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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Should climate change be about politics?

Click on this to see a larger view, and spot the blue colour.
My last post was about seasons, and that set me thinking about how the natural seasons are changing as our climate changes.

 In the past two years I have been around quite a few glaciers in north-west North America and Scandinavia. They are all, like this one on the left, seen at Briksdal in Norway, going backwards, retreating.

(Perversely, a handful of the world's glaciers are going forward, but the general trend is clear: climate change is melting the glaciers. There is trouble on the way!)

I discovered that in Scandinavia, they understand this very well, and Jens Galschiot's installation 'Unbearable' in Copenhagen makes the point brilliantly: look to the right first.

Gruesome, isn't it?  If you don't get it, scroll down towards the bottom of this entry, where there is a wider shot and some explanation.

In 1967, Dan Greenberg quoted Luis Alvarez, a VERY clever scientist as saying "There is no democracy in physics. We can't say that some second-rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi." (If you don't know who Fermi is, he won the Nobel for physics in 1938, and in 1942, set up the first-ever nuclear reactor in Chicago, an action that led to the Manhattan Project and the atom bomb.)

What Alvarez might have said was: should any science be about politics? Like it or not, scientists engage in political games and polemics, and that seems to give the unqualified the idea that science is about voting to choose the most popular theory.

That, I am sure, is what lies behind much of the fulmination against evolution that comes from the USA — the opponents hope they can shout at the idea and make it go away. As Sir John Pringle put it (in another context), they have as much hope of repealing the law of gravity.

There is certainly one place where politics looms large in science, and that is when science says we need to do something that will hurt. We don't get to vote about which scientific idea is right, but we do get to vote about the actions we take on it.

Political leaders in the US and Australia will not risk making decisions that will upset voters in marginal electorates (or congressional districts in the US). Anti-Bush types used to point to the links he had with the oil industry, but while I never had a lot of time for GWB, I don't believe any US President acts on the behalf of the oil companies in a corrupt way, any more than our Prime Minister (whoever that is) must be in the hands of the coal lobby because they are paying him. It just happens that votes can be found in backing fossil fuel use, and cheap fossil fuel use at that.

The skinny of it: acting responsibly will cause howls of outrage from those who are affected by taxes and price hikes, but without those changes, the planet is doomed. You don't need to seek a plebiscite of the scientists — they are as near to unanimous as a bunch of independent thinkers ever will be.

I used to hang out quite a lot with geophysicists, and I know that for years now, only a few mavericks have tried to argue either that the world is not warming, or that if it is, that is because of something other than increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. I know also that when you burrow, these people generally turn out to be elderly or funded by fossil fuel interests, or unqualified to speak.

So the politics is already there. The only way to bring about change is to educate the general public, but global warming is complicated. It will lead to weird effects, like some places getting cooler (there is a good chance that the Irish Sea will start forming sea ice, some time in the next hundred years or so). We know that a few of the big storms we get in the next decade or two will be caused by global warming.

I was in London in June 2006, when the Londoners were screaming "heat wave!". I was having a beer in the John Snow pub (that's another story, but immediately understandable to those knowing a bit about anaesthetics or epidemiology or both) when I read that an insurance company had mounted an ice sculpture of the world, and it was within walking distance. The friendly barman helped me work out how to get to where it was supposed to be, but when I got there, it must have melted away.

So what was an insurance company doing, staging a stunt like that? Simple: they notice when things start to go pear-shaped. As early as the 1920s, insurance companies were wary of people who worked with asbestos — it took more than fifty years for the rest of us to wake up to the harm it was doing. When the insurance companies get scared, it's time for us to get scared.*

A US poll of 1,018 likely voters was released a bit later in 2006 (

The poll showed that not only were Americans more convinced that global warming is happening than they were two years before that, but they were also linking the then recent intense weather events like Hurricane Katrina, heat waves and droughts to global warming. People were making the connection between global warming and the more intense weather events they experience and hear about.

In short, there may be hope for us yet, though I suspect that a prolonged and calculated PR campaign over the past ten years may have pushed that back in the US, the UK and Australia. Of the sample, 74% were more convinced today that global warming is happening than they were two years earlier. Only one is five said they were less convinced global warming is occurring.

The numbers of people more convinced global warming is happening cut across all demographic segments including region of the country, age, religion, racial background, gender and income group.

Majorities of Democrats (87%), Independents (82%) and even Republicans (56%) said they were now somewhat or much more convinced that global warming is happening than they had been two years earlier.

When reviewed in total, this poll indicated that 10 years back, a growing majority of Americans, across all demographic categories, and political persuasions, recognized global warming as a threat that their nation must address.

We don't make the science right or wrong by voting on it, and politics and science don’t mix, but if people begin to get the message, if they start to tell the pollies that they are worried, maybe the pollies will start to take a few of those hard decisions.

The thing is: policy and politics do mix, if only because evil and corrupt people are using underhand political methods to confuse the general public.

The J-curve on which the polar bear is skewered reflects the graph of the inexorable rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the curve is made from a length of oil pipe. Art and politics go together very well.

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In the early 1970s, I taught boys about science at what was then Fort Street Boys' High School. In about 1972, I saw a boy, one afternoon, close the drawer in my lab that contained the asbestos mats that used to be placed under the Bunsen burners. A cloud of asbestos dust wafted up into the air, and I saw it because the late afternoon sun was slanting into the lab.  That afternoon, I took out all of the mats, wrapped and sealed them and put them in the garbage.

That is not the best way of disposing of asbestos, but I didn't know that then, and at least it got this dangerous material away from me and the boys.

At that time, my chain of command was though an idiot to an idiot. Wally Bray was unqualified to be head of any department, and had been kept, safely away from any science classes for 20 years, until he was appointed by a clerical error. Heads of science had to be on "List 2", and Wally's name wasn't there.

This blunder was covered up when a hatchetman named Colin (if you knew the scene, that much will suffice) came out and gave Wally a retrospective List 2, but it was a bad decision. He did things like having kids pipetting carbon tetrachloride and 4M potassium hydroxide and other things. (The sight of a boy's tongue, burnt by 4M KOH, is quite alarming!)

It was largely my role to stop his worst excesses, and he objected to it.  Most of the time, I used guerrilla tactics, so he only had suspicions. I admit nothing, but action was needed, and somebody did the needful. I have no idea who, but Wally was sure he knew. He complained about me to the principal, a wily primary school teacher who had become a high school principal by using loopholes.

I think Tom Cooke realised that I knew how he had got to his exalted position and did not respect him, but for whatever reason, Tom and Wally used to try to browbeat me on piddling charges, and I failed to cooperate, denying everything.  I kept showing them that running a barefoot rear-end-kicking contest against a hedgehog is a bad idea, but these two were slow learners.

One of the funniest items was that Wally insisted on taking the incubator/oven that I was using in classes so he could use it to raise fruit fly larvae. I had been oven-drying soil at 105ºC, so I had been using the 100 - 200ºC range setting on the back, so when he dialled up 37ºC, it was actually 137ºC, and he got a bunch of crunchy fruit fly. Well, of course that was all my fault...

No it wasn't.  It didn't occur to me to tell him about the range switch, but even if I had, he wouldn't have listened. Still, he complained, there was a hearing, I explained that Wally knew what I had been using the oven for, that it was his failure, and I warned them that any future hearings would need to be properly convened with a union representative and with a formal record.

That slowed them down a bit, but with the mats, Wally thought he had me.  He trumped up a charge of causing damage to the lab benches, and this time he had evidence because I freely admitted what I had done.  I was hauled in and ordered to replace the mats.  I can't, I said, they've gone.  You will face disciplinary charges, I was told. I grinned my nasty debater's grin.  I never started the politics, but I could play the game.

"Bring it on," I said. "But understand this: you know I will require a formal record of a formal hearing. And also understand this: I'll bring in the media, and you'll be shown up as complete idiots, ordering me to endanger the welfare of students. There's more than enough evidence out there that asbestos causes cancer, and I will bring expert witnesses. You bring your charges, and I'll bring you ridicule.  Oh, and I might accidentally let slip something about Wally's lack of a place on List 2..."

They caved in.  That was using politics in science.

I think those two disgraceful pieces of alleged humanity are dead now. If they are alive, now that everybody accepts that asbestos dust causes mesothelioma, I wonder if they ever suffer a quiver of shame for their pusillanimous stupidity. In all probability, by applying politics in a science context, I saved lives.

But back to my topic, did you know that we already knew the world was warming, way back in 1950? That will be the topic of my next post.

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