Climatologist Wants To Keep Working With Terminal Cancer Diagnosis, Climate Deniers Attack Him

Piers Sellers on the Space Station in 2006 CREDIT: AP VIA NASA TV
Piers Sellers on the Space Station in 2006 CREDIT: AP VIA NASA TV

NASA climatologist and astronaut Piers Sellers has a moving New York Times op-ed piece about his plans to keep working despite his diagnosis of terminal Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

It struck a chord with me, especially since the headline, “Cancer and Climate Change,” was one I had for a previously unfinished and unpublished post I wrote a few years ago — after I was diagnosed with a pancreatic neuro-endocrine tumor (the general class of tumor that killed Steve Jobs, though mine was probably non-lethal).

But first, let’s look at Piers Sellers, acting director of NASA’s Earth Sciences division (and space station astronaut) along with his anti-science detractors. Before his diagnosis, Sellers had thought that, “even at my present age of 60, I would live to see the most critical part of the problem, and its possible solutions, play out in my lifetime.” But since he does not have long to live, he asked himself, “Was continuing to think about climate change worth the bother?”

Ultimately, when he drew up his bucket list, he decided to continue doing what he loved the most and what was most important to him — his work. He explains his optimism and his passion for communicating on this tough subject: “History is replete with examples of us humans getting out of tight spots. The winners tended to be realistic, pragmatic and flexible; the losers were often in denial of the threat.”


I share his optimism that the worst of climate change can be avoided. To paraphrase something I wrote in 2009 about another dying climate hero: there is hope, as long as people like Piers Sellers are willing to use their energy — even their last drop of energy — to tell the world what is to come on our current path and how we can stop it.

There’s only one piece of Sellers’ optimism I don’t share: He wrote, “Last year may also be seen in hindsight as the year of the Death of Denial.”

In fact, the deniers quickly went after Sellers despite the fact that he doesn’t have long on this Earth. An astonished AP science writer Seth Borenstein tweeted Sunday:

And Breitbart wasted no time in misrepresenting and smearing Sellers, with a piece absurdly headlined, “NASA Chief: Global Warming Is Real Because I Have Cancer.”

As the saying goes, the only things certain in life are death and taxes … and denial.

Mortality is inevitable. But catastrophic climate change is not. Rather, it is a choice that humanity is making, driven in part by the most well-funded disinformation campaign in human history — and in part by humanity’s own myopia and greed, which allows us to continue embracing a global fossil-fuel driven economy, even though the science now makes clear the world economy is Ponzi scheme


Each year, we consume more and more of the world’s carrying capacity — livable climate, soils and arable land, fisheries, fresh water and so on — to maintain a lifestyle that will be utterly unsustainable for our children and grandchildren.

Cancer and Climate Change: My Story

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” That quote by environmental writer Edward Abbey was on my mind after I was diagnosed a few years ago with a small well-defined pancreatic neuro-endocrine tumor (PNET).

A PNET is generally very slow growing and not what people normally think of when they hear the word cancer, particularly pancreatic cancer. Still, Steve Jobs had a PNET, so they can sometimes be fatal if untreated.

Jobs’ PNET was symptomatic and functioning (i.e. releasing hormones) and mine did not appear to be (it was discovered incidentally). In that sense, his PNET was more analogous to climate change than mine, I think, since global warming is already symptomatic and highly likely to be fatal to a livable climate and modern civilization if left untreated.

Also, Jobs put off the recommended treatment — surgery — for nine months doing alternative medicine. It is impossible to know whether that delay contributed to his death — but it is quite clear from published interviews that Jobs himself thought it did.


As you can imagine, in part because of Jobs, there aren’t many folks who leave these in anymore (and even non-functioning PNETs are hardly all benign). That is another difference between my PNET and global warming. With the PNET, we have the benefit of seeing what happens when other people do or do not remove them. With global warming, there is no such information: There is no Planet B.

I’m pretty certain that if people actually saw what climate inaction does to a planet with 9 billion people, we’d have a whole lot of action. Indeed, if people actually spent as much time talking to the leading climate experts as I do, we’d have a whole lot of action.

And that’s another difference between a PNET and global warming. If an incidental CAT scan indicated you had a lesion on your pancreas, you would seek out the top pancreas specialists, which I was assured by many people, were at Johns Hopkins. And if they said you needed a laparoscopic distal pancreatectomy, you’d find someone who had done hundreds of them.

You wouldn’t seek out the advice of a podiatrist, a dentist, or pediatrician. You wouldn’t have the operation done by orthopedic surgeon, and certainly not by a petroleum engineer. And I’m very certain you wouldn’t ignore the problem entirely.

But, strangely, although the climate has a terminal diagnosis of human-caused warming, one confirmed by every major scientific body and government in the world, a great many people — heck, a great many in the media — routinely seek advice and comments from the climate equivalent of your dentist or a petroleum engineer. Worse, most people quoted as denying or downplaying the threat of global warming aren’t merely non-experts, they are people who have been debunked and proven wrong time and again by real climate scientists. They are the functional equivalent of quacks.

If you had spent your time talking to climate experts, you’d know, as I did a decade ago, that Arctic sea ice was going to disintegrate decades earlier than originally expected. You’d have been prepared for the kind of extreme weather we are now experiencing — once-in-a-century deluges, heat waves, and droughts occurring every couple of years. You’d have known why big fuel companies were such a risky investment. And now you’d know why coastal property is a similarly risky investment.

Coincidentally, Hopkins uses a consensus-based approach for cases like mine. CAT scans and the like are so good now they pick up a lot of cysts and tumors at an early stage incidentally — as in my case — and folks need to figure out what to do with them. So every Tuesday night, one of the doctors presents the case to the entire multi-disciplinary pancreatic cyst team — a big group of gastroenterologists, surgeons, pathologists, researchers, radiologists, and others who all specialize in the pancreas — and they come up with a recommended course of treatment.

In my case, the consensus was to remove it. I did. The pathology report said it was all gone, so my prognosis is very good.

The consensus prognosis for the climate is disastrous. The great cryo-scientist Lonnie Thompson explained back in 2010 why climatologists are speaking out on climate: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” In March 2014, the world’s largest general scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, issued an uncharacteristically blunt call to action on climate change.

In November 2014, the world’s top scientists and governments issued their bluntest plea yet to the world: Slash carbon pollution now (at a very low cost) or risk “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” many of which are beyond adaptation.

The cancer the planet has is our addiction to fossil-fuel-based growth. We must cut it out ASAP.

The vast majority of people act considerably more risk-averse toward worst-case scenarios in their own life — or their children’s lives — than the United States is acting toward the business-as-usual scenario of unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gas. That is partly understandable at one level, but monstrously immoral on another. Shouldn’t we have a higher standard of care toward climate change, when it is poised to ruin a livable climate for our children, grandchildren, and billions of people around the world, especially when the changes our actions cause will be irreversible for a thousand years?

There is more reason to be hopeful about the future than ever before, thanks to the Paris climate agreement and rapidly falling prices for clean technology. But only if the world ignores the climate science deniers and keeps listening to heroic climate scientists like Piers Sellers.