Putting your money where your mouth is on climate change

Forget football - climate science is well worth a flutter, says Michael Brooks.

Did anyone waste watercooler time on the World Bank’s recent global warming warning? The one that said the planet will probably experience a 4° Celsius rise this century? Of course not. Neither did anyone use work time to talk over the UN Environment Programme report, released ahead of the current international climate negotiations in Qatar. It says the atmosphere now contains onefifth more carbon than in 2000, with no visible fall in emissions to come. Bad news, obviously. But we were busy discussing who might replace Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea.

A report published in August showed that our interest in climate change has declined over the past five years. Only one-third of us even like to read or think about it. But Climate Science, the Public and the News Media does offer one useful pointer. People prefer climate coverage that is simple, bold and to the point. Even academics and broadsheet readers said that they preferred tabloid coverage of climate issues, and it had more immediate impact on their opinions.

We have to get past the idea that the only way we can cover climate science is by using long, balanced, reasoned arguments. So, why not take a leaf out of football’s book? Football has no trouble getting people’s attention. When Di Matteo was given the boot from his position as Chelsea manager, conjectures about his replacement sent the internet into overdrive. You could offer your contribution in online polls, or you could place a bet on Harry Redknapp or Avram Grant to take over at Stamford Bridge.

Every day, swaths of newsprint are dedicated to opinionated discussions of football that cut across divides of class, income or occupation. Season ticketholders for major football teams include politicians, comedians, television presenters, mathematicians, carpenters, journalists, roofers, bankers – every section of society.

But it’s not the movement of a football into a goal that is so interesting. It’s the people who make it happen. It’s the managers and their tactics. It’s the players and their skills and fallibilities. It’s about trajectories of success and failure, predictions that are proved right or wrong. Climate science has all these. And we could even make it worth a flutter.

Some people are already betting on the climate. At intrade.com, for instance, you can bet the average global temperature for 2012 to be the warmest on record. You can bet on the global-temperature anomaly for this month being greater than 0.45°C, or on global average temperatures for 2012 being the warmest on record.

Model behaviour

At the moment, Intrade’s bets are largely taken up by people advocating different climate models: it’s a way of putting your money where your mouth is. But surely there is scope to develop this on a bigger scale, and with endorsement from people in the know. If a Nasa chief started buying shares in a certain prediction, if a geographer saw a climate solution worth investing in, if a forestry researcher bet on a new ecological trend spiralling out of control, that might be more interesting than hearing the raw facts. It might even be a stimulus that made people look up the facts for themselves.

Perhaps it’s horrible to encourage us to place bets on the climate catastrophe, but it might be the thing that finally gets our attention. And at least there’s publicly accessible information to base your decisions on; you stand to make some quick cash by looking up Nasa satellite data before you commit. It’s definitely better than losing your shirt trying to second-guess the whims of a surly Russian billionaire.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Place your bets! Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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