I’ve been blogging less, traveling more, and taking on some exciting new responsibilities which I’ll be sharing soon. But in the mean time, I’d like to point readers to the work of my brilliant friend and former colleague Michael Conathan. He’s sharp, articulate, and has tremendous experience working on U.S. oceans policy. In 2006 when I served in Senator Bill Nelson’s office, Mike was the Knauss Sea Grant Fellow on the Senate Commerce Committee. Perhaps our greatest accomplishment that year was contributing to the long-overdue reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act–the primary law governing marine fisheries management in the U.S.
Michael recently joined the Center for American Progress as the the Director of Ocean Policy and they are very lucky to have him on board. He’s also writing a terrific column called Fish on Fridays which I’ve been following over the past weeks. Here’s a sample from March 11 entitled Waking from the Gluttony:
A strong case can be made that fishing is America’s oldest profession. Europeans were using parts of what is now Atlantic Canada as seasonal fish camps as far back as the early 15th century—even before Columbus confused the Caribbean for the shores of India.
Many fisheries scientists were sure there was no way humans could make a dent in the seemingly endless abundance of fish in the ocean as late as the middle of the 20th century. But our fishing industries were already well on their way to proving them wrong. It now seems that the problems facing our fisheries are as plentiful as cod once were on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and throughout the Gulf of Maine.
We now live in a world where overfishing is far too prevalent. To stem this tide, regulators impose tighter and tighter restrictions on fishermen,* in the face of fundamental disagreements among harvesters, regulators, and conservationists about how many is too many.
Our oceans are in real trouble and we critically need experts like Michael who understand more than the biology and trophic interactions beneath the surface. He notably includes the people and policy, as well as the science and has the experience on and off the Hill to be practical toward progress. In short, I encourage everyone to make Fish on Fridays part of their weekly reading. These columns are also posted at Climate Progress where you can participate in the comment threads.
Aware of the big debate over this question, I wanted to dig into the topic with David Brenner of Columbia on Point of Inquiry. The exchange on this, which gets into the reasons why people disagree about the magnitude of the disaster, begins around minute 13:30 and runs on for more than 5 minutes.
I want to call attention to one part of the exchange in particular (stream here). After Dr. Brenner explained why there are such wildly varying estimates (from 6,000 to as high as nearly 1 million) for the Chernobyl death toll–it all has to do with whether you multiply very minimal radiation doses by the very vast populations that did get at least some tiny exposure to radiation from Chernobyl–I asked the following:
Chris Mooney: The World Health Organization studied Chernobyl, and they put a low end estimate on the number of deaths, so they were ruling out, essentially, these extremely low doses to extremely large numbers. Was that a valid thing to do?
Dr. David Brenner: “Valid” is a tricky word. Was it an appropriate thing to do? That’s a hard question. The best science that we have, I would suggest, cannot rule out the possibility that we should really include everybody who was exposed to extremely low doses. And if you do that, you end up with quite large population cancer burdens. That being said, that doesn’t mean that the individual risk to anybody was high. The distinction here is between individual risk–the risk that any one person gets from a tiny dose of radiation–and population risk, the risk to a whole population, the number of cancers that might be produced in a whole population. They’re different concepts. Population risk involves individual risk and the number of people exposed. Individual risk is just individual risk. Trying to make that distinction–it’s an absolutely critical distinction, and it’s one that gets lost in the flurry of debate.
Chris Mooney: But it’s even trickier than that, because it both implies that, “Hey, I’m in California, and something happened in Japan, so I individually don’t need to worry very much,” but at the same time, it gives ammo to those who will say later, well, it killed this ungodly number of people–which will scare people in the future.
Dr. David Brenner: Indeed, you’ve hit the nail very much on the head. But it is fair that one should look at risk from both of these aspects. It’s important to know what people’s individual risks are, but it’s also important to understand what the consequences for a very large population would be.
As you can maybe tell, I really don’t like the idea of these vast populations of unidentifiable victims. It bothers me. It doesn’t sound right.
However, Brenner explains why we can’t rule it out, and his explanation is very cogent. As a result of this, I’m now way more skeptical of George Monbiot. He’s treating the WHO study as if it is the right answer, but this issue of low dose exposures to very large numbers, while maddening and tricky, cannot be dismissed at this point. I’m not taking the side of his opponent, either; I’m not sure we dash to the extreme high end estimate either, but clearly, this topic requires caution.
The latest show (certainly timely, in light of the new wave of fear coming out of Japan this morning over an upgrade in scale for the Fukushima disaster) has just gone up–it features not one but two guests:
When the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan last month, it left behind not only mass destruction, but also a nuclear crisis that was covered 24-7 by the international media.
Since then, we’ve been embroiled in a huge debate about nuclear policy—should there be a “Nuclear Renaissance” in the United States, or should we put it on hold?
A central issue underlying all this is the scientific question of risk. How dangerous is radiation, anyway? Do we overreact to reactors?
To tackle that question, we turned to two different guests. One is one of the world’s foremost experts on radiation exposure and its health consequences; the other is a journalist who’s done a new book about why we often misperceive risk, to our own detriment.
David Brenner is the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. His research focuses on understanding the effects of radiation, at both high and low doses, on living systems, and he has published more than 200 papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Dr. Brenner was the recipient of the 1991 Radiation Research Society Annual Research Award, and the 1992 National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements Award for Radiation Protection in Medicine.
David Ropeik is an author, consultant, and speaker on phorisk communication and risk perception, and an instructor in the Harvard University School of Education, Environmental Management program. He’s the author of the 2010 book How Risky is it Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.
Again, you can listen here. I learned a lot doing this one. I’ll say more on this, but 1) George Monbiot is going too far in his dismissal of low dose radiation risk (which doesn’t make Helen Caldicott right, either); 2) the current news that Fukushima is now a “Level 7″ release, like Chernobyl was, needs to be considered in careful context–Chernobyl was still a vastly larger release and isn’t really comparable. For all this and much more, listen to the show.