Why do our politicians keep listening to idiots, not scientists?

I’ve reached the point now where I try to avoid Australian political news as much as possible. From the distance I’m at, it’s difficult – I feel angry at so much that is happening, but also utterly impotent. There is nothing I can do to change things from Texas.

Of course, avoiding news is hard these days – especially with a government whose gaffes are so spectacular that they tend to go viral on Facebook. Then my curiosity gets the better of me…and then I end up reading articles like this oneHoly crap on a cracker. 

It concerns me that our Prime Minister is a man who has previously described climate change science as ‘absolute crap’, but I’ll give him the begrudging benefit of the doubt because he has at least distanced himself from that kind of language a little (even if it’s blindingly obvious that it’s what he still believes). The fact that one of our ministers is suggesting we should be living in fear of another Ice Age though is in another realm altogether. Again though, I did my due diligence – Mr Newman obviously hadn’t pulled the theory from thin air and I wanted to know more about David Archibald who had authored Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century will be Nasty, Brutish, and Short  – the book which inspired Newman’s opinion piece.

As it turns out, Archibald is a legit scientist. He has a BSc in Geology. Geology is a bit of a tenuous thread to claiming to be a climate scientist…but ok. What’s he worked in? Coal, oil and shale exploration…CEO of a mining company…operating 8.6 million acres of oil exploration permits in Australia…Right. So, there’s certainly some bias going on there. Still, that doesn’t preclude his having conducted some solid research with good evidence.

Well, no. He may have done some research, but he has no evidence for his theory. A better explanation than I could ever provide of just how scientifically lacking his theory is can be found on the Skeptical Science blog here, but if you don’t have time to read through all that, here’s a very short example:

From Skeptical Science


Other work that he’s done focuses largely on a theory developed in a dendroclimatology study from 1979, which he claims was confirmed by a group of Finnish foresters in 2007. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, because while dendroclimatology has been useful for getting some idea of what temperatures were like before we started recording them about 150 years ago, it’s no longer accurately reflecting the actual temperatures that we are recording right now. So sure, the trees are telling us that the weather is cooling – but unfortunately, our much more accurate thermometers are telling us otherwise (a simple explanation for why this might be, and a good assessment of Climategate is here).

And yet, our politicians are listening to a man who is frankly failing seventh grade science, rather than to the 97 percent of actual climate scientists who are saying that climate change and warming are real and caused by humans (not the sun).

I honestly don’t understand.

On the upside though:

“The more carbon dioxide you put into the atmosphere, the more you are helping all living things on the planet and of course that makes you a better person.”David Archibald

Well, that’s a relief.

Overwhelmed & Discouraged: The latest IPCC report

I’m feeling pretty deflated this today, I’ll admit. Deflated and frustrated.

From Slate.com

From Slate.com

It’s taken me a while to write this today, partly because there’s so much to read through, partly because it makes for such depressing reading, and partly because I can’t help but listen to this negative little voice that’s telling me that it’s pointless to even bother. Because people and nation states are still not going to change. You look at the Australian government right now, and then you look me in the eye and tell me seriously that Australia is going to kick off some real, meaningful action to reduce our emissions. You drive through Texas and tell me that all these people are going to give up their trucks, reduce their air-conditioning usage. Look at mining and gas companies and tell me that they’re going to look at ways of shifting across to green energy. Look at China and India and tell that they’ll put their industrial and economic development on ice, because those of us in developed countries (which have caused the problems in the first place) are asking nicely.

It’s not going to happen. And if it ever does, I can’t help but feel it will be right at that tipping point, where it’s already too late.

I’m sorry for being such an enormously melodramatic negative Nelly, but the enormity of this problem is starting to overwhelm me. With each IPCC report that comes out, the outlook looks bleaker and bleaker. A few quotes from the latest report on what has already happened:

In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological
systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality

Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of
climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts…Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions and in the global aggregate.

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods,
cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems
and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of
such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.

Of course, countries are trying to adapt to these new effects, but the description of these adaptations worldwide is just a half a page. Seriously. We are already feeling the effects of climate change worldwide, and our best efforts regarding adaptation can be summarised in a half page. The predictions for the future of climate change don’t offer us much promise unless we get ourselves into gear in terms of both prevention and adaptation though – again, some choice quotes:

Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger (medium confidence).

A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk
under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate
change interacts with other stressors, such as habitat modification, over-exploitation,
pollution, and invasive species (high confidence)

Until mid-century, projected climate change will impact human health mainly by
exacerbating health problems that already exist (very high confidence). Throughout the
21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions
and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without
climate change (high confidence)

Reading through the report has left me overwhelmed. Eric Holthaus summarises my feelings beautifully in this paragraph from his article in Slate:

It’s difficult for me, as both a scientist and as a human, to emotionally process continued inaction on climate change. My characterization of this report may make it seem like the problem is hopeless. It’s not. There’s still time to stave off most of the worst effects if we all work together and realize that every single person’s actions, no matter how small, make a difference. But it will take massive action.

My greatest fear? We’re still not ready for the necessary ‘massive action.’

You can read the IPCC report for yourself here.


Food Friday: Investigating ‘Food Babe’

Apologies for the lack of posting last week everyone. I was spending some time exploring the US again, this time in New Orleans. I might tell you a bit about it sometime because it was an amazing week.

In the meantime though, this is a bit of a different Food Friday, but something I’ve been itching to write about for a few days. You have probably heard in the news recently that Subway have changed their bread recipe after thousands of signatures on an online petition requesting that they remove the ingredient azodicarbonamide. What you’re less likely to know unless you’ve dug a little deeper (which I’ll admit I hadn’t until just this week) is that the entire great-big-thing was sparked by a post by a blogger who calls herself Food Babe.

Far be it from me to detract from someone who is making an effort to improve our food system and working hard on it – but Food Babe drives me more than a little crazy. I admire what she is trying to do in some instances – for example, she recently convinced Chick-Fil-A to start using antibiotic-free chicken – but so many of her efforts seem to be based on pseudoscience and half truths, combined with some plain old avoidance of facts that don’t suit her agenda. (For a really good run down this exact approach to research in the yoga-mats-in-Subway-bread debacle, I’d suggest this post on the NeuroLogica blog). Her focus on unscientifically backed ‘issues’ like this one with Subway detracts from real issues in our supermarkets and fast-food outlets.

This Subway incident isn’t the first time that she’s engaged in scaremongering based on science that is dubious at best. For example, this from her ‘Don’t Poison Santa‘ sugar cookies post:

‘Don’t poison santa (and yourself) with these cookie brands with terrible ingredients… whether you choose Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Nestle or store brands like Great Value – you can almost be guaranteed they have GMOs linked to infertility, allergies, and cancer, trans fats that cause 8,000 deaths per year and 20,000 heart attacks, aluminum linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and/or very controversial artificial ingredients made from petroleum that are contaminated with carcinogens.’

Let’s just look at that first claim, that GMOs have been linked to ‘infertility, allergies and cancer.’ Really? A quick Google search turns up this paper ‘Genetically modified foods, cancer, and diet: Myths and reality‘ in the peer-reviewed journal, Current Oncology. The authors have this to say about GMO foods and cancer:

Avoiding [genetically modified foods] will neither stop nor prevent carcinogenesis.

and additionally that:

The recent report claiming that [genetically modified foods] are causally associated with cancer development in rats has been debunked by informed opinion: genetically tumour prone rats were used; a spurious construct and research protocol was followed; and the statistical approach used did not satisfy confounding factors. The publication was apparently not subject to satisfactory objective refereeing, and certain tainted financial interests were also operative. All the foregoing factors skewed the results, rendering them invalid and not significant.

For a shorter version of the debunking of the spurious study that suggested that GMOs can cause cancer, here’s a concise piece by Bloomberg.

So that’s cancer. What about allergies?

Well, it seems very unlikely (granted, not absolutely impossible).

A piece in the (again, peer-reviewed) Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology states that:

Few products of agricultural biotechnology (and none of the current products) will involve the transfer of genes from known allergenic sources. Applying such criteria provides reasonable assurance that the newly introduced protein has limited capability to become an allergen.

(I’m sorry I can’t provide the direct link to this one, as I connected to it through my university journal database. If you’re interested, look for ‘Will genetically modified foods be allergenic?’ by Steve L. Taylor and Susan L. Hefle, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 107(5): 765-771.)

Here’s another study, this time in Allergy:

to date […] no biotech proteins in foods have been documented to cause allergic reactions

In terms of peer-reviewed science, the most strident evidence I could find for avoiding GMOs for allergy reasons was in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition which suggests that:

The introduction of novel proteins into foods such as a GM soybean variety expressing methionine from Brazil nut […] and GE corn variety modified to produce a Bt endotoxin […] may elicit potentially harmful immunological responses including allergic hypersensitivity. moreover, according to Prescott et al. (2005), the introduction of a gene expressing nonallergenic protein such as GM field pea, expressing alpha-amylase inhibitor-1, may not always result in a product without allergenicity

(This is from ‘Health risks of genetically modified foods’ by Artemis Dona and Ioannis S. Arvanitoyannis, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 49(2): 164-175).

Their overall conclusion though? The jury is still out. And to date, there is no proof that GMO foods cause allergies.

But what about GMOs and infertility? Well, Google GMO food and infertility and you’ll receive a barrage of pages claiming a link between the two. Some are relatively well researched sites, others considerably less so (Infowars, anyone?). Run a search through a scientific database though and you’ll get only a handful of results, most of which are not that relevant. I was able to find evidence of a study which found a statistically significant reduction in the size of litters born to mice after being fed GM maize (although I couldn’t find the study itself so I’m relying on a piece in the Daily Mail for that…eek), but that study was subsequently withdrawn by the Austrian government due to poor reporting and incomplete and contradictory data.

Again, I’m going with no conclusive evidence of links between GMOs and infertility. Which leaves, overall, no evidence of any of the health issues that the ‘food babe’ attributes to GMOs.

This is why she makes me mad. Vani Hari (Food Babe’s real name) has an enormous readership and extensive media reach. She’s in the position to make a real change in our food systems. Yet, instead of focusing only on the things that are known, conclusive problems, like transfats, like the use antibiotics in the industrial food system, she spreads herself thin, spouting misinformation about GMOs and azodicarbonamide which makes navigating an already complex and confusing food landscape even more difficult for the layperson. Yes, the best goal is for us to all be able to eat real, fresh, sustainably farmed food, but for those who can’t do that due to time or financial constraints, or lack of education, let’s keep the messages simple and focused on scientifically proven problems.

NB: Please don’t take this post to be an endorsement of GMO foods. I still have huge concerns about them, but these concerns are primarily limited to ones of preservation of genetic diversity, the problems of ‘ownership’ of food (in cases where there are corporate patents) and agricultural sustainability in general. 

Good news!

Image from the GetUp! site


This is the best news I’ve seen out of Australia in a long time. After carving off a chunk of World Heritage designated land in Tasmania and allowing the expansion of a coal port in northern Queensland, the Australian population has said enough is enough and is standing up against the dumping of dredging sludge in the Great Barrier Reef. A campaign by GetUp! has seen thousands of donations which will go towards a legal challenge by the Queensland Environmental Defenders Office against the Australian Government. Will they win? I’m not sure. But if nothing else it goes to show that the Australian people will not take the wholesale destruction of their environment lying down.

You can contribute to the GetUp! campaign here.

Why we can’t ignore food in health


Today in Slate, Heather Tirado Gilligan argues that food deserts are not really a problem. She also argues, using data from three studies, that introducing healthful food to low-income  communities makes no difference to health outcomes. I don’t entirely disagree. Parachuting a bunch of bananas into a low-income grocery store isn’t going to change the way people eat, or have a real impact on health outcomes. Making fresh, healthy food more physically accessible is just the first step. She overlooks the other steps involved in de-food-desertification; ensuring that the food is affordable, providing nutrition education and (as she touches on and thereafter ignores) teaching people with little time and little money how to cook quick, cheap and healthy meals. As Pearson et al argue, policies need to be developed to change cultural attitudes to food, rather than just food accessibility (1).

The way Gilligan writes about it seems as though she expects to just stick a few bulbs of fennel in a community that’s previously only had access to Doritos and Taco Bell and hope that it makes a difference. Of course it doesn’t! Fixing nutrition is a much more complex issue than I think Gilligan is acknowledging and it’s going to take a lot of time. For example, she notes that ‘Since 2004 there’s been a sharp spike in the number of programs like Soul Food that are aimed at reducing such health disparities by making fresh food more accessible to low-income people’ and that ‘Study after study has shown that the fresh-food push does nothing to improve the health of poor people, who continue to live markedly shorter and sicker lives than better-off Americans.’ It’s hard to argue against that – poorer people definitely do still have poorer health outcomes. But the data that she’s referring to is for only ten years in a nation of 314 million people, where the number of programs and locations where they have been available have been limited. It’s long enough to start getting some idea of outcomes, but I would argue, not long enough for concrete conclusions, especially when the aims of these programs are overwhelmingly long-term – it’s not possible to change a lifetime of eating habits overnight. Finally, I would also argue that if you look at what’s happened since 2010 when the Health Food Financing Initiative was introduced, it will give a much clearer idea of the impact of an increased number of programs. The same data problem persists though –  that at this stage, there are only three years of data to work with. It’s really too early to make the call that the Initiative is failing, especially when new and innovative programs are being developed every day.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that just as some food programs are not working so well, others are making a difference in the lives of those who have access to them. And while it’s hard to dispute Gilligan’s claim that the stress of poverty has a likely significant affect on health outcomes, it seems far too soon and very short sighted to disregard the importance of providing the means to improve the diets of low-income communities when aiming to reduce the burden of disease.

(1) Pearson T, Russell J, Campbell M J, Barker M E 2005, Do ‘food deserts’ influence fruit and vegetable consumption?—a cross-sectional study, Appetite 45(2): 195-197.


A tragedy for the Great Barrier Reef

I will be back with a full Food Friday post later today, but I just wanted to take a moment to share this:

From 1 Million Women. Click through for source.

Overnight, permission was given to the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation to dump three million tonnes of dredging sludge into the Great Barrier Reef. Three million tonnes.

I’d really encourage you all to email the PM Tony Abbott and the Environment Minister Greg Hunt to let them know that this is not ok. There are also petitions being run by GetUp!, the WWF and Greenpeace. You can find all the relevant links here.

It breaks my heart, as it should break everyone’s heart, that our values are in such a mess that we would put profit above protecting one of the most beautiful and fragile ecosystems in the world.

A little note of positivity

It’s funny how things sometimes come together. Yesterday I saw both the following infographic and this article from NPR.

Source: APHA. Click through for more.

I think there’s a lovely symmetry between the two – an acknowledgement of the worrying state that we’re still in now, but with a hopeful twist: real change is starting to happen. There are so many organisations and individuals that are working to alter the food landscape by reconnecting farmers with consumers, increasing the availability of healthful food in disadvantaged communities and educating the public on food, health and the environment.

The best bit is that some of this work is already starting to show benefits. For example, in Australia, community and research interventions in remote indigenous communities have shown significant reductions in the incidence of hypercholesterolemia and other cardiovascular disease risk factors, and improvements in child health (1, 2).  In the Bronx, the Rx Fruit and Vegetable program is making healthy food affordable and having an impact on the lives of children – which is important to ensuring a healthy and sustainable food future. And of course, as the first article I linked to mentions, simple conversions to the layout and produce in corner stores are starting to make a world of difference in East Los Angeles Latino communities. These three examples represent just a fraction of the changes that are happening in the U.S and Australia alone.

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by statistics like ‘Obesity has tripled among kids and teens in the past 30 years’, or that 8.3 percent of the US population is diabetic (with 90-95 percent being type 2 diabetes). The existence of initiatives like these gives me hope though, because people can and are making a real difference.

1.  Rowley G, Su Q, Cincotta M, Skinner M, Pindan B, White G A, O’Dea K 2001, Improvements in circulation cholesterol, antioxidants, and homocysteine after dietary intervention in an Australian Aboriginal community, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 74:442-8.
2. Jones R, Smith F 2006, Are there health benefits from improving basic nutrition in a remote Aboriginal Community?, Australian Family Physician, 35 (6): 453-4.



60 Minutes: When the media misinforms

You would think, that with a general scientific consensus on the anthropogenic nature of climate change, politicians, journalists, business leaders and the like would generally be positive and encouraging of any steps to mitigate out impact on GHG emissions. You would think that, because you would hope that we’d all be aiming for a better future for ourselves and our children and our children’s children. You would think that people would want to support efforts to better ourselves, rather than sitting back and doing nothing.

You would think that, but you would be wrong.

A screenshot from last night’s program.

I was relieved to read this piece by Will Oremus in Slate and this piece by Joe Romm and Emily Atkin on ThinkProgress today. Unfortunately, the readership of Slate and ThinkProgress combined versus the viewership of 60 Minutes is not really comparable and there are a going to be a lot of frustratingly misinformed people in the US today.

Misinforming the public, and cherry-picking the negatives as 60 Minutes did is concerning and curious. What I struggle to understand is why? Why would you consciously ignore the vast majority of Robert Rapier’s comments and only publicise those which damage the reputation of the cleantech industry? Why would you ignore the huge progress that cleantech has made in the last year, and the promise that it holds for the years ahead? Does CBS/ 60 Minutes have some vested interest in the traditional energy sector?

I can’t pretend that I understand the reasons, but I am angry that this happened. This is not reporting, this is not journalism, this is fantasy. And it is a fantasy that could damage the cleantech industry, by reducing investment in a supposedly failing, but actually booming industry. We need more money invested into cleantech research. We need it to help us reduce emissions and ensure the future of the planet, but the US also needs it if they want to continue to compete on the same playing field as China. China and the US’s industrial competition is not my battle, but I can’t help but feel that in ten years time, the US will suddenly realise that they have been left behind – and that misleading pieces like that aired last night were part of the reason.

West Virginia: an environmental health crisis

When I tell people that I hold a MSc in Environmental Health, about 80% of people will look blank for a moment before going ‘Errr…so what’s that?’ It’s a completely legitimate question. It’s not a well known area and its name can be a bit confusing (‘so, you study the health of the environment…right?’).

Last week in West Virginia is almost a perfect example of environmental (un)health and why I studied what I did. Environmental health is (Cliffs Notes version) the study of how our environment effects our health. When 7,500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) leak into the local water supply, every facet of health is going to be affected.

As you’ve no doubt read, this is what happened in West Virginia last Thursday. Since then, around 300,000 residents have been without a reliable water supply. Drinking water has been shipped in, but with tap water only fit for flushing toilets, and bottled water at a premium, the situation still leaves 300,000 people with: difficulty preparing and cooking food, limited hygiene (hand washing, showering etc. with tap water is out), no laundry facilities, no easy way of cleaning cooking utensils and so on. It’s also meant closed schools, shops, restaurants and government departments. It’s an environmental health crisis.

Five days later, officials are now saying that the water seems to be improving. That’s great news. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that this shouldn’t have happened in the first place – chemicals like MCHM shouldn’t be stored at facilities described as ‘ageing’ and ‘vintage’. It also doesn’t make up for the fact that while the leak was discovered on Thursday morning, it wasn’t announced to the public until Thursday evening. Both Freedom Industries (owner of the leaking storage tank) and the West Virginia American Water Co. should be fined out of existence for allowing a lapse of this magnitude to occur.

I’ve seen a lot of comments on articles about the incident blaming the residents for the situation. The general attitude seems to be ‘well, you wanted mining, now you can reap the consequences.’ The lack of empathy is breathtaking. Coal mining is these people’s livelihoods. Many of these people don’t have the education or the skills to do anything else. Of course they’re pro-mining. How else are they going to put food on the table? Demonising the victims isn’t going to solve the problems. What is needed is strong regulation, adequate consequences for polluters and the creation of new, cleaner energy jobs. Sadly, that’s going to take a lot more effort than finger pointing and/or sweeping the whole issue under the rug and pretending it never happened.

On the state of politics in Australia

It’s been a really, really long time since I’ve written anything here. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I’ve become immensely jaded and disappointed with the state of environmental and food politics lately. I’ve needed to take a bit of a break to reboot (the blog is mainly just a hobby that I love, but like any hobby, sometimes you need a bit of time away). In Australia, the Liberal Party was elected in September. You can scroll down to see a few of our new Prime Ministers choicest comments. It’s one of the major reasons that I haven’t been writing, and also the main reason that I felt the need to come back and write again today. Since election in September, the Abbott Government has

  • Dismantled the Climate Commission (see here)
  • Withdrawn all funding from the Environmental Defenders Offices around Australia (see here)
  • Approved the creation of one of the world’s biggest coal shipping ports near the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (see here)
  • Proposed the repeal of Australia’s climate legislation, including the carbon tax, clean energy funding and the existing emissions trading system (see here)
  • Been singled out for its poor climate change performance in Warsaw (see here)

All this, in less than six months. Political terms in Australia are usually around 3 years – the thought of the damage that could be done during that time is unsettling, to say the very, very least. And the worst of it? This is what people voted for. This is not some crazy surprise package. People made a conscious decision to vote against the Climate Commission, against the carbon tax, and against climate legislation more generally. I’m not sure that they expected the coal port in the Great Barrier Reef as well, but it’s hardly unexpected given the pre-election, anti-environment rhetoric. What does all this mean? It means that Australia has gone from being at the forefront of carbon legislation to being part of a shame circle in Warsaw. It means that, as one of the developed countries most likely to be affected by climate change, we are doing less than most developed countries to prevent it. It means that, in spite of some supposedly high-level conditions on shipping through the Great Barrier Reef, we are placing our trust in mining companies to ensure the future of one of our greatest national treasures – which frankly, either means that we’re naive, stupid or both.

I’m finding it difficult to control my anger about all this. Climate change denial is a denial of science. It’s like saying that the earth is the centre of the universe, or contending that our planet is flat. And, in a manner similar to that when these were the beliefs, proponents of the scientific view are being silenced. Even if we accept that there is still a debate to be had about the cause and impact of climate change, dissent is being stifled, through the shutdown of organisations like the Climate Commission and the Environmental Defenders Office. Even if we accept (and it makes my skin itch to even type this) that there is no such thing as climate change, the Government, those people we elected to provide the greatest good to the greatest number, has completely disregarded the environmental and public health benefits that could have been achieved through reducing our emissions and investing in green technologies. The legislations that were introduced by the previous government may not have been perfect. But they were never given a chance to work. Just two years of a carbon tax gives us no real idea of what the potential impacts could have been, whether they could have reduced our emissions, increased investment in solar and wind power. What a wasted opportunity.

I’m angry, and I’m disappointed. I am furious with those who put a few dollars off their electricity bills ahead of the future of Australia’s citizens, and I’m sad that it’s the twenty first century and people are still treating science like they did five hundred years ago. I’m upset that there’s nothing that I can do about it when I’m living overseas, and quite honestly, I’m ashamed to be Australian at the moment.