Far from the expected development, forestry plantations and other carbon market initiatives in Uganda have severely compromised ecologies and livelihoods of the local people.
By Kristen Lyons and Peter Westoby · The Conversation · September 19, 2015
In recent years there has been significant movement toward land acquisition in developing countries to establish forestry plantations for offsetting carbon pollution elsewhere in the world. This is often referred to as land grabbing.
These carbon trading initiatives work on the basis that forestry plantations absorb carbon dioxide and other polluting greenhouse gases. This helps to undo the environmental damage associated with modern western lifestyles.
Carbon markets are championed as offering solutions to climate change while delivering positive development outcomes to local communities. Heavy polluters, among them the airline and energy sectors, buy carbon credits and thereby pay local communities, companies and governments to protect forests and establish plantations.
But are carbon markets – and the feel good stories that have sprung up around them – all just a bit too good to be true?
There is mounting evidence that forestry plantations and other carbon market initiatives severely compromise livelihoods and ecologies at a local level. The corporate land grabs they rely on also tend to affect the world’s most vulnerable people – those living in rural areas.
But such adverse impacts are often written out of the carbon market ledger. Sometimes they are simply justified as ‘externalities’ that must be accepted as part of ensuring we avoid climate apocalypse.
Green Resources is one of a number of large-scale plantation forestry and carbon offset corporations operating on the continent. Its activities are having a profound impact on the livelihoods of a growing number of people. Norwegian-registered, the company produces saw log timber and charcoal in Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda. It receives carbon revenue from its plantation forestry operations.
In Uganda, the focus of our research, Green Resources holds two licenses over 11,864 hectares of government-owned, ‘degraded’ Central Forest Reserve. Historically, villagers could access this land to grow food, graze animals and engage in cultural practices.
Under the licensed land agreement between Uganda’s government and Green Resources, more than 8,000 people face profound disruptions to their livelihoods. Many are experiencing forced evictions as a direct result of the company’s take over of the land.
Carbon violence on local villagers
Villagers across Green Resources’ two acquisitions in Uganda report being denied access to land vital for growing food and grazing livestock. These are at Bukaleba and Kachung Central Forest Reserves. They also cannot collect forest resources. Many say they are denied access to sites of cultural significance and to resources vital to their livelihoods.
There are also many stories about land and waterways that have been polluted by agrichemicals the company uses in its forestry plantations. This has caused crop losses and livestock deaths.
Many of those evicted, as well as those seeking to use land licensed to Green Resources, have also experienced physical violence at the hands of police and private security forces tied to the arrival of the company. Some villagers have been imprisoned or criminalised for trespass.
These diverse forms violence are directly tied to the company’s participation in the carbon economy. Thus Green Resources’ plantation forestry and carbon market activities are inflicting ‘carbon violence’ on local villagers.
Green Resources appears to be continuing to tighten the perimeter of its plantation operations as part of ensuring compliance with regulations and certifications required for entry into carbon markets. This further entrenches these diverse forms of violence. In short, subsistence farmers and poor communities are carrying heavy costs associated with the expansion of forestry plantations and global carbon markets.
Green Resources does engage in some community development activities, but these are largely disconnected from local villagers’ needs and aspirations. Interviews with 152 affected villagers across the two sites highlight that access to land to produce food is the most pressing issue. This is an issue that Green Resources has done little to address.
The loss of access to land and sustainable livelihoods for vulnerable populations is unjust and unacceptable, particularly when rural people in Uganda contribute little to carbon pollution.
In 2014 the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank based in California, US, published its report on Green Resources. The company has responded, most notably in a strong letter from the CEO. While he sought to discredit the researchers and the report, he failed to engage with substantial issues of concern arising from the research.
At least one company board member has publicly acknowledged problems in company relations with affected communities, especially at the Bukaleba site. These are issues raised by a number of other researchers over a number of years.
The company has not publicly articulated what it is doing to address the social and environmental problems associated with its corporate practices. Green Resources must demonstrate how it is seeking to deal with the substantial adverse impacts associated with its activities.
It’s not just about money
More broadly, there are increasing calls for reform of global plantation forestry and carbon markets to alleviate the burden subsistence farmers carry alongside their expansion. Similarly, there are calls for reform to corporate practices, including community development initiatives and employment practices.
We would suggest that such reforms should be directed towards reducing the gap between the winners and losers in global carbon markets. There must be recognition of common property rights and access and use rights of local people in license areas. This must be done alongside valuing indigenous and local people’s knowledge of forests and ecosystem management.
There are also stronger calls from climate movements for the transformation of global energy futures. Those include the support for renewable energy to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and the subsequent reliance on offset initiatives.
Movements for climate justice in Africa and elsewhere demonstrate the growing resistance to market based and techno fixes as the means to avert climate change. These calls for justice challenge change agents to move beyond simply tweaking at the edges of carbon markets.
They need to imagine a future where social and environmental justice – not money and markets – are at the centre of thinking and planning.
Crises ‘solutions’ to advance global agenda behind closed doors
Lana and Andy Wachowski’s classic 1999 film, “The Matrix”, introduced viewers to the wonderfully fascinating question of how systems of domination and control reproduce themselves. In the film, we learn that the matrix periodically re-boots itself. Most often the reload is so seamless that it is unnoticed by the masses oblivious to the system of power that constitutes their reality. Sometimes, however, a “glitch” in power’s reproduction temporarily reveals the system to humanity, making for a moment of awareness that leads to a potential escape from the matrix. At the United Nation’s General Assembly the matrix was re-loaded on Sept. 25 with the passing of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The SDGs are a set of 17 goals with 169 targets that carry an ambitious agenda for eliminating deeply rooted global inequities and inequalities, including the end of poverty. The agenda is to be accomplished by 2030. The SDG’s also aim to be sustainable for the planetary eco-system. The SDGs replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and are the outcome of the Rio+20 meeting in 2012, which began the global discussions about the post-2015 global agenda. Post-2015 refers to a grander re-loading of the development agenda by U.N. agencies, such as the renegotiation of the Hyogo Framework for disaster risk reduction in Spring 2015 and the upcoming re-booting of U.N. Habitat’s urban agenda, which will happen with the launch of Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2015.
Collectively, the post-2015 agenda defines how the global community will respond to major issues such as food security, climate change, public health, urbanization, gender inequality and poverty. It sets the normative framework for how our key institutions will address the most pressing issues of the 21st Century. These institutions include the core global power brokers in the world of development, such as The World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, or USAID. But, it also includes the wide range of NGOs, such as Oxfam or World Resources Institute, along with an even wider range of consultancy companies that contribute to policy formulation and implementation. Of course, the private sector is present as major stakeholders in how development will solve 21st Century crises. Taken together these actors constitute a development complex of interconnected interests and agendas fundamental to how power functions globally. With the SDGs, these power brokers have reproduced their position as the creators of the agenda as well as the actors who implement the agenda.
A key to the power elite’s reproduction of their capacity to define the agenda for what will become 9 billion people is the seamless transition they executed in New York City on Sept. 25. Amazingly, 193 nations signed onto the agenda, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Their signatures resulted from a process of closed-door meetings that created the core agenda before the illusion of consultation was created through a series of engagements with organizations that ostensibly represented civil society. The making of the SDGs largely focused on responding to the criticisms of the MDGs, which complained of inadequate benchmarks for any honest assessment that could determine the success or failure of the development goals. Hence, the SDGs give us a bewildering list of 169 targets to be met in accomplishing the goals. Additionally, growing concerns about the deepening planetary ecological crisis, especially in its climate change articulation, brought the power brokers to the point of needing to include sustainability within the development agenda. To use “The Matrix” metaphor, all of this work happened without a “glitch to the system” as it rebooted. Hardly anyone took notice, scarce was the debate, and few have asked questions about the fundamental premises of what is now called “sustainable development.”
Like lipstick on a pig, the SDGs are a continuation of the thinking within the MDGs approach to global poverty offering nothing more than a cosmetic makeover. The thinking goes by the name “development,” which itself is a continuation of the modernization paradigm which was the neo-colonialist attempt in the 1950s and 1960s at putting lipstick on the pig of colonialism. The MDG’s brand of lipstick attempted to lift people out of poverty by promoting economic growth, while refusing to acknowledge that this capitalist cure was the cause of the ill it created in the first place. The SDG’s retain the growth paradigm, while tinting the lipstick’s color with “sustainability.” In the seamless reloading of the matrix, the making of the SDGs advanced the argument that the MDGs were, for the greater part, successful in the goal of reducing global poverty by half. However, that thesis depends on how poverty is measured. If we keep an absurdly low metric of US$1-2 dollars per day, then the MDGs succeeded. But, if the global elite, those who create the parameters of success behind closed-door meetings used humane measurements for a dignified life, then the MDGs were an unquestionable failure. … Full article
“Global Goals” Is Lavishly-Funded Public Relations Endeavor “We the People” Never Voted For
This month delegates to the United Nations ratified the so-called “Global Goals For Sustainable Development.” This will involve a radical, far-reaching social and economic transformation of everyday life that has been in the works for decades.
In true Hegelian dialectic style, the program is taking place as various black swans linger on the economic horizon, while some of the very interests involved in the “Global Goals” are likewise putting the finishing touches on the Trans-Pacific trade agreement, designed to (not coincidentally) crush the nation state.
Such an ambitious program will cost, by the UN’s own estimate, as much as $5 trillion annually. A social makeover of this scale requires enlistment of ideologically-motivated shock troops from all walks of life to act as change agents in their own spheres. Thus a portion of such finances will be apportioned to thought and behavioral modification toward ideational acceptance of continued corporate ascendance, wealth and resource redistribution, and the breakdown of traditional borders that for better or worse have defined the human condition since the feudal era–from gender and common morality to the nation state. As the “Global Goals” website declares, “We are not a generation of bystanders. We are global citizens.”
Below is the campaign’s slickly produced promotional video.
Truthstream Media has developed a clever interpretation of the UN’s “Global Goals.” Unfortunately, these are by no means exaggerations but rather illustrate the hypocrisy of this campaign, which in reality involves an accelerated privatization of the commons and even our own bodies combined with elaborate psychological warfare to disguise such endeavors as social activism.
What’s that you say? You’re not on board? See you in the gulag, comrade.
Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Translation: Centralized banks, IMF, World Bank, Fed to control all finances, digital one world currency in a cashless society
Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Translation: Mass vaccination, Codex Alimentarius
Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Translation: UN propaganda, brainwashing through compulsory education from cradle to grave
Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Translation: Population control through forced “Family Planning”
Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Translation: Privatize all water sources, don’t forget to add fluoride
Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Translation: Smart grid with smart meters on everything, peak pricing
Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Translation: TPP, free trade zones that favor megacorporate interests
Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Translation: Toll roads, push public transit, remove free travel, environmental restrictions
Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries
Translation: Even more regional government bureaucracy like a mutant octopus
Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Translation: Big brother big data surveillance state
Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Translation: Forced austerity
Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*
Translation: Cap and Trade, carbon taxes/credits, footprint taxes
Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Translation: Environmental restrictions, control all oceans including mineral rights from ocean floors
Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Translation: More environmental restrictions, more controlling resources and mineral rights
Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Translation: UN “peacekeeping” missions (ex 1, ex 2), the International Court of (blind) Justice, force people together via fake refugee crises and then mediate with more “UN peacekeeping” when tension breaks out to gain more control over a region, remove 2nd Amendment in USA
Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
Translation: Remove national sovereignty worldwide, promote globalism under the “authority” and bloated, Orwellian bureaucracy of the UN
Akron, OH – After fleeing from government agents who wanted to kidnap her and put her through chemotherapy, an Amish girl who once had cancer is now entirely healthy. Sarah Hershberger, 12, was being treated at Akron Childrens Hospital, a government hospital, when the staff attempted to force her through chemotherapy despite the objections of her and her parents, Andy and Anna Hershberger.
In June of 2013, Sarah was receiving chemotherapy at the hospital and her parents were convinced that it was making her condition worse, and putting her at risk for many other long-term health problems.
“We were pretty sure we were going to lose her if we kept doing the chemo,” Anna Hershberger, Sarah’s mother said.
The parents began to object to the treatment and faced strong resistance from the hospital staff, who even took them to court and attempted to gain guardianship over Sarah. The doctors had testified that without receiving chemotherapy immediately, Sarah would die within six months.
The family stood firm in their denial of the treatment, which prompted an intense legal battle. At one point during the ordeal, the family was forced to flee the country so she was not kidnapped by the hospital. Eventually, the family won in court, and it was decided that they had a legal and constitutional right to treat the cancer as they saw fit.
Now, two years later, Sarah is not only still alive, but she is actually entirely healthy, and cancer-free.
According to court records released this week, Sarah is no longer showing symptoms of lymphoma and she is back to her regular life. This recovery is in spite of the fact that doctors insisted that she would die without chemotherapy, to the extent that they would attempt to take her away from her parents.
The mainstream media has been very pessimistic and cynical about Sarah’s case, and many of the media segments about her suggest that her family is irresponsible and that she is essentially on her deathbed. However, this is not the case, she is now healthy and has beaten cancer because her and her family decided to stand up against the strong-arm tactics of the state.
reason.tv produced a video report during the legal battle in 2013.
Scientist leading effort to prosecute climate skeptics under RICO ‘paid himself & his wife $1.5 million from govt climate grants for part-time work’
Leader of 20 scientist effort to prosecute climate skeptics under RICO revealed as ‘Climate Profiteer’! ‘From 2012-2014, the Leader of RICO 20 climate scientists paid himself and his wife $1.5 million from government climate grants for part-time work.
George Mason University Professor Jagadish Shukla ( email@example.com) a Lead Author with the UN IPCC, reportedly lavishly profits off the global warming industry while accusing climate skeptics of deceiving the public. Shukla is leader of 20 scientists who are demanding RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) charges be used against skeptics for disagreeing with their view on climate change.
Shukla reportedly moved his government grants through a ‘non-profit’. The group “pays Shukla and wife Anne $500,000 per year for part-time work,” Prof. Roger Pielke Jr. revealed.
“The $350,000-$400,000 per year paid leader of the RICO20 from his ‘non-profit’ was presumably on top of his $250,000 per year academic salary,” Pielke wrote. “That totals to $750,000 per year to the leader of the RICO20 from public money for climate work and going after skeptics. Good work if you can get it,” Pielke Jr. added.
You have signed the death warrant for science. – Peter Webster
In case you don’t know what RICO is (Wikipedia):
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as the RICO Act or simply RICO, is a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. The RICO Act focuses specifically on racketeering, and it allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for the crimes which they ordered others to do or assisted them, closing a perceived loophole that allowed a person who instructed someone else to, for example, murder, to be exempt from the trial because he did not actually commit the crime personally.
RICO was enacted by section 901(a) of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 While its original use in the 1970s was to prosecute the Mafia as well as others who were actively engaged in organized crime, its later application has been more widespread.
Senator Whitehouse has proposed to use RICO laws against climate change skeptics and fossil fuel companies, in a WaPo article The fossil fuel industry’s campaign to mislead the American public. Excerpts:
The Big Tobacco playbook looked something like this: (1) pay scientists to produce studies defending your product; (2) develop an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science; (3) relentlessly attack your opponents.
In the case of fossil fuels, just as with tobacco, the industry joined together in a common enterprise and coordinated strategy.
The tobacco industry was proved to have conducted research that showed the direct opposite of what the industry stated publicly — namely, that tobacco use had serious health effects. Civil discovery would reveal whether and to what extent the fossil fuel industry has crossed this same line. We do know that it has funded research that — to its benefit — directly contradicts the vast majority of peer-reviewed climate science. One scientist who consistently published papers downplaying the role of carbon emissions in climate change, Willie Soon, reportedly received more than half of his funding from oil and electric utility interests: more than $1.2 million.
The Weekly Standard has a hard hitting article: Senator Whitehouse: Use RICO laws to prosecute climate skeptics. Excerpts:
Obviously, there’s a lot of money hanging in the balance with regard to energy policy. But when does coordinating “a wide range of activities, including political lobbying, contributions to political candidates, and a large number of communication and media efforts” go from basic First Amendment expression to racketeering? The tobacco analogy is inappropriate in regards to how direct the link between smoking and cancer is. Even among those who do agree that global warming is a problem, there’s a tremendously wide variety of opinions about the practical effects. Who gets to decide whether someone is “downplaying the role of carbon emissions in climate change” relative to the consensus? If message coordination and lobbying on controversial scientific and political issues can be declared racketeering because the people funding such efforts have a financial interest in a predetermined outcome, we’re just going to have to outlaw everything that goes on in Washington, D.C.
In February, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., attempted a McCarthyite witch hunt against climate scientists he found disagreeable. And Sheldon Whitehouse is sitting U.S. Senator. He’s now publicly encouraging legal persecution of people who conduct scientific research and/or those that have opinions about it he disagrees with. He wrote this opinion in the Washington Post on Friday, and no one much noticed or batted an eye at the consequences of what he’s advocating here. Such calls for draconian restrictions on speech are becoming alarmingly regular. And if more people don’t start speaking out against it, sooner or later we’re actually going to end up in a place where people are being hauled into court for having an opinion that differs from politicians such as Senator Whitehouse.
20 U.S. climate scientists
When I first spotted this, I rolled my eyes – another day, more insane U.S. climate politics. What really motivated this post is the following letter, from 20 U.S. climate scientists. Letter reproduced in full [link]:
Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren
September 1, 2015
Dear President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren,
As you know, an overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced about the potentially serious adverse effects of human-induced climate change on human health, agriculture, and biodiversity. We applaud your efforts to regulate emissions and the other steps you are taking. Nonetheless, as climate scientists we are exceedingly concerned that America’s response to climate change – indeed, the world’s response to climate change – is insufficient. The risks posed by climate change, including increasing extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and increasing ocean acidity – and potential strategies for addressing them – are detailed in the Third National Climate Assessment (2014), Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The stability of the Earth’s climate over the past ten thousand years contributed to the growth of agriculture and therefore, a thriving human civilization. We are now at high risk of seriously destabilizing the Earth’s climate and irreparably harming people around the world, especially the world’s poorest people.
We appreciate that you are making aggressive and imaginative use of the limited tools available to you in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change. The actions of these organizations have been extensively documented in peerreviewed academic research (Brulle, 2013) and in recent books including: Doubt is their Product (Michaels, 2008), Climate Cover-Up (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009), Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), The Climate War (Pooley, 2010), and in The Climate Deception Dossiers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015). We strongly endorse Senator Whitehouse’s call for a RICO investigation.
The methods of these organizations are quite similar to those used earlier by the tobacco industry. A RICO investigation (1999 to 2006) played an important role in stopping the tobacco industry from continuing to deceive the American people about the dangers of smoking. If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.
Jagadish Shukla, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Edward Maibach, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Paul Dirmeyer, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Barry Klinger, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Paul Schopf, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
David Straus, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Edward Sarachik, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Michael Wallace, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Alan Robock, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
William Lau, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO
T.N. Krishnamurti, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Vasu Misra, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Ben Kirtman, University of Miami, Miami, FL
Robert Dickinson, University of Texas, Austin, TX
Michela Biasutti, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
Mark Cane, Columbia University, New York, NY
Lisa Goddard, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
Alan Betts, Atmospheric Research, Pittsford, VT
I am familiar with all of these names, and know a few of them fairly well. The list includes several members of the National Academy of Science, and numerous IPCC authors. Apart from Trenberth and Robock, as far as I know, none of these individuals have made previous public/political statements about climate change. In fact, one of them told me (say a decade ago), that he had worked hard to keep his head below the radar and stay out of all the politics and the fighting. Another (Mike Wallace) wrote a jacket blurb for Roger Pielke Jr’s latest book The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (note: Pielke Jr was one of the Grijalvi 7).
My first reaction was that this was some kind of joke, or that some of these individuals didn’t know what they were signing. The document originated from the Institute of Global Environment and Society, of which Jagadish Shukla is President (and first signatory, and presumably the instigator). So it seems that at least the 6 individuals associated with the IGES knew what they were signing.
The quote from Peter Webster at the start of this post was included in an email that he sent to one of the signatories. The (anonymous) response:
After reading Senator Whitehouse op ed in the Washington Post, I thought the senator should be supported by the scientific community. Similarities with the tobacco industry are compelling. This is just a small step for me to get engaged with social/policy relevant issues.
Forgive them (?)
Well, that letter reflects, at best, a great deal of naiveté by the signatory. Perhaps some of them had their arm twisted by the instigators/advocates, and were just trying to be collegial.
To paraphrase the other JC:
Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Dear signatories of this letter:
I will try to clarify here what you have done, and why it is wrong.
First, you have been duped by the Merchants of Doubt book/movie. See my previous blog post Bankruptcy of the ‘merchants of doubt’ meme, which includes reviews by other social scientists.
Second, the consensus on human caused climate change is not as overwhelming as you seem to think. See my recent blog post The conceits of consensus, which includes a detailed analysis of an extensive survey of climate scientists (not to mention extensive critiques of the Cook et al. analysis).
Third, the source of funding is not the only bias in research, and the greatest bias does not necessarily come from industry funding, see these posts:
- Conflicts of interest in climate science
- Is federal funding biasing research?
- Industry funding and bias
- Industry funding: witch hunts
- Scientific integrity versus ideologically fueled research
Fourth, scientists disagree about the causes of climate change for the following reasons:
- Insufficient observational evidence
- Disagreement about the value of different classes of evidence (e.g. models)
- Disagreement about the appropriate logical framework for linking and assessing the evidence
- Assessments of areas of ambiguity and ignorance
- Belief polarization as a result of politicization of the science
The biggest disagreement however is about whether warming is ‘dangerous’ (values) and whether we can/should do something about it (politics). Why do you think your opinion, as scientists, matters on values and politics?
Fifth, what you have done with this letter is advocacy. This is a very dicey role for a scientist to play, fraught with reputational and ethical land mines. Here are several essays on this topic, written from a range of perspectives:
- (Ir)responsible advocacy by scientists
- Ins and outs of the ivory tower
- The adversarial method versus Feynman integrity
- Advocacy science and decision making
- Too much advocacy?
- Refocusing debate about advocacy
- Rethinking climate advocacy
- Ethics of communicating scientific uncertainty
- Tamsin on scientists and policy advocacy
- Mann on advocacy and responsibility
- Climate scientists joining advocacy groups
- Science, uncertainty and advocacy
What you have done with your letter is the worst kind of irresponsible advocacy, which is to attempt to silence scientists that disagree with you by invoking RICO. It is bad enough that politicians such as Whitehouse and Grijalvi are playing this sort of political game with science and scientists, but I regard it as highly unethical for scientists to support defeating scientists with whom you disagree by such methods. Since I was one of the scientists called out in Grijalvi’s witch hunts, I can only infer that I am one of the scientists you are seeking to silence.
Peter Webster did not exaggerate when he wrote:
You have signed the death warrant for science.
The long-awaited (and long overdue) PAGES2K synthesis of 57 high-resolution ocean sediment series (OCEAN2K) was published a couple of weeks ago (see here here). Co-author Michael Evans’ announcement made the results sound like the latest and perhaps most dramatic Hockey Stick yet:
Today, the Earth is warming about 20 times faster than it cooled during the past 1,800 years,” said Michael Evans, second author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC). “This study truly highlights the profound effects we are having on our climate today.”
A couple of news outlets announced its release with headlines like “1,800 years of global ocean cooling halted by global warming”, but the the event passed unnoticed at realclimate and the newest “Hockey Stick” was somehow omitted from David Appell’s list of bladed objects.
The OCEAN2K Reconstruction
One of the reasons for the strange lack of interest in this newest proxy “Hockey Stick” was that the proxy data didn’t actually show “the climate was warming about 20 times faster than it cooled during the past 1,800 years”. The OCEAN2K reconstruction (see Figure 1 below) had a shape that even David Appell would be hard-pressed to describe as a “Hockey Stick”. It showed a small decrease over the past two millennia with the most recent value having a tiny uptick from its predecessor, but, whatever image one might choose to describe its shape, “Hockey Stick” is not one of them.
FAQ Figure 1: Results of the global sea surface temperature compilation from Ocean2k: A cooling over the past two millenium was reversed only in the most recent two centuries. Fifty-seven previously published and publicly available marine sea surface temperature reconstructions were combined and compiled into 200-year brackets, represented by the boxes. The thin horizontal lines dividing each box are the median of the values in that box. The thick blue line is the median of these values weighted for differences in the region of the global ocean in which they were found. (More in Figure 2a in the paper and Supplementary Table S13. ) Link
It seems to be all over the place!
– 27 February, 2015
By Seth Borenstein and Luis Andres
“Glacial Melting In Antarctica Makes Continent The ‘Ground Zero Of Global Climate Change‘
…Parts of Antarctica are melting so rapidly it has become ‘ground zero of global climate change without a doubt,’ said Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica…”
– March 2010
“Barrow, Alaska: ‘Ground Zero for Climate Change’”
“At climate change’s ‘Ground Zero‘
COUTONOU, BENIN – Women are most vulnerable but also a resource for survival
(UPDATED) – Here at the fringes of climate change’s ‘Ground Zero’, no mourning bell tolls for the women who are most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts,…”
– August 1, 2012
“The Southwest: Ground Zero for Global Warming
Experts warn that the American Southwest will be the part of the nation hit first, worst and hardest by global warming…”
– August 1, 2015
“…Most sentient people in what we like to call the Sunshine State already knew that Florida was Ground Zero for climate change…”
“Ground zero for climate change
Former CEJ environmental journalism fellow Susan Moran reports from Palmer Station in Antarctica“
– 13 September 2013
“Agate Beach: Ground zero for new research on Global Warming and resulting ocean behavior
There is some commotion going on at Agate Beach these days as ocean scientists set up equipment to measure wave ‘run up’…”
“With rising waters in South Beach, FDOT busy on Alton Road drainage
Alton Road may be Ground Zero for climate change as flooding woes have environmentalists and activists warning about the effects of sea-level rise.”
– July 9, 2014
“Safe Coast Virginia: Report Offers Bold Flooding and Climate Action Plan
…Coastal Hampton Roads is already ground zero for climate change impacts in Virginia. By the year 2100, sea levels are projected to rise by as much as seven feet or more, …”
– 2 June 2008
“SAHEL: Region is ‘ground zero’ for climate change – Egeland
The Sahel region of West Africa is ‘ground zero’ for vulnerable communities struggling to adapt to climate change, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on conflict, Jan Egeland, said…”
– April 22, 2014
“Spending Earth Day at Ground Zero for Climate Change In America
…..Dr. Sellers remembered catching a glimpse of the Florida peninsula between his boots during a spacewalk……
Now that climate is changing, and as Nelson said at the start of the South Florida hearing: ‘This is Ground Zero.’…”
– January 28, 2014
“In a Global Warming World: Protect and Rebuild or Retreat?
Hurricane Sandy decimated coastal communities. Now what?
Consider, for instance, that a full-bore retreat would mean abandoning such historic sites as Ground Zero — a scenario that any New Yorker, let alone a mayor, would find hard to stomach….”
“Canadian north offers ‘ground zero’ view of global warming
‘This is really ground zero for global warming,’ said Will Steger, a 62-year-old Minnesotan who has been traveling the region for 43 years and has witnessed the impact of warming…”
– Oct 15, 2011
“Maldives, Ground Zero for Climate Change Impacts
If there is a ground zero for observing the impacts of a changing global climate the Maldives are definitely a front-runner…”
“Heart Of The Arctic: A Dispatch From Ground Zero For Climate Change
…I’m standing at ground zero for climate change. Nowhere else on Earth is it warming as quickly as in Greenland, the world’s largest island.”
“APR–MAY | 2009
…In our region, a rise of one metre would effectively put the small Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu at ground zero,…”
“A Journey Across the Ground Zero of Global Warming
…Bangladesh is a flat, low-lying land made of silt, squeezed in between the melting mountains of the Himalayas and the rising seas of the Bay of Bengal. As the world warms, the sea is swelling – and wiping Bangladesh off the map…”
– November 18, 2011
“India’s Climate Change Ground Zero
…the annual monsoon, and this season’s rains, which ended a few weeks ago, were a constant topic of conversation during the five days I’ve just spent traveling around the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. U.P., as people call it here,…”
– 8 September 2008
“The Ground Zero of Climate Change
Antarctica’s Whillans Ice Stream helps researchers predict climate change—and the fate of coastal cities around the world.
…It’s a typical summer afternoon on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. …”
– December 05, 2008
“Climate change ‘ground zero’ is far north Queensland
FORGET the melting ice caps – when it comes to climate change, Queensland’s vulnerable reef and rainforest is Australia’s ‘canary in the coalmine’.
According to experts, north Queensland is ‘ground zero’ for global warming…”
– Feb 17, 2013
The U.S. is ground zero for climate change
“…As climate change heats up the north Atlantic, the U.S. will heat up and dry out. Last summer was just the beginning of the catastrophic warming that will cause droughts that make the dust bowl look like the salad days…”
“The Powder River Basin — Ground Zero in Confronting the Climate Crisis
Getting to the Root of the Problem”
Post and Courier – Mar 24 2013
“Charleston ‘ground zero’ for climate change
…Future generations may look back on 2012 as the year the majority of our country took climate destabilization seriously,…..
…Climate change brings an added urgency to the Holy City. We are at its ‘ground zero’ with the emissions of the industrial economy…”
– 15 August 2014
“Caribbean population need to be more informed on climate change
…’For countries that we claim, correctly, are at ground zero of climate change, our populations are alarmingly un-informed of the wide -ranging impacts of this global crisis.’…
“Oceans and Coasts
How We Work to Adapt to Climate Change
Oceans and coasts are ground zero for climate change, and we’re helping people and marine life adapt.”
– 5 December 2014
“Cities in Climate Change Danger, Warns Captain Planet
[Cities: ground zero for climate change…]
But urban locations may also be ground zero for climate change, both as perpetrators of a warming atmosphere and as victims of its multi-tiered effects. So says Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia…”
– Feb 17, 2010
“In the Tropical Forests of Sumatra: Notes from Climate Change “Ground Zero”
…While Indonesia is often referred to as Ground Zero of climate change, Palembang should be considered one of its most telling monuments…”
– 8 November 2012
“Arctic Archipelago: Ground Zero For Climate Change
….Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic, constituting the northernmost part of Norway. The archipelago features an Arctic climate, …”
– November 12, 2013
“Why the Philippines Is Ground Zero for Super Storms …And Why Recovery Is So Difficult
…Philippines negotiator Naderev Saño made an emotional plea to his peers, asking them to finally establish an international mechanism for addressing losses and damages linked to climate change…”
“Beaver and Climate Change
They are the West’s most savvy water engineers. Here on the Colorado Plateau, ground zero for climate change, we humans have a lot to learn from these furry creatures…Please spread the word to anyone who might enjoy and benefit from this opportunity to talk beaver!”
“Utah is Ground Zero for Global Warming?”
A federal appeals court in the US has rejected a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to approve an insecticide harmful to honeybees without proper verification of the chemical’s effects.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Thursday that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) improperly approved and registered the pesticide sulfoxaflor, made by Dow AgroSciences, in violation of the agency’s regulatory protocol.
Environmentalists and representatives of the honey and beekeeping industries said sulfoxalfor is a type of insecticide chemical known as a neonicotinoid that is associated with mass death among bee populations worldwide.
The court agreed with sulfoxaflor’s neonicotinoid status in its ruling, finding that the EPA based its regulatory decision on “flawed and limited data,” and that sulfoxaflor approval was not based around “substantial evidence.”
The EPA used studies and materials provided by Dow to assess the chemical’s effects on bees and other species. Based on insufficient data given to it by Dow, the agency proposed certain conditions on the approval of the chemical, the court found.
Yet the EPA went ahead with unconditional registration anyway even though Dow had not met those conditions or offered updated studies, the court said.
“Given the precariousness of bee populations, leaving the EPA’s registration of sulfoxaflor in place risks more potential environmental harm than vacating it,” the ruling stated, adding that the EPA must provide more data on impacts of sulfoxaflor before moving forward with the chemical.
“It’s a complete victory for the beekeepers we represent,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney representing the American Honey Producers Association, the American Beekeeping Federation, and other plaintiffs, according to Reuters. “The EPA has not been very vigilant.”
Dow AgroSciences, a division of Dow Chemical Co., first registered sulfoxalfor in 2010 for use in three of its products, including the brands Transform and Closer. In a statement, Dow said it “respectfully disagrees” with the court’s ruling and that it intends to “work with EPA to implement the order and to promptly complete additional regulatory work to support the registration of the products.”
The EPA said it will review the ruling, but offered no further comment to Reuters.
The plaintiffs in the case filed a lawsuit against the EPA in late 2013, arguing the EPA’s approval process of the chemical fell short of its legal oversight demands. Shortly before the EPA cleared sulfoxalfor in May 2013, the European Union enacted a two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides (sulfoxaflor is considered by many to be a “fourth-generation neonicotinoid”) in light of scientific studies that indicate their harm to bees.
The suit was the first to invoke the US Endangered Species Act to protect bees, claiming the EPA violated the act by not sufficiently considering the impact of pesticides on honeybees and other imperiled wildlife categorized as threatened or endangered under federal law. Bees pollinate plants that are responsible for at least a quarter of Americans’ food.
Neonicotinoids were developed in the 1990s to boost yields of staple crops such as corn, but they are also widely used on annual and perennial plants in lawns and gardens. Researchers believe the neonicotinoids are causing some kind of unknown biological mechanism in bees that in turn leads to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
CCD has led to the deaths of tens of millions of honeybees in the US, with annual death rates of about 30 percent. A 2013 US Department of Agriculture study reported that CCD has caused the devastation of an estimated 10 million beehives. This year, the USDA said that 42.1 of managed honeybee colonies were lost from April 2014 to April 2015, the second-highest annual loss on record.
Pesticide producers argue that the current massive bee die-off worldwide is not caused by chemicals, but mite infestations and other factors.
Honeybees pollinate more than 100 US crops – including apples, zucchinis, avocados, and plums – that are worth more than $200 billion a year.
“Wars are complex. They come out of nowhere and all of a sudden, people you’ve never heard of are killing each other on the evening news.”
So begins this rather patronising piece on Upworthy that attempts to explain in a digestible format what is happening in Syria. Entitled ‘Trying to follow what is going on in Syria and why? This comic will get you there in 5 minutes’, the article presents a neat, but ultimately misleading and reductive narrative, which argues that drought caused by climate change is primarily responsible for the war in Syria. Somewhat regrettably, it has been shared widely over the internet since it was published last week. Presumably it is being read (and shared) by people who are confused by events in Syria and want to find an easy framework with which to understand them.
Even for a piece that is explicitly intended for the layman, it is highly simplistic, misleadingly so. There is no doubt that the major drought witnessed in Syria between 2006 and 2011 had a catastrophic environmental and societal impact on the country, but it is not the over-arching cause of the war. The article is also littered with inaccuracies and has many glaring omissions, including the central role of foreign powers in the war, notably the US. For instance, there is no mention of the US’ long-standing effort (in co-ordination with Saudi Arabia) to encourage Islamic fundamentalism and sectarianism in Syria in order to weaken the Syrian Government at any cost (as revealed by WikiLeaks) and no mention of the CIA’s enormous Syria operation that has cost at least $1bn and trained and armed nearly 10,000 fighters sent to fight in Syria since the war began. But it is something else in the piece that – due to personal experience – I found especially problematic. The piece claims that in response to the drought crisis, “Bashar Al Assad’s Government offered little help” (the word Government is omitted in the article itself, this appears to be an editorial oversight).
In 2009, when the enormous scale of the drought in Syria was becoming clear, I was a research intern at the British Embassy in Damascus. In this role, one of my responsibilities was to attend briefings and events arranged by international organisations and other embassies and report my findings back to the UK Embassy. Therefore, when I read the phrase “offered little help”, I was immediately reminded of a UN briefing that I attended in Damascus in July 2009. As soon as I consulted my original notes from the briefing, the flagrant inaccuracy – if not outright dishonesty – of this wording struck me. At this briefing, the UN Drought Joint Needs Assessment Mission (or the JNA), chaired by Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (now the Head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response), reported to international (primarily western) donors the findings of a field mission that the JNA had conducted in Eastern Syria in June 2009. In his presentation, Ahmed praised the response of the Syrian Government more than once but argued that given the enormous scale of the problem, further action from it was needed. He also summarised the measures that the government had already taken, these included the following:
*A food assistance programme that was supplementing the World Food Program’s efforts. 27,000-30,000 families were guaranteed support until December 2009.
* Livestock feed had been subsidised.
* Outstanding loans of farmers had been re-scheduled and micro-credit loans offered to them.
* New teachers had been hired for affected regions.
* Establishment of a government fund specifically for agricultural subsidies and support.
Representatives of the Syrian Government appeared alongside the UN at the meeting; The Director of Planning from the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture and the Deputy Head of the State Planning Commission. Both these Syrian officials stressed the severity and unprecedented scale of the drought and stated explicitly that the government was struggling to cope with its impact. They openly asked for financial assistance (both short- and long-term) from international donors and stated that the Syrian Government’s efforts alone would not be sufficient to cope. During the briefing a number of funding options were offered to international donors by the UN. These included food distribution for 300,000 people (priced at $29.9m) and water projects including reverse osmosis units and rehabilitation of wells (priced at $2.1m). An overall aid target of $50m was set; a figure that I remember many in the room thought was wholly unrealistic since only $4m had been donated by the same countries/groups the previous year.
In light of this context, the article’s premise that the government “offered little help” is, at best, an unfair and inaccurate simplification of how the Syrian Government actually responded to the drought. At worst, it is an intentional and dishonest attempt to obscure the government’s evident attempts to solve the crisis and mitigate its impact. The reality is that the Syrian Government was simply overwhelmed by the scale of the drought (and its subsequent effects); it did not possess the ability – financial, logistical and otherwise – to respond adequately to it and did not receive sufficient funding from international donors to help account for this deficiency. After that meeting, I remember my impression of the Syrian officials was of two overwhelmed and worried government employees who were acutely aware of the scale of the emergency and the dire need for international assistance but, given the numerous enemies Syria faced, were wary of appearing overly weak in front of an international audience.
Although to some this might seem a relatively unimportant clarification, it is reflective of a much broader trend in reporting on Syria; the constant reduction of the entire Syrian Government/State to simply ‘Assad’ (also the ‘Assad regime’ or ‘Assad’s Government’) and a small group of Alawite ‘thugs’, as if Syria lacked national institutions and infrastructures that although often dysfunctional, have existed and developed over decades, and are staffed by many thousands of government employees. Leader-focused framing such as this plays a central role in legitimising the West’s aggression against entire nation-states (think Gaddafi, Saddam, Milosevic et al) and inevitably, to observe such a fact often means being labelled “pro-Assad” or “pro-Qaddafi” etc. Such is the simplistic portrayal of the ‘Assad regime’ in much of the Western media, that I am sure many in the West would be surprised to learn that Syria even had a Deputy Head of the State Planning Commission or a Director of Planning at the Ministry of Agriculture.
The media’s constant use of ‘Assad’ and ‘regime’ obscures the reality that the government is not a homogenous entity, and that many ‘regime’ officials are simply bureaucrats, technical experts and civil servants, not murderous, sectarian thugs as is so often the impression. After all, Khaled al-Asaad, the former Head of Antiquities at Palmyra who was murdered by ISIS in August was a ‘regime’ official and had been so for forty years. While his murder was unanimously condemned and al-Asaad was – rightfully so – widely mourned by the Western press, the awkward fact that he was a government employee was conveniently downplayed. In the same way, the image of Syrian Government officials in the midst of a drought crisis, outlining the bureaucratic steps taken by the government to date, expressing real concern for the future and pleading for help from international donors does not fit the narrative of ‘Assad and his regime thugs’ and so was ignored.
Ultimately, any article that purports to explain an extremely complex topic in “five minutes” should be treated with extreme scepticism and the utmost caution, and this piece is no exception to that rule.
Louis Allday is a PhD candidate at SOAS based in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Louis_Allday
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a move to eliminate the “Linear No-Threshold” (LNT) basis of radiation protection that the U.S. has used for decades and replace it with the “radiation hormesis” theory—which holds that low doses of radioactivity are good for people.
The change is being pushed by “a group of pro-nuclear fanatics—there is really no other way to describe them,” charges the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) based near Washington, D.C.
“If implemented, the hormesis model would result in needless death and misery,” says Michael Mariotte, NIRS president. The current U.S. requirement that nuclear plant operators reduce exposures to the public to “as low as reasonably achievable” would be “tossed out the window. Emergency planning zones would be significantly reduced or abolished entirely. Instead of being forced to spend money to limit radiation releases, nuclear utilities could pocket greater profits. In addition, adoption of the radiation model by the NRC would throw the entire government’s radiation protection rules into disarray, since other agencies, like the EPA, also rely on the LNT model.”
“If anything,” says Mariotte, “the NRC radiation standards need to be strengthened.”
The NRC has a set a deadline of November 19 for people to comment on the proposed change. The public can send comments to the U.S. government’s “regulations” website.
Comments can also be sent by regular mail to: Secretary, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001, Attention: Rulemakings and Adjudications Staff. Docket ID. Needed to be noted on any letter is the code NRC-2015-0057.
If the NRC agrees to the switch, “This would be the most significant and alarming change to U.S. federal policy on nuclear radiation,” reports the online publication Nuclear-News. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission may decide that exposure to ionizing radiation is beneficial—from nuclear bombs, nuclear power plants, depleted uranium, x-rays and Fukushima,” notes Nuclear-News. “No protective measures or public safety warnings would be considered necessary. Clean-up measures could be sharply reduced… In a sense, this would legalize what the government is already doing—failing to protect the public and promoting nuclear radiation.”
In the wake of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. crash program during World War II to build atomic bombs and the spin-offs of that program—led by nuclear power plants, there was a belief, for a time, that there was a certain “threshold” below which radioactivity wasn’t dangerous.
But as the years went by it became clear there was no threshold—that any amount of radiation could injure and kill, that there was no “safe” dose.
Low levels of radioactivity didn’t cause people to immediately sicken or die. But, it was found, after a “latency” or “incubation” period of several years, the exposure could then result in illness and death.
Thus, starting in the 1950s, the “Linear No-Threshold” standard was adopted by the governments of the U.S. and other countries and international agencies.
It holds that radioactivity causes health damage—in particular cancer—directly proportional to dose, and that there is no “threshold.” Moreover, because the effects of radiation are cumulative, the sum of several small exposures are considered to have the same effect as one larger exposure, something called “response linearity.”
The LNT standard has presented a major problem for those involved in developing nuclear technology notably at the national nuclear laboratories established for the Manhattan Project—Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Argonne national laboratories—and those later set up as the Manhattan Project was turned into the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
On one hand, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, declared in New Scientist magazine in 1972: “If a cure for cancer is found the problem of radiation standards disappear.”
Meanwhile, other nuclear proponents began pushing a theory they named “radiation hormesis” that claimed that the LNT standard was incorrect and that a little amount of radioactivity was good for people.
A leader in the U.S. advocating hormesis has been Dr. T. D. Luckey. A biochemistry professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and visiting scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, he authored the book Hormesis and Ionizing Radiation and Radiation Hormesis and numerous articles. In one, “Radiation Hormesis Overiew,” he contends: “We need more, not less, exposure to ionizing radiation. The evidence that ionizing radiation is an essential agent has been reviewed… There is proven benefit.” He contends that radioactivity “activates the immune system.” Dr. Luckey further holds: “The trillions of dollars estimated for worldwide nuclear waste management can be reduced to billions to provide safe, low-dose irradiation to improve our health. The direction is obvious; the first step remains to be taken.” And he wrote: “Evidence of health benefits and longer average life-span following low-dose irradiation should replace fear.”
A 2011 story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch quoted Dr. Luckey as saying “if we get more radiation, we’d live a more healthful life” and also noted that he kept on a shelf in his bedroom a rock “the size of a small bowling ball, dotted with flecks of uranium, spilling invisible rays” It reported that “recently” Dr. Luckey “noticed a small red splotch on his lower back. It looked like a mild sunburn, the first sign of too much radiation. So he pushed the rock back on the shelf, a few inches farther away, just to be safe.”
At Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), set up by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 to develop civilian uses of nuclear technology and conduct research in atomic science, a highly active proponent of hormesis has been Dr. Ludwig E. Feinendegen. Holding posts as a professor in his native Germany and a BNL scientist, he authored numerous papers advocating hormesis. In a 2005 article published in the British Journal of Radiology he wrote of “beneficial low level radiation effects” and asserted that the “LNT hypothesis for cancer risk is scientifically unfounded and appears to be invalid in favor of a threshold or hormesis.”
The three petitions to the NRC asking it scuttle the LNT standard and replace it with the hormesis theory were submitted by Dr. Mohan Doss on behalf of the organization Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information; Dr. Carol Marcus of the UCLA medical school; and Mark Miller, a health physicist at Sandia National Laboratories.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service points out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or EPA is fully supportive of LNT.
The agency’s reason for accepting LNT—and history of the standard—were spelled out in 2009 by Dr. Jerome Puskin, chief of its Radiation Protection Division.
The EPA, Dr. Puskin states, “is responsible for protecting the public from environmental exposures to radiation. To meet this objective the agency sets regulatory limits on radionuclide concentrations in air, water, and soil.” The agency bases its “protective exposure limits” on “scientific advisory bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Ionizing Radiation, and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, with additional input from its own independent review.” The LNT standard, he writes, “has been repeatedly endorsed” by all of these bodies.
“It is difficult to imagine any relaxation in this approach unless there is convincing evidence that LNT greatly overestimates risk at the low doses of interest,” Dr. Puskin goes on, and “no such change can be expected” in view of the determination of the National Academies of Sciences’ BEIR VII committee. (BEIR is for Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation.)
BEIR VII found that “the balance of evidence from epidemiologic, animal and mechanistic studies tend to favor a simple proportionate relationship at low doses between radiation dose and cancer risk.”
As chair of the BEIR VII committee, Dr. Richard Monson, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, said in 2005 on issuance of its report: “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial.”
A European expert on radioactivity, Dr. Ian Fairlie, who as an official in the British government worked on radiation risks and has been a consultant on radiation matters to the European Parliament and other government entities, has presented detailed comments to the NRC on the petitions that it drop LNT and adopt the hormesis theory.
Dr. Fairlie says “the scientific evidence for the LNT is plentiful, powerful and persuasive.” He summarizes many studies done in Europe and the United States including BEIR VII. As to the petitions to the NRC, “my conclusion is that they do not merit serious consideration.” They “appear to be based on preconceptions or even ideology, rather than the scientific evidence which points in the opposite direction.”
An additional issue in the situation involves how fetuses and children “are the most vulnerable” to radiation and women “more vulnerable than men,” states an online petition opposing the change. It was put together by the organization Beyond Nuclear, also based near Washington, D.C. It is headed “Protect children from radiation exposure” and advises: “Tell NRC: A little radiation is BAD for you. It can give you cancer and other diseases.” It continues: “NRC should NOT adopt a ‘little radiation is good for you’ model. Instead, they should fully protect the most vulnerable which they are failing to do now.”
How might the commissioners of the NRC decide the issue? Like the Atomic Energy Commission which it grew out of, the NRC is an unabashed booster of nuclear technology and long devoted to drastically downplaying the dangers of radioactivity. A strong public stand—many negative comments—over their deciding that radioactivity is “good” for you could impact on their positions.
By training, I am a plant biologist. In the early 1990s I was busy making genetically modified plants (often called GMOs for Genetically Modified Organisms) as part of the research that led to my PhD. Into these plants we were putting DNA from various foreign organisms, such as viruses and bacteria.
I was not, at the outset, concerned about the possible effects of GM plants on human health or the environment. One reason for this lack of concern was that I was still a very young scientist, feeling my way in the complex world of biology and of scientific research. Another reason was that we hardly imagined that GMOs like ours would be grown or eaten. So far as I was concerned, all GMOs were for research purposes only.
Gradually, however, it became clear that certain companies thought differently. Some of my older colleagues shared their skepticism with me that commercial interests were running far ahead of scientific knowledge. I listened carefully and I didn’t disagree. Today, over twenty years later, GMO crops, especially soybeans, corn, papaya, canola and cotton, are commercially grown in numerous parts of the world.
Depending on which country you live in, GMOs may be unlabeled and therefore unknowingly abundant in your diet. Processed foods (e.g. chips, breakfast cereals, sodas) are likely to contain ingredients from GMO crops, because they are often made from corn or soy. Most agricultural crops, however, are still non-GMO, including rice, wheat, barley, oats, tomatoes, grapes and beans.
For meat eaters the nature of GMO consumption is different. There are no GMO animals used in farming (although GM salmon has been pending FDA approval since 1993); however, animal feed, especially in factory farms or for fish farming, is likely to be GMO corn and GMO soybeans. In which case the labeling issue, and potential for impacts on your health, are complicated.
I now believe, as a much more experienced scientist, that GMO crops still run far ahead of our understanding of their risks. In broad outline, the reasons for this belief are quite simple. I have become much more appreciative of the complexity of biological organisms and their capacity for benefits and harms. As a scientist I have become much more humble about the capacity of science to do more than scratch the surface in its understanding of the deep complexity and diversity of the natural world. To paraphrase a cliché, I more and more appreciate that as scientists we understand less and less.
The Flawed Processes of GMO Risk Assessment
Some of my concerns with GMOs are “just” practical ones. I have read numerous GMO risk assessment applications. These are the documents that governments rely on to ‘prove’ their safety. Though these documents are quite long and quite complex, their length is misleading in that they primarily ask (and answer) trivial questions. Furthermore, the experiments described within them are often very inadequate and sloppily executed. Scientific controls are often missing, procedures and reagents are badly described, and the results are often ambiguous or uninterpretable. I do not believe that this ambiguity and apparent incompetence is accidental. It is common, for example, for multinational corporations, whose labs have the latest equipment, to use outdated methodologies. When the results show what the applicants want, nothing is said. But when the results are inconvenient, and raise red flags, they blame the limitations of the antiquated method. This bulletproof logic, in which applicants claim safety no matter what the data shows, or how badly the experiment was performed, is routine in formal GMO risk assessment.
To any honest observer, reading these applications is bound to raise profound and disturbing questions: about the trustworthiness of the applicants and equally of the regulators. They are impossible to reconcile with a functional regulatory system capable of protecting the public.
The Dangers of GMOs
Aside from grave doubts about the quality and integrity of risk assessments, I also have specific science-based concerns over GMOs. I emphasise the ones below because they are important but are not on the lists that GMO critics often make.
Many GMO plants are engineered to contain their own insecticides. These GMOs, which include maize, cotton and soybeans, are called Bt plants. Bt plants get their name because they incorporate a transgene that makes a protein-based toxin (usually called the Cry toxin) from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Many Bt crops are “stacked,” meaning they contain a multiplicity of these Cry toxins. Their makers believe each of these Bt toxins is insect-specific and safe. However, there are multiple reasons to doubt both safety and specificity. One concern is that Bacillus thuringiensis is all but indistinguishable from the well known anthrax bacterium (Bacillus anthracis). Another reason is that Bt insecticides share structural similarities with ricin. Ricin is a famously dangerous plant toxin, a tiny amount of which was used to assassinate the Bulgarian writer and defector Georgi Markov in 1978. A third reason for concern is that the mode of action of Bt proteins is not understood (Vachon et al 2012); yet, it is axiomatic in science that effective risk assessment requires a clear understanding of the mechanism of action of any GMO transgene. This is so that appropriate experiments can be devised to affirm or refute safety. These red flags are doubly troubling because some Cry proteins are known to be toxic towards isolated human cells (Mizuki et al., 1999). Yet we put them in our food crops.
A second concern follows from GMOs being often resistant to herbicides. This resistance is an invitation to farmers to spray large quantities of herbicides, and many do. As research recently showed, commercial soybeans routinely contain quantities of the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) that its maker, Monsanto, once described as “extreme” (Bøhn et al 2014).
Glyphosate has been in the news recently because the World Health Organisation no longer considers it a relatively harmless chemical, but there are other herbicides applied to GMOs which are easily of equal concern. The herbicide Glufosinate (phosphinothricin, made by Bayer) kills plants because it inhibits the important plant enzyme glutamine synthetase. This enzyme is ubiquitous, however, it is found also in fungi, bacteria and animals. Consequently, Glufosinate is toxic to most organisms. Glufosinate is also a neurotoxin of mammals that doesn’t easily break down in the environment (Lantz et al. 2014). Glufosinate is thus a “herbicide” in name only.
Thus, even in conventional agriculture, the use of glufosinate is hazardous; but With GMO plants the situation is worse yet. With GMOs, glufosinate is sprayed on to the crop but its degradation in the plant is blocked by the transgene, which chemically modifies it slightly. This is why the GMO plant is resistant to it; but the other consequence is that when you eat Bayers’ Glufosinate-resistant GMO maize or canola, even weeks or months later, glufosinate, though slightly modified, is probably still there (Droge et al., 1992). Nevertheless, though the health hazard of glufosinate is much greater with GMOs, the implications of this science have been ignored in GMO risk assessments of Glufosinate-tolerant GMO crops.
A yet further reason to be concerned about GMOs is that most of them contain a viral sequence called the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) promoter (or they contain the similar figwort mosaic virus (FMV) promoter). Two years ago, the GMO safety agency of the European Union (EFSA) discovered that both the CaMV promoter and the FMV promoter had wrongly been assumed by them (for almost 20 years) not to encode any proteins. In fact, the two promoters encode a large part of a small multifunctional viral protein that misdirects all normal gene expression and that also turns off a key plant defence against pathogens. EFSA tried to bury their discovery. Unfortunately for them, we spotted their findings in an obscure scientific journal. This revelation forced EFSA and other regulators to explain why they had overlooked the probability that consumers were eating an untested viral protein.
This list of significant scientific concerns about GMOs is by no means exhaustive. For example, there are novel GMOs coming on the market, such as those using double stranded RNAs (dsRNAs), that have the potential for even greater risks (Latham and Wilson 2015).
The True Purpose of GMOs
Science is not the only grounds on which GMOs should be judged. The commercial purpose of GMOs is not to feed the world or improve farming. Rather, they exist to gain intellectual property (i.e. patent rights) over seeds and plant breeding and to drive agriculture in directions that benefit agribusiness. This drive is occurring at the expense of farmers, consumers and the natural world. US Farmers, for example, have seen seed costs nearly quadruple and seed choices greatly narrow since the introduction of GMOs. The fight over GMOs is not of narrow importance. It affects us all.
Nevertheless, specific scientific concerns are crucial to the debate. I left science in large part because it seemed impossible to do research while also providing the unvarnished public scepticism that I believed the public, as ultimate funder and risk-taker of that science, was entitled to.
Criticism of science and technology remains very difficult. Even though many academics benefit from tenure and a large salary, the sceptical process in much of science is largely lacking. This is why risk assessment of GMOs has been short-circuited and public concerns about them are growing. Until the damaged scientific ethos is rectified, both scientists and the public are correct to doubt that GMOs should ever have been let out of any lab.
Bøhn, T, Cuhra, M, Traavik, T, Sanden, M, Fagan, J and Primicerio, R (2014) Compositional differences in soybeans on the market: Glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans. Food Chemistry 153: 207-215.
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