I wrote recently about seven big failed environmentalist predictions, from global cooling to the population bomb (which the New York Times, always on the cutting edge, has just noticed was a complete bust). But it’s not only the big scientific theories they’ve gotten wrong. When science gets harnessed for a political cause, it tends to produce a running series of oversold theories that don’t bear up under further examination.
Here are five examples that recently crossed my desk.
1) Electric cars aren’t all that “green.”
Electric cars, like the ones produced by Elon Musk’s Tesla, a darling of the environmentalist crowd, are not the first step to a post-industrial utopia. They are a product of heavy industry and are resource-intensive and energy-intensive. I’m not just referring to the “long tailpipe,” in which the energy used in an electric car spews its exhaust through the smokestack of a coal-fired power plant hundreds of miles away. I’m also referring to reports like this one.
Tesla plans to produce two types of battery at the facility that is taking shape in the desert and so far the exact specification of the lithium-ion power units is being kept a close secret. The company currently uses batteries sourced from Panasonic to power its S-model cars. These batteries use a cathode that is comprised mainly of lithium, nickel, cobalt, and aluminum oxide. According to Mr. Musk, the company will use a more powerful battery for the home grid, which will utilize nickel, manganese and cobalt oxide for its cathode.
Should the concept capture the imagination of Americans who are increasingly conscious of reducing their carbon footprint demand for these crucial elements could skyrocket in addition to the already robust global demand for lithium, nickel, and copper. Major mining companies are already “future proofing” their businesses for climate change by focusing more investment into commodities that will be required by the renewable energy industry.
According to research by the broker Macquarie, Tesla alone may require up to 10,000 tons per year of cobalt, which accounts for around 10% of the current global market.
So Musk’s “green energy” efforts are spurring a boom in mining, particularly for heavy metals. And Tesla is still just a tiny niche automaker producing vanity vehicles for the upper middle class.
This also allows us to predict that if the electric cars ever actually become convenient and affordable for the masses—which is still a very long way off—environmentalists will suddenly discover all of the hundreds of thousands of tons of heavy metals that are being stripped out of the Earth to build them, then combined with various chemical concoctions and distributed carelessly on our roadways. And they will naturally decide that this can’t be permitted.
2) Global warming isn’t killing the bees.
Scientists have been investigating “colony collapse disorder,” a mysterious die-off of honey bees, and there was inevitable speculation that it might be caused by “climate change.” (The underlying quote in that link blames “the weather,” and as we are reminded every time there’s a really cold winter, “weather is not climate”—except, of course, when weather needs to be climate so it can shore up an environmentalist theory.)
Recently, scientists serendipitously discovered what looks like the actual cause of colony collapse: the spread of a parasitic fly that attacks the bees and uses them to grow its own larvae.
A fly (Apocephalus borealis) had inserted its eggs into the bees, using their bodies as a home for its developing larvae. And the invaders had somehow led the bees from their hives to their deaths.
The fly is not spread, as far as anyone can tell, by warmer weather. (And even if it were, global temperatures have been flat for the past 15 to 20 years.) Instead, it seems to be spread by the increased transportation of honeybees across the country by beekeepers.
3) It’s not killing the frogs, either.
Global warming was also supposed to be killing frogs. But again, new studies indicate that the frogs are being killed by a natural pathogen, the chytrid fungus, and that its spread has been accelerated by the natural weather pattern known as El Niño, and not by some anomalous global warming.
In a 2006 paper in Nature, a team of US and Latin American scientists linked rising tropical temperatures to the disappearance of 64 amphibian species in Central and South America. They proposed that warmer temperatures, associated with greater cloud cover, had led to cooler days and warmer nights, creating conditions that allowed the chytrid fungus to grow and spread. The fungus kills frogs and toads by releasing poison and attacking their skin and teeth. “Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger,” the lead author of the Nature study and a research scientist at the Monteverde reserve, J. Alan Pounds, said at the time.
The new study in PNAS suggests that it was El Niño—not climate change—that caused the fungus to thrive, killing the golden toad. “El Niño pulled the trigger,” said Anchukaitis….
Their results are only the latest challenge to the theory that climate change is driving the deadly chytrid outbreaks in the Americas. In a 2008 paper in the journal PLoS Biology, University of Maryland biologist Karen Lips mapped the loss of harlequin frogs from Costa Rica to Panama. She found that their decline followed the step-by-step pattern of an emerging infectious disease, affecting frogs in the mountains but not the lowlands. Had the outbreak been climate-induced, she said, the decline should have moved up and down the mountains over time.
Nature is always roiled by competition between species, which includes the spread of natural pathogens that evolve to prey on a particular species, which in turn evolves to avoid the pathogens. This has been going on since the beginning of life on Earth, and those who seek some extraordinary cause for every new pathogen are the ones who are denying science.
But the temptation is understandable, if not entirely forgivable. It’s driven by something scientists refer to, when talking amongst themselves, as “grantsmanship”: the skill of writing a grant proposal in a way that is more likely to win funding, particularly from government agencies. So if you just want to study frogs, for God’s sake don’t say that. How much money can there possibly be for studying frogs? Instead, say that you want to study the effect of climate change on frogs. Now you’re tapping into a much larger fund, the money set aside for studying “climate change.” So you’re more likely to get your grant, while some other poor sucker who just wants to study frogs gets left out.
Conversely, even if you demonstrate that global warming did not cause the demise of the frogs, for God’s sake don’t announce that too loudly. Instead, make clear to tell everyone that even though global warming didn’t kill the frogs, you’re sure it must be killing something else. Hence the following exercises in throat-clearing from this report.
“There’s no comfort in knowing that the golden toad’s extinction was the result of El Niño and an introduced pathogen, because climate change will no doubt play a role in future extinctions,” said study lead author Kevin Anchukaitis, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
That does not mean humans are off the hook, said Evans. “Extinctions happen for reasons that are independent of human-caused climate change, but that does not mean human-caused climate change can’t cause extinctions,” he said.
Global warming is truly an unfalsifiable hypothesis, when evidence against its catastrophic effects has to be accompanied by warnings about how certain we are that it is catastrophic.
4) “Organic” food is grown with pesticides.
The open secret about “organic” food is that there has never been any objective standard to determine what is “organic” and what isn’t.
Nobody has ever found a way to demonstrate any measurable difference in the actual food itself. It’s almost as if growing food using “organic” methods makes no difference at all except to raise the price Whole Foods can charge us. Funny how that works.
But that’s just the beginning. It turns out that “organic” food is still grown using pesticides.
Some specific chemicals are not approved for use on organic farms, including organophosphates, glyphosate, atrazine, and methyl bromide. But a surprisingly high number of pesticides are allowed. And now, a number of organic farmers are asking the federal government for permission to use more synthetic pesticides….
In addition to these pesticides, organic farms are, in certain circumstances, permitted to use chemicals that are supposedly banned for organic use. One of these is methyl bromide, a fumigant that is used to boost strawberry growth. Although use of methyl bromide was banned several years ago, conventional growers can still use it if no viable alternatives are available (it’s still used extensively in California). But organic farmers can also use it, for largely the same reasons. For “perennial planting stock,” those plants that are grown throughout the year, there aren’t many organic sources of the initial seedlings. So, organic farmers are allowed to use non-organic strawberry plants, complete with methyl bromide injected into the ground, and grow them as “organic” strawberries.
Did I mention before that nature is a constant contest in which pests and pathogens are constantly trying, literally, to eat our lunch? That’s why “organic” farming doesn’t work, and it’s a “misconception that organic farming can somehow magically control pests without using chemicals.” Hence the compromise of using artificial pesticides without openly admitting it.
5) Genetically modified organisms are natural.
This one is going to blow your mind.
We know that humans have been modifying plants and animals for thousands of years through selective breeding. But this relies on naturally occurring genetic variations—say, a more heavily producing stalk of wheat—which are then selected and propagated. Because the variations originally happen without human intervention, this process seems more “natural,” despite being called “artificial selection.”
Genetically modified foods, by contrast, seem “unnatural” because genetic science allows us to produce new variations by combining genes from species that are often very far apart in the tree of life—a gene taken from a worm, say, and implanted in a pig.
This is obviously an abomination because this kind of gene transfer could never, ever, ever happen in nature.
Except that it does, and quite frequently.
The science on this is summed up in an eye-opening report which argues that Chipotle, the chain that recently made an ostentatious display of banning GMOs from its menu, is serving up its burritos to genetically modified humans.
All human beings, two Cambridge University scientists have established, are genetically modified, including Chipotle’s customers. Over the years, hundreds of foreign genes have jumped into human DNA through a natural phenomenon called “gene flow.” As a result, all humans carry genes that originated in algae, bacteria and fungi. If humans can safely accept alien genes without mishap, why not food, too?
When fears about genetically modified foods first arose, little was known about gene flow, also called horizontal gene transfer. The idea that genes could jump across species violated then-conventional wisdom. But scientific research has established that natural gene transfers regularly occur. So genetic transfers are not a human invention—just a belated human effort to imitate what nature has been doing all along.
Notice that phrase about “then-conventional wisdom.” Score yet another loss for the scientific “consensus.”
These are just a few more reminders that we should be skeptical when science is dragooned for a fashionable political cause. Because the politics invariably gets way ahead of the science.
Follow Robert on Twitter.