What Watching My Dad Die of Cancer Taught Me About Climate Change

David Friedlander
6 min readMar 1, 2023

Cancer overtook my dad’s body in July, 2012. The seizure did not happen quickly. For a couple years, there were a ton of ups and downs: reduced or plateaued tumor growth, cessation of coughing, promises of healing from alternative medicine, and other fleeting signs of hope. Yet for every up there were ten downs. In his final six months, hopeful optimism was replaced by bleak observation. Focus shifted from preserving life to preparing for death.

My dad spent his final years attempting to curb GHG emissions to offset the worst effects of climate change. Among other things, he led a lawsuit against Xcel Energy to stop their last coal power plant in Pueblo, Colorado.

My dad spent his final years as an outspoken climate activist, viewing climate change as the issue to end all issues. He knew culture, commerce, politics, technology, and all other issues would lose importance when the earth was too climatically unstable to support human habitation.

Having lived through my dad’s cancer journey and watching climate change’s steady unfolding, I see many overlaps between the two situations. In both cases, there’s a desire to refuse reality, overstating flimsy signs of hope in the face of overwhelming doom. At a certain point of decay, hope of recovery becomes a fool’s errand.

For all the rhetoric about decarbonization, emissions continue to grow and accelerate worst-case temperature increase scenarios.

In cancer terms, climate change is stage four and terminal. It’s happening and impacts will be universal.

The Cancerous Growth of Climate Impacts

My dad’s cancer started in his lungs before spreading to other organs. Similarly, climate change is attacking certain regions hardest first before spreading beyond. These “cancerous” regions are usually low-lying coastal regions, and as I explained last October, Florida is one such region.

Shaded areas show the extent of submergence associated with an atmospheric temperature increases. Few climate models predict less than a 2 degree increase. Source.

In 2020, McKinsey produced a report called “Will mortgages and markets stay afloat in Florida?”, which analyzed the economic impacts of climate change and its impact on infrastructure, industry, and demography. Some facts from the report:

  • Florida is the third-most-populous with two-thirds of the population living near the coastline, and almost 10 percent is less than 1.5 meters above sea level.
  • Florida has the fourth-largest state economy with a $1 trillion GDP, roughly the same size as the Netherlands. In 2018, real estate accounted for 22 percent of state GDP. Florida’s home-ownership rate is 65 percent, and nationally, primary residences represent 42 percent of median home owner wealth.
  • The frequency of tidal flooding from rising sea levels is expected to grow from a few days a year to 30 to 60 times per year in 2030 and more than 200 times per year in 2050.

As mentioned in my previous piece, Florida’s insurance premiums are the nation’s highest and many insurers are already fleeing the state. Increased frequency of tidal and inland flooding will result in millions more homes losing their insurance. Homes will be damaged, but lacking insurance or housing equity to draw from, most homeowners will have no ability to rebuild or even move.

Flood damage will not be limited to homes. Chronic inundation will mean infrastructure will become too costly to repair, shutting down shipping, transportation, power, water, and sewage networks. Topsoil will be washed away and salinated, destroying much of the state’s agricultural lands. All of this will destroy the state’s main economic drivers, real estate, global trade, agriculture, and tourism — destruction that will trickle down to global markets. Millions of homeless, jobless, and broke Floridians will become stateless climate refugees. This will happen at a time when the number of climatically stable refuges are rapidly contracting, shifting northward and inland.

Higher atmospheric temperatures will dry out many areas and flood others, significantly contracting the availability of temperate areas sufficient ground water and/or dry land to support large human populations. Via ProPublica.

Florida’s refugees will have lots of company searching for space and resources. Forty percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast, and one source projects that “by 2040, a total of 5.4 billion people — more than half of the world’s projected population — will live in the 59 countries experiencing high or extreme water stress.” The same source projects that “at least 1.2 billion people…[will be] displaced by climate-related events by 2050.”

Even if all the refugees find a place to settle, resources to support them will be in short supply. Today’s 7.8 billion person global population exists largely due to reliable global trade of commodities and manufactured goods, 80 percent of which is transported by sea. Rising seas will flood ports that will slow or stop trade channels. From a UN report:

Future ESLs [extreme sea levels] are projected to increase for ports in all regions, with effects worsening under increasing global warming. Even in a 1.5°C warmer world — i.e. as soon as in the 2030s, extreme sea levels of a magnitude so far expected to occur once a century, may occur as frequently as once every ten years in many South American, African, Gulf, SE Asian and Pacific ports. In a 3°C warmer world [a likely scenario], many ports could experience the baseline 1-in-100 years ESL several times per year.

In sum, more, poorer people will be competing for less land and fewer resources. With destabilized populations and tapped economies, the power of centralized governments and economic bodies will erode. Chaos will ensue. Many, many people will die. If you read this far, don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Life After Death

The earth is about 4.5 billion years old and has seen massive shifts in temperatures, sea levels, land mass formations, and populations of flora and fauna. Scientists estimate our sun has at least 5 billion years of juice left before expiring. The earth and terrestrial life will live on long after Key West is subsumed by the sea.

Human life will go on for the foreseeable future as well. Nine days after my father died, my first son was born. His life will largely be defined by the imperative to address the transgressions of previous generations, but he is alive.

But to be clear, the place called Florida (and countless other places) and the systems that support it will cease to exist, killed by increasingly violent climate impacts. There are no coastal walls high or long enough nor drainage ditches deep enough to save its lands from becoming chronic bogs or settling under the sea. These things will happen in spite of Florida being the fastest growing state in 2022 or having nine of the country’s twelve most expensive neighborhoods along its coasts. Climate change won’t care that tech firms are moving there in droves.

While some major media outlets are beginning to recognize climate risks in places like Florida, many — e.g. Bloomberg, WSJ, and NY Times — turn a blind eye to it, treating things like business development and real estate trends as independent of climate change.

What climate change will ultimately kill is the unholy version of humanity and settlement that dominates — rather than aligns — itself with nature . It’s the version that robs from the riches of the past and future to pay for passing pleasures of today. For many of us ready to align ourselves and systems with nature, who want to live off the land instead of off resources mined from the earth’s core or from the sweat of invisible populations, that death can’t come soon enough.

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David Friedlander

Pondering the future, today. Housing, health, and lots of other stuff.