Well into the Twentieth Century the slate industry of North Wales was the world’s largest. It roofed the buildings of the world and left a huge scar on the beautiful landscape of what is now the Snowdonia National Park. But that’s not all it left. If you visit Yr Amgueddfa Llechi Cymru – the National Slate Museum – outside the village of Llanberis you can tour the old buildings of the slate quarries, including the infirmary. One of the human legacies of the industry was to bequeath workers, especially slate-splitters, with chronic and fatal respiratory illness from breathing in the slate dust created from dressing the raw material and turning it into usable roof slates. In oral accounts you can hear at the museum workers describe how the air in the slate dressing buildings was thick with dust. On the wall of the infirmary is a row of certificates signed by medical doctors. These documents certify that not only is slate dust not the cause of respiratory illness, it is actually promotes good health. If you ever happen to be visiting North Wales, go and have a look.
My forebears worked in the Dinorwic quarries near Llanberis and so there is a family, if not a personal reason to feel a little affronted by the lie perpetrated by people who could have known and almost certainly did know better. The lie they told on the walls of the infirmary and in their supposedly professional diagnoses condemned many, many people to a slow and painful death. Slate dust was not safe. It was obviously not safe. Anyone who worked in it could have known and did know that. And yet profit was to be made by avoiding and denying the obvious.
These days we like to think health and safety has come a long way. In some ways it certainly has. It’s improved a lot since the time my great great uncle fell and was injured on the quarry face, only to be charged by the company for delaying production. But when I look at the climate change denial industry, I realise in truth we’ve barely moved forward.
The Heartland Institute, an American advocacy group part-funded by oil company Exxon, among others, has campaigned tirelessly against the idea that climate change is happening. Its fall-back position seems to be that even if climate change is happening in a modest, natural way, it will be good for us.
In a poster The Heartland Institute claimed first that global warming was not man-made, and second that it was not harmful. Past warmings were beneficial, there are no current harms, future warmings will be modest and warmer is better. A policy study written by president of the Institute Joseph L. Blast claimed:
A modest amount of global warming, should it occur, would be beneficial to the natural world and to human civilization.
We are not, it’s probably safe to say, personally breathing in dust from a slate quarry, so reading the claim, consigned to a museum, that slate dust is good for your health will not harm you. But we are living in conditions of climate change, and being told warmer is better is an insult to the intelligence. If it weren’t all so sad, we could perhaps look forward to the day the class actions against oil companies begin, calling them to account for the scurrilous lies promoted with their money by this and that ‘Institute’.
If this kind of advertising carried any factual weight we could ask: why have both the private and public sector failed in their duty to provide us with more and faster global warming? Shouldn’t they be trying harder? If warmer really is better, why should we settle for the defeatist claim that ‘future warmings will be modest’?
Modest? Why so coy? We would surely want – demand – a return to the ‘beneficial warmings’ of the past. For an ideology that believes growth is always good, surely a large and fast rise in temperature is far better than a modest one. And if it leads to a large rise in disasters, so much the better.
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