Angels May Switch Sides This Year on Climate Change and Stem Cell Research

Cape Times (South Africa), January 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

Angels May Switch Sides This Year on Climate Change and Stem Cell Research


BYLINE: Colin Blakemore

LONDON: Despite the gloom over the Middle East and the threat of dirty bombs, I'm hugely optimistic that things will be better this year.

Let's look at a couple of things on the minds of many scientists - climate change and stem cells. In both cases, the scientific imperative for action is clear, but other forces are frustrating progress.

For climate change, the obstacles are short-sighted commercial and political interests - let's call them myopeconomics and myopolitics. Many businessmen still judge that their own fortunes and those of their shareholders are best served by ignoring the doom-mongers and pumping out carbon dioxide to make money. A few politicians - one in particular - still think that their reputations and their places in history are favoured by denying the growingly obvious.

But the consequences of climate change are accelerating. A point must come at which the impact of change will fall within the near-point of those refractory industrialists and politicians. When that happens, the rules will suddenly reverse.

Business and politics will be better served by response than denial. I predict that the tipping point will come this year. Political sceptics will become passionate converts, eager to claim credit for recognising the inevitable. The burners will become preservers.

I should make it clear that what I'm optimistic about here is the likelihood of a change in attitude; not, alas, about the probability of rapid success in the monstrous task of reversing the effects of a century of profligacy. We will have to live with the consequences of our parents' actions, and our children with the consequences of ours. The issue is whether our children's children will inherit a world worth living in.

For stem cells - to be more specific, human embryonic stem cells - the barriers to progress are not economic but moral. On the one hand, medical science offers the hope of cellular immortality - the prospect of repairing a damaged brain, heart or pancreas, just as grazed skin or a bitten tongue already mends itself. On the other hand, a substantial cohort of politicians and religious leaders (more exactly Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant leaders), especially in the US and some European countries, fiercely oppose the taking of life in the interests of other lives.

Although the argument seems different from that for climate change, the crux of the problem is again the power of intuition and assertion over the rationality of science. I have heard a "pro-life" lobbyist describe the collecting of stem cells from 10-day-old embryos, surplus to the requirements of in-vitro fertilisation, as "the evisceration of little babies". Life, it is argued, begins at the moment of conception.

Most scientists would surely argue that an embryo, never to be implanted in the uterus, smaller than the point of a needle, without a single nerve cell, let alone any viscera, cannot possibly be considered a person. …

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