Adrift on denial

There is a danger of a permanent gap opening up between climate scientists and the general public.

Those who believe in climate change are losing the battle for public opinion. According to an Ipsos poll carried out in February on behalf of the advertising agency Euro RSCG, just 31 per cent of people believe that climate change is "definitely a reality", down from 44 per cent a year ago. Corrosive cynicism is increasing: 50 per cent of adults in the UK believe that "politicians make a fuss about climate change in order to distract us from other issues", while 47 per cent think that climate change is another "excuse to raise taxes".

Though it is unlikely that public confidence in climate science will slip much further, these latest figures testify to the damage done by the "Climategate" saga, with its associated (and, in my view, baseless) suggestions of fraud and impropriety. Mud sticks, and climate scientists are no longer seen as impartial.

The danger here is that a permanent gap may open up between the general public and the scientific community, distorting policy and damaging people's understanding of the world around them at a basic level. An analogy might be the debate around creationism in the US, where (according to a Pew Centre poll conducted in June 2009) just 32 per cent of adults believe in Darwinian evolution, compared to 87 per cent of scientists.

This may be a politically incorrect thing to say, but it is true nonetheless: climate-change denial, like belief in creationism, is largely (though not entirely) attributable to ignorance. Surveys show that the more a person knows about the subject of climate change, the more likely they are to agree that "human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures".

One study, published in January 2009 in the American Geophysical Union's journal Eos, noted that while less than half the general public agreed with the above point, an overwhelming majority of scientists did. Specifically, 82 per cent of climatologists agreed that climate change was real, while 97 per cent of actively publishing climatologists (those involved in generating the latest data) supported this conclusion.

I accept that a sceptic might cite this as evidence of group-think. But surely the chance of statistically trained experts (whose work involves constantly examining real-world climatological data, and each other's work) getting their entire discipline wrong is vanishingly unlikely.

Instead, I think that the conclusion of Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, summing up their Eos study, is far more relevant. "It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely non-existent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes," they write. "The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policymakers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists."

This is indeed a challenge, particularly in the face of a vociferous, politically motivated lobby dedicated to denying the realities of climate science. Hope, if there is hope, apparently resides with David Attenborough. According to a press release issued with the same Ipsos poll, Attenborough is "the most trusted voice in the debate on climate change among the UK population".

Sir David, please speak.

This article appears in this week's New Statesman.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear