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:
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.