Climate Change Denial

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June 24, 2006


George Marshall @ 4:08 pm

One recurring quality of addicts is their capacity to create self serving definitions of their own problem behaviour. In his last years my father claimed he was not an alcoholic because he didn’t start drinking until 6pm. After spending half an hour watching the clock he then poured the first of several large tumblers of whiskey. I know people who are seriously obese who like to believe that salads have magical non- fattening powers even when they are smothered in mayonnaise

With this in mind, what do we make of the first ever “climate neutral” World Cup? We are told that ‘for the first time ever…unavoidable greenhouse gases, emitted throughout Germany, will be balanced by investment in climate projects, ensuring the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ ends up “climate neutral” ‘ (see 

In partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme FIFA aimed to reduce emissions through low emission stadiums, encouraging people to take the bus to matches, recycling rainwater for the urinals. They said the remaining emissions of 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide would be offset through a project producing biogas for cooking in Tamil Nadu, India.

I tried to put aside my deep suspicion of offsets, my irritatation with the superficiality of some of the Green Goal measures (such as providing renewable paper cups), and the cynical observation that the UN is a sad old organisation that loves to hitch uncritically onto anything vaguely sexy. After all, there is real value in a climate change initiative that reaches the huge mainstream audience of football enthusiasts.

I’m all in favour- providing people are being told the truth.

But there is a big problem- the figures deliberately exclude the flights that people took to attend the matches. There were 13,000 Brazilians attending the World Cup. Given that a return flight from Rio to Germany has the same climate impact as 8 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide (see that’s already more than doubled the stated emissions. There were 3.2 million spectators in Germany for the World Cup- the vast majority arriving by air. The millions of tonnes of CO2 they produce in their air travel are an inherent part of the emissions for an event which can only function if it brings in people from every country in the world.

No one in the entertainment or tourism industry ever wants to talk about air emissions, whether they are for ‘carbon neutral’ tours by rock bands or eco holiday resorts.  But Green Goal was supposed to be more than corporate PR. The UN backed it as a piece of public education. In this respect it is deliberately mendacious, minimising the actual scale and seriousness of climate change and the measures we will need to take to deal with it. I think it is worse than saying or doing nothing.

FIFA would never have paid millions of Euros for offsetting the full emissions and no doubt argues that flights are “avoidable” emissions that are the responsibility of the fans. When I was a smoker and trying to give up I used to stop buying my own cigarettes and smoke my friends’. That way I could argue- to myself at any rate- that I wasn’t really smoking. Is the Green Goal really any different?

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June 15, 2006


George Marshall @ 11:02 am

Standard  opinion has it that governments respond poorly to climate change because they can only operate on a 5 year electoral cycle. In an original opinion piece in the Guardian (May 29th 2006) Peter Preston challenges this view and points out that the UK government is perfectly able to manage intergenerational planning for energy supply and pensions.

Strangely it is doing so without any consideration of climate change. Preston argues that the government is planning to place new nuclear power stations in areas that will be subject to sea level rise, and is ignoring the role of climate change on the portfolios of the pension plans it is promoting.

Preston points out the disconnection but does not seek to explain it. In my view the lack of joined up thinking is because of a fundamental lack of belief- climate change is too threatening to the world view of policy makers that they are deliberately keeping it as an intellectual abstraction which they can acknowledge without absorbing.

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June 9, 2006


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:

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.

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June 6, 2006


George Marshall @ 2:37 pm

Despite their supposed neutrality, newsreaders invariably add little gestures, snorts and asides after news items to seem human and more natural. There’s Happy Face, Sad Face, Lifted Eyebrow Quizzical Look (Sue Lawley used to do this all the time on the BBC 9 O’Clock News), Sombre Serious Look Into Camera, and, most irritating, the Little Chatty Flirty Ho-Ho-Ho with the Co-Hosts. These constitute powerful messages which
model a response for the audience.

I have noticed repeatedly that the newsreader responses to climate change stories are often inappropriate or actively undermine the story. This morning there was a good example on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. After a significant discussion on a demand from business leaders for stronger government action on climate change, the presenter said – ‘and now- ho-ho over to the weather’ The weather reader then said ‘well, we’re certainly in for some ho-ho global warming today’. The connotation of global warming with pleasant summer weather is especially dangerous in Britain where many people anticipate an idyllic future of ‘Costa-del-Britain’.

Weathercasters do not undermine other serious news items in this way. They do not chuckle and say “explosive storms across the north east so expect some big bangs” or “and there’s another big pile up of fronts on its way’ or “gosh, weather’s going to be a bit of a holocaust today”. If they did they would be sacked on the spot.

I will make a note of further sightings. Please add yours.

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