Taking Credit for GMO Failures

By Keith Kloor | October 31, 2014 11:46 am

Earlier this year, the earth scientist Jon Foley wrote an article that laid out why he was skeptical about agricultural biotechnology. Among other things, he said “that GMOs have frequently failed to live up to their potential” because of the way they have been deployed:

GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security. Mainly, that’s because GMO crops primarily in use today are feed corn (mostly for animal feed and ethanol), soybeans (mostly for animal feed), cotton and canola. But these aren’t crops that feed the world’s poor, or provide better nutrition to all. GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security, but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits. While the technology itself might “work,” it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security.

This struck me as a shortsighted, wholly incomplete view of GMOs, which I and others, such as Ramez Naam, commented on at the time. I thought of Foley’s essay and his main argument while attending a recent conference called, Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth: Why Technology Will Not Save the World.  One of the panels–The Quest for a “New Nature”–featured Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, which for years has spearheaded opposition to biotechnology. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Banging the Drum on Science When It Fits Your Tune

By Keith Kloor | October 28, 2014 2:16 pm

In her last big superlative GMO story, New York Times reporter Amy Harmon wrote:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

Harmon generously linked to a post of mine, which pointed out that liberals “are attentive watchdogs when it comes to flawed coverage of climate change. But with crazy talk on GMOs, they are MIA.” I was referring specifically to progressives in media who monitor real (and sometimes perceived) journalistic shortcomings in coverage of climate change. I am gratified that my own occasional attempts to “police frightful coverage” of GMOs, as CJR put it, have been noted by some of my peers.

Many who inhabit the progressive sphere have yet to come to terms with the tolerance for dodgy science and misinformation on GMOs that is disseminated by thought leaders and public interest champions. For example, what would you say if a much respected, highly credentialed public intellectual wrote a blurb for a book entitled, “The Climate Deception,” a collection of climate skeptic essays? Well, Marion Nestle recently did the equivalent of that with GMOs. This is the sort of thing I highlighted in my Slate piece a few years ago.

Look, there will always be high profile figures who accept a well-established scientific judgement in one field but reject it in another. Such hypocrisy will not go unnoticed and may undermine one’s credibility. In the case of GMOs, Fred Pearce in New Scientist argues that Greenpeace has sullied its name by using the same tactics as those it fights against in the climate change arena:

Climate sceptics are undoubtedly dodgy data dealers. They argue, for instance, that the world has cooled since 1998. They don’t point out that 1998 was an exceptionally hot El Niño year, nor do they admit the extent of atmospheric warming in the 1990s and earlier. They deny that the temperature trend remains upwards. And they ignore continued warming in the oceans.

But Greenpeace cherry-picks data in just the same way in its campaign against GM.

This kind of behavior is environmentalism’s cross to bear.

A similar scientific inconsistency dogs the American heartland, according to Don Carr, a chronicler of rural life:  Read More

The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion

By Keith Kloor | October 23, 2014 3:29 pm

ABC Carpet & Home, for the uninitiated, is a sumptuous home furnishings mecca with a chic interior and socially conscious ethic. The flagship store in Manhattan’s Flatiron district feels like a plush museum owned by a billionaire with a New Age affectation. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, science, Vandana Shiva

When Political Sensitivities and Science Collide with Religion

By Keith Kloor | October 22, 2014 4:13 pm

grand canyon

A decade ago, controversy erupted after it was revealed that a creationist book was being sold in six bookstores at the Grand Canyon National Park. It was a biblical explanation of the Grand Canyon. As Cornelia Dean reported in the New York Times,

the book says God created the heavens and the earth in six days, 6,000 years ago, and that the canyon formed in a flood God caused in order to wipe out “the wickedness of man.” The geology of the canyon proves it, the books’ contributors say.

That’s complete bunk, as Dean went on to lay out in the next paragraph. Nonetheless, the creationist text was made available to park visitors because it offered what the person in charge of the bookstores called a “divergent viewpoint.”  That rankled geologists. The story remained in the news for years, in part due to one environmental group that wanted to make political hay of it. (The group wrongly traced the decision to keep the book in the bookstore to the Bush Administration, an assertion that many accepted at face value, perhaps because it fit a certain narrative.) In any case, amidst all the uproar there wasn’t much discussion of the Native American creationist myths that were also on sale at the Grand Canyon National Park bookstores.

For some reason, science advocates who chafe at a biblical story of the Grand Canyon aren’t much bothered  by American Indian creation tales that are remarkably similar, if you look closely.

Why the double standard? Perhaps it’s because we view the Native American relationship to the Grand Canyon in more cultural or anthropological terms, as Arizona State University explains: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

On Economic Growth, the Environment and Climate Change

By Keith Kloor | October 17, 2014 1:04 pm

In the early 1970s, leading environmental scientists and writers argued that curtailing economic growth was necessary to save  human civilization from eco-collapse.  The material needs of society were exhausting the planet’s resources. The worrying trends were laid out in a hugely influential 1972 report and best-selling book entitled, “The Limits to Growth.” Its authors concluded (page 183):

Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible. The way to proceed is clear, and the necessary steps, although they are new ones for human society, are well within human capabilities.

I would contend that “Limits to Growth” is among the most influential contemporary environmental tracts, perhaps second to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, environmentalism

The Media and Conventional Wisdom

By Keith Kloor | October 11, 2014 1:26 pm

The Nation has published an excellent article on the U.S. government’s vendetta against James Risen, a New York Times investigative journalist. The campaign is part of a larger effort by the Obama Administrations to punish government whistleblowers and “intimidate other investigative reporters,” as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg told The Nation.

This week Risen gave a talk at Colby College in Maine that cautioned against groupthink in the media. He cited the early days of  the abolitionist movement in the 1830s, before it had become “a significant political force,” during a time when slavery was still a “bedrock political assumption of the United States.” This period, when abolition writers were outside the mainstream, should be studied, Risen said, for

what it’s really like to challenge the cement-like certainty of the conventional wisdom of the day, especially when it is constantly being reinforced by a mainstream press.

He went on to say: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Why Must the Media Supersize Everything?

By Keith Kloor | October 9, 2014 2:39 pm

An emerging scandal–no matter how trivial or short-lived–is often sensationalized with the “gate” suffix. A similar hyping tendency is perhaps now on display with large, powerful storms.

The hurricane that developed in the Caribbean in 2012, before weakening and making landfall in New York and New Jersey, was christened Superstorm Sandy. A year later, the tropical cyclone that slammed into portions of East Asia was dubbed Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Now we see many media reports and headlines warning of Super Typhoon Vongfong. So have we entered a new era of  superstorms–the kind that truly deserve such a designation–or is this just another media tic?

Of course, weather events aren’t unique in being super-sized. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: fads, media
MORE ABOUT: media, supersize, superstorm

Severe Weather = the New Normal is a Fraught Meme

By Keith Kloor | October 3, 2014 11:57 am

This week NPR asks:

When can a big storm or drought be blamed on climate change?

If you have been nodding in approval to everything that Bill McKibben and his fellow climate concerned advocates say on this subject, then you already have your answer. And if you are familiar with the “new normal” meme, which I have written on previously, then you also know that nearly every severe weather event is now associated in some way with climate change. It’s been interesting to watch this play out in the media the past few years.

For example, plug into Google ‘s search engine “climate change” and “Typhoon Haiyan” (the tropical cyclone that devastated portions of the Philippines last year) and see all the stories that come up. A quick sampling of headlines:

“Is Climate Change to Blame for Typhoon Haiyan?”–Guardian

“Did Climate Change Cause Super Typhoon Haiyan?”–Time

“Super Typhoon Haiyan: A hint of What’s to Come?”–Climate Central

A definitive answer is impossible in the immediate aftermath of such an event, but many outlets still made a connection along these lines:

Hurricane researchers contacted by Climate Central said Haiyan is an example of the type of extreme storm that may become more frequent as the climate continues to warm.

This sets the stage for every major storm to be discussed in the context of climate change. And indeed, this is often what ends up happening with every heat wave, every drought, every big flood, and every unseasonable cold spell or blizzard. That is the whole point of the “new normal” meme, which by the way, may be counterproductive, Dawn Stover recently argued in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

In the last couple of years, scientists have tried to bring some clarity to these discussions. This has resulted in dozens of studies assessing whether or not severe weather events from around the world can be linked to global warming. The latest batch of research was published earlier this week in a special Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society report. The results were covered widely in the media–most with a particular slant. I found NPR’s summary of the findings to be among the most accurate: Read More

A Climate Debate I Would Like to See

By Keith Kloor | September 26, 2014 11:15 am

Of the all the famous names associated with climate change, there are two I would love to see headlined in a debate–against each other. Both of these individuals believe global warming presents an existential threat, both believe Big Green is part of the problem, and both offer a radically different path to decarbonization of the global economy.

Yes, the debate between Naomi Klein and James Hansen would be fascinating.

Klein, as you probably have heard, is the author of a new and much discussed book titled, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.” Her publisher describes it as

a brilliant explanation of why the climate crisis challenges us to abandon the core “free market” ideology of our time, restructure the global economy, and remake our political systems.

The New Statesmen, a liberal UK publication, opens its review of the book thusly:

Right-wing deniers of the robust findings of modern atmospheric science sometimes claim that the whole idea of global warming is just a front. What “warmers”, as they call them, really want is allegedly not just a sharp reduction in fossil-fuel emissions but a wholesale socioeconomic transition to tree-hugging socialism. Such cynics will be gladdened by Naomi Klein’s new book. For in it she does explicitly argue that the present “climate emergency” provides an excellent excuse for global revolution.

Before anyone starts hyperventilating, it should be noted, as Klein does in this recent interview, that she isn’t arguing for capitalism to be overthrown by some other ism:

Look, I’m not saying that markets have no role in combatting climate change. I think the right market incentives can play a huge role—we can point to all kinds of companies doing great stuff…There will have to be a strong role for the public sector, a strong role for regulations and, yes, incentives. But the idea of just leaving our collective fate to the market is madness. You wouldn’t treat any other existential crisis in that way.

Still, the larger implications of Klein’s argument will be threatening to entrenched economic interests, a political class concerned more about its fortunes than the planet’s future, and most of all, right wing conservatives who already believe that the “climate emergency” is a liberal stalking horse for a big-government, wealth-redistributive agenda.

In the United States, the response to such a perceived threat has become clear.

James Hansen, the former NASA climate scientist who more than two decades ago elevated the importance of climate science in the public mind, and who has since strongly warned about the dangers of greenhouse gas-driven climate change, believes that conservatives should be mindful of what’s in store when climate impacts really start to hit home. In an interview last year, he said:

If they [conservatives] continue to pretend that human-made climate change is a hoax, eventually you get to the point where nature makes it clear it wasn’t a hoax and then the public demands the government do something and that’s the worst nightmare for conservatives.

What happens then?

It would allow the government to take over and do things by fiat, which not in anybody’s interest in my opinion, because the government never, seldom, makes the right choices. Let the market make the choices, which is a conservative approach.

Hansen’s preferred fix is a revenue-neutral carbon tax, in which the money generated from a rising tax on fossil fuels would be given right back to the public. In a post he wrote last week for Columbia University’s Earth Institute (which received little attention), Hansen explains: Read More

India and the Iron Law of Climate Policy

By Keith Kloor | September 25, 2014 10:33 am

I have an idealistic streak that is increasingly tempered by real world events. So on Sunday I admired the enthusiasm of the hundreds of thousands of people who marched through the streets of Manhattan to sound their concern about climate change and other environmental issues.

I tried not to let this article ruin the good vibes. I tried to put this out of my mind:

The blunt truth is that what China decides to do in the next decade will likely determine whether or not mankind can halt – or at least ameliorate – global warming.

Now comes word from India’s environmental minister, as reported by Coral Davenport in the New York Times:

The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.

The cold, hard reality of climate change politics (from an international perspective) is exactly as University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. has been saying for years:

When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time.

UPDATE: Some helpful perspective from Brad Plumer, who asks if the “planet is cooked” if India’s carbon emissions keep rising? “Not necessarily,” he says.

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