For years, Portland has ranked as one of America’s greenest cities. While its eco-minded culture has been famously lampooned in Portlandia, the city’s environmentally friendly reputation is well earned, as (Seattle-based) Grist notes:
Portland’s public transit system is held up as a model for the country. Per capita carbon emissions are down 26 percent since 1990. Portland consistently tops lists for most bike-friendly city. The city even has an eco-pub.
So how is it possible that the citizens of a city lauded for its ecological values, a place “where every day feels like Earth Day,” as one magazine has written, can be so irrational about something that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century? Read More
Last week on Twitter I lamented the simplistic public discourse on climate change, how it’s often framed by those who dismiss the legitimate concerns of a warming planet and those who play up those concerns. American Politicians, especially those with leadership positions in the Republican and Democratic parties, could steer the debate into calmer waters if they chose, since what they write and say on controversial issues usually makes news.
You can stop laughing now.
A recent Washington Post op-ed by Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, feigned to sound reasonable about climate change, the way Vice Presidential candidate Dick Cheney pretended to be reasonable in 2000 during his debate with Joe Lieberman. It didn’t take long for many to be disabused of that facade and similarly, winking conservatives today know that on the issue of climate change, there isn’t much space between Lamar Smith and his fellow Republican James Inhofe, the author of a new book called, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your future.
Smith is just more artful in the way he mischaracterizes climate science and downplays the threat of greenhouse gases. That said, Smith was dead-on about one thing in his op-ed, when he wrote that “unscientific and often hyperbolic claims” mar the climate dialogue.
As if on cue, one prominent Democratic senator has just served up a classic example of exploitive hyperbole. Read More
You may not know this, but there is a celebrity data geek who isn’t named Nate Silver. This other famous statistician is a rock star in the global health and development world. He captivates audiences with innovative presentations that illuminate abstract facts and figures. Last year, Time magazine called Hans Rosling one of the 100 most influential people in the world, writing:
His 2006 TED talk, in which he animated statistics to tell the story of socio-economic development, has been viewed over 3.8 million times and translated into dozens of languages. His subsequent talks have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways by showing how our actions affect our health and wealth and one another across space and time.
How does he do it? Well, here is is showing 200 years of progress in four minutes. Read More
In a recent report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) lamented:
The picture is as clear as it is disturbing: the carbon intensity of the global energy supply has barely changed in 20 years, despite successful efforts in deploying renewable energy.
Another fact, noted in the IEA’s report, will disturb anyone concerned about climate change:
The unremitting rise in global coal demand for power generation continued in 2012. Global coal-fired power generation is estimated to have increased by around 6% between 2010 and 2012, building on strong growth over the past few years…China and, to a lesser extent, India continue to play a key role in driving demand growth. China’s coal consumption represented 46.2% of global coal demand in 2011; India’s share was 10.8%, up 7% and 9% respectively on 2010 levels.
Worldwide, coal accounts for 43% of CO2 emissions. Reducing that number is key to reducing the severity of global warming. Yet global demand for coal shows no sign of slowing in the near-term future, as this IEA graph makes clear. Read More
Mark Bittman, the popular food writer for the New York Times, has written a column that is almost beyond parody for its unintentional irony. The only way to fully appreciate his lack of self-awareness is to stop and marvel at numerous passages. Let’s start at the top:
Things are bad enough in the food world that we don’t need to resort to hyperbole to be worried or even alarmed.
This is some chutzpah. Here’s Bittman from September 15, 2012:
It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost everyone wants to see the labeling of genetically engineered materials contained in their food products.
Almost everyone? Same column:
G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea — far from it — nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.
This is completely untrue. If Bittman had wanted to be factual he would have referred NYT readers to credible sources on the state of the science on biotech crops and foods, such as here or here. Instead, he links to a website called the Organic Authority and a post that explains why
GMOs are bad for your body, bad for the community, bad for farmers and bad for the environment.
This is what is known as laundering untruths. Read More
Sometimes I think the climate debate remains stalled because those who are most concerned refuse to ask the pertinent questions. Instead, they keep refighting old battles that are no longer relevant to a constructive discourse. The latest example is this survey by John Cook et al that is getting a lot of undeserved attention in the mainstream media. I say that because, questionable methodology aside, the survey tells us nothing new and is, as science journalist David Appell noted, “a meaningless exercise.”
The main finding, which was just published in the journal Environmental Research Letters:
A new survey of over 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers by our citizen science team at Skeptical Science has found a 97% consensus in the peer-reviewed literature that humans are causing global warming.
This strikes me as T-shirt worthy. Oh wait…
In a short post at his blog, Appell says these kinds of survey numbers
are made for lazy journalists who don’t want to examine the complexity of the science, reporters who just want a number that quickly and easily supports their position.
He’s right. In a minute, I’ll get to the kinds of complexities that would be good to examine, but first let’s look at the premise for the survey, as stated: Read More
When the definitive history of the GMO debate is written, Jeffrey Smith is going to figure prominently in the section on pseudoscience. He is the equivalent of an anti-vaccine leader, someone who is quite successful in spreading fear and false information. (As David Gorski at the Science-based Medicine blog has noted, the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements are two birds of the same feather.) The Academics Review blog writes of Smith:
His self-published books Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette have built for him an online profile that has made Smith one of the most widely quoted opponents of biotech ag —despite his evident lack of scientific credentials or other formal training on the subject.
This passage from Smith’s Wikipedia bio seems a fair representation of him:
A variety of American organic food companies see Smith “as a champion for their interests”, and Smith’s supporters describe him as “arguably the world’s foremost expert on the topic of genetically modified foods”. Michael Specter, writing in The New Yorker, reported that Smith was presented as a “scientist” on The Dr. Oz Show although he lacks any scientific experience or relevant qualifications. Bruce Chassy, a molecular biologist and food scientist, wrote to the show arguing that Smith’s “only professional experience prior to taking up his crusade against biotechnology is as a ballroom-dance teacher, yogic flying instructor, and political candidate for the Maharishi cult’s natural-law party.” The director of the Organic Consumers Association says Smith is “respected as a public educator on GMOs” while “supporters of biotechnology” have described him as “misinformed and misleading” and as “an activist with no scientific or medical background” who is known for his “near-hysterical criticism of biotech foods.”
As Jon Entine wrote at Forbes, what galls scientists the most is that Smith has been presented as a GMO expert to millions of TV viewers. Liberals and environmentalists who put a premium on science should be equally galled that Smith is treated as a credible source.
There are two camps that favor labeling genetically modified [GM] foods:
1) The “Right to Know” people, who say they just want to know what’s in their food. This is a specious argument. The truth is they think there is something harmful about GMOs. Why else would they feel so strongly about labeling genetically modified foods? Yes, the Just Label it Campaign is couched as a consumer rights issue, but really it’s based on fear. Everybody knows this, so pretending otherwise is silly.
2) The other pro-label camp is comprised of a small minority of pro-biotech people who recognize that the battle for public opinion is lost. The GMO fear-mongers have won–they have successfully framed the argument as a consumer choice issue. So the only sensible thing to do at this point is to play along and join the labeling bandwagon. As Ramez Naam argued effectively in a recent guest post,
We should label them [GM foods] because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.
From a political and pragmatic standpoint, this makes sense. After all, winning an argument at all costs can be counterproductive, whatever the cause. (The climate concerned who insist on playing whack-a-mole with climate skeptics–instead of picking their battles carefully–have yet to learn this lesson.) Still, I suspect that many pro-biotech people stand on principle and object to GMO labeling because it implicitly concedes victory to the fear-mongers, which is what one commenter on Naam’s post said: Read More
Last year, in an interview with New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, CJR’s Curtis Brainard asked:
There’s been a lot of debate about the extent to which media coverage does or does not influence public opinion about climate change and society’s willingness to address the problem. Do journalists matter in this regard?
Gillis answered exactly as I (and any journalist) would have:
Well, if I didn’t think it mattered, I wouldn’t be doing it, but how that social dialectic works over the long run, I don’t really know.
What we do know is that the weather, above all, moves the needle on public opinion. Read More
I’m not on the pandemic beat, but some of the best science journalists are, and they are busy these days. Today, David Quammen, author of the recently published and critically acclaimed book, Spillover: Animal infections and the next human pandemic, has an op-ed in the New York Times. It begins:
Terrible new forms of infectious disease make headlines, but not at the start. Every pandemic begins small. Early indicators can be subtle and ambiguous. When the Next Big One arrives, spreading across oceans and continents like the sweep of nightfall, causing illness and fear, killing thousands or maybe millions of people, it will be signaled first by quiet, puzzling reports from faraway places — reports to which disease scientists and public health officials, but few of the rest of us, pay close attention. Such reports have been coming in recent months from two countries, China and Saudi Arabia.
The worrisome Chinese bird flu strain that has gotten a lot of attention is not, in its present form, going to cause a pandemic, says Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control (CDC). But if you want to learn about the potential for its lethal mutation, and why you should be worried about it, read this piece in Foreign Policy by veteran science journalist Laurie Garrett. As Peter Singer tweeted: Read More