The GMO Fear Train Has Left the Station

By Keith Kloor | May 9, 2014 11:46 am

For GMO opponents, it’s been a good news/bad news week. The good news: Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. (More about that in a minute.) The bad news: New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, a darling of the food movement, wrote a column that called on his compadres to stop obsessing about GMOs, particularly the labeling issue, which “plays on irrational fears.”

The battle over GMOs, Bittman said, was not important to the larger goal of sustainable agriculture. What’s more, “the technology [involving genetically modified foods] itself has not been found to be harmful,” he wrote, and its “underlying science could well be useful.” How do you suppose this went over in organic food co-ops across the United States, where GMOs are about as welcome as disposable plastic bags?

Bittman’s column was baffling and disconcerting to leading food warriors. I can understand why they might feel that way. For in previous columns dating back the last few years, Bittman was singing a different tune.

From a 2012 column urging that genetically modified foods be labeled:

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.

From one of his columns last year: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs

Squaring New U.S. Climate Report with “All of the Above”

By Keith Kloor | May 7, 2014 2:08 pm

It wasn’t that long ago that global warming was mostly discussed as (and believed to be) a distant threat– the scope, timing and severity of its impacts considered uncertain. Then in recent years, as climate scientists began studying and asserting linkages between greenhouses gases and severe weather events, the discourse shifted.

We are now at the point where everything from typhoons and mountain climbing tragedies to civil wars and wildfires are seen through the prism of global warming. This is not to discount man-made climate change as a contributing factor to particular extreme weather events and related disasters; I’m just making an observation about the one dimensional lens increasingly used by many to view the world at large. By suggesting this, am I off-message, unhelpful, contrarian?

Regardless, no one can dispute the new discourse of climate change as an immediate and urgent concern. This week’s orchestrated roll-out of a new U.S. government report on climate change officially cements the “new normal,” a phrase used to characterize everything happening now in the context of climate change.

NBC had perhaps the darkest take on this new era. Read More

The Exploitation of Indian Farmer Suicides

By Keith Kloor | May 5, 2014 12:36 pm

From The Economist’s Demography and Development blog, several months ago:

FACTS can be stubborn – and irritating. It is satisfying—perhaps even gratifying—to accept the idea that genetically modified crops are causing thousands of Indian farmers to commit suicide (as this article claims). The notion seems plausible: farmers take out higher debts on the promise that GM seeds will be a bonanza and then lose everything when the harvest fails. There is genuine distress: farmers are indeed killing themselves. Their cause has been adopted by high-profile campaigners such as Britain’s Prince Charles and India’s Vandana Shiva, who blames the spate of deaths on Monsanto, an American biotech firm.

Shiva, a prominent environmentalist, has spread this false narrative in the media for years. To understand how she’s done it, and who has enabled her, read my recent feature in Issues in Science and Technology. Read More


Eco-Pragmatism Takes Root at NYT Editorial Page

By Keith Kloor | May 2, 2014 1:44 pm

This is notable:

The dangers of nuclear power are real, but the accidents that have occurred, even Chernobyl, do not compare to the damage to the earth being inflicted by the burning of fossil fuels — coal, gas and oil.

That’s from an editorial in today’s New York Times, which will make for uncomfortable reading for environmental organizations still very much opposed to nuclear power. One of those is the Riverkeeper, a respected New York based group that keeps watch over the Hudson River. One of their big campaigns is to close Indian Point, a 40-year old nuclear power plant that sits on the Hudson shoreline, about 30 miles from Manhattan. Indian point supplies approximately 25 percent of the electricity used in New York City and surrounding suburbs.

Can all that juice be replaced by renewable energy and efficiency gains, as the Riverkeeper and others contend? Highly debatable, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t close Indian Point. New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo said in 2011:

There is no doubt that we need replacement power if we are to close Indian Point. There is also no doubt that we can find it.

Sure, if you throw in natural gas as part of the energy replacement equation. Ah, but that would involve fracking, which is not happening in New York anytime soon. Of course, this doesn’t mean New Yorkers can’t still benefit from cheap fracked natural gas piped in from other states.

As a New York Times columnist observed several years ago about the battle over Indian Point’s future: Read More

A Fishy Story

By Keith Kloor | April 30, 2014 2:29 pm
credit: NOAA

credit: NOAA

Some media outlets have picked up on a new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. (More on that coverage in a minute.) Here’s the headline from the Oregon State University press release:


Study finds only trace levels of radiation from Fukushima in albacore

The scientists seemed to make sure their results were put in proper context. From the second graph:

In fact, you would have to consume more than 700,000 pounds of the fish with the highest radioactive level – just to match the amount of radiation the average person is annually exposed to in everyday life through cosmic rays, the air, the ground, X-rays and other sources, the authors say.

If you’re a newspaper editor, how do you capture a study like this in a headline? British editors varied.

The Independent threw out typical bait:

Radioactive tuna fish from Fukushima reactor caught off American shores

The Daily Mail did the same, but more cleverly:

Oregon fisherman catch radioactive tuna contaminated by Fukushima disaster-but scientists say they’re SAFE to eat

You get it? Wink, wink. The “radioactive tuna” is still safe to eat!

Elsewhere, media headlines also varied. Some closely reflected the study’s findings:

Fukushima radiation: Minute amount found in Oregon tuna

Others, such as Reuters, seemed intent on capturing eyeballs:

Study finds Fukushima radioactivity in tuna off Oregon, Washington

Although the Reuters piece hewed closely to the perspective of the researchers–who don’t find their results worrisome–one of the authors of the study is quoted as saying: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: environment, risk

What is the Future for Eco-Pessimists and Pro-Nuke Greens?

By Keith Kloor | April 29, 2014 12:32 am

George Monbiot, Britain’s most popular environmental writer, has arrested himself. Four prominent climate scientists recently issued a pleading letter to greens to stop opposing nuclear power.

And now an influential non-profit that for years has focused on climate change is all but begging that we not close down aging nuclear reactors. What the hell is going on?

I can’t wait for James Hansen and his fellow pro-nuclear, climate-concerned greens to face off against the anti-nuclear, climate-concerned greens outside one such aging nuclear power plant that a popular Democratic governor wants to shut down. Imagine this scene: The pro-nuke climate activists chaining themselves to the fence of the nuclear plant, protesting in favor of carbon-free nuclear power.

Or imagine this: A joint statement from the Group of Ten–a loose network consisting of the biggest, most established environmental organizations–vowing to enthusiastically embrace nuclear power to help solve the climate problem. (Why a joint statement? Because no major green group is likely to go out on a limb by itself.) Perhaps the foundation for such a large-scale conversion is being established with the steady drip of individual converts.

Or maybe not, CNN suggested last year:

Are we witnessing the birth of a mutiny within the environmental movement? Will typical 21st-century environmentalists eventually embrace the power of the atom? A leading environmental group opposed to nuclear power says no.

“I don’t think it’s very significant that a few people have changed their minds about nuclear power,” said Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Well, it’s more than a few people, but I take his point.

Let’s be honest. At this stage, the green movement is somewhat like the Democratic party just before Bill Clinton became president: Stale, rudderless, and unable to offer a compelling vision for the future. (The collapse of civilization has a nice ring to it, but it’s no I have a dream.) If environmentalists had been wise, they would have spent the green-friendly Obama years reinventing their brand. (If Radio Shack can do it, anyone can.) Instead, they’ve been content to snarl at the usual enemies (say no to oil and gas! ) and coalesce around climate change as the movement’s signature issue of the day. What has that vision for the future looked like?

Don’t worry, there’s still time to avoid imminent planetary collapse, kinda, sorta. But only if we act now! (The above image is from this cheery learning module.) You get the gist.

Look, I’m not sure if pro-nuclear greens will ever overcome the fright factor of a technology that includes the occasional Fukushima. But if eco-pessimists continue to shape the green message, painting a relentlessly grim portrait of the future, then I wouldn’t expect people to rally around that, either.

Besides, that’s the picture (over-population, global famines, ecocide, etc) that’s been painted over the past forty years. The shock value of it has worn off.

It’s time to paint a new picture.

On Cowboys, Welfare Queens, and Dog Whistles

By Keith Kloor | April 28, 2014 2:37 pm

Paul Krugman’s current New York Times column on the Nevada rancher who was a folk hero to Fox news before he revealed himself to be an ugly racist will typically please liberals and infuriate conservatives. I was nodding along in agreement with Krugman’s piece until about halfway through. That’s when I came across a sentence that gave me pause.

Here’s the set-up for Krugman’s colorful line, which I bolded:

Like any landowner, the Bureau of Land Management charges fees for the use of its property. The only difference from private ownership is that by all accounts the government charges too little — that is, it doesn’t collect as much money as it could, and in many cases doesn’t even charge enough to cover the costs that these private activities impose. In effect, the government is using its ownership of land to subsidize ranchers and mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.

It’s true that some of the people profiting from implicit taxpayer subsidies manage, all the same, to convince themselves and others that they are rugged individualists. But they’re actually welfare queens of the purple sage.

Stop right there and think about the last time you heard the term “welfare queen.” Krugman knows well the meaning and origins of this phrase, which we have Ronald Reagan to thank for. In a 2007 column, Krugman recalled that, “Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman’s race, but he didn’t have to.”

The story behind the story of the actual “welfare queen” is quite incredible. But the point I want to make was said best last year by NPR’s Gene Demby: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Fox News, Paul Krugman, select

Is Climate Change Making You Wobbly in the Head?

By Keith Kloor | April 25, 2014 2:20 pm

In the latest report issued last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a chapter on human security that caught the media’s attention. I thought Seth Borenstein’s AP piece did a nice job distilling the chapter’s essence:

Top scientists are saying that climate change will complicate and worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars, strife between nations and refugees.

They’re not saying it will cause violence, but will be an added factor making things even more dangerous.

No argument there. Of course, many headlines were sensational (including this one by the New York Post slapped on the AP article) and over the top. No surprise there.

Around this time (early April), Joshua Busby, an international relations scholar at the University of Texas, cautioned in a post at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog: “…the care that the [IPCC] authors took in describing the state of scientific knowledge about violence and conflict may get lost. As scientific claims go public, they often lose their nuances.”

It didn’t take long for that to happen with the climate change = war narrative. Here’s a curious claim in an otherwise nuanced Climatewire article (my emphasis)

But researchers who work in the [environmental/climate security] field say the IPCC’s scientific caution about the still-nascent field of academic study masks a growing certainty in security circles that climate change is dramatically destabilizing already-vulnerable communities.

The rest of the piece actually says there is no such certainty, a point underscored by this passage:

“It’s ambiguous. It’s complex. It’s not going to be this simple ‘climate causes conflict’ narrative, but rather climate impacts things we know are connected to conflict. It’s still very contested,” said one person close to the [IPCC] report.

Now let’s jump ahead to an article by Eric Holthaus that appeared last week at Slate. His takeaway from the chapter on human security and climate change in the latest IPCC report:

Climate change is already destabilizing nations and leading to wars.

Next, he writes:

That finding was highlighted in this week’s premiere of Showtime’s new star-studded climate change docu-drama Years of Living Dangerously.

I recently explored the strained logic behind the Syria civil war/climate change connection. [UPDATE: For a richly informed perspective on the larger climate-conflict debate, see this related post by Tim Kovach.] Nonetheless, what we’re starting to see is the conflation take shape: Climate change is already triggering civil wars like the one in Syria. Grist has cross-posted the Slate piece with this headline: Read More

GMOs, Journalism, and False Balance

By Keith Kloor | April 24, 2014 8:27 am

I recently gave a talk on agricultural biotechnology and the media to a graduate class taught by Calestous Juma at Harvard’s Kennedy school. I spoke about the frankenfood meme, the Monsanto effect and slanted journalism. During the Q & A, one of the students asked me when I thought misinformation on GMOs would stop appearing so regularly in the media.

I replied that GMO coverage in the media today is where climate change reporting was from the late 19980s until the early 2000s, a period when many news stories contained what is known as “false balance.” That is to say that mainstream media articles on climate science generally gave the impression that the evidence for global warming was still being debated by scientists, when it wasn’t. But many stories on climate science findings included the opinions of climate skeptics who represent a tiny minority in the field. Thus there were two sides in a given story, what later became known as “false equivalence.”

We see something similar today with stories about GMOs, which tend to have health related angles, because of the various GMO labeling initiatives proposed in numerous states. Although there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that genetically modified foods pose no harm to public health, that is not the impression you would get from the tenor of many stories, be they at some respected journalism outlets or on popular TV talk shows. Indeed, much of this coverage suggests that the safety issue is still an open question, debated hotly by scientists, when this is not true at all. For example, here is a recent example from a typical Reuters article on GMOs: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, GMOs

Are You With Us or Against Us?

By Keith Kloor | April 23, 2014 1:52 pm

When I take issue with the one way skepticism and hyperbolic language of climate skeptics, I’m met with a chorus of “who me?” They especially object to being lumped together with the climate-science-is-a-hoax crowd.

It’s a fair complaint. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the representative standard bearers for climate skeptics are Anthony Watts in the U.S. and Andrew Montford  in the UK. Both of their widely read blogs (within the climate skeptic universe) selectively highlight articles and posts from like-minded voices and draw attention to examples of over-reach by climate concerned advocates. The impression they give is that climate science is unreliable at best, deceptive at worst, so man-made climate change shouldn’t be taken seriously. The person who works hardest to reinforce that message is Marc Morano. He gleefully pollutes the climate conversation dozens of times on a daily basis.

If climate skeptics want to be thought of as more than a noisy, one-note fringe movement, they need to stop playing footsie with the bomb-throwers, shun the charlatans, and not wink-wink at sympatico reporters who give them succor. Of course, climate skeptics are no less cognitively biased than their counterparts and have tribal loyalties, too, so I won’t hold my breath waiting for them to clean their own house. Moreover, If Judith Curry still hopes to be a bridge between a more reasonable (but no less outlier) climate skeptic community and mainstream climate science, then she has to acknowledge–and call out–the vitriol from prominent climate skeptics. At this point, failure to do so gives the impression that it is tacitly accepted. To be an honest broker in a politically and ideologically charged debate, in my mind, means you can’t hold your tongue when one side–the side you may be inclined to agree with–is behaving badly. Read More


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