Generally Speaking

Once More with Feeling anniversary

It is now a year since my climate change meeting in Alton Assembly Rooms. That means another year has slipped by since the talk which I had given seven years before that, which I felt compelled to repeat because its message was still so true, so urgent, and because so little had been done.

An astonishing turnout
An astonishing turnout

The talk I booked the hall to give again a year ago, with no inkling of the amazing number of people who would come to hear it on that wet winter evening, was my opening keynote address to, of all unlikely events, the 2006 North European Travel Medicine Conference. And by a curious chance, the day on which I gave that address in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre happened to be the day on which our youngest grandchild was born.

I had been asked to give that address out of the blue simply because one of my regular columns in the medical press the year before, 2005, had been on the subject of climate change denial. The organiser of the scientific programme had read that article and must have realised the subject would be a suitably important opening for his conference. But I had certainly not written the column as an expert on climate change. Far from it. I wrote it, and I gave my address, from the point of view of a responsible, informed citizen whose background in medical science had taught him to tell the difference between ‘reliable knowledge’ and its opposite.

In this winter of floods, with the climate change denial industry itself in full spate, the cartoon which The New Generalist  commissioned all those years ago to illustrate my article seems astonishingly apt today:

Cartoon commissioned by the New Generalist to illustrate my 2005 Climate Change article
Cartoon commissioned by the New Generalist to illustrate my 2005 Climate Change article

One year on from Once More with Feeling, the most tangible outcome (apart from the gratifyingly-complete cessation of climate change denying letters in the Alton Herald) was to look at the kind of language being used when we try to decide which of the two stories about climate change we can trust. For there are  two stories and they can’t both be right!


The first sign we looked at last year was vitriol, and I gave quite enough sickening examples of that to show the difference between denialist abuse and trustworthy scientific discourse.


The second sign is certainty. Science is never certain, and this fact has been exploited and misinterpreted over many years by the deniers of a whole range of scientific concerns, from the link between smoking and disease, through the link between CFCs and the ozone hole, to our present concerns about global warming (this is detailed in Merchants of Doubt). But what science can tell us is when the available evidence has taken us far beyond the point at which it is absolutely necessary to take avoiding action. As I said a year ago, sensible drivers hit the brake before they hit the wall, especially when they’ve got a car full of children.

The new thing I would like to add in this update, which I am sending to my whole follow-up list because I have been so warmly encouraged to do so, goes rather along the same lines:

I suggest imagining that you ask James Delingpole, to take one of the high-profile deniers at random, although it could be Nigel Lawson, or Jeremy Clarkson, or Melanie Phillips, to tell us their level of certainty that they are right and that the scientists are wrong.

Are they, perhaps, absolutely certain that the warnings of, say, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change can be scornfully ignored? If they say that they are indeed absolutely certain, then they automatically disqualify themselves from serious discussion – they are talking faith, not science. By definition.

But if they admit that they do have some doubt, then imagine asking them to say what that level of doubt would have to be before they stopped expecting you to back their pollyanna bet on the future of the world. And if that sounds like a check-mate, that is exactly what it is. These people with their reckless message have long outstayed their welcome. It is high time to recognise the damage they are doing and finally face them down.

Today’s news includes the halting of the Australian Open tennis championship because of extreme temperatures, after a summer in that continent which broke all records by a margin. Another item in today’s paper is about a report, from BP of all people, saying that greenhouse gases are set to rise 29% by 2035 and that fracking isn’t going to help. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that emissions must peak by 2020 to give the world a chance to avoid a further two degrees of warming, beyond which the effects of climate change become catastrophic and irreversible.”  The climate changes which are affecting us all today and which are the subject of so much concern have resulted from less than one degree of warming so far. Do the math, as they say, if you dare.

When I wrote my article eight years ago it seemed to me inevitable that the world was waking up and that remedial action was about to be taken. If only. We cannot wait any longer. Ordinary people must create a climate of opinion in which it is not only possible for politicians to take the necessary actions, but impossible for them not to. As one fossil fuel company, BP, has apparently realised, this is one area where we really are ‘all in it together’.

That is why I make no apologies for this email. ‘Retirement’ is a funny thing, because I can’t help feeling that the meeting a year ago today, long after I retired from my wonderful life as a doctor, may have been the most important thing I have ever done.

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