What’s Up with the Discrepancy?

I recently read a Tweet by the World Resources Institute linking to an article by my local newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, titled, “A Humanitarian Emergency on a Global Scale“. This article regarding humans pushing the tipping points of planetary natural systems, including climate change, gave me an idea for an analogy.

This is not the first time I’ve read news of leading scientists making such dire claims. (i.e. 1, 2, 3) This is also not the first time that I shake my head thinking how a large section of our controlling political leaders will deny, or at best, delay actions on these warnings.

To me, as with most of those with any training  related to physical Earth systems, watching the recent political denial of these warnings has felt like stepping into a Looking Glass world of double speak where truth and fiction have been so contorted and inverted that it’s hard to know right from left, let alone good from bad.

Most people don’t spend their time studying climate, which is a complicated phenomenon. Why should they? Just like most people aren’t trained oncologists, who study cancer, another complicated phenomenon. However, for some reason, when our oncologist tells us we have cancer, we sit up and listen. We trust what they, as an expert on the subject tell us, and then we act accordingly. We change our life if need be. Quit work. Eat kale. Whatever it takes.

So, when thousands of climate scientists around the world tell us we have a dire climate change problem, that puts the future of the entire Earth at risk? Well then, in that case, we just go back to business as usual.

So, what’s up with the discrepancy?

To illustrate, here is a little story:

I wasn’t feeling very well a few months ago. I was getting internal pains and fever. I thought it was a temporary thing, a bad case of the flu. But it kept persisting, so I went to the doctor. She said she’d run some tests.

A week later she calls me and tells me the tests indicate I have cancer and they’d like to do some more tests. Those tests end up confirming the original results, and adding that my time on Earth as the functional person I have been may be severely limited.

Shaken up by this, I go to my boss to tell him the news. Imagine my shock when he tells me this:

“Cancer? What do you mean cancer? Well you and some doctors might believe in ‘cancer’, but let me tell you, they are a bunch of quacks who are just trying to take your money, fabricating stories of disease and dire predictions like crazy preachers on pulpits. And you? You’re acting like some kind of hypochondriac, feeding into their ridiculous claims.”

I plead my case. I cough up blood and he says it’s inconclusive and probably psychosomatic. I say I’ll show him the tests; they are based on repeatable concrete evidence by trained experts. He says he doubts whether they really know what they are talking about. After all, I look like I can go back to work to him.

Seeing that none of this is getting through to my boss, I say that there is a chance it could kill me, and I need time to be with my family and friends. He then just laughs at me and tells me that I’ve really gone off the deep end, and that I’d better go back to work… or else.

Ok, so I go and take my boss to court. It makes the news even. Politicians start to make statements because it turns out that other people’s bosses are denying their cancer too. And what does our local political leader say about the situation to the media?

“Cancer doesn’t really exist,” she says. “They can’t really prove it. They certainly don’t know how to cure it after soooo many years of research and expense. What a waste of time and tax payer’s dollars!

And, after all, people are dying of natural causes all the time. How can you say it’s caused by cancer? Maybe it’s something else that’s making people feel bad.

This so-called cancer, it’s also bad for the economy. It’s blown out of proportion, and we’ve decided that until we absolutely know what it is and how to cure it that it’s business as usual. People who think they have cancer should just go back to work.”

Ok ok. So I made that up. I do not have cancer. A crass example, not in the best of taste. Cancer is actually a real and very serious problem that millions around the world face. I have several relatives who have passed away from cancer, and it is a disease that disheartens and destroys lives. Yes, it is certainly real.

As real as the Earth going around the sun. As real as anthropogenic climate change. These are all measurable physical phenomena.

Climate change related causes have already been responsible for global mortality. The prognosis is also that climate change has the potential to affect billions, and our children, and our children’s children.

So what’s up with the discrepancy?

Both cancer and climate change are related to phenomena we don’t completely understand, and both have potentially dire results. One has to do with effects on an individual organism, the other has to do with effects on a planetary system.

Ok, I’ll admit, the scale of the latter may be harder to comprehend, and understand, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore warnings regarding its health any less seriously than to our own.

But we do. We take one way more seriously than we do the other. The difference is that we can literally feel it in our bones. We see our friends and relatives suffer directly from it. And so we tend to listen to the advice of the experts in their field about it.

The other? Well, it’s quite the opposite for the other. Well, maybe unless you live in Africa or the Maldives.

So, imagine for a minute, or a good few seconds, the kind of shock you would feel…

… if your boss and political leaders said something to you like the statements in the above cancer analogy. Well, this is somewhere on the scale that scientists who study climate change and earth systems science feel when years of their hard nosed research with concrete results they present on are categorically questioned, denied, and then followed up with disproportional cuts to research budgets. (Not to mention gag orders on federal scientists.)

But somehow, in North America this treatment of the problem of climate change is passed off as normal.

It’s about time we realized that the problem here isn’t with climate science and its prognosis. It’s with our leaders telling us the problem isn’t really there, then telling us to go back to work.

It’s with us.

Accepting the unacceptable, and just carrying on with business as usual.

Yeah, so forget the kale. Forget the radiation treatment.

If you deny it’s there, then it doesn’t exist.



About Maria Lavis
Exploring questions on how well (or not) humans and nature are getting along.

2 Responses to What’s Up with the Discrepancy?

  1. klem says:

    “So what’s up with the discrepancy?”

    You know, I hear this cancer/anthropogenic climate change analogy fairly regularly, and it just doesn’t wash. It’s not a good analogy.

    A cancer diagnosis is a very specific diagnosis, an oncologist will take tissue biopsies and demonstrate definitively that there are cancer cells growing rapidly in some part of your body. And through years of experience oncologists can predict the consequences of having these cells in your body over time. They may disagree with each other a bit but they don’t claim ‘it’s worse than previously thought’ every year like climate scientists do. Cancer is not a general diagnosis, it is specific and definitive and difficult to dispute. Its because oncologists are credible and are so good at the diagnosis that it is a terrifying event.

    And yes there are lots of cancer deniers out there who think you just need to eat G-free and do a bit of yoga to cure it.

    Anthropogenic Climate change is non-specific, it is not definitive, it is a general diagnosis. Many climatologists disagree with each other about the severity of the consequences over time, every year climate scientist arrive at new ‘its worse than previously thought’ predictions. A climatologist cannot look back at previous years and tell you what will happen in the future because anthropogenic climate change has never happened before. So they look at historic natural climate events and try to equate them to anthropogenic changes in climate. Climate science is too general, too easily disputed, and its because climate scientists are not good enough at the diagnosis that makes it a non-terrifying event.

  2. Maria Lavis says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on my post, Klem. Even though it was just to say my analogy is not good and make criticisms about climate science and scientists.

    You’ve got me that I’m not the first to make this analogy. However, I maintain that, sure, there are differences between a cancer diagnosis and climate change projections, but the analogy holds.

    It sounds like you have heard and agreed to the claims that the science of anthropogenic climate change as laid out by the IPCC isn’t ‘specific’ enough and ‘too easily disputed’. However, the overwhelming mass of evidence, and 97-98% agreement of actively publishing scientists in the field*, is pretty convincing that 1) the level of agreement among scientists is actually significantly very high, and 2) this is, at the very least not a situation to deny, rebuff and de-fund, as is what is happening across North America, in Canada right now in particular. Also, ongoing research that actually adds to the confidence levels of projections each year, leading to scientists strengthening their claims on the potential impacts of anthropogenic global warming (and then resulting in news articles that say things like “it’s worse than previously thought”) actually makes the overall climate change claims (as put forward by the IPCC) more, not less, concrete. Finally, that there is no clear precedent from paleoclimatology research–and related levels of uncertainty in the tipping points, feedback mechanisms, and degrees of impact that humans will collectively have on the global climate processes of this planet–to me is quite a bit more, not less, terrifying.

    Uncertainly, in certain contexts, can be more, not less scary. (And I’d argue that that applies to cancer too. It’s kind of hard to argue that if someone went to the doctor and was only told “you might have cancer” that it would be a ‘non-terrifying’ event.)

    Rather than my going on at length here, I looked it up, since your first criticism of my post is that I’m not the first to make this analogy. It was probably made best by Dr. Stephen Schneider, a remarkable scientist, who addressed how cancer is like climate change regarding tipping points, risk and uncertainty etc. far better than I could in a short comment. He would also know better than I since he was one of the world’s best climatologists who had a rare form of cancer himself, and he helped extend his own life by applying his climate change science knowledge to advising his oncologist on how to treat him. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2010. Of a heart attack.

    He has a lecture on the analogy here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyJjWapPGfQ

    If you don’t want to sit through the video lecture, he wrote a book about his experience with cancer (The Patient from Hell), and here is an article about him and his climate science informed perspective on cancer as well: http://asitoughttobe.com/2010/08/11/john-unger-zussman-7/
    Or, if you prefer, the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/20/science/earth/20schneider.html

    In his last interview before he passed away Schneider said it best about the scale and potential consequences of the climate change problem, “You can’t do controlled experiments on the future. What are we going to do, wait for it? Then apologize to posterity that we did nothing to slow it down?”

    *Reference: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/06/04/1003187107.abstract

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