« Remaking the World | Main | What's the Opposite of Triage? »

Climate, Cancer and Changing Minds

Can smoking cause lung cancer? Yes. Is any given case of lung cancer caused by smoking? No way to know. The complexity of cause-and-effect is such that, while we can be certain of a strong connection between smoking and lung cancer, we can't be certain that this connection will be true of individual cases. There are plenty of people who smoke who never develop lung cancer; there are numerous cases of lung cancer in people who never smoked and never lived or worked with smokers. These examples don't undermine the scientific conclusions, only reinforce the difficulty of charting precise causal relationships in a complex environment.

The same can be said of the relationship between climate disruption and weather disasters such as strong hurricanes or the massive floods in Europe over the last week or so. Can global warming cause weather disasters? Yes. Is any given disaster caused by global warming? No way to know. This parallel between the smoking-cancer connection and the global warming-weather disaster connection is worth keeping in mind as we look for ways to communicate the dangers the planet faces to broad audiences.

It's not hard to find thoughtful observers lamenting the difficulty of getting people to understand what's happening to the climate when the cause-and-effect relationships are complex and slow-moving, and when scientists are so cautious. You'll find few if any reputable scientists who will say that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina last year. Carbon industry lobbyists and their dupes pounce on that scientific caution about a given example as a sign that the broader connection between global warming and weather disasters is uncertain.

But it wasn't too long ago that cigarette lobbyists and the psuedo-skeptic crowd made the same kinds of claims about smoking and cancer. For awhile, that worked, and it wasn't hard to find politicians and citizens willing to accept the industry's perspective. But as the public grew more comfortable with the idea of a complex, long-term result from current behavior, and the evidence grew for the big-picture smoking-cancer connection -- even while the cause-and-effect for a given example could be no more certain -- the culture (in the US) shifted, and the cigarette industry lobbyists stopped trying to undermine the science and started trying to hold off lawsuits.

The public response to global warming isn't quite at that point yet, but we're moving in that direction. The carbon industry voices trying to plant doubt about climate science are dying down, replaced by voices arguing, in effect, that global warming's not that big of a deal, can be adapted to more readily than stopped, and that we should, in effect, just lie back and enjoy it. They are still fighting any suggestion that weather disasters are linked to global warming, however, as they need to hold that line as long as possible. Once it falls -- once the public becomes willing to accept that global warming can cause weather disasters, even if any single disaster can't be definitively traced to atmospheric carbon overload -- the gates are open to lawsuits and economic ruin for the companies that enabled the environmental ruin.

The people at the forefront of the effort to build a public consensus around fighting global warming should study the history of the anti-smoking fight. Somehow, the anti-smoking movement managed to convince a broad majority of the American public that a complex problem, without certainty in individual cases, and with a cure still a long way off, needed to be stopped as rapidly and as aggressively as possible. What did the smoking crusaders do right, what did they do wrong, and what could we do better in the new media environment? How did they trigger the necessary cultural shift? Was there a catalytic moment, or was this an avalanche of pebbles, an overwhelming multitude of small, personal changes?

Bruce Sterling -- among many others -- has long compared the carbon industries to the smoking industry, in terms of how the public mood can change. One year, doctors are happy to advertise for your product; the next, you're reviled as a source of misery and decay. Oil companies aren't quite there yet, but it's not far off. The broad disgust leveled at the out-going ExxonMobil CEO's retirement package -- which begun before the recent run-up of gas prices -- is just one example of how the public mood is shifting to see these industries as criminal and dangerous. It may well be that the avalanche is already underway.


Excellent post, Jamais.

Some blather in response:


Well, blather or not, the Grist brought me here to read the whole of the article, which I very much appreciated.

And as I mentioned in my comments over there, this reminded me of another terrific analogy to what's happening now in relation to global warming...

Here's what I wrote at the Grist site:

This reminds me of another comparison I've seen within the last few weeks...
I read this in Dr. Jeff Master's Wunderblog a week or so ago... I found this to be a real help to me personally (a non-science layperson, who has been struggling with how to find my way through all that is being said about global warming - and there have been a lot of prominent dismissals of the issue lately by several prominent opinion pieces - George Will, etc. How am I, Jane Blow, supposed to counter such things?... Oh, and partly prompted by such concerns, within this past couple of weeks, I've now begun to work with some others - hooked up with a few folks who know science well - to do just that, by the way... wish us well...)


Within a larger essay responding to an opinion piece in the WSJ, Dr. Jeff Masters had this to say:

Flashback to 1974

On June 28, 1974, Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina, chemists at the University of California, Irvine, published the first scientific paper warning that human-generated chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could cause serious harm to Earth's protective ozone layer. They calculated that if CFC production continued to increase at the going rate of 10%/year until 1990, then remain steady, CFCs would cause a global 5 to 7 percent ozone loss by 1995 and 30-50% loss by 2050.

They warned that the loss of ozone would significantly increase the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet UV-B light reaching the surface, greatly increasing skin cancer and cataracts. The loss of stratospheric ozone could also significantly cool the stratosphere, potentially causing destructive climate change. Although no stratospheric ozone loss had been observed yet, CFCs should be banned, they said. At the time, the CFC industry was worth about $8 billion in the U.S., employed over 600,000 people directly, and 1.4 million people indirectly (Roan, 1989).

Critics and skeptics--primarily industry spokespeople and scientists paid by conservative think tanks--immediately attacked the theory. Despite the fact that Molina and Rowland's theory had wide support in the scientific community, these handful of skeptics, their voices greatly amplified by the public relations machines of powerful corporations and politicians sympathetic to them, succeeded in delaying imposition of controls on CFCs for over a decade. Scientists who advocated CFC controls were accused of being alarmists out to get research funding. One CFC industry magazine stated in 1975, "The whole area of research grants and the competition among scientists to get them must be considered a factor in the politics of ozone" (Roan, 1989).

DuPont, which made 1/4 of the world's CFCs, spent millions of dollars running full-page newspaper advertisements defending CFCs in 1975, claiming there was no proof that CFCs were harming the ozone layer. The chairman of DuPont commented that the ozone depletion theory was "a science fiction tale...a load of rubbish...utter nonsense." (Chemical Week, 16 July 1975). The aerosol industry also launched a PR blitz, issuing a press release stating that the ozone destruction by CFCs was a theory, and not fact. This press release, and many other 'news stories' favorable to industry, were generated by the aerosol industry and printed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, Business Week, and the London Observer (Blysky and Blysky, 1985). The symbol of Chicken Little claiming that "The sky is falling!" was used with great effect by the PR campaign, and appeared in various newspaper headlines.

The CFC industry companies hired the world's largest public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, who organized a month-long U.S. speaking tour in 1975 for noted British scientist Richard Scorer, a former editor of the International Journal of Air Pollution and author of several books on pollution. Scorer blasted Molina and Rowland, calling them "doomsayers", and remarking, "The only thing that has been accumulated so far is a number of theories."

Sound familiar?

In a 1984 interview in The New Yorker, Rowland concluded, "Nothing will be done about this problem until there is further evidence that a significant loss of ozone has occurred. Unfortunately, this means that if there is a disaster in the making in the stratosphere we are probably not going to avoid it." The very next year, all the "Chicken Little" scientists were proved right, when the Antarctic ozone hole was discovered. Human-generated CFCs were indeed destroying Earth's protective ozone layer. In fact, the ozone depletion was far worse than Molina and Roland had predicted. No one had imagined that ozone depletions like the 50% losses being observed by 1987 over Antarctica were possible so soon. Despite the continued opposition of many of the skeptics, the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals, was hurriedly approved in 1987 to address the threat. By 2003, it appeared that the ozone hole had stopped growing, thanks to the quick action. Molina and Rowland were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995. The citation from the Nobel committee credited them with helping to deliver the Earth from a potential environmental disaster..."

See full post here:


Here's to us all... LindaG

Incidentally... they did find a gene that keeps people from getting cancer when smoking. It's been kept under wraps pretty good.


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37