Of climate, slavery and tobacco

What, you might well ask, could climate change, slavery and tobacco possibly have in common? Quite a bit, it appears. The article below, courtesy of The Daily Climate, reports on a new study that compares current attitudes on climate change to the slow transformation of societal views on smoking bans and the abolition of slavery.

Knowing something scientifically is generally fairly straightforward: establish the strongest set of probabilities supported by the preponderance of evidence, then refine, refine and refine some more. Translating that knowledge into shared cultural beliefs is, it turns out, an altogether more subtle and elusive process.

This raises some interesting points, including the intriguing notion that “society fails to define or acknowledge a problem until it has the beginnings of a solution”. The upside of this insight is that, once feasible, large-scale solutions begin to emerge, public opinion can ‘flip’ quite dramatically.

But, as regularly reported here and elsewhere, the massive investment by vested interests in the carbon intensive status quo, and their bloody-minded determination to buy, bully and befuddle public and political opinion in favour of inaction means this transformation is indeed likely to be “sloppy, disruptive and prolonged”.

Maybe what we have here isn’t just a failure to communicate.

Addressing climate change requires a shift in cultural attitudes about greenhouse gas emissions on a scale similar to the rise of abolitionism in the 19th century, according to a new study.

The conversation over climate disruption, in other words, must morph from a collection of scientific or moral facts to a set of established social facts, said University of Michigan researcher Andy Hoffman, professor of sustainable enterprise at the Ross School of Business.

Hoffman’s analysis, published in the journal Organizational Dynamics, compares current cultural norms on climate science to historical societal views on smoking and slavery.

“At core, this is a cultural question,” Hoffman said from Oxford University, where he is on sabbatical. The change in attitudes about smoking in the 20th century is similar. “The issue was not just whether cigarettes cause cancer. It was whether people believed it. The second process is wholly different from the first.”

For years, Hoffman noted, researchers raised the alarm over data linking smoking to lung cancer, only to see the public ignore it. Gradually awareness shifted, and now the public widely accepts the fact that smoking and second-hand smoke causes cancer, with bans on public smoking increasing and smoking rates and deaths on decline.

“They have become ‘social facts,’ and with that shift, action becomes possible,” he said.

Abolition offers an even more telling example of the difficulties associated with changing deeply set economic structures.

In the 1700s slavery was a primary source of energy and wealth worldwide, especially for the British Empire. Abolitionism challenged that way of life and threatened to trigger economic collapse. It took more than 100 years, several uprisings and a civil war to change cultural norms and abolish slavery.

Just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, Hoffman said, few in the 21st century see a moral problem with burning fossil fuels.

The shift in value requires a new cultural perspective, he added.

The problem, Hoffman and others note, is that often society fails to define or acknowledge a problem until it has the beginnings of a solution.

Abolitionism gained traction with the advent of machinery and fossil fuels as an alternative to human toil. The Montreal Protocol, the international treaty protecting the Earth’s thin ozone layer, was triggered after DuPont developed an alternative to ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.

“If we developed feasible and scalable renewable energy tomorrow, public opinion on climate would shift fairly quickly,” Hoffman said.

But while cultural shifts can happen suddenly, the debate over climate is likely to be sloppy, disruptive and prolonged, Hoffman acknowledged.

“People expect a shift overnight,” he said. “That’s not going to happen when the solution challenges the very foundations of our fossil-fuel-based society.”

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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7 Responses to Of climate, slavery and tobacco

  1. Sorry for going slightly off topic, but the audience here may be
    interested in the upcoming Nobel Laureate lecture at DCU with
    Dr. Stephen Chu (US Secretary of Energy), on 5th Nov:

    The lecture, ‘A Random walk in Science: from laser cooling to
    global warming’ will cover Dr Chu’s Nobel Prize-winning
    research and his current focus on climate change and renewable
    energy. […] In recent years, Dr. Chu has become an outspoken
    advocate for the need to move to carbon-neutral energy sources,
    and the need for the technologies that can allow that to
    happen. He also co-chaired a report for the United Nations that
    concluded that it is in “the best economic and societal
    interest of developing nations to ‘leapfrog’ past the wasteful
    energy trajectory followed by today’s industrialised nations”
    by focusing on renewables, energy efficiency, and renewable

    You can request an invite here:

    Regards – Barry.

  2. hmmm … comment system is filtering out URLs … ho hum …

    try: tinyurl.com followed by “/” and then “32tpsrj” and with a “http:” and “//” before it?

  3. Interesting analogy with just one tiny problem. The ‘knowing’ is not straight forward. Without getting into every problem with the ‘consensus’ alarmist case you can not expect to win over public opinion if you can not satisfactorily explain legitimate questions raised. How much warming is real or a measurement problem, how much is due to natural cycles, potential feedbacks of clouds, or even if warming might be more good than bad. When intelligent, well educated people such as myself are dismissed as anti-science crackpots in the pay of an oil company because we don’t want to mortgage our children’s future on the strength of computer models pushed by zealots with a vested financial or political interest in this issue, our suspicions are aroused.

  4. John Gibbons says:


    relieved to hear that you “don’t want to mortgage our children’s future on the strength of computer models pushed by zealots with a vested financial or political interest in this issue”.

    In an interesting inversion of reality, the sober, serious, highly trained, badly paid professional scientists have become “zealots”, while the energy industry-funded Tea Party and Sarah Palin-endorsed anti-science faction has become the victim!

    I don’t doubt you are both intelligent and well educated. Seems a shame to waste such resources, but since the anti-science folks can’t/won’t even agree or accept even the most rudimentary, long-established facts, there is little point in expecting argument to be anything other than fruitless.

    Doubtless the recent publication by NOAA of data confirming the summer of 2010 as having the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Greenland, with increases in mean temperatures ranging from 3.8 to 8.8 Centigrade recorded, and an additional 1,200 billion tonnes of ice gone since 2006 can all be magicked away as well, Ulick? Shure Greenland was green a couple of centuries back, shure them wicked scientists probably rigged their thermometers, or located them close to one of Greenland’s many large cities, so they are tainted by the urban heat island effect, etc. etc. etc. etc.

    Anything, in other words, as long as it tallies with your narrative. If the entire ice mass of Greenland toppled into the sea tomorrow, Ulick and friends would be telling us that (a) this is a ‘natural’ cycle and (b) rebuilding our cities lost to coastal innundation will be a boost for their beloved GDP.

    Final thought for Ulick: what level of “evidence” would it take to convince you that AGW is real, is happening right now, and is a profound threat to future (and maybe even the present) generations? Answers on a postcard…

  5. AGW is real and is happening. But it is not a threat. I am not sure what evidence would change my view in this regard. Can you explain? I understand the science related to heat transfer IR absorption etc. It may raise temperatures by max 1C for doubling CO2 before negative feedbacks. Positive feedbacks are unlikely. 1C is no big deal and more good than harm. Please explain, ideally an answer brief enough to fit on a postcard.

    PS I consider James Hansen and Michael Mann to be zealots.

    PPS Was NOAA recording temperatures in Greenland when Erik the Red settled there?

  6. John Gibbons says:


    In the vanishingly remote possibility that you are in fact amenable to a scientific argument, you should view the clip below. Its main contents date back to 1956, long before the “zealots” you refer to were making their projections.

    p.s. Brilliant analogy re. NOAA and Erik the Red. We are privileged that you choose to share your expertise in palaeoclimatology with us.

  7. Brian O'Brien says:

    “I am not sure what evidence would change my view in this regard”.

    John, your correspondent Ulick pretty much sets out his stall with the above statement. He admits that, in reality, there may be NO amount of evidence large enough to overturn his “beliefs” in this regard. Only people capable of reasoning rationally, based on the available evidence from the most reliable expert sources, are amenable to having their views adjusted according to the preponderance of evidence.
    Ulick prefers a lame anecdote based on a yarn which began as a legend and ended up a fairtyale about some Viking in Greenland to the stacks of scientific evidence meticulously collated by NOAA, among many other scientific groups of various nationalities in the course of the last century and more.
    Ask Ulick for peer-reviewed evidence supporting his bizarre take on CO2 and its ability to “raise temperatures by max 1C for doubling CO2 before negative feedbacks. Positive feedbacks are unlikely” and doubtless he’ll provide some other urban legend as his “primary source”.
    Knowledge has its limits. Ignorance knows no such encumbrances.

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