Monday, 15 October 2007

Which is scarier: Obesity or Climate Change?

The question posed may seem trivial, weird even. But clearly not to the new British Government - Dawn Primarolo was shown on the news last night keeping a perfectly straight face as she announced that Obesity is a greater risk to the UK than Global Warming. Apparently she was only echoing the words of her boss, Alan Johnson, but it does raise another interesting question about perceptions of risk - just after we have heard how the public perceive the risk from terrorism vs. Climate Change.

Of course, I suspect that in truth we have a little bit of jumping on the bandwagon here. You can almost see the frustrated health minister listening to all the positive coverage on Friday about Al Gore and Climate Change, and thinking "Why can't we have some of that?". So some bright young intern no doubt comes up with comparing obesity risk to climate risk and - hey presto! - you get an excellent soundbite that makes climate freaks like myself spluttering into my cocoa1.

So how do we compare the risks? Well, in one sense, Ms Primarolo may be right. If we look at premature deaths among UK citizens, then there may be more attributable to obesity than to climate change, and will almost certainly be so over the next 25 years. Longer term, it's harder to hazard a guess - indeed if some of the predictions about the loss of agricultural land (and lower yields) due to rising sea levels (and weather instability) are true, the obesity issue may dissipate as food prices rise. I doubt that we'll starve in Britain, but the days of cheap meat (and hence cheap burgers) and vegetable oils may be over sooner than we expect. But if we fast forward past 2050, and don't take action against climate change in the near future, I suspect that even in the UK climate related deaths (including ones from illnesses associated with shifting climate patterns) will outnumber obesity ones.

Perhaps I can square this circle with a suggestion for something that can simultaneously tackle obesity AND climate change. Cycling. Yes, using the humble push-bike to commute to your work or school will address both issues at ones, at a very low cost. And there's some evidence that healthy people feel happier, too, and so worry less about Government pronouncements on obesity, climate change, or whatever...

1 Of course, we environmentalists too can be guilty of jumping onto bandwagons to try and elevate our message. I fondly recall an advert I saw in 1992 in Northern Ireland that carried the message in block capitals "ENERGY INEFFICIENCY IS AS ANTI-SOCIAL AS DRINKING AND DRIVING". Maybe...or maybe not...

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