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Saturday 5 December 2009

The Limits of Denial

The debate over man made climate change rumbles on, and with fresh intensity on the approach to the Copenhagen summit. The lobby denying that such change exists has drawn new strength from a recent hacking of emails from the University of East Anglia, although the interpretation of this correspondence is disputed. Moreover, if this University were the sole repository of climate change data, the idea that some of it may have been lost would be genuinely disturbing. But UEA is one of many places studying climate change – so it isn’t.

Nevertheless, the antis have dubbed the product from the hacking “Climategate”, while getting terribly sensitive to the charge of climate change denial. The D word, it is argued, makes them sound like holocaust deniers, while trying to re-categorise themselves as merely “sceptics”. This latter would be fine if they were in “show me” mode, but those who have decided that climate change is some kind of hoax, conspiracy, or cover for more taxation are not. They deny that man made climate change exists, hence the legitimate use of the D word.

The chorus of denial should surprise nobody. Many centuries ago, there were those who denied that the earth was other than flat. In the nineteenth Century, some argued that travelling at over thirty miles an hour would be fatal to humans; Dr Dionysius Lardner was particularly concerned at the effect of the first souls to travel by train through Mr Brunel’s tunnel at Box. Before Charles Darwin, the idea of evolution of species through natural selection would have been considered blasphemy, and in some resistant parts of the world still is.

And so it was with exercise. Nowadays we accept that regular exercise is good for you, but half a century ago this was revolutionary stuff. It was substantially due to pioneering work by Professor Jerry Morris, who has just died at the age of 99, that the link between exercise and a healthy heart was proven. Morris’ studies first covered London’s bus crews, noting that conductors were far less subject to sudden heart attacks. Then he looked at postal workers, seeing that those who delivered the post on foot or by bicycle were healthier than office workers.

After all his research, Morris got outsiders to try and destroy his thesis. They could not. Subsequently the research was published in 1953. This came hard on the heels of the publishing of evidence demonstrating the link between smoking and lung cancer in 1950 by Richard Doll. Both these publications were opposed by interest groups, and were not at fist taken seriously – which brings us back to man made climate change.

We now accept that exercise is good for you, and that smoking causes lung cancer. Hopefully the climate change evidence will also be accepted - before it’s too late.

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