Sunday, May 15, 2005

In My Humble Opinion
(c) 1997-2005 Chandra K. Clarke

Hot But Not Bothered

People tell me things.

Sometimes I think it's because I must have been born with a "you can
trust me" aura. Maybe I look empathetic. Whatever the reason, the upshot
is that strangers have always felt comfortable talking to me, sharing
opinions or intimate details about their lives. Usually within about a
minute of meeting me. This means that 1) I never had the "embarrassed"
phase as a teenager. I'd heard it all by age nine. 2) Every time I
travel it's an exercise in sociological research.

Take the gruff fellow I met at the gas station yesterday. He was
filling up his quad cab pickup, and very incensed over the cost. Bent my ear
for fifteen minutes. "We're three months into that Kyoto thing," he
huffed, "and I don't feel any cooler, how about you?"

That, for me, neatly summed up how scientists and environmentalists
have blown the global warming debate.

The message for the past 20 odd years, you see, has been that we need
to reduce pollution because it's one of the chief causes of global
warming. This message has failed for the following reasons:

The Scientific Method - Scientists fight amongst themselves, in public,
over details. This problem isn't helped by the fact that this week's
science reporter was last week's lifestyles editor. Consider the
following scientific discovery headline cycle:

* Researchers suggest guar gum may possibly improve blood circulation
if ingested on Sundays
* Studies link guar gum to improved blood circulation
* Better blood with guar?
* Chewing gum: Does it make you live longer?
* Major chewing gum manufacturers investigating guar, debating new
product lines
* Cola bottlers announce plans for guar supplements in your favourite
* Nation gone guar crazy!
* Scientist at another institute says original guar study flawed;
author forgot to carry the one
* launched
* Original guar study author claims critic's mother wore army boots.
Did not forget to carry one
* Guar industry analysts worried
* Guar critic says did too, did too forget to carry the one

* Another new study: Guar linked to heart disease?
* folds, 3500 IT employees now seeking work in India
* Year in review - Remember guar?

Vested Interests -- Advocates of global warming are researchers,
volunteers, and environmentalists - you know, people who are happy to have
enough spare change to be able to afford a fair-trade coffee sometimes.
Critics of global warming research tend to be car makers, oil companies,
and manufacturers - you know, people who are happy to have enough spare
change to be able to afford a coffee producing country now and then.

Whodunit - Even if we were able to get everyone to agree that global
warming is happening, it's difficult to say if human activity is the
cause. It could be a natural Earth cycle; it could be bored children on
planet Neefnoof aiming a really large magnifying glass at us. Okay,
probably it isn't that, but you get the idea.

Whither the weather? - The average non-scientific Joe on the street has
difficulty believing long term predictions about climate, when we still
can't reliably predict if it will rain in Philadelphia next Thursday.

So what *should* the message have been? Air quality.

It's personal: We all breathe. It's scientific: We've got instruments
that can tell us exactly what we're breathing in. It's immediate and
health related: What was that about asthma rates again? It's tangible:
Even guys in pickup trucks know when they can see, smell, and practically
chew the smog.

Plus it's really, really tough to spin the benefits of smog: "Just look
at that brown sky! Doesn't it just make you want to... to... oh, never

One last ponderable: In most of North America, it's now socially
unacceptable to light up a cigarette. But it's still okay to fire up a smoke

I suppose I should be careful. Without these kinds of strange
contrasts, I wouldn't have any material for a column. And then I'd have to...

Work for a living. Forget everything I just said! No, really...