, and we can fix it.”