Climate and Cancer

Ha ha, there you go, yet another provocative headline that won't really deliver.

From the comments elsewhere (thanks F):

At the rate newspapers keep pushing the boundaries of what nonsense
they will publish, then Einstein's theories will be up for grabs in a
few years. And there is worse than the reporting done on climate science: try
nutrition, or cancer.

which set me to wondering, hence this post. I would agree that the reporting on nutrition or health etc is utterly appalling; Ben Goldacre has made a good career noticing this. My immeadiate reaction to that is: but everyone *knows* it is so appalling that no-one of any sense takes it seriously: Oh yes, yet another study on red wine being good / bad for you, yawn. All this stuff just washes over you. Everyone knows in their heart that they should eat a varied diet, more veg, less butter, etc etc all the obvious things.

But I think climate reporting is at the same level. Everyone really knows the world is getting warmer and it is our fault. The endless slew of press stories to and fro makes little difference to this. Goverment policy continues onwards like a juggernaut and isn't touched by gossip. Witness the tiny impact the CRU email hacking had, in the end. It all seemed so exciting for a day or two. The obvious fact that people are reluctant to cut their CO2 consumption by not flying off on holiday is just the same as people still putting lots of butter on their toast and salt on their chips.

As the wise James Annan said "the internet is not a write-only medium you know" but I'm afraid I didn't bother glance around to see if anyone else has written this perceptive thought before. Or even if I have :-)

More like this

Von S has an excellent article on adaption and mitigation (it isn't excellent because it says anything new or interesting - indeed, I'd regard it as the bleedin' obvious - but just as a fairly sane and readable restatement of the obvious). Plus this allows me to "reach out" as I believe the phrase…
Meh; not to spoil the tension but it is, as you've already guessed, just another dull clone of wiki a-la Conservapedia. I found it via Wired via fb; you certainly won't find it via people referring to it2. Other than me; sorry about that. This one is called "Infogalactic" which seems to hint that…
No, not arbcomm, though they seem to be fairly wacky. This summer has been very disconnected, but I'm finally back, so expect more unbridled tat. I was going to take a peek at the sea ice situation, on the off-chance that no-one else had, but googled it first and ended up with Greenpeace's sea ice…
If you're at all familiar with Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog and Guardian column, you'll have some idea of what his talk was about - debunking nutritionists, the multi-billion dollar industry nutritional supplement industry they have built, and the overblown claims about the benefits of various…

> lead

Focusing on gasoline (tetraethyl lead) is a myopic view of the problem, promoted by the Lead Industries Association. They are still quite actively involved in fighting proposed regulations aimed at reducing body burdens of lead. It comes from many industrial uses.…

--- excerpt follows ----
Here we analyze the role and influence of the lead industry in shaping popular and professional opinion about lead and lead paint products. Specifically, we discuss how the Lead Industries Association (LIA, the trade group representing lead pigment manufacturers) and its member companies sought to assuage growing public and professional concerns about the dangers to children of lead-based paint. Often employing the image of children themselves, the LIA and its members engaged in aggressive marketing and advertising campaigns to persuade the public of their product's appropriateness for indoor use.

While some readers might put the onus on the public health community for not doing more to stop the use of lead-based paint in homes, schools, hospitals, and other interior spaces where children were exposed, we argue that primary responsibility lies elsewhere. The continuing use of lead paint into and after the 1950s cannot be understood without an appreciation of the enormous resources the lead industry devoted to allaying public health concerns from the 1920s through the early 1950s. Whatever responsibility the public health community had for this tragedy pales in comparison with the power and determination of the industry in perpetuating the use of lead-based paint. The lead industry, as a sponsor of research and as a clearinghouse or information about lead was positioned to be in the forefront of efforts to prevent lead exposure in children. Instead, the industry placed its own economic interests ahead of the welfare of the nation's children.
---- end excerpt ---…

> high sulfur vs. low sulfur coal and hydrocarbon fuel,
> with sulfur being an undesirable additive.

Nope, sulfur is not an additive, it is intrinsic to fossil fuel, both petroleum and coal; the amount varies along with other constituents; "coal" is an umbrella term and there are many different names for the types.

"... increasing coal quality from lignite through bituminous coal to anthracite ...." doi:10.1016/0040-6031(95)02727-0

For petroleum, sulfur is the difference between 'sweet' and 'sour' crude oil.

Want a better example? Try phenol. Popular stuff, high volume product. It would be a nasty waste material if it didn't turn out to be easy to react it to make longterm permanent stable molecules like epoxy resins and polycarbonate, for example.

Longterm stable molecules are wonderful things.…

But hey, there's good news! Don't assume, just because any single industrial chemical is a reproductive toxin, that all of them together are dangerous. You just need the right mix and their effects cancel out.
Isn't that fortuitous?

I believe I've seen Dano write it quite a few times - but as it's in the comments section, and often in reply to a septic, it's probably easily missed.

Oh, and BG has commented on the climate septics too, so has probably made an implicit connection at some point. So your linkage has some backing from that side.

Hmm... would you say you think that is true for US also? And another thing, the pressure on the politicians must bee quite high before the do what is needed IMHO... it is not enough to just know what might possibly happen.

I've drawn similar comparisons on various comments threads & forums from time to time (and often gotten very short shrift from contrarians). At times the parallels are quite striking, from the dubious idea of 'balance' among some sections of the msm to the fact that much of the dodgy science promulgated is published in journals that attempt a veneer of respectability which can fool the layman but in reality have a review system that in 'peer' in name only (e.g.… )

On the subject of Goldacre I do like to draw attention to this chapter from his book: especially the following extract:

"Brink stumbled on the âAIDS dissidentâ material in the mid-1990s, and after much surfing and reading, became convinced that it must be right. In 1999 he wrote an article about AZT in a Johannesburg newspaper titled âa medicine from hellâ. This led to a public exchange with a leading virologist. Brink contacted Mbeki, sending him copies of the debate, and was welcomed as an expert. This is a chilling testament to the danger of elevating cranks by engaging with them."

Now imagine if your health depended on how everyone in your village ate. How much incentive would you have to not order those chips, if your friend across the table was just going to eat them anyway.

[Nice. Thank you :-) -W]

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

Excellent point by Nicolas. If you and your closest buddies ate farm more chips than most everyone else in the village while the health effects are distributed village-wide, you would have every psychological reason to question the reality of those health effects. And the chip makers and their supporters would provide you with a ready supply of dodgy but superficially-convincing arguments.

I'm confused. Isn't the peer group for writers of poor science groups of other other writers of poor science. Luckily, jounals exist to cater to these groups.

By John McManus (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink


Since its my analogy I'll carry it further. Now imagine that you realize that eating so many chips is bad for everyone, so you are considering having your family cut back even though you really like them. But some of the other families now have bigger incomes, so they are rapidly increasing how many chips they are eating, making your cutbacks pointless unless they cut it out.

To really stretch a point imagine that everyone in the village makes an agreement on how many chips they are allowed to eat. But because some families haven't eaten as many chips over the years it is decided that they can still eat as many as they like. Then the "village" counts compliance by seeing who is picking up the chips at the counter. So the solution is obvious. Pay these other families to pick your chips up, and problem solved. Maybe you don't start off with that idea, but when all the other chip eating families start doing it, the rest of your family gets so mad, that you have to go along.

This is all really just first year economics. And it is inevitable.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

Ah the dismal science. Of course the village could just take the collective decision (council of elders?) to ban chips, because people don't actually need them. Which is where the analogy falls down.

In areas of Australia, some aboriginal settlement have taken the decision to ban alcohol, because it effects everyone in the community whether they get drunk or not (violence etc.). Of course people smuggle liquor in, but the apparent social changes due to the ban in such places is marked, they say.

So what's the solution, ban all carbon? over to Kent Brockman...

By Alan Woods (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

I fear James Annan is very close to be completely wrong.

He assumes that bloggers can read.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

I actually wrote "the web isn't a write-only medium you know" and was aiming at our esteemed host, so the assumption that he would be able to read may have been a little optimistic but was not wholly unreasonable :-)


Yes assuming there was a village government such as a council of elders. But in the case we are obviously discussing there is no such thing.


To paraphrase the famous movie line "who is we?"

(In that case Clint Eastwood answers "Smith Wesson and Me", which I guess is always an option)

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

There is a health issue where individual actions affect the community, and that's vaccination whereby herd immunity gets affected if fewer people are vaccinated - this especially affects those below vaccination age.

Alan, the analogy is apt. It's your garden-variety tragedy of the commons. The basic point being, the incentives of individual people or nations are in the direction of making things worse.

Given that, you can then see how hard it is for the village councils to agree on anything.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 15 Jan 2010 #permalink

Nicholas, if you had followed James' advice and read before posting Eli Rabett's Simple Plan for Saving the World, you would realize that the tax only has to be implemented by the First World Countries, but include a carbon added tax on imports at the point of entry.

That brings China, India and Southeast Asia along willy-nilly because without improving their carbon efficiency their exports get priced out of the market. At this point Africa (one can argue maybe about S. Africa) and the Stans, etc are irrelevant to carbon loading.

It's a good thing we're still not using lead in gasoline. I can only imagine the "lead sceptic" sites that would be clogging the 'tubes at this moment with claims that lead is a natural element, da da da ...

The weakness in the "tragedy of the commons" model as described here is that it contains the flaw embedded in Zeno's Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. An aggressive, unilateral effort to curb CO2 by the US and EU, regardless of China and India, would have an enormous effect in CO2 emissions. It would also set the template and give the US/EU more bargaining power w/China and India. In fact, it's the only solution that moves the process forward because it moves the technological standards forward, sort of like ISO 9000, and these become the de facto status quo. Just look at the status quo of water quality in U.S. rivers and harbors in 1975 compared to today. The track record is there. It's trying to do it all at once at a global level that makes it sound harder than it is.


The health impact of lead gasoline became known, felt. So what's the health impact of climate change to you, right now, not 20 years from today?

In my own related post, I touch on this (and initially misread William's dietary analogy).

But in a similar vein, let me pose a question.
I'm looking for examples where we humans recognized a gathering threat to our existence--we recognized that the worst impacts wouldn't hit for decades yet we still responded proactively. (One could argue that this is starting to happen now, but not nearly fast enough.)

But let's go with the conventional wisdom that our collective response is not commensurate to the climate threat. Is anybody on this thread being measurably, adversely impacted by climate change today?

I submit that until climate change is impacting people's health and well-being, like leaded gasoline, smoking, etc, it won't rise to the level of a public health threat, and thus won't gain critical mass.

To return to William's analogy, climate change has to go from buttery toast and salted chips to leaded gasoline.


You must be getting up there man. We've gone around on your non starter tax before. There is no way to measure the carbon input in an import, and therefore no way to implement you tax. Nice try though.

You can't estimate it either, because China will say, and maybe it will even be true, that the car they are shipping us comes from 100% clean energy sources like hydroelectric. Then what?

By Nicolas Nierenberbg (not verified) on 16 Jan 2010 #permalink

I submit that until climate change is impacting people's health and well-being, like leaded gasoline, smoking, etc, it won't rise to the level of a public health threat, and thus won't gain critical mass. -- kkloor.

Fair enough. As I'm old enough to remember when leaded gasoline was sold, and remember well the legally mandated transition to unleaded gasoline, the evidence for taking lead out of gasoline was all epidemiological and clinical. Nobody was dying or falling over in a coma from putting leaded gasoline in their car. The effects of leaded gasoline is not acute and episodic (unless you drink it), but is cumulative, subtle, broad-based and population wide. That's why I chose it as a proxy for CO2 in this discussion. It's not the best fit, but it is not bad. Up until lead was removed from gasoline, it was SOP to add it to all gasoline because of the performance enhancement it provided. Lead in gasoline was considered as providing a societal good with no acute, easily observable detriments. I offer the analogy in the way of saying that if "we" in the 1970s quickly eliminated this potent toxin from a vital and ubiquitous material (gasoline), this transition offers the hope that addressing CO2 might not be as daunting a task as it sometimes seems, so long as we don't let what we know about AGW get us so shaking in our boots that we start thinking if we don't solve it all at once we cannot solve it.

Obv., the diff. w/lead and CO2 is that lead was purposefully added to gasoline, whereas CO2 is intrinsic to hydrocarbon combustion. During the long fight in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s to stop acid rain, the issue was high sulfur vs. low sulfur coal and hydrocarbon fuel, with sulfur being an undesirable additive. This admittedly makes CO2 as a pollutant a different animal than lead or sulfur. However, there is general consensus among all people (except denialists) that CO2 can and is now acting as a pollutant. Putting it into that category, as something akin to lead or sulfur of CFCs, is a big part of the framing battle, which is why the recent US EPA designation of CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act is a major step. Defining the problem is often a major portion of solving it.

Dr Connolley I agree with you.

But juggernauts do juggernaut and it's pretty good that when the causa is good that they do jugger.

The French are currently figuring out a way to get the whole of Europe on carbon taxes. It wont be long.


Seems to me based on the recent court ruling they couldn't even get themselves on carbon taxes.

BTW, I wrote about the whole topic of carbon taxes about a year ago.

By NicolasNierenberg (not verified) on 16 Jan 2010 #permalink

Mr Nierenberg;

Your point on carbon taxes is well taken, there is no way to absolutely know the carbon content of any good being imported, therefore the idea of taxing it is asinine.

But you got me thinking ...

As you're no doubt aware, most tax systems tax businesses on income calculated post depreciation - in essence any accounting depreciation on an asset gives a little tax credit to the business. Now the depreciation is based (like the proposed carbon import duty) on *estimates* of the future life of the asset, just like a carbon tax would be based on *estimates* of the carbon content. Not the real thing - just as with a carbon tax "there is no way of knowing". An *estimate*! And we know how utterly stupid using *estimates* are for anything as important as taxation - while you have glossed over this point in your blog post, I read it clearly between the lines. Estimates - what sheer folly! An *estimate* might be wrong sometimes! But we use it for depreciation - it's based on the *estimated* future life of a good! And here's no way of knowing absolutely what the future life of the asset is - it's in the future after all. Just like with a carbon tax - based on the *estimated* carbon output of the good.

And as you know in some jurisdictions, there are "depreciation tables", which are thought up by *teams of bureaucrats*, estimating the useful life of various goods. And it involves teams of government bureaucrats. Hordes of the buggers! Running around, being bureaucratic, estimating things! And as you so eloquently argue with respect to carbon taxes, a taxation system based on estimates made by teams of bureaucrats is self-evidently broken by design.

Just as with carbon taxes where exceptional items built in a low-carbon way present a problem, who's to say that a manufacturer hasn't built an exceptionally shoddy good that depreciates twice as fast? In some jurisdictions, businesses which can formally justify the fast depreciation/low working life can claim bigger tax credits! What nonsense this is! Just as it is clearly impossible for a business to construct a formal audit trail which shows that an item has been constructed in a low-emissions way, it is absolutely impossible for a business to justify that a particular good has half the working life of other goods in its class!

So by analogy to your excellent argument on carbon taxes, this whole "depreciation" thing is an obvious artificial furphy, a beat up, and should be done away with entirely.

It it truly bizarre that every tax system in the world manages to continue on with this "deprecation" based tax system. Just as with carbon taxes, "depreciation" cannot work.

Reality is clearly flawed.


I'm afraid I can't tell if you are being ironic.

Assuming for the moment you are being ironic, all you have to do to understand how unworkable this is, is to imagine using it as our internal method for controlling carbon input. Rather than simply taxing carbon, or capping it, we instead try to calculate how much carbon is in every good and service, and charge the end user a fee based on this estimate. It would quickly break down in a morass of government bureaucracy, and political influence. Even worse would be trying to make these estimates withing an opaque foreign economy.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 17 Jan 2010 #permalink

Hang on a minute. Why tax manufactured objects? Why not just tax every CO2 production at point of emission or production? With cars and diesel generators and such we can do that the same way we do now, at the petrol pump. With Multi-gigawatt coal fired power stations we measure CO2 output and then add a little to the cost. Hey presto, you still get price signals (coal power expensive, petrol expensive, and so on) which can then feed forwards into the manufacturing process. Entertainingly this would put the Lochaber Aluminium smelter in Scotland ahead of the game, because back in the 20's they dug a hydroelectric scheme which powers the smelters.

> Why not just tax every CO2 production at
> point of emission or production?

1) The point is to remove the problem, not add multiple
transaction costs and profits, each of which supports
another layer of accountants and tax planners.

2) People lie like rugs. Corporations lie like sedimentary strata.

3) "... the conventional distinction drawn between tax planning and tax avoidance ... is part of a "sliding scale of legitimacy", in which ever more ingenious and complex methods are used to get around the rules and shelter corporate profits ..."…

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 17 Jan 2010 #permalink

guthrie and Hank,

For goodness sakes, how are you going to get China and India to implement that tax? That's the whole point of the last few posts. And if you read the post I linked to you will see why it is unlikely that the developed countries will implement enough of a tax to matter, although they will likely try something.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 17 Jan 2010 #permalink

> tax
Eli's method is the only one that I can imagine working.
China's politboro or whatever they're called are, I think, all engineers by training. This is either hopeful or not.

I look at the cadmium used as a replacement for lead in toys (internally as well as for export), the melamine to fake protein tests in milk, the intentional production of HCFC refrigerants to be able to take money for destroying some of them, and the fairly large number of people suggesting the whole Chinese boom is a Ponzi scheme, I dunno. They may be far too much like us.

Fermi Paradox, you know. The unusual, perhaps unique outcome would be for intelligent life to persist for more than a few centuries after industrialization, eh?

> sulfur
Just an aside (a longer reply apparently failed to make the cut); sulfur isn't an additive to fossil fuel, it's there in varying amounts (not so much in "sweet crude" or "anthracite coal" -- the names basically describe how much sulfur and other crap is in there along with the carbon and hydrocarbons).

> lead
Look up the Lead Industries Association. They'd love you to believe the main source of lead in the environment is from gasoline rather than industrial and domestic products.

Hell, look up triacetyl and popcorn, or industrial uses of BPA or other persistent chemicals you can name.

Fermi Paradox, you know. It appears the unique outcome would be for intelligent life to persist for more than a few centuries after industrialization, eh?

Some of the science really worries the economists. Imagine how someone deeply rooted in freshwater economics thinks of this research, for example.

---- excerpt ---

The âDark Triadâ of Personality

Including traits such as selfishness, impulsiveness, lack of empathy and general disregard for others, the malevolent traits associated with The Dark Triad (i.e.
Machiavellianism, Psychopathy and Narcissism) seem to reflect traits that would render someone a candidate for avoidance. As separate psychological traits The Dark Triad have been well studied with reliable measures (Raskin & Terry, 1988; Wrightsman, 1991; Zagon & Jackson, 1994), and as a triumvirate their interaction with one another and other personality traits has been well documented (Paulhus & Williams, 2002; Jakobwitz & Egan, 2006). The Dark Triad share a number of traits in common, specifically: callousness, egocentricity, little guilt or shame, and a willingness to manipulate others. More generally, they can be characterised as emphasising short-term success over long-term cooperation.
---- end excerpt ----

Some people, not Eli, he hastens to add, might think that Nicholas Nierenberg was not following the links, where, were he not dyslexic, he might have read a third paragraph. Others, might think that Nick was being slightly dishonest, not Eli, he hastens to add,

"Imports from countries that do not have an EAL would have the full EAL imposed at the time of import. The base rate would be generic EALs based on worst previous practices in the countries that do have EALs, which would be reduced on presenting proof that the actual emissions were lower."

You did read the linked article, didn't you Nick? If not RTFL

As it happens Nicolas I was being ironic (the "flawed reality" line should give it away in spades).

What material problem does a carbon tax have that taxing income net of depreciation doesn't have?

Yes, net-of-depreciation income tax involves lots of bureaucracy.

It involves lobbying and peddling political influence. Accountancy firms and companies lobby hard to get particular items given particular accounting treatments.

Yet net-of-depreciation taxation *works*. We know this because we observe it going on around us all the time.

The number of those signing on to Eli Rabett's Simple Plan doubles at least, making an important point

The Chinese, in particular, would protest such an action vociferously. Let them. China is not a developing nation; it is an authoritarian, industrialized, mercantile behemoth that is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is time for the world to stop allowing China to pretend otherwise. If China wants to sell its carbon-tax-free products to developing nations in Africa, Asia, and South America, fine.


Gee did you read all of my link? The generic tax is what I referred to as a plain Tariff. (This by the way is the problem with your proposal PSC.) In this case you are simply using trade as a weapon to try to get another country to implement your policy. The consequences of tariffs as a weapon of policy have been fairly dire.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 18 Jan 2010 #permalink

Hank, by saying sulfur is an "additive" to coal I meant in the geologic sense, mostly in the form of iron pyrite and pyrrhotite due to sedimentation in an anoxic environment. There's a cool bedrock formation just up the river from me in Maine that is just wreaking of sulfur when you crack the rock. It's an Ordovician metamorphosed and intensely folded clam flat.

Eli, and others who wish to "put a price" on carbon to avert disastrous climate change, should think outside their own box. Ask yourself how's it going so far. Popular acceptance in climate catastrophe is decreasing. The IPCC is in shambles. The chances that any major emitting nation will adopt any of the tax or cap programs you desire are slim. Frustrating? Certainly.

Of course, if you forgot about climate and only cared about the most rapid way to replace or eliminate the need for carbon fuels, you might come up with solutions that don't require unattainable government actions.


If you point is that it is worth a trade war, a depression, and then potentially a shooting war to stop climate change, then I accept that as your viewpoint. Those of the historic consequences of the policies that you are advocating, and also the reason why no serious person is proposing them.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 19 Jan 2010 #permalink

As Rudy Baum said, China is not a developing nation; it is an authoritarian, industrialized, mercantile behemoth

Now true Europe is in a better position to start this than Japan and the US (owing to our own refusal to limit consumption and the low tax mentality of many).

[Redacted - WMC]


You're confused or I've been unclear. I'm for as quickly as possible replacing or eliminating the need for carbon fuels. I think the technologies necessary to accomplish this are already available or will be in the near future. I think that there are politically possible policies that could help, but effective solutions are more likely if they are bottom up rather than top down. How you equate that with oil company PR is beyond me.

Paul, these are what bothered me in your comment:

> Popular acceptance in climate catastrophe is
> decreasing.

"climate catastrophe" is a phrase from the PR talking points; the notion is a strawman set up to knock down. The PR effort in the US has had some effect on US polling; not so much globally.

> The IPCC is in shambles.

Opinion. Seems to be working reasonably well to me, for an unprecedented response to an unexpected global problem.


If the term climate catastrophe comes from PR talking points, then Hansen, Gore, Romm, Grist and much of the climate blogosphere must all be in the clutches of the evil conspiracy.


Now I have no idea what you are talking about anymore, and it's Nico if you want to be familiar. Bad idea to call someone by a nickname if you don't know them.

[Hmm, how about we call this thread closed? In fact I think I'll enforce that. There have been some useful exchanges here and some of it I may reference; but I think we've now said all that needs to be said -W]

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 19 Jan 2010 #permalink