The Dirty Art of Character Assassination

By Keith Kloor | December 4, 2013 5:19 pm

In a 2010 editorial, the journal Nature told embattled climate scientists to wise up and “acknowledge that they are in street fight” with their nastiest detractors. At the time, this seemed like a reasonable admonition, since climate scientists were indeed under siege following an illicit disclosure of emails that put the climate science community in an unfavorable light. In truth, climate scientists were already grappling with how to deal with their harshest critics.

It’s probably safe to say that a few of these scientists are (understandably) embittered by this experience and that several have come to mirror their antagonists. You often see them trading rhetorical blows and insults on Twitter and in climate blogs. It’s quite a spectacle. At some point, you have to wonder if the endless sparring will exhaust all the combatants and perhaps run its course. For the sake of climate science, that can’t happen soon enough.

Meanwhile, the poisonous debate has grown worse, with self-appointed soldiers of the warring sides seeing enemies at every turn. Some of these climate soldiers are always on the lookout, like snipers, eager to take out (or at least undermine) a perceived foe. A case in point happened on Twitter today, when climate blogger Dana Nuccitelli fired this missive: Read More

Spotty Media Coverage for a Busy Climate News Week

By Keith Kloor | December 4, 2013 11:14 am

In a world where everything from revolutions to extreme weather events is attributed (in some way) to global warming, it is helpful when a body of diverse experts come together to review and discuss what we currently know about the impacts of climate change. So the report issued yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences is very much worth reading if you are interested in this aspect of the climate debate. Its importance is captured nicely in this nugget from the news release: Read More

The Persistence of a Popular Environmental Meme

By Keith Kloor | December 2, 2013 12:50 pm

There are certain tropes that linger in the public imagination long after they’ve been discredited. Such is the case with the “balance of nature.”  In 2009, the ecologist John Kricher wrote a book about this “enduring myth,” and years before that, another ecologist, Daniel Botkin, published his seminal Discordant Harmonies in 1990, which I think was the first mainstream book “to challenge the then dominant view that nature remained constant over time unless disturbed by human influence.”

The shelf life of this outdated ecological concept rankles Botkin, who last year wrote:

People give lip service to the idea that nature may not be constant, but when it comes to passing laws, setting down policies, giving advice, and deciding what to do, most of the time we act as if nature was balanced — constant.  That is, as long as we stay out of the way.

He’s right. The meme is still very much part of our popular environmental discourse, thanks in part to journalists (and scientists) who continue to use the term, as in this 2009 Smithsonian article and more recently, in today’s New York Times piece on the beetle infestation in New jersey’s Pine Barrens:

Scientists say it is a striking example of the way seemingly small climatic changes are disturbing the balance of nature.

That scientists are still perhaps framing ecological problems this way is troubling. Botkin took note on Twitter. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ecology, environment, nature, science, select

Is Wind Energy Making a Dent in New York’s Carbon pollution?

By Keith Kloor | November 29, 2013 7:41 am

Guest post by Candace Sheppard

Wind energy production in New York State is expected to double in the next five years.
Wind energy production in New York State is expected to double in the next five years. Photo by U.S. Department of Energy.

A day after a study was released last week about wind turbines killing more than 600,000 bats in the United States in 2012, the Environment America Research Policy Center released its second report about wind energy’s growing environmental and health benefits and the rapid rise of wind energy in the United States.

Maybe the timely release of the report was a bit of damage control. Some additional good news about renewable energy came from the group Environment New York, which asserted, in a separate report, that wind power was providing “huge environmental benefits for the state.” In its news release, the group claimed that wind energy allows New York state to offset “more than 1, 834,576 metric tons of climate-altering carbon pollution which is the equivalent of taking 382,203 cars off the road.” To put it another way, the group says recent increases in wind energy have helped New Yorkers avoid “1,724 tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxides which contributes to asthma, and 2,130 tons of sulfur dioxide which is a major component of acid rain.”

Those numbers sound impressive given that New York State, according to the report, is now the 14th windiest state in the U.S. as of 2012.

However, some context is in order. Read More

How Green is Your Thanksgiving Turkey?

By Keith Kloor | November 28, 2013 9:35 am

Guest post by Jess Scanlon

Today millions of Americans gather for the traditional Thanksgiving harvest festival. At many of these celebrations the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving dinner is a roasted turkey.

From an environmental standpoint, the turkey falls somewhere between chicken and eggs.  A Cornell study shows it takes 14 units of fossil fuel to produce a serving of turkey. In comparison its a 4:1 ratio for chicken and a 26:1 ratio for eggs.

Hens at the DiPaola Turkey Farm  wander their barn in early November. Photo by Jess Scanlon
Hens at the DiPaola Turkey Farm wander their barn in early November. Photo by Jess Scanlon

The environmental impact of a turkey or any animal can be calculated two ways: The resources that went into raising it and the resources used to transport it to market.  The larger portion of this is the production, comprising approximately 83 percent of the bird’s impact according to Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Buying from a local vendor can reduce the number of miles the turkey travels to the platter by thousands of miles in some cases, but only reduces a small portion of the emissions associated with the bird. So what the individual farmer does in raising the hen or tom has more impact than the consumers’ decision to buy local.  If saving that little amount helps your conscience, then buy local. Doing so also helps money stay in the local economy. Still, there are nuances to the local option, which Slate’s Green Lantern summarizes:

The caveat with locavorism, however, is that the equation isn’t always simple. Assessing the environmental impact of food production requires complex life-cycle analysis, of which food miles are only one component. For example, the benefits of a shorter farm-to-market journey may be negated if the local operation isn’t as energy efficient as its distant rival.

In New York City and elsewhere, the turkeys can come from the farmers’ market or the supermarket (or restaurants for those beyond the help of the Butterball Hotline). Birds can also come in organic, free range or fried from other venues. With all these options, knowing which one is the best environmentally is not as simple as deciding white meat or dark meat. Read More


The Climate Bomb

By Keith Kloor | November 25, 2013 8:20 am

All you people indifferent to climate change, listen up:

Global warming is accumulating in the Earth’s climate system at a rate equivalent to about 4 Hiroshima atomic bomb detonations, 2 Hurricane Sandys, or 4 magnitude 6.0 earthquakes per second.

This, according to a new widget created by the folks at Skeptical Science. Such a handy little app!

After John Cook tweeted news of this latest messaging brainchild, an interesting exchange ensued between him and climate scientist Doug McNeall. Read More

China’s Green Future Is As Hazy As Its Skies

By Keith Kloor | November 22, 2013 1:40 pm
Tiananmen tower enveloped by the heavy fog and haze in Jan 29, 2013. Image by axz700 / Shutterstock

Tiananmen tower enveloped by the heavy fog and haze in Jan 29, 2013.
Image by axz700 / Shutterstock

When China makes international news these days, it’s often because of its densely polluted air. The public health aspect of this story is usually front and center, while the global warming angle is somewhat muted. Still, there’s no getting around the climate implications of China’s reliance on coal.

There are signs that China is trying to rein in its smog problem by reducing its coal dependence. That’s a win for the planet, right? Not exactly, as Christina Larsen reported several months ago in this Bloomberg story:

Unfortunately, one scheme to limit coal burning by converting China’s plentiful coal supplies into synthetic natural gas (SNG) presents a host of other ecological worries. To date, China’s government has approved construction of nine large SNG plants in northern and western China, which are projected to generate 37 billion cubic meters of gas each year when completed. At least 30 more proposed plants are awaiting approval.

None of these planned plants are located near large Chinese cities, so the emissions generated in producing the gas will not hang directly over metropolises. But that doesn’t mean the coal-to-gas conversion process is clean. According to a new study (PDF) in Nature Climate Change, the entire life cycle of harvesting coal and turning it into gas produces from 36 percent to 82 percent more total greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal directly—depending on whether the gas is used to generate electricity or power vehicles.

But hey, let’s not complicate a nice silver lining story, shall we? If China is tackling its coal problem, we should be encouraged that “efforts to improve its air quality will also bring reductions in CO2 emissions,” writes Jennifer Duggan, a Shanghai-based journalist and Guardian environment blogger.

Why is this a misleading narrative that we should be wary of? Read More

Should the Precautionary Principle Shut Down Wind Turbines?

By Keith Kloor | November 18, 2013 11:14 am

wind-turbinesIn 2012 Scientific American asked:

Are Wind Turbines Getting More Bird and Bat-Friendly?

In case you weren’t aware, wind energy has an ecological downside that’s hasn’t yet been smoothed out. As AP reporter Dina Cappiello wrote earlier this year, “the green industry is allowed to do not so green things”:

It kills protected species with impunity and conceals the environmental consequences of sprawling wind farms.

More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country’s wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Now, before I go any further, it’s important to note that cats are way bigger bird killers than wind turbines (taking out an estimated 2.4 billion birds per year in the U.S.). That said, the question of whether the wind industry is being kinder to wildlife is a pertinent one. And one answer, according to research published in the December issue of Bioscience is no. A new study concludes that in 2012 “over 600,000 bats may have died as a result of interactions with wind turbines.” Why is this important and how are the bats dying? From the Bioscience press release:


Bats, although not widely loved, play an important role in the ecosystem as insect-eaters, and also pollinate some plants. They are killed at wind turbines not only by collisions with moving turbine blades, but also by the trauma resulting from sudden changes in air pressure that occur near a fast-moving blade.

The study was reported on in several mainstream media outlets, such as CBS News and the Los Angeles Times, but overall, coverage has been pretty sparse. Even more curious: Read More

The New Normal: Climate Ambulance Chasing

By Keith Kloor | November 12, 2013 12:33 pm

By now, the pattern is pretty well established. If there is a famine, drought, catastrophic flood, wildfire, a major hurricane or typhoon, then you can be sure that trailing behind these disasters, like ambulance chasers, is a brigade of climate-concerned activists, scientists and their enablers in the media.

And trailing behind them is an Anthony Watts/Marc Morano led brigade of chortling denialists, whose main objective is to exploit, for ideological/political purposes, the exploitation of disasters by the climate ambulance chasers.

Much of this plays out like a game of charades. Read More

Why One Zombie GMO Myth Can’t Be Killed

By Keith Kloor | October 31, 2013 4:06 pm
An anti-GMO protest in Los Angeles on May 25, 2013. (Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

An anti-GMO protest in Los Angeles on May 25, 2013. (Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

An opinion piece in Al Jazeera repeats many of the tropes one frequently hears about GMOs. The accompanying photo (also displayed in this post) is an apt illustration.

At the center is a person holding a sign that connects Monsanto and Agenda 21, which is an innocuous U.N. sustainability initiative that has been turned into a feverish conspiracy theory by the likes of Glenn Beck and embraced by Tea Party conservatives. They think Agenda 21 is part of a larger plot to install one-world government and take away individual gun and private property rights. This loony idea, which has spread to local municipalities, is evidently now part of the anti-GMO landscape. Judging by the sign in the picture, it it has been grafted onto Monsanto Derangement Syndrome. This disorder has sufferers convinced that Monsanto is out to control/poison the world’s food supply.

Speaking of which, to the left in the photo is a sign that equates GMOs with Agent Orange, the name given to the herbicide sprayed indiscriminately by the U.S. military over Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, Monsanto was one of several companies that manufactured the herbicide.  The notorious legacy of Agent Orange is now commonly invoked by anti-GMO activists, who want to link the misused government spraying campaign from decades ago to Monsanto and it’s biotechnology products, which actually have considerable benefits to the environment and farmers.

The message at the right of the photograph has an apparent double meaning. It suggests that the sign-holder is personally disgusted by GMOs and that they are also perhaps responsible for sickening him. (Notice the familar skull and crossbone image.) There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified foods are harmful, but anti-GMO activists continue to willfully deny this scientific consensus, which top scientific bodies and organizations from around the world have confirmed.

Lastly, note the sign at the top that reads, “Farmer suicides in India.” This is another zombie myth in the anti-GMO movement–that the introduction of Monsanto’s GMO cotton in India has led to the suicides of hundreds of thousands of farmers in India. It’s false. I’ve devoted numerous posts (see here and here) to this urban legend, and am currently working on a longer article on it.

Now you might say that the people who believe such things, that Monsanto is the embodiment of corporate evil and that GMOs have caused a genocide, are just a bunch of naive conspiracists. But there is a reason why these myths have gained traction and continue to build on themselves. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, select

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