Allen's Blog

Saving George Washington, Climate Change, and What about Houston? 

E. Allen Stewart III P.E.—September 2017 

Death of Washington, Dec. 14. A.D. 1799” from the Library of Congress

Our founding fathers and our founding mothers* were not, as we have often been led to believe, a group of agreeable individuals of such noble character that they were immune to human foibles. Rather they were a collection of intelligent, elite leaders who were quite often opinionated and arrogant, and imbued with the acceptable bigotry of the day regarding race, social position, and gender.

In spite of their flaws however, they were remarkable, and many historians agree that the most remarkable among them was George Washington. Washington, after orchestrating a military victory over the most powerful army in the world at that time, after serving as convention president during the historical Constitutional Convention of 1787, and after rejecting an offer to assume the position as Monarch over this new nation, reluctantly served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797, before finally retiring to his beloved Mount Vernon. 

 But even in retirement he remained a leader and advisor, and received a constant flow of visitors. He was a national treasure and a national resource even after he officially left government. As long as Washington lived, there was an aura of unity and comfort that enveloped the nation. He was as Henry “Light-horse” Lee said at Washington’s funeral “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” 

On December 13, 1799 a 67 year old George Washington awoke before sunrise to review his property on horseback. It is something he did nearly every morning since his retirement some 30 months earlier. This morning however was particularly harsh, with freezing rain and a penetrating chill. When he returned to his house at Mount Vernon, he realized he did not have time to change cloths before receiving some guests. He went to bed that night still chilled.  At about 2:00 AM he awoke with chest pains and difficulty breathing. During the course of December 14, 1799 in spite of the efforts of several doctors, Washington, after intense suffering, finally succumbed at around 10 PM. 

Today doctors generally agree that Washington died of asphyxiation associated with an inflammation of the epiglottis** as a result of bacterial infection—a condition known as bacterial epiglottitis. The one thing that could have prolonged, and possibly saved Washington’s life would have been a tracheotomy—a procedure which was not well understood in 1799 in the United States, even though it had been used in Europe as early as the 16th century. 

None of Washington’s attending doctors however had experience with the procedure, and did not seriously consider it as an option.

Instead they relied upon methods and procedures founded more in superstition and tradition than in science.

For example bloodletting was thought to assist in the purging of the agents of disease. The doctors removed over two liters of blood from Washington during his final day in hopes of relieving his symptoms. Of course bloodletting simply exacerbated the problem by promoting dehydration and electrolyte imbalance and robbing organs of nourishment and oxygen, while reducing the effectiveness of the immune system. 

In addition to bloodletting, Washington’s doctors used agents to promote blistering as a kind of “fight fire with fire” approach. Again there was no scientific support for this presumption, and as with the bloodletting, it likely worsened his condition.  

In today’s world, Washington would have survived. His immediate symptoms would have been managed by Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) as they responded to Martha’s 911 calls. In communication with the Emergency Room doctors, the EMT would be certain Washington’s airway remained opened until they arrived at the hospital. One of the attending EMT may be trained to perform a cricothydroidotomy (a more modern variation of a tracheotomy), but would not do so in this case, as it would be indicated in only the most dire situations in which the airway was totally obstructed and intubation was not an option***. 

Once in the emergency room, action would be taken to reduce inflammation and maintain an open airway, diagnostic testing would proceed to include throat and blood cultures as well as imaging and physical examination, and IV fluids would be administered and would quite likely include antibiotics. The hospital stay could well be no more than three to five days, after which treatment and monitoring would be done through outpatient services. It is quite likely that within two weeks Washington would be back at his desk in Mount Vernon on “light duty”.   

This incredible leap from bloodletting to modern medicine occurred in less than two hundred years, largely the result of impressive scientific advancements during the twentieth century. In 1799 there was little understanding of how the body functioned or how bacteria and other micro-organisms caused disease. During the twentieth century medicine evolved towards a systems approach, with the recognition that stable human physiology is the result of complex interactions among a group of sub-systems and with the external environment which fluctuated within a specific range of conditions. This systems approach fostered a higher level of understanding of physiology and human behavior, resulting in an increased level of sophistication and effectiveness within the medical and surgical community. I would suggest that there is no more convincing testimony to the benefits of science than modern medicine. 

Of course the lack of such science in 1799 begs the question—how different would the world be if Washington had survived and had been allowed to live into the second decade of the nineteenth century? Could his leadership resulted in the early abolition of slavery or allowed us to avoid the war of 1812, or perhaps have challenged the manifest destiny as society sought cultural destruction of Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples?

We are yesterday’s posterity. The ineptitude of Washington’s doctors has survived to impact our lives.

So what can we learn from the tragic death of George Washington? 

  • First of all, decisions made without real scientific support do not typically end well. 

  • And secondly, problem solving and decision making are best done when equipped with an understanding of the system or systems involved—this applies whether the issue is brain surgery, auto repair, or dealing with global climate change.      

So let’s consider global climate change. It is not surprising that it has become an emotional issue, for the social, political and economic adjustments that will be required to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing climate will be substantial. 


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Presently, there are two opposing groups which are most vocal—what I call the Ostriches with their heads in the sand, and the Chicken Littles who run around claiming the sky is falling, and that doom is upon us. Standing between these two are the true scientists and a collection of politicians, economists, theologians, lawyers and informed citizens who remain objective and eager to understand the issue, and more importantly to devise workable plans for mitigation and adjustment.     

​Of course we all know by now that with or without a human presence, climate will change with time, responding to a number of influences, including levels of carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane in the atmosphere, the relative positioning of the earth’s orbit, the extent of water held in glaciers, volcanic activity, and of course the rare comets/meteors/asteroids which slam into our planet. 

It is the observed high RATE of change that must draw our attention. 

Regarding our present situation, here are the facts we can all accept as a starting point. 

Certain gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and others, are known to reflect heat (infra-red radiation), returning a portion back towards the earth causing warming. This is known as the greenhouse effect—and if you have ever been in a greenhouse, you have felt its influence. The higher the concentration of these gases the greater the emissions of thermal infra-red radiation back to earth.

Based upon long-term monitoring at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have steadily increased from about 310 ppm (parts per million by volume) in 1960 to about 400 ppm in 2017. The measurements are taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and are defended by a rigorous calibration and quality control program. For more info on this program,  https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/about/co2_measurements.pdf

  • Atmospheric temperatures are calculated using NASA satellites (since 1978) as well as surface measurements. Comparisons of independently compiled data help validate the findings. For more detailed explanation, https://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/bibliography/related_files/tmlw0602.pdf  

  • The increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere correlates directly with the rate of fossil fuel consumption. Scientists have determined that there is therefore a connection between human activity, i.e. burning fossil fuels, and the rate of global climate change. 

  • It took several million years to form fossil fuels from organic carbon stored in the earth. Society has burned a significant percentage of this in approximately 150 years, releasing it to the atmosphere primarily as carbon dioxide. Such lopsided ratios raise concern regarding rate of change and disruption of equilibria.

 Atmospheric CO2 (parts per million, NOAA) and Global Temperature Anomaly (°C GISS) from 1964 to 2008. 

From: http://bit.ly/2f3rEKN

These then are the most scientifically defendable aspects of global climate change. Projecting the effects is more difficult, and here is where it gets complicated.

Skeptics might say “Ok, so the climate is changing. And maybe it is changing partly because of human activity. So what? Do you expect society to come to a stop just because we think the sea levels might rise, or the climate might get warmer? Maybe a warmer climate is good—Canada and Siberia become the new bread basket! And with rising sea levels people just need to move away from the coast. Many jobs rely directly or indirectly upon the fossil fuel industry—our entire social structure is subsidized by fossil fuels. Are you willing to throw the world into economic upheaval because something might happen, but you are not certain?” 

There is some validity to these arguments—the Preamble to the U.S, Constitution notes that our government needs to be attendant to “ourselves” as well as to “posterity”. ‘

Then too, Chicken Littles need to be careful. Their projections may be overstated and their panic can breed resistance and fear among established forces. And it is unfortunate that among these Chicken Littles are scientists, just as among the Ostriches are business people and elected officials. 

So what is a reasonable path? 

The battle lines are now well established between these two forces, with each eager to find an “I told you so” moment. One Ostrich Senator for example brought a snowball into congress to prove there was no global warming. Conversely, Chicken Little reporters are prone to point to a new storm as proof of dramatic climate change. Such presumptions promote alienation, and are not helpful. 

Consider then an alternative perspective, and here again I use history to make my point. I grew up in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis—and we were scared to death. The threat was real, and the risks involved would not allow ambivalence or non-action. The whole policy of nuclear deterrence was accepted almost unanimously by both political parties. Administrations and congresses run by both parties over time supported and funded this policy. The general theme was that the risks were so great that a commitment of monies for effective deterrence, no matter the amount involved, must be accepted and approved. Very few people said they thought deterrence was a waste of money or believed the Soviet Union would never unilaterally use nuclear arms.

 

And so from the end of World War II until just recently, we committed much of our national treasury to military and diplomatic deterrence, which ultimately resulted in a huge nuclear arsenal. And yet few complain about these expenditures, because it kept us safe. And it did something else—it brought us the “race for space”, which ultimately generated a cornucopia of scientific advances, and thrust us into a new economic era. 

So why can’t we view global climate change the same way? The risks can legitimately be argued to be as threatening as the Cold War, and the opportunities for scientific advancement are as great, e.g. development of sustainable energy sources, developing more effective agricultural practices, adopting new approaches to urban planning, and establishing workable methods for ecosystem reclamation, with attendant protection of water resources, fisheries, and biodiversity. 

I remember the excitement in the sixties about space exploration, often listening to my older brother who spent his career involved in the “space” industry working for General Dynamics, Rockwell and others****. I watched the Saturn V lift off the pad in 1969 with Neil Armstrong and crew aboard, and it quickened my pulse, and provided motivation to build a career around science and engineering. 

I believe a campaign to confront the potential threats of global climate change can do the same thing. Even if you think the Chicken Littles are over reactive, can you afford to be an Ostrich?

 

Remember that making no decision is actually a decision, and there are some real risks involved that we cannot ignore.

We owe it to posterity, and personally I think such a campaign would be challenging, exciting, and even fun, bringing out the best of human nature.

So let’s turn now to Houston and Hurricane Harvey. The chatter of course is to what extent is global climate change responsible? This is an important question, and perhaps we cannot arrive at a definitive answer—science is rarely conclusive, but it is often indicative, pointing us in the direction for further investigation. 

Certainly there have been hurricanes and floods throughout the earth’s history—they did not just come about because of “human induced” climate change. But perhaps the intensity of the storm and the quantity of rainfall are related to global warming. It does appear the amount of water associated with Harvey well exceeds our experience as a nation. NOAA has documented that across the USA, coastal cities and towns racked up a combined 520 days with high-tide floods, far above the annual average of 275 days over the past couple of decades

But beyond the question of whether the magnitude of this storm was just coincidence, or is connected to some extent with global climate change, there is another matter that needs our close attention. Big storms such as Harvey, Katrina and Andrew are quite effective in exposing corruption. And of course corruption can come in many forms. It may be a bureaucrat being incentivized to ignore building codes, or a planning and zoning commission discounting scientific recommendations related to flooding probabilities or impacts upon traffic patterns.  It may be a County or City Commission failing to apply rational economic analyses related to future impacts of proposed developments. In order to build coffers for themselves or their governmental entity or build affiliation with powerful business interests, they may approve projects with unmanageable imposition upon infrastructure or degradation of the environment and the quality of life for local residents. 

After seeing so many houses and roads flooded, and the tragic impact upon so many citizens--we must ask was such corruption involved in Houston?

 

Perhaps there was simply a decision in many cases to ignore the science. Would rejecting science in this way qualify as corruption? 

The resultant suffering reminds me of what happened to George Washington when science was ignored. We can forgive the doctors who attended to Washington because the science had not yet been developed. We do not have the same excuse today—the science does exist. 

Rejecting or denying science does not eliminate the inevitability of its influence. Houston perhaps stands as testimony to the veracity of this axiom.  Over the next year hopefully we will better understand the Houston experience, and make adjustments accordingly—including how we apply science and concern for posterity in our decision making.    

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 *We have recently learned much about our founding mothers thanks to Cokie Roberts and her  2004 book “Founding Mothers”  HarperCollins Publishers ISABN 0-06-009025-1   

 **The epiglottis is a cartilaginous structure within the throat which serves to protect the airway (Trachea), particularly during the process of swallowing.  When the epiglottis becomes infected it can become swollen and inflamed, thereby threatening to obstruct the airway. 

 ***I remember being taught how to perform a cricothyroidotomy as a Navy Hospital Corpsman during the Viet Nam era in preparation for field support to the Marine Corps.  

 ****David W. Stewart 2016 “Seeking Success—a Memoir” Coreopsis Publications Titusville. Fl  ISBN:1540417182