Climate Change Denial

June 9, 2006

THE TERROR OF TOMATOES

George Marshall @ 6:16 pm

On Wednesday I attended a packed and emotional public meeting of our local residents group in the local school. 200 people gathered to address a major new threat to our community- a mobile phone mast which T-Mobile intends to attach to the side of the local pub, one street up from the local primary school. Speaker after speaker expressed their concerns, fears and anger over the impacts that this will have on the health of themselves and their children.

This raises an interesting question. Why were all of these people so deeply energized over this issue, to the point of pledging to block the installer’s crane with their cars or bodies? And why, conversely, are they far less excited or concerned about climate change. I know many of them well and know all about their 4 wheel drive cars, leaky old houses, weekend shopping flits- and have noticed how their eyes glaze over when challenged about climate change.

There are some interesting similarities between the issues of climate change and mobile phone masts. Both have impacts that are long drawn out and in the future. And in both cases we are victims and perpetrators. Everyone I recognized in the audience has at least one mobile phone in their family. The local councilor addressing the meeting and demanding immediate action has two in hers (I was tempted to call hers whilst she was speaking but was too nervous to get mine out in public)

The differences between the issues are also telling. Unlike climate change, which is global, the impacts of a mast apply to a very clearly defined area- the company had even helpfully provided maps defining it. And even though the impacts are in the future, the cause is very real and imminent- a big thing which T-Mobile was hoping to whack up disguised as a flagpole when no-one was looking. So this issue has all the qualities needed to create a fight –provocation and insulting devious behaviour by a known enemy, a clearly defined set of victims and the need for an immediate response against a tangible visible cause.

But there is another difference which is even more significant. Serious impacts from climate change are endorsed by every scientific institutions and (responsible) politician in the world. The only uncertainty is how bad it will get before we take some action on it. The reverse is the case for the mobile phone mast. There is no clear, verifiable evidence, certainly none supported by any reputable scientific institution, that the levels of electromagnetic radiation produced by this mast pose any risk. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection identified an exposure level that they believed produced health impacts, they then applied caution and set a maximum exposure level that was one fifth of this. The maximum radiation produced by the mast would be one fifteen thousanth of this cautious level- that is to say that you would have to have seventy five thousand of these masts strapped to the side of the pub, all broadcasting at their maximum, to reach an exposure level that scientists agree causes health problems.

Which brings me to tomatoes. The tomato is a member of the deadly nightshade family and contains lot of toxic chemicals, including cyanide and several glycoalkaloids, a family of deadly poisons which lead to a depressed central nervous system; kidney failure; cancer; and birth defects. 400 milligrams of glycoalkaloids will kill a grown man. If we concentrated these chemicals 75,000 fold we could kill entire streets of people.

No one holds public meetings against tomatoes or bans ketchup from schools. We buy them from large corporations, indeed we grow them in our greenhouses and put them in salads that we force our children to eat up before they can get down from the table.

So returning to climate change, and the topic of this blog, we need to observe that our response to risk is highly subjective and unreliable. Well-educated people can believe that an issue is hugely dangerous and requires immediate action when there is little evidence that it poses any real threat. And conversely, the same people can be completely oblivious to an issue that threatens their existence but fails to contain any of the qualities that might activate them. Like climate change …..or tomatoes.

A Postscript- August 2006

Blake Ludwig points out:

Much needed publicity has been given to CO2, but there is also a great deal of debate going on around other air pollutants from diesel engines used in road transport, namely NO2 and PM10. In the UK there are at least 3 areas that are in breach of legal limits (and the WHO acceptable limits) by twofold. Brompton Road in Knightsbridge, London is one example. More than likely there are others, unreported. You can read more at:
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/actionnetwork/G1956

So,  here are clear cases of places where pollution is two times over the international standards, not 1/75,000 of them. I feel this is a clear example of a situation where people become accustomed and indifferent to real and well established health risks because they increase incrementally and are the product of a way of life that we are not prepared to question or challenge.

5 Responses to “THE TERROR OF TOMATOES”

  1. Michelle Holloway says:

    Climate change is simply is too big, too scary, and the solutions involve too much personal sacrifice. A mobile phone mast provides a nice opportunity for some righteous indignation at no personal cost. What is the mast was going to provide service for that area, and the alternative was to stick to land lines? Or no phone whatsoever… Our car (or the plane to someplace nice) provides us with service to our area, and the alternative is not to have that provision. We would be stuck with the land-line: The train, our bicycle, our own two feet. I bet you’d be hard pressed to find an angry crowd in a primary school anywhere in the Western world demanding any kind of sacrifice on their own part rather than that of some “other”.

  2. Alex Kent says:

    This is the problem in a nutshell. What becomes apparent if you have a life that steps in and out of modern Britain is that there is a continuing selective risk-aversion. That risk aversion is driven by a number of short, high profile campaigns in the tabloids and whatever TV programmes there are that support their views.

    When I talk to otherwise normal adults I get this picture:

    - A paedophile will break into a tent in my back garden and steal my children (HIGH RISK)

    - Mobile Phone mast (HIGH RISK)

    - Diseased chocolate (HIGH RISK)

    - Paedohpiles will leave prison and immediately adbuct my children (HIGH RISK)

    - Terrorists are going to blow me up if I go to London (HIGH RISK)

    - Failure to wear a cycle helmet (Tantamount to suicide)

    - Going out without suntan lotion (Immediate cancer)

    However the flip side is:

    Climate change – it’s not real and even if it is someone will sort it out for me.

    Four by Four driving – it’s not me it’s them that gets hurt

    Walking down the road (Low Risk)

    It seems that one quasi-scientist attached to one tabloid journalist can build a campaign. A campaign can cause fear, which can cause action. Of course we can do the precentages and show people the chance – but the point is that people associate a tiny risk with an event they can’t accept. Although the total number of paedophile incidents is probabyl the same as it has always been in percentage of population terms people can’t conceive of anything causing it to happen to their child or another child that reminds them it could happen to theirs.

    So, we have to find identifiable, real, examples that drive people’s fears. I guess I’m talking about winning the battle to frame the argument. The deniers framed the argument as poor science, people getting in the way of better living conditions, difficulty to make changes, moaning greens – and of course people lapped it up.

    Of course, most of these other problems require little personal lifestyle change which is also a fundamental challenge.

    If we want to get over the challenge we need real examples that somehow people can identify with. We need to make it personal. Then we need to bring the problem down to an understandable and manageable scale. Then we need to tell people it’s ok to start making cuts in a small way and to help them plan change. After all, if we could get everyone to make a 10% cut this year that would achieve more than Kyoto and will be a good first stepping stone. THe first 25% is going to be easy if we can get people moving. Meanwhile, we need to hammer government and industry to solve some of the problems to make it easier for people to adapt, then we need to put laws in place to drive change.

    We don’t have time to overthrow capitalism to stop climate change so we’ll have to try and mould it to minimise damage and see if we can’t unhook apparent economic growth from actual resource consumption growth.

    We have to find momentum. A lot has changed in the press and radio in the last 6 months and even parliament is making sounds of change, and America may change despite Bush and co. But the point is we have to get beyond the liberal press and nature programmes.

    I think we have to find a positive spin as well, we need to frame the opportunity for people and we have to frame those of us who camapign to raise awareness as not being moaners but people who care about future generations. In round 1 we lost to the paid deniers, in round 2 you might declare a draw, in the next round – the most vital one as it’s probably the last chance – we have to win and through that drive the change. To do that we must frame the discussion and we must talk to people about things that matter to them, that they can comprehend and we have to offer them the chance to make small changes to get used to the idea.

  3. Maria Velasco says:

    Re previous post. Part of risk is the size of the consequence, not only the probability; well I do worry about my children being taken by a sadist from my garden. It is a potentially irreversible and horrendous event if it happens, like climate change (which will happen). However, this paranoia doesn\’t mean I am not rational for some other things or that I don\’t think or act about the global warming issue by decreasing my own emissions…(I live with lots of stress). I remember several years ago when I came to live and work in Scotland I used to like driving in the Dee side, around lovely Ballater, Braemar etc. Now I dislike driving, particularly since I know the emissions from my car (which is quite efficient in comparison but still) I would much rather cycle or walk all the time -train for longer distances. I find the repetitive driving of an average super safe car in the average UK road really dull. The nicest roads are enjoyed much more cycling or walking. But most other mothers in my area (rural) find walking strange or impossible, and cycling unthinkable. It is like an unnecessary effort (perhaps they find it embarrassing to make some physical effort and perhaps even struggle in public). . I think apart from other things also the class stigma could be behind this attitude. \”If you don\’t drive you can\’t afford a car, ie you\’re weak etc you walk or cycle because you have no choice\”? \”You don\’t fly and care about the environment so you really must be \”alternative\” which means you are a kind of loser in the real world (perhaps you are hippie which means you are not to be taken seriously)\”. The FT in an editorial recently accused Ken Livingstone of being \”green of envy\” from 4×4 drivers in London. I cancelled our subscription there and then. At my husband\’s work in the \”city\” colleagues say that the global warming issue will all be solved with technology in due course. They don\’t have a clue how, but something will happen. Some ideas: Perhaps new start ups will design and build commercially viable huge compressors that will distill and extract great amounts of CO2 to the outer space or to down the center of the earth, (the issue of who pays and how much is a hurdle that will be solved too in due course) or others may develop high tech air-conditioned (solar powered) plastic bubbles with high SPF for rich people to live and move in, or well there is plenty of possibilities for the wildest imaginations.

  4. Andrew says:

    i answer to the mobile phone vs global warming?
    it might interest you to know that both global warming and moblie phone growth since the early eighties run hand in
    hand? a few million moblie phones emiting how many watts of microwaves?

  5. Fredrick says:

    Its not only the use of mobile phones that causing climate changes and global warming, what also needs to be thought of the parts of these phones where they are being manufactured. Think of the emissions there?

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