Ignoring Looming Catastrophes

The paralysis with which our country faces the crises of health care and global climate change is enough to make an aging political columnist grow weepy.

Read the feature in the March 4 issue of Time magazine, Steven Brill’s “Bitter Pill: How Outrageous Pricing and Egregious Profits Are Destroying Our Health Care.” It’s long, but it’s worth the reader’s slog, for Brill looks closely at dozens of hospital bills from across the country. What he found were not nonprofit institutions devoted solely to the health of their patients, but profit centers that charge scandalous sums for pills, gauze, ointments and procedures.

How scandalous? A head scan that in Canada costs $122 will bring a U.S. hospital $510. An appendectomy in high-priced Switzerland will cost $5,840, compared to $13,003 in the United States. And a coronary bypass that puts a Frenchman back $16,140 will require $67,583 to get around a U.S. blockage.

According to Brill, the results don’t justify the prices we pay. In 2010, America spent more than $8,000 per person on health care; the Japanese, less than half that much. An American can expect to live to be 79; a resident of Japan, to 83. All the world’s developed countries do as well or better than the United States on the longevity scale, despite the U.S. spending $750 billion more on health care than all the other developed nations spend combined.

Yet there’s little chance that the American people will pick up their pitchforks and march on their local hospital. Even if they did, whatever satisfaction was wrested from the well-paid local hospital administrator would be negated by the army of pharmaceutical and health care industry lobbyists patrolling the halls of Congress.

Then there’s climate change. Researchers tell us that a warming planet could raise sea levels by 18 inches by 2050 and by three feet by end of the century. A mix of ground-water and seawater would flood much of Kakaako, Ala Moana, Waikiki and Moiliili – and that’s just the town side of Oahu.

Climate changes in Hawaii already mirror the effects of global warning. Scientists cite rising air temperature, decreased rainfall, longer and more frequent droughts and an acidifying ocean as evidence.

Worldwide indicators of climate change accumulate as well. The polar icecaps have shrunk dramatically in recent years. Desert regions of Africa have expanded, and deforestation has become epidemic because of population growth.

So what have we done?

The U.S. government has refused to sign global climate change agreements. And “global warming denial” persists in the U.S., despite the overwhelming weight of science that demonstrates that it is upon us.

During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last year, Mitt Romney derided President Barack Obama’s promise “to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.” His audience laughed with him at the president’s hubris, and on election day Romney garnered 47 percent of the vote.

Hawaii’s done better than some states, less well than others, in addressing the challenge of climate change. Gov. Linda Lingle’s Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative led to Act 155 that set a goal of 70 percent clean energy by 2030, and in 2010 the state Legislature adopted a barrel tax on imported oil. State tax credits for solar and wind also became law.

Global warming and a health care industry run amok threaten us all. But our response to both seems minimal in relation to their gravity. They overwhelm us, and rather than get mad, paralysis sets in. And in the case of aging columnists, tears flow.