Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Climate Skeptics: Would you cover your kids in Agent Orange?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-11-23

By the logic of climate-change skeptics, deniers, or action-delays (from now on, I’ll just use "deniers"), they would see no problem with dusting your kids with Agent Orange, nor would they think you negligent if you dusted their kids with the stuff.  If not Agent Orange, then at least blowing smoke in the faces of their kids isn’t something they should complain about.

If you really want to make the analogy watertight, simply find something that is now has the same level of proof/doubt as to carcinogenicity and teratogenicity as Agent Orange did prior to 1991, or second-hand smoke did until recently.  How much doubt?  Well, if we go by the proof demanded by the deniers for the need for rapid and strong climate change, even if every reputable medical journal in the world, and every expert say the compound is probably carcinogenic, any dissenting opinion, even if only from those on the payroll of chemical companies, would be enough to satisfy the deniers that more proof was needed.  Certainly there were numerous inquiries by governments that (conveniently) absolved themselves of any responsibilities for the continuing birth defects in Vietnam, and in families of Vietnam veterans, those inquiries constantly issuing a "case-not-proven" decision.

Besides, dioxins (a major part of Agent Orange) are still being churned out by large incinerators and other industrial processes, including paper recycling.  As a by-product of industrial processes, and with industry claims over the years that it is too expensive to rework all their processes or not burn waste, the analogy with CO2 is quite appropriate.

So, let’s just call such a chemical "Compound X", something we could doubtless find that the vast majority of toxicologists regard as a strong human carcinogen, but with a very small minority of deniers.

If a climate denier complained when you dusted their kids, their food, and their houses with "Compound X", what would you say?

  1. It is not proven to be a problem:
    Sure, there are some who say it is, but they are panic merchants, and there is enough scientific doubt to say that dusting your kids with the stuff isn’t wrong. 
  2. Even if it does prove to be a problem, it’s a long way down the track:
    Cancers (and birth defects generations hence) can take decades to show up after any exposures, and by that time, surely there will be better medical technologies and cancer treatments.  In the meantime, until the lumps start appearing, we’ll just keep throwing Compound X around.
  3. If lumps do start appearing, don’t do anything unless all doctors advocate exactly the same treatment:
    Even if every medical opinion you seek says that a lump is a problem, if 20% say surgery, 20% say chemo, 20% say radiation, 20% say surgery and radiation, and 20% say all three, well that means the experts are still not in agreement.  So, continue to do nothing.

Somehow, if the climate-change deniers had this sort of thing happening to their kids, I think they’d either admit that they are totally inconsistent in their risk-appraisal and mitigation approaches, or they’d get a sudden attack of the sensibles with respect to degrees of proof required, early remediation, prudence, etc, etc.

Even in the absence of evil people poisoning their kids, climate-change deniers probably demand prompt action with much less agreement of experts when it came to environmental risks to themselves or their kids.

So, let’s imagine some other scenarios where climate-change deniers can’t object if you give something to their kids:

  • A variation on amphetamine or ecstacy, perhaps not chemically related but hitting the same receptors, is discovered, and before the authorities make it illegal… give it to their kids.
  • Spray a range of insecticides and herbicides around a school playground, just beneath the open windows of classrooms while the kids are in there.
  • If you are babysitting kids between 4 and 8, give them a hefty dose of films rated MA because of explicit violence or sex, or teach them to play similarly-rated computer games – after all, those things aren’t illegal, and there is lots of debate over how much permanent damage, if any, it does to the kiddywinks, even if a few scaremongers think they twist the psyche of adults.

If any readers are climate-change deniers/skeptics/do-nothing-yetters, but have a very different attitude to what you expose the bodies and minds of kids to, the level of proof and agreement of experts required for you to consider something an unacceptable risk, then it would be very interesting to hear how it is possible to justify different rules for risk assessment.

But, to climate-change deniers (etc) out there… I’d hope your first comments relate to the following questions:

Before the recent law changes that prohibited smoking in cars with kids, what would you have thought of a family of two adults who had a toddler and a 10-year old in the back of a car, windows up, chain-smoking all the way between Melbourne and Sydney.  What if your babysitter, outside the house, blew smoke constantly in the face of your babies?  Would the babysitter be stupid, immoral, or criminally negligent?


13 Responses to “Climate Skeptics: Would you cover your kids in Agent Orange?”

  1. What’s your take on the Climate Research Unit emails?

  2. Dave Bath said

    Michael… I have no definitive take at the moment…

    According to Dave Britton, a press officer at the Met Office, the security breach occurred a couple of days ago. “We don’t know yet whether the data that was stolen is authentic, but a thorough investigation is underway,” he says. (New Scientist)

    The volume of the information is too large to “currently confirm that all of this material is genuine”, Dunford says, adding that the university will undertake an internal investigation and has already involved the police in the enquiry. (Nature)

    Now we DO know the hacking was criminal, falling foul of more laws than mere dicking with documents. There is a lot of data to validate, the source server is of course offline for forensic and prophylactic purposes, and police are investigating.

    If the published documents are unmodified, then it feeds into the general discussion and the weight of evidence. If the published documents were unrepresentative, then that feeds into the general discussion of how science is represented in the media.

    Even then, there seems to be some interesting context, with the debate about methodologies ongoing (and by a couple of authors, finding their own mistakes since).

    Academic bitchiness? Old news… whether warranted or not.

    The thing that is surprising is that given how stunning a coup it would be to publish a rock-solid showstopping peer-reviewed paper, that such a paper would probably have turned up (a bit like a video of a senior politician bonking a member of the opposition on in the chambers would be a coup for whoever published it).

    So… as it does seem to something where reliable data on accuracy and representativeness can come in a short time, I can wait. To my mind, it doesn’t alter the weight of opinion very much, if at all. I’ll go the same way as I would deciding on medical treatment and diagnoses… fully aware of how public minds are hacked by $$$ interests in THAT field by selective quoting.

  3. Fair enough. Last question – which do you reckon has a greater chance of being proven correct: the CRU emails as the genuine article or AGW as put forward by the CRU?

  4. Dave Bath said

    Michael: Actually – the bottom line on the CRU hack, and it’s very on topic to the post, is that the METHOD I use to determine my opinion, and the strength of that opinion, will not change.

    Mind you, I think that pH changes in the ocean (and blood) from increased concentrations of CO2 might be more threatening than weather changes in the long term, but then I’ve done much more biochem than geochem!

  5. Dave Bath said

    Whether anthropogenic or not, ppCO2 is increasing, and seems very much to pose a significant threat. As mentioned previously, even WITHOUT climate changes, the sensitivity of our physiology (and that of significant food sources in the ocean) seems significant to me (and orbiting sunshades won’t do a damn thing about that apart from further affecting food supply for the worse).

    Who cares whether a fire is caused by an arsonist, electrical equipment failure, or lightning? The response is the same, scramble the firetrucks and evacuate the area!

  6. John H. said

    Mind you, I think that pH changes in the ocean (and blood) from increased concentrations of CO2 might be more threatening than weather changes in the long term, but then I’ve done much more biochem than geochem!

    To give you one example I know of. It relates to intra cellular waste disposal by lysosomes, very critical for most cells and also a key marker in the onset of macular degeneration in AMD and Stargardts disease. The internal pH of lysosomes must be circa 4.5, raise to 5.0 and aggregates start to form inside the lysosome.

    In relation to oceans the most critical issue will be calcium dynamics. Two recent studies point to this: thinning shells and changing bone structure in some fish. Yes, I think the ocean acidity problem could well be the elephant in the room.

  7. Dave Bath said

    this published recently in Cell is another example of CO2-sensitive (actually pH-sensitive) physiology… extra CO2 in the “room” makes mice freeze in panic via a receptor in the amygdala. Knocking out the ACN1 gene removes the freezing response, restoring the gene using a virus vector returns things to normal.

    There’ll be lots of subtle things like this. It’d be pushing it, but it is possible that with pre-Industrial CO2 levels the number of people susceptible to “panic attacks” and other nervous disorders might be lower.

  8. John H. said

    Thanks Dave,

    I have noted a number of studies highlighting subtle associations between pathologies and pollution. Some are not so subtle. Last year an Aus study advised pregnant women to stay away from main roads because there was an association between exposure to exhausts and fetal development. Unless you spend some time reading that type of material it is hard to appreciate how even minute levels of pollutants can have long term consequences; particularly in relation to childhood or in utero exposure. One of the scarier pieces I read demonstrated how the nano-particles from diesel exhaust can travel along the olfactory axons, eventually reaching the even hippocampus(rat study of course!). These particles can and do generate inflammatory responses.

  9. Dave Bath said

    John@8 : Pollutants… old news.

    What I’m interested in seeing are things totally related to ppCO2 and/or pH.

    One thing I’ve mentioned before is the haemoglobin affinity for CO2/O2 (looking at the difference that requires foetal Hb to have a greater oxygen affinity, but if HbF persists outside the womb, thalassaemia is a bitch!)

    See "Carbon dioxide, blood pH and no time to evolve" (2008-08-09) for a hint of what I think are the sorts of things to worry about.

    In other words, the direct effect of the difference between pre-industrial CO2 levels (low all the way back until Homo sapiens emerged) and current (and future) CO2 may have a DIRECT effect on human physiology and disease patterns. I don’t know if any studies have been done on this.

  10. John H. said

    There are indirect studies addressing changes in CO2 concentration. Medline: “carbon dioxide” AND acidosis. Interesting idea Dave but I suspect that if CO2 levels rise by the amount necessary to induce physiological changes we’re pretty much stuffed anyway.

  11. opit said

    When you are talking about substances in the air we breathe I am blessed if I understand why your attention is not on fancy aromatics which are a result of new manufacturing processes and the like, a rich trove of new compounds : not a known killer with which we have nonetheless evolved.
    Nor am I any more content with your conflation of climate change and pollution : two completely different influences making your airtight comparison a perfect case of comparing apples and oranges ; not the airtightness I expect you wish.
    I can track threats to health which are underreported : something you might wonder about after I suddenly find Michael Sutcliffe’s view more credible
    And I’ll stop there since I don’t need to clog the spam filter. My index is at

  12. Dave Bath said

    Opit: said “When you are talking about substances in the air we breathe….”

    No. Read again. It’s about the logic of deciding probability of harm, by, as you noticed, completely different mechanisms. I could have been saying “would you drive with your kid in the front seat of a Ford Edsel without a seatbelt” but most of my readers are too young to get it, or know enough about Ralph Nader. (Also, I’ve never known anyone affected by an Edsel… have known Vietnam Vets who’ve paid the price.)

    As for the “aromatics” you mention… yep… but they don’t have to have aromatic rings to deserve proper toxicology, mutagenicity and teratogenicity studies given how ubiquitous they are… and you might also like to read on perfumeries.

    Oh, btw, it’s recently been recognized that the leading “skeptic” in our senate (Minchin) has form arguing a while back on senate committees along very similar lines of the “uncertainty” of damage caused by second-hand cigarette smoke. I suspect the reasons for his stance on both are exactly the same, and less to do with science than bank balances.

  13. opit said

    Back again. I was startled to find that I hadn’t pestered you further with odd observations.
    CO is poisonous. It’s the one that will permanently wreck hemoglobin. CO2 just displaces oxygen because it sinks to the bottom, being denser. That will deprive you of oxygen and kill you too – for entirely different reasons.
    And I thought I had emailed you my radical turnabout : starting Dec 4 at I had been prepped by Dr. John v. Kampen with Dr. Ian Plimer’s YouTube videos…and found these items elsewhere

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