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.