Madeline Ostrander | The Nation

Madeline Ostrander

Madeline Ostrander

Making sense of weird weather, rising waters and all things climate change.

The Parable of Rupert Murdoch

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Although he successfully runs one of the largest media empires in the world, Rupert Murdoch has more detractors than fans. His persona and appearance so evoke the archetype of a villain (rich, ruthless) that some James Bond enthusiasts believe he inspired the evil character Elliot Carver, who tries to provoke a war to gain broadcasting rights in China in the film Tomorrow Never Dies. If any Bond film can be said to have an overarching principle (beyond the sexy cars, guns, girls and exploding objects), the message here is this: he who controls the media can influence the fate of the world.

In the United States, Murdoch’s most controversial media network is, of course, Fox News. But his company, News Corp, also owns numerous television stations, the book publisher HarperCollins, and such iconic publications as The Wall Street Journal. The Guardian has called Fox a “major driving force behind global warming denial,” citing a recent study that said Fox viewers were more likely to distrust scientists and disbelieve the evidence that climate change is happening.

But there is a parallel universe in which Murdoch has even more power over information—the faraway country where the media mogul was born, Australia. There, Murdoch controls Australia’s most influential newspapers (accounting for nearly 60 percent of daily newspaper sales), fourteen of the country’s twenty-one metro daily and Sunday newspapers, and 50 percent of the company Foxtel, which holds a near-monopoly on pay television. Murdoch’s News Limited and rival company Fairfax Media (whose largest shareholder is mining magnate and avid climate-denialist Gina Rinehart) together accounted for 86 percent of Aussie newspaper sales as of 2011.

I recently spent three months in Australia, and at the risk of oversimplifying the country’s politics, I will say that the dance between Murdoch media and politicians seemed operatic—or worthy perhaps of a James Bond film.

In many ways, Australia’s politics are far more progressive than ours. The country’s minimum-wage fast-food workers earn more than many entry-level professionals here. Its political leaders are elected via an instant runoff voting system that has allowed third parties (like the Green Party) to survive and sometimes hold an important role in negotiating alliances and power balance in parliament. In 2010, the country got its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, who accomplished what US federal politicians could not—a carbon pricing system, passed in 2011, to regulate the emissions that cause climate change.

Rupert Murdoch has always been a political agnostic, whose opinions change the moment politics intersect with his profit-earning potential. His personal position on climate change is ambiguous. Several of his media networks consistently bash climate science, while News Corp has gone carbon-neutral. In Australia, between February and July 2011, more than 80 percent of the carbon-policy stories published in News Limited newspapers were negative, says an analysis by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism. Many stories harped on past claims Gillard made—she had said that she would not pass a tax but seek different means for regulating carbon. It was political hair-splitting­—technically the policy was not legislated as a tax, and it is supposed to morph into an emissions trading system, like the one Europe has, by 2015. But over and over, Australian media called her a liar (“Ju-liar,” quipped one radio shock jock).

Murdoch’s personal reasons for disliking Gillard may have had more to do with the Labor Party’s plans for the country’s national broadband network. The network will make high-speed Internet more accessible across Australia, which would open doors for competitors to Foxtel. But climate policy was one of several convenient wedge issues. More generally, he and his company may have used News Limited coverage to undercut Gillard. The progressive journal Independent Australia claims (by way of an anonymous media executive) that Murdoch had private luncheons with conservative politician Tony Abbott, who has been campaigning to become Australia’s next prime minister. The source said News Limited media have deliberately undermined Gillard’s government and seized any opportunity to claim there was disunity the Labor Party. When I arrived in Australia this past May, Gillard was unpopular with the Australian public. In June, the Labor Party ousted her and reinstalled as prime minister her predecessor, a man named Kevin Rudd.

But what was most alarming to me was the way such politics have seemed to pollute the national dialog on environmental issues. When Bill McKibben appeared on Australian television in May, I was surprised to hear an interviewer on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the analog of PBS) lob climate denialist arguments at him without irony. (Picture Jim Lehrer insisting to Al Gore that the planet is cooling.) In the United States, it has become less common for respected, non–Fox News reporters to take climate-change denial seriously. In Australia, it seemed rather normal. The national newspaper, The Australian, was one of the worst offenders. Political scientist Robert Manne writes, “In the real world, scientists accepting the climate consensus view outnumber denialists by more than 99 to one. In the Alice in Wonderland world of [The] Australian, their contributions were outnumbered 10 to one.”

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Such coverage has likely taken its toll on political support for environmental policy in Australia. Australians will cast their votes for parliament on September 7. ABC’s environment editor Sara Phillips yesterday called it “the election that forgot the environment”: “Salinity, forestry, water, marine parks and pollution are simply not politically hot enough to get a look in this year.” Instead, the Labor Party is promising the get rid of the so-called carbon tax and convert it, earlier than originally planned, into carbon trading. Neglect of environmental policy is sobering in a water-stressed nation that is, consequently, profoundly vulnerable to climate change.

It is also a troubling tale for anyone watching the shakeups in media ownership elsewhere in the world. As of 2011, just six US corporations controlled 90 percent of the media market here, down from 50 companies in 1983. The business of journalism is increasingly vulnerable to villains—by which I mean individuals whose power and personal agendas, whether benign or devious, can dictate how information is produced by the companies they own or run. Editor Paul Ingrassia’s ambivalence about climate change has disrupted environmental coverage at Reuters. Charles and David Koch, who funded the Tea Party, are still thinking about buying the Los Angeles Times and the Tribune Company. (Murdoch has also expressed interest in recent past in buying this company.) The Washington Post’s new owner, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, could turn out to be a benevolent despot, although his political views and editorial policies are still a mystery: Might his presence at the helm skew the venerable newspaper’s coverage of some issues?

Of course, it’s no secret that big newspapers are in decline, and the Internet has both opened spaces for myriad small, independent blogs and publications and ravaged journalism’s business models. Still, when a few people control major media companies, it doesn’t bode well for our ability, as a democracy, to have conversations about politically complex issues, especially when they are as unwieldy as climate change.

Yes, this weather is crazy. And yes, it is our fault.

Is Fracking a Necessary Evil?

An oil drilling rig in Kansas. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

In North Dakota, the center of the one of the nation’s biggest fracking booms, you can see the gas flares burning for miles on a cloudy day. “It looks like huge candlesticks,” an activist told me two years ago, when I was reporting on the first round of protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, DC. The activist was in tears because a friend had been killed in a crash with a fracking-industry truck. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing (a process used to extract natural gas or oil that can’t be accessed via conventional drilling) brings up innumerable safety and health issues. It can leave arsenic and other pollutants in the groundwater, guzzle water resources, lead to an increase in truck traffic and accidents, and even trigger earthquakes.

So is there such a thing as “responsible development of natural gas,” in the words of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new chief, Gina McCarthy—especially when the expansion of gas implies an increase in fracking?

At a speech yesterday in Denver, McCarthy claimed natural gas is “an important part of our work to curb climate change and support a robust clean energy market at home,” according to The Hill. Natural gas-fired power produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal. But as an alleged climate solution, fracking is, like nuclear power, a devil’s bargain. One has to hold one’s nose and hope that the problems of the extraction process either can be solved or are outweighed by the greater good of reducing emissions. Obama’s June speech on climate change acknowledged that gas extraction is controversial:

And, again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.

Some environmental groups—along with commentators like Thomas Friedman—have also touted fracking as solution to climate change—an important transition fuel that temporarily feeds our energy needs while we make the switch to renewables. Friedman says we are witnessing “the natural gas revolution,” a “potential game changer for the economy, environment and our national security.”

The question remains, is fracking a climate solution or just a greenwashed version of “drill, baby, drill”? In the last two years, reports, models, and studies of natural gas extraction paint a less rosy picture. A number of think tanks and analysts are cautious, even pessimistic, about natural gas. Following are the main reasons:

—Fracking may not decrease our reliance on coal globally. It just sends the coal somewhere else. Guardian editor and energy researcher Duncan Clark recently crunched some numbers on coal and natural gas extraction. While American coal use has dropped in recent years (letting the United States claim that we’ve reduced our emissions), in 2012, we exported more of it than ever. Last year, for instance, Europe imported more American coal, leading to “a corresponding dramatic increase in coal generation” there, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The same report says natural gas may actually be competing with renewables, rather than helping to create a smooth transition to wind and solar. “Preliminary analysis suggests that access to investment capital for renewables may be tighter due to competition from gas,” says the report.

Investing in natural gas could postpone our transition to renewable energy. The IEA’s Energy Technology Perspective 2012 suggests that spending money on natural-gas infrastructure might actually delay efforts to curb climate change, committing the economy to longer-term dependence on fossil fuels than is necessary:

The specific emissions from a gas-fired power plant will be higher than average global CO2 intensity in electricity generation by 2025, raising questions around the long-term viability of some gas infrastructure investment if climate change objectives are to be met. If near-term infrastructure development does not sufficiently consider technical flexibility, future adaptation to lower-carbon fuels and technologies will be more difficult to achieve.

Fracking threatens water resources in an increasingly water-scarce world. The toll fracking takes on water supplies makes unconventional natural gas a dubious energy source for a warming world, where droughts are more common in some regions. Fracking uses 70–140 billion gallons of water every year, according to the EPA. Currently, nearly half of fracking industry wells are located in parts of the country facing high water stress, based on a report by the organization CERES.

—It’s not clear whether natural gas is actually as clean as it claims to be. Some analyses suggest that methane emissions at fracking sites make unconventional natural gas more polluting than coal.

Some of fracking’s worst environmental impacts could be reduced. A report by the IEA last year offered guidelines for the fracking industry to curb greenhouse gas emissions, water demand and pollution problems. That, of course, would require new regulations.

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Many analysts, including the IEA, acknowledge that the natural gas economy isn’t going to disappear soon. But full-bore, large-scale investment in natural gas fracking may not lessen our climate change problems (even if the industry stopped fouling or overusing water supplies). According to economic forecasts by the Canadian think tank Pembina Institute, policies to rein in climate change (such as carbon taxes or fees) might decrease North America’s reliance on natural gas and certainly would not boost it significantly. Moreover, Pembina argues that we don’t need more natural gas to transition to wind and solar. Energy grids can use “smart” technology that manages and integrates different power sources until we build technologies to store energy generated by renewable sources.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly suggested that the US is mining more coal than ever. This has been changed to reflect the fact that, in 2012, the US exported more coal than ever.

New Yorkers love their tap water. Allison Kilkenny writes about the activists trying to protect our taps from the environmentally consequences of fracking.

Warning: This Gasoline Is Hazardous to Your Planet

If oil is really an addiction, would warning labels on gasoline motivate drivers to try to kick the habit?

An organization called Our Horizon wants to label Canadian gasoline pumps with evocative (sometimes graphic) images and information on climate change. (You can watch their promotional video above.) They hope eventually the campaign will become viral and international. But they are starting by encouraging Canadian municipalities to pass local laws requiring the labels.

An obvious question is, could warning labels change the behavior or attitudes of people who drive cars?

The organizers of the campaign compare the labels to those that appear on cigarette cartons, which have been partly responsible for a dramatic shift in public thinking and behavior. In 1965, about 42 percent of American adults and 49 percent of Canadians over the age of 15 smoked. Then both countries began placing warning labels on cigarette packs, starting in 1966 in the United States. Canada’s first tobacco warning labels were voluntary, beginning in 1972. The labels were among the first steps in a decades-long process of cultural and political change. Warning labels on cigarettes have become progressively more strident in both countries, and tobacco companies have fallen under ever-tighter regulations. In 2011, only 19 percent of US adults were smokers; in Canada in the same year, the figure was 17 percent.

Canada became the first nation to require full-color, graphic warning labels on its cigarettes in 2000, with designs that included grisly photographs of cancer patients, a diseased heart and bloody urine. Studies have shown that even the mild 1972 warnings in Canada made some smokers think twice about the dangers of tobacco. The newer labels, with extra shock factor, have also had a “statistically significant effect on smoking prevalence and quit attempts,” according to recent research.

One might say that adorning gasoline pumps with labels is altogether different from putting them on cigarette cartons. Buying gasoline isn’t just recreational, and it’s not just an individual choice. We have a system-wide dependence on petroleum for meeting our transportation needs.

But the leaders of the gasoline-labeling campaign aren’t primarily focused on changing consumer behavior, although that is a piece of the equation. They explain on their website:

The labels will cause some individuals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but, more importantly, they will create a shift in our collective demand that will facilitate meaningful action on climate change. Politicians will have more popular support to pass climate change legislation, and businesses will innovate to meet the needs of a shifting market.

This brings up another parallel between climate change and tobacco, about public information. For decades, scientists and think tanks with ties to the tobacco industry waged a misinformation campaign to cast doubt on findings that smoking causes cancer. According to historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, some of these same individuals and organizations are among the key culprits promoting inaccuracies and false information that question the validity of climate change. As one example, the website DesmogBlog has tracked connections between the Heartland Institute, now infamous for its denial of climate change, and big tobacco. Their president, Joseph Bast, has also self-published a book to “debunk the outlandish claims and comments made by anti-smoking fundamentalists.”

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Health warnings from government agencies and labels on cigarette packs have been one tool for counteracting misinformation and getting the facts on smoking directly to consumers. Labels at the gas pump might be one simple, visceral means of cutting through the noise of climate denial—communicating with the public about the connections among oil, our economic choices, our political system, and the calamity of climate change.

The terrifying intersection of resource scarcity and climate change.

Frigid and Sweltering: The New Climate Normal

Runge reservoir some forty miles north of Santiago February 3, 2012. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

Climate change often seems more palpable (and gets more media coverage) at this time of year, after heat waves have hit parts of the country. But polls suggest many members of the public are confused about the connection between climate change and cold weather. As I noted in a post last week, belief in climate change drops among Americans during cold weather and dipped slightly after this past winter. Moreover, climate deniers and right-wing pundits tend to hype winter weather, as if climate models never anticipated another flake of snow.

But a new report produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published on Tuesday in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, shows that both cold and hot weather in 2012 were heavily under the influence of climate change.

Among the highlights, the United States had its warmest year since the country began keeping records in 1895. Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming had their driest years on record. Last summer, delivered the biggest wildfires in thirteen years, including the largest fire in New Mexico’s history (more than 460 square miles, or about the size of the city of Los Angeles).

But even though the planet as a whole is getting warmer, the report makes it clear that there are new trends of weird and extreme weather in all seasons. For example, Hurricane Sandy sent record early-season snow to central Appalachia.

In Europe, “an exceptional cold spell” fell over several countries last year. Berlin’s cold snap was chillier than the typical Moscow winter, according to the World Meterological Organization. Norway set new record cold temperatures for February (about minus-four degrees Fahrenheit in Hammerfest, for instance).

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The causes of Europe’s more frequent cold snaps weren’t fully understood until recently. New studies, published a few months ago, revealed the reasons that climate change is sending more frigid polar air to Europe—because of a complex interaction between the jet stream and the amount of Arctic ice, which continues to shrink every year.

The tome-sized NOAA report is a reminder that the global climate is extremely complex, and climate trends can’t be easily simplified. But the planet is getting warmer, even while ski seasons in the western United States shorten and Europe gets more deep freezes.

Yes, this weather is crazy. And yes, it is our fault.

Unions and Environmentalists: A Match Made with Difficulty

Union workers protest climate change in Richmond, California. (Peter Cochrane)

For many years, the labor movement and environmentalists have tried to maintain a tense affiliation over the issue of climate change.

The Apollo Alliance, a coalition of greens and labor, was launched in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks with a vision for creating jobs and ending dependence on oil through nationwide investments in clean energy. By 2008 and 2009, green hard hats seemed to be an obligatory fashion accessory at environmental demonstrations, and there was great hope that President Obama would usher in a green jobs revolution. Since then, economic growth in the green jobs sector has been strong (faster than the economy overall) but, so far, not as large-scale and far-reaching as the vision originally articulated by Apollo.

And in a tough economy, any promise of jobs can be more compelling for some unions than seemingly abstract questions about climate change. Last year, some labor unions stood conspicuously on the opposite side of the Keystone XL debate from environmental groups, aligning themselves instead with groups with a reputation for union-busting (like the National Association of Manufacturers). (For more, see Sarah Laskow’s analysis in The American Prospect.) In early 2012, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) walked indignantly away from the BlueGreen Alliance (which is now merged with the Apollo Alliance). “We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” said LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan in a press statement.

So this past weekend, it was noteworthy that a coalition of more than thirty unions and worker advocacy groups turned up at the gates of the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, to protest climate change. They joined a crowd of more than 2,500 people to rally for green jobs and a transition away from the fossil-fuel economy. (On Monday, I blogged about the local political significance of holding an anti–fossil fuel protest in a refinery town.)

The protest was organized in part by 350.org, an organization that has coordinated the world’s largest demonstrations against climate change. This summer, the group has been, in a sense, scaling down—it has staged a series of community-scale protests that draw attention to the tangible impacts of both climate change and the fossil-fuel industry. The focus on local concerns appealed to Bay Area labor groups. “I heard over and over from union members…‘My kid has asthma. My aunt went to the hospital when there was a refinery fire,’ ” says labor organizer Brooke Anderson. “A lot of [the protesters were] everyday folks who happened to be union members, saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my community too.’ ”

Anderson, who coordinated the protest’s labor contingent for 350.org, saw the demonstration as a “turning point, at least here in…California” from a “labor movement that was divided [on] jobs and environment to a movement that’s united.… The only way to win on either the economy or the climate is to fight for good jobs…that help us roll back climate change.”

It’s hard to know whether the Richmond rally is evidence of an enduring change of perspective among labor groups. California unions and greens have found common cause on a number of issues in the last few years. Most recently, labor and environmental groups joined forces on a campaign launched earlier this year to protest proposals to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act.

In the big picture, such alliances make sense. Statistically speaking, many environmental regulations ultimately create jobs and produce net economic growth. Moreover, as leaders from the Labor Network for Sustainability wrote in an opinion piece, if global carbon emissions don’t shrink, “America’s workers and workplaces will be devastated along with the rest of our people and the rest of the world.”

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But the big, dismal news of climate change or the slow, hopeful trends of the green economy don’t always resonate with individual workers struggling to pay the rent. Economic transitions can be hard on some, even when they help in the long term. The Teamsters knew this when they collaborated with environmental groups on California’s clean trucks program a few years ago. The program, which replaced the dirtiest diesel trucks with more efficient ones, reduced truck pollution at the Port of Los Angeles by 80 percent. Many truckers wanted the regulations—if given reasonable financial means for making the transition. “We see the smoke pouring out of our trucks and we breathe it all day, every day,” one trucker told the Los Angeles Times when the program was being proposed. Labor leaders insisted that the program require trucking companies to hire independent truck drivers, so that the regulations wouldn’t place hardship on drivers who were often underpaid and could not afford new, more efficient trucks. But when the trucking industry sued to stop this requirement, it placed a number of drivers in dire financial straits.

That outcome has, for labor groups, clouded the program’s environmental success, and it’s an example of why unity between greens and labor will always be a careful balancing act. A moment like the Richmond protest can be turning point—when it becomes clear that community, family and health are at stake and that dirty jobs shouldn’t be the only option. It will be up to labor and environmental groups to work together to find practical means to make such economic transitions possible.

How has the Keystone pipeline showdown affected the green-blue alliance?

Thousands Protest Chevron Oil Refinery in Richmond, California

A child marches in environmental protest in Richmond, California. (Shadia Fayne Wood)

Richmond, California is home to the Golden State’s single largest greenhouse-gas polluter, the Chevron oil refinery and some of the fiercest local environmental politics and activism anywhere in the country.

On Saturday, police arrested more than 200 people for trespassing at the refinery gates, as more than 2,500 demonstrators gathered there in a protest over climate change and air pollution, according to reports in the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area radio station KQED. Protesters marked the one-year anniversary of an August 6, 2012 explosion at the Chevron refinery that sent 15,000 people across the region to hospitals with respiratory problems. The refinery was also one of the key symbolic sites that Bill McKibben’s organization, 350.org, chose for its series of protests this summer—to draw attention to climate change, the fossil-fuel industry’s role in blocking environmental policy, and the plight of people living in the shadow of industrial pollution.

Richmond is one of the country’s best case studies on how oil mixes with politics. The refinery has loomed over Richmond for more than 100 years and has had a heavy hand in local elections and decisionmaking. “They basically ran this place as a company town,” Andres Soto told the San Francisco Chronicle last August. More recently, public sentiment turned against Chevron. Five years ago, Chevron lost sympathetic members of the city council, according to Richmond Confidential, a news site produced by the University of California, Berkeley, journalism program:

Before the progressive victory of 2008, Chevron enjoyed the support of a majority of legislators at Civic Center, the seat of Richmond’s city government. Since then, Chevron has seen Richmond, home to one of its largest refineries in the nation, drift further to the left under a predominantly progressive administration led by mayor Gayle McLaughlin of the Richmond Progressive Alliance [RPA].

In the years since, RPA has strived to hold Chevron accountable on air quality, safety and other issues—such as back taxes owed to the city. On Friday, the city filed a lawsuit against Chevron over last year’s refinery fire: NBC reports the legal complaint accuses the company of “lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.” The mayor and local activists have also opposed California’s cap-and-trade regulations (breaking ranks with some environmental groups), arguing for a mandate that would force Chevron to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions locally.

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It will be an ongoing battle for those Richmonders who want the city council to continue a watchdog role against Chevron. In 2012, when two RPA candidates for Richmond city council lost, it was in large part because Chevron pumped $1.2 million into local campaigns.

Saturday’s protest drew national attention to the political and environmental struggles of Richmond, and to the challenge the climate movement faces confronting a high-profit, polluting industry with big profits, big influence and deep pockets for lobbying and campaign contributions.

Former Obama campaign staffers protest the Keystone pipeline.

GMOs to the Rescue?

An anti-GMO rally in Seattle. (Courtesy of Flickr user Alexis Baden-Mayer)

It’s rare to find someone neutral on the subject of genetically modified food—which is, depending on whom you ask, either a risky technology giving Monsanto greater market control, or the heroic invention of scientists who will save us from world hunger.

The last few weeks have brought a flurry of news about scientists and techies trying to save the imperiled orange—and our food supply more generally—through genetic engineering. A few days ago, The New York Times published an in-depth story about farmers and scientists battling anti-GMO public sentiment to rescue oranges from an epidemic bacterial disease. They were testing a new orange (with a gene taken from spinach) that would resist pathogens.

Earlier this month, an article in Slate suggested genetic engineering could move beyond the ills of corporate agriculture and become an open-source project, as hip and democratic as the operating system Linux. The magazine ran a second story from a vegetarian yoga instructor who had seen the light on GMOs. This author chose to debunk a series of arguments against genetic tinkering, most connected to ick-factors—e.g., queasiness over whether animal genes are inserted into plant DNA. The gist of both pieces was that GMOs and genetic property rights should be taken out of corporate control and put into the public domain and the hands of smart, principled scientists.

“When genetic engineering is used to decrease pesticide use, to add nutrients to crops in malnourished countries, and otherwise improve the quality of our food products, then it’s a valuable tool that can contribute to a safe and healthy food supply,” wrote the self-described hippie.

It is doubtless true that the world will need smart science and diverse genetic resources to respond to crises like climate change and disease. But to read these stories, one would think that the biggest objections to GMOs were concocted solely by sentimental greenies and organic food growers with outdated sensibilities. From the Times piece:

Some…scientists were still fuming about what they saw as the lost potential for social good hijacked both by the activists who opposed genetic engineering and the corporations that failed to convince consumers of its benefits. In many developing countries, concerns about safety and ownership of seeds led governments to delay or prohibit cultivation of needed crops: Zambia, for instance, declined shipments of G.M.O. corn even during a 2002 famine.

Truthfully, the science and the ethics have never been quite so cut and dried.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (or UCS, the nonprofit hatched out of MIT more than forty years ago) has, for years, raised a number of concerns about GMOs. Most stem from an idea called the “precautionary principle,” which could be summed up as “First, do no harm.” Or in this case, we should prove a new technology won’t create big, messy health problems before we unleash it on the public. (It was this idea that led Zambian scientists to recommend that their government reject GMO corn.)

UCS isn’t alarmist about GMOs: “There is a lot we don’t know…which is no reason for panic, but a good reason for caution.” The organization identifies a few possible concerns about genetic engineering.

Among these, GMOs may pose unknown health and ecological risks. Proponents of GMOs would say that there is no real evidence of health problems from crops like Bt corn, a variety engineered to produce a protein that’s toxic to insect pests. However, some scientists say that’s because there’s not enough evidence available. In a review paper published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, six scientists contended that Monsanto’s tests of Bt corn safety were rife with experimental design flaws. Last year, Mother Jones published a defense of Bt corn, noting that it had reduced the need for insecticides. That’s promising and positive, but it doesn’t necessarily refute UCS’s critique: More regulatory caution should be applied to GMOs, and their safety should be verified not by biotech companies but by independent parties. (For excellent analyses of the testing process and of the plight of oranges, see Nathanael Johnson’s posts at Grist.)

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Second, GMOs can cross-breed, sending engineered genes into wild populations and non-GMO crops. (This has occurred before. It is why a gene that was only deemed safe for animal feed corn turned up in a taco shell, why engineered genes can now be found in some of the world’s oldest varieties of corn in Mexico, and most likely why GM canola was found in the “middle of nowhere” in North Dakota, isolated from any farm fields.)

The escape of laboratory genes into the wild isn’t a concern for sentimental reasons, or because of ick-factors. It’s a worry in part because the genes of wild plants and heirloom varieties of crops are a storehouse—a library of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of traditional plant breeding, irreplaceable raw material for any kind of new crop development. Not enough is known about whether GMOs will corrupt genetic material that we may later need or affect the ecology of wild or farmed ecosystems as a whole.

Agricultural scientists Miguel Altieri and Maria Alice Garcia put it in this way, in a review paper about biotech (published in 2005, but the concerns remain valid):

GM crops are truly biological novelties that would not exist via natural processes … One of the consequences of these processes may be a generalized contamination of natural flora by GM traits and a degradation and erosion of the commonly owned genetic resources today available for agricultural development. It is virtually impossible to quantify or predict the long-term impacts on agrobiodiversity and the processes they mediate resulting from widespread use of GM crops.

This isn’t to say that genetic engineering should never be part of a solution to global food problems. It is simply to say that those who are hesitant about GMO have a reasonable point—there is a lot we don’t know, both about risks of genetic engineering and the alternatives to it.

What does Monsanto have to do with ending world hunger?

Democratic Voters Say They Want a Revolution on Climate Policy

President Barack Obama at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 18, 2009. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

The recent confirmation of Gina McCarthy—a tough air regulator with a passion for reining in greenhouse gas emissions—as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and Obama’s “national climate action plan” speech at Georgetown University last month signal two things about climate change politics in the United States. One is a glimmer of hope for modest if inadequate policy change. The other is the beginning of badly needed cultural change.

For years, climate change has been one of the great political unmentionables. In the autumn of 2012, after months of crippling drought, a federal drought researcher told me he would infrequently bring up climate change during public lectures. But farmers in the heartland might sometimes ask him privately whether climate change was real—at the end of a talk, while their peers weren’t listening. Such reticence may be common among state, local and federal agencies that deal with the public. In an in-depth story this month, Mother Jones reports that even after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, it has been difficult for emergency managers at any level of government to speak directly about the threats of climate change.

The topic has been so politically taboo, even on the left, that Obama advisers told the president to keep quiet on the (allegedly) politically risky subject for years, according to National Journal. Media coverage on climate change steadily declined between 2009 and 2012. And with a dearth of useful information available to Americans, public opinion has simply fluctuated with the weather: research shows that belief that climate change is happening drops in cold years and rises again with a heat wave. (A sign that the public misunderstands the science: climate change stacks the odds in favor of weather extremes and heat waves, but doesn’t mean the end of cold winters.)

Perhaps it’s fortunate then that Obama rode in to his second term after a heat wave and a megastorm. An uptick in public interest on climate change, following the scorching 2012 summer and Hurricane Sandy, has shifted a few things in the Democrats’ strategy in the past couple of months. According to a bipartisan poll released a few days ago, Obama’s base of millennial voters is especially concerned: 79 percent of under-35 voters are more likely to cast a ballot for candidates who support Obama’s climate policy; 73 percent believed that candidates who denied the science of climate change were out of touch, ignorant, or crazy.

National Journal reports that climate policy is the Obama camp’s new campaign tactic. Organizing for Action, the nonprofit that helps maintain Obama’s network of grassroots supporters, plans to send volunteers to public meetings later this summer to lambast climate deniers in Republican districts.

Some analysts have been quick to make the connection between public interest and Obama’s newfound outspokenness on climate (and to blast the policies he has outlined, whose details are not ambitious). But there is perhaps a more interesting potential cause-and-effect relationship: the influence of Obama on public interest. Textbook opinion research says the views of political leaders weigh heavily on public thought. Last year, researchers at Ohio State University concluded that political leaders had more influence on whether Americans were worried about climate change than any other single factor, including the economy and the views of scientists.

In an optimistic scenario, this suggests a kind of positive feedback loop between opinion and climate policy. The more Democrats talk about climate change, the more people understand and care, the more climate policies become feasible. It means Democrats have an opportunity to inform the public—as Nevada Senator Harry Reid recently did. Only 6 percent of print and television media coverage between April and July 1 made the connection between this season’s rampant Western wildfires and climate change. But Reid didn’t hesitate to bring it up during a press conference more than a week ago: “Millions of acres are burning.… Why? Because the climate has changed.” What could the Senate do, one reporter asked? “Talk about climate change as if it really exists, not beat around the bush.”

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Of course, talk is proverbially cheap, and no replacement for action. According to analysis by Northwest think tank Sightline Institute (full disclosure: my former employer), the new Obama plan is a mostly a gutless promise to let the EPA slowly launch some modest regulations on power plants.

But talk is still the precursor to action. And political research says that even a small amount of talk, from a small minority (just 10 percent) of the public, can be enough to ultimately shift the majority opinion. Even if Obama’s policies are facile and Democrats’ motives disingenuous, talk can matter—if and when it ever becomes significant enough to rouse the public, to change the headlines, to make it possible to talk directly about the threats of climate change and the task of reining in greenhouse gases.

Allison Kilkenny writes about the activists who are done of empty words.

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