This environment business isn’t easy. The problems never seem to go away, and neither do the critics. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the whole thing is based on predicting the future.
There’s a compelling case to be made that scientists and environmental advocates have been really good at predicting where we’re going. But there’s no denying that every once in a while, there’s a whopper or a stinker of a mistake, or a bad prediction. Here’s a walk through a few of them.
Power lines equals cancer: Paul Brodeur made a national reputation with several books, and a series of New Yorker articles, about the suspected link between high-voltage transmission lines and cancer due to electromagnetic radiation. The controversy started in 1979, with Brodeur issuing provocative titles like Currents of Death and the Great Powerline Cover-Up, Brodeur stoked the controversy for a remarkably long time, given the lack of evidence. A 1996 National Academy of Sciences meta-study reviewed all available data, and concluded “the current body of evidence does not show that exposure to these fields presents a human health hazard.” A year later, the National Cancer Institute weighed in, declaring that there was no association between power line radiation and childhood cancers or leukemias.” The New England Journal of Medicine opined that the controversy had produced little information, but had generated “18 years … of paranoia.”
It’s now thirty years since the questions were first raised, and no one’s found anything close to a statistical smoking gun. Let’s move on, shall we? One of Brodeur’s earliest critics was Bob Park, physicist at the University of Maryland. As a staunch and sharp-witted critic of bad science, Park is a personal hero of mine. Here’s a short item he wrote in his “What’s New” blog in 1989 about Brodeur. (Yes, he was writing something that looked a lot like a blog before the word was invented). Here’s his final mention of Brodeur in 2001.
Climate change equals ice age: Anyone who’s ever gotten into, or put up with, an argument about climate change has heard this one ad nauseum. In 1975, Newsweek put “Global Cooling” on its cover. A lot of other publications, including the New York Times,reported on it, too. The language in the pieces is eerily similar to much of what’s used to describe global warming today. Thirty-four years later, this short-lived flurry of stories still get cited regularly by climate experts like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Jim Inhofe. Climate skeptics have used the Newsweek story like Johnny Cochran used O.J. Simpson’s glove -- to win an acquittal in spite of overwhelming evidence. And in doing so, they omit some key things:
1) The mid-1970s predictions of falling temperatures were the focus of little, if any peer-reviewed literature, and they came out at a time when climate science was in its infancy.
2) They make no mention of the impact of rising greenhouse gas levels or other factors we now know to be impacting our climate in the opposite direction.
3) The Newsweek report itself acknowledges that while “Global Cooling” made a spectacular headline, there wasn’t much behind it: “Not only are the basic scientific questions largely unanswered, but in many cases we do not yet know enough to pose the key questions.”
Tony Azios did a nice dissection two years ago in the Christian Science Monitor on this topic. It’s a helpful read in understanding why skeptics ignore the torrent of new research, and instead read a 34 year-old copy of Newsweek over and over again.
Three Mile Island (TMI) equals cancer: Helen Caldicott has been a strident, and occasionally shrill, foe of the nuclear industry for decades. In the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, she and many others predicted an epidemic of cancers and leukemia from the accident. Caldicott went as far as to call for a boycott of Hershey products, manufactured about fifteen miles downwind from TMI.
Back in March, I wrote about the dueling epidemiological studies on residents near TMI: One study cited no increase in cancers or leukemia; another one, using the same data, tracked a slight increase. Neither found an epidemic, and after thirty years’ latency period, it’s case closed, just like the power lines scare. Nukes are attempting a comeback, using global warming as a marketing tool. Cost, continued risk, and the damage from uranium mining are still good enough reasons to stay away. We don’t need to manufacture reasons that aren’t really there.
Katrina’s “toxic gumbo”: "This is the worst case," Hugh B. Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency, said of the toxic stew that contaminates New Orleans. "There is not enough money in the gross national product of the United States to dispose of the amount of hazardous material in the area."
So said Hugh Kaufman to the Hugh Kaufman to the Washington Post about the swirl of sewage, PCBs, and other toxins among the floodwaters that covered much of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And it made perfect sense, which is why I, and many other journalists, bought into it as well: A city with a lot of industry and an aging infrastructure gets inundated. While New Orleans got pretty filthy, there’s been no evidence via health records that the “toxic stew” is anywhere near the top of the list of multiple disasters that New Orleans continues to face from Katrina. (A note on Hugh Kaufman: He deserves a shout-out as one of the most remarkable whistleblowers of all time for his work as a mid-level EPA bureaucrat in the 1980s, enduring high-level harassment while he led the way to exposing corruption in the top levels of the agency.
Enron could’ve saved us: Finally,this one’s not quite a prediction, but it’s amusing enough to include anyway. The Worldwatch Institutehas a distinguished track record of analyzing and anticipating environmental problems. But here’s a hopeful note from their 1994 book, Power Surge, that didn’t quite make it: “In 1994, the Westinghouse Corporation announced plans to enter the wind power business, while Enron Corp, a major natural gas company, said it would install a huge solar power plant in Nevada and sell electricity at 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour--less than the cost of many coal-fired plants.”
Well, so we missed a chance for Enron to lead the way to an alternative energy future. And the moral of the story throughout is to be skeptical of everything, and everyone. It’s been difficult to get a comfy and lethargic world to see that we’re building a monster of an environmental problem. And every time someone cites an exaggerated, or imaginary problem, it gets used against the proprietor of this website, Mother Nature.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)