This blog is my opinion.
I am intentionally separating the science of climate change from a discussion of the politics and what we should do about it. Too often, people have conflated the two. I think Al Gore talking about climate change was one of the most damaging decisions ever (and he should never have got a Nobel Prize). Because, and particularly in the USA, people who disagreed with his suggested solutions to the problem, chose to argue with the science, rather than the politics. I think they didn’t understand the difference between different types of “truth”. (I wrote a lot about different types of truth in 2016 and the 2nd-5th posts on this blog are about that). I believe politicians and all of us should be grappling with (and that includes arguing about) what we are going to be doing about climate change. We should not be arguing about whether anthropogenic climate change is real or not.
I am trying to give a faithful and honest account of what I understand about climate change in my lessons. The science is not perfectly known and there are some very big unknowns – for example how positive cloud feedback is – but just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing. The science of climate change will advance and with that advance it will become ever more possible to understand the detail of what’s happening, but we already know the main point: anthropogenic climate change is putting human civilisation as we know it at risk. We either have to stop it (mitigation) or we have to adapt to it. Or perhaps a bit of both.
But we’ve only fully understood this for about 20 years. We’ve had hints before that, and the hints have got stronger and clearer over time, but the clear picture we have now is very recent. I think there are parallels with how we learnt about – and then reacted to – the dangers in tobacco which it’s useful to draw.
The first scientific study on the dangers of tobacco was in 1791. John Hill did a clinical study that showed that snuff users were more likely to get nose cancer. A debate about tobacco in the Lancet started in 1856. In 1889 Langley and Dickenson do the scientific studies that start to explain why nicotine is dangerous. They start modelling the processes by which nicotine effects the cells in our bodies. In 1912 the connection between smoking and lung cancer is first published. The first large-scale scientific analysis of that connection was in 1951. In 1954 the Readers Digest published an article about this and that article contributed to the largest drop in cigarette sales since the depression. In 1962 the British Royal College of Physicians published a report saying that the link was real and in 1964 the US Surgeon General did the same. Cigarette adverts were banned on tv in 1965. Cigarette smoking was banned on the London underground in 1984 – but not for health reasons, instead because a dropped cigarette may have contributed to a fire at Oxford Circus. A comprehensive review about the dangers of passive smoking came out in 1992. Over time more and more things are banned – no smoking zones are introduced in pubs, advertising has bigger warnings …. and eventually in 2003 tobacco advertising is banned in the UK and in 2007 smoking in workplaces is banned in England. Now, 12 years on, I think most of us consider this normal. [I got these dates from an interesting document online: http://ash.org.uk/information-and-resources/briefings/key-dates-in-the-history-of-anti-tobacco-campaigning/]
In 1964 the evidence was clear. We didn’t understand everything – we didn’t understand all the effects of passive smoking, we weren’t quite sure about how a mother smoking affected the fetus in her womb, we didn’t know the link between smoking and cervical cancer or heart disease… but we knew it was dangerous and we took our first steps towards changing it. We had to change people’s attitudes, we had to get people to change how they did things, we had to make smokers uncomfortable on long-haul flights. And people sued the tobacco firms and they fought back – and often won – court cases. It was a long journey that often didn’t go what we now, in hindsight, see as the right way.
I think in climate change we reached that 1964 moment with the publication of the first IPCC report in 1990. There was a lot that that report didn’t know – just like the 1964 tobacco and health reports didn’t know everything either. But equally, it was the first clear report that the problem was real.
If it follows a similar timescale, and I think human nature is such that that’s a good first approximation, that would put climate change in 2020 in the same place as tobacco smoking in 1994. That’s the year some individual organisations made voluntary changes – like Wetherspoons introducing smoke free areas in their pubs, and Cathay Pacific introducing smoke free long-haul flights. It’s also the year that the tobacco companies lost their court battle to stop the warnings being printed in big font on their cigarette packets. There were signs that the numbers of smokers were dropping and British Rail had banned smoking a year earlier – to 85% approval. But there were still 8 years to go before smoking was banned in workplaces – and it probably would have felt too much back then. (I remember being pleased to have a smoke free area in the pub and I didn’t question that the rest of the pub still allowed smoking, I just held my breath walking from the bar to the place I was sitting).
I think that if we’re doing the voluntary stuff now, and the legal stuff catches up with us in 5-10 years – we’ll probably end up ok. But we all need to be talking about this and saying that we want to live in a world where burning fossil fuels seems as old fashioned, unhealthy and odd as smoking in British pubs does today.