What We’re Told About Climate Change Versus What We’re Told About Genetic Effects of Radiation

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has started an initiative branded as “What We Know” about climate change. The initiative is sponsored by the following individuals and organizations:

Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment
Lawrence H. Linden
Robert Litterman
The MacArthur Foundation
Rockefeller Family Fund
Henry M. Paulson

Here is a brief excerpt from the page about the initiative:

The What We Know initiative is dedicated to ensuring that three “R’s” of climate change communicated to the public.

  • The first is Reality — about 97% of climate experts have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.
  • The second is Risk — that the reality of climate change means that there are climate change impacts we can expect, but we also must consider what might happen, especially the small, but real, chance that we may face abrupt changes with massively disruptive impacts.
  • The third R is Response — that there is much we can do and that the sooner we respond, the better off we will be.

This short video adds some depth to those bullet points.

Consensus Sense from What We Know on Vimeo.

It’s also worthwhile to point you to a document titled What We Know: The Reality, Risk and Response to Climate Change.

Please take the time to at least skim through that document. It takes what might be called “the kitchen sink” approach to scaring as many people as possible into taking action. Here is a sample quote:

The range of uncertainty for the warming along the current emissions path is wide enough to encompass massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems: As global temperatures rise, there is a real risk, however small, that one or more critical parts of the Earth’s climate system will experience abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes. Disturbingly, scientists do not know how much warming is required to trigger such changes to the climate system.

I’m sure it is a bad idea to keep dumping 30 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year and I am sure there are unpredictable, often negative future consequences from doing so.

That does not mean I believe that humanity is immediately facing such dire consequences that it must disrupt its current technological structure and adopt stringent measures to enable us to live within the power capability of the wind, water and sun.

I’m deeply skeptical about the motives and goals of people who purport to put a high priority on the fight against climate change while also ignoring or actively working against the use of ultra-low emission fission power generation technology. That is especially true when it is reasonably obvious that the speaker or writer is financially interested in promoting natural gas, wind, solar, or biofuels instead of reducing CO2 emissions.

One particular statement from What We Know: The Reality, Risk and Response to Climate Change jumped out at me as an example of the way that the document authors chose to toss the kitchen sink at readers and overwhelm them with dire possibilities.

Over the past two decades, sea levels have risen almost twice as fast as the average during the twentieth century. Salt-water intrusion can be witnessed in southern Florida, where sea level rise is contributing to salt-water infiltration of coastal wells.

I’m not an expert on all of the topics introduced in the document, but I know a little about salt water intrusion in coastal wells in South Florida. I grew up in Pembroke Pines, a suburb located between Miami and Fort Lauderdale about 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. When we moved there in 1962, the population of the burb was about 2,500. When mom moved away 40 years later, it was well over 150,000. That is only one of dozens of towns with similar stories of population growth in the South Florida megalopolis.

There have been concerns about salt water intruding into South Florida’s fresh water aquifers for at least half a century. The documented cause has been excessive pumping to support the growing population. There have been some attempts in recent years to push the blame on rising sea water levels caused by CO2 emissions from the rest of the world, but the primary culprits are Florida residents, not everyone else.

The structure of the language in What We Know sounded eerily familiar. I then realized where I had seen a similar discussion of “real risk, however small” that described the possibility of terrible consequences.

There are numerous similarities between the AAAS document titled What We Know: The Reality, Risk and Response to Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences 1956 document titled Genetics Committee Report Concerning Effects of Radioactivity on Heredity, one of six sections of the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation.

Both reports carry the weight of being issued by a credible, well-known scientific body. Both acknowledge significant technical uncertainty, but assert that there are major, scary risks that people need to take action to avoid. Both assert that there is incontrovertible proof of the basic science, in one case that radiation causes mutation and in the other that CO2 causes a greenhouse effect. Both selectively limit participation in the creation and review of their report, one to geneticists and one to climate scientists. Both appeal to consensus and nearly unanimous agreement among the selected scientific group (geneticists and climate scientists.)

Examples: From the Genetics Committee report: “The basic fact is — and no competent persons doubt this — that radiations produce mutations and that mutations are in general harmful.” From What We Know – “So let us be clear: Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists conclude that humans are changing the climate.”

Both reports discuss the notion that scientists sometimes need to depart from their labs and experiments to warn the public about dire risks and the need for immediate action while recognizing that they are stepping into political territory. Both acknowledge that the substance they are warning about is part of our natural environment that cannot be eliminated, but both recommend strict limitations on future increases.

Both reports are part of a major pubic relations campaign designed to change behavior and perception. Both reports are sponsored by people or organizations with substantial financial interests in shaping public opinion and actions specifically with regard to the topic of the report they have sponsored. (The sponsors for What We Know are listed above; the Rockefeller Foundation funded all of the NAS Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation work from 1954-1962.)

Here is a sample quote from the Genetics Committee report.

A discussion of genetic damage necessarily involves, on the one hand, certain tangible and imminent dangers, certain tragedies which might occur to our own children or grandchildren; and on the other hand certain more remote trouble that may be experienced by very large numbers of persons in the distant future.

No two persons are likely to weigh exactly alike these two sorts of danger. How does one compare the present fact of a seriously handicapped child with the possibility that large numbers of persons may experience much more minor handicaps, a hundred or more generations from now?

There are thoughtful and sensitive persons who think that our present society should try to meet its more immediate problems and not worry too much about the long-range future. This viewpoint is in some instances supported by the belief that new ways, perhaps unimaginable at the moment, are likely eventually to be found for meeting problems.

There are other thoughtful and conscientious persons who think that we are specifically responsible for guarding, as well as we can now determine, the long future.

And here is a similar sounding sample from the “What We Know” report.

Even Americans who have come to recognize that climate change is occurring know there are limits to their ability to make this judgment from their own experiences. It might appear as if it’s raining more or less often, that it’s hotter than usual, or that there are more storms than in the past. But is this true climate change or just natural variation? Does a particularly cold or snowy winter, such as the one the eastern United States experienced in 2013 and 2014, or variations in the rate of global surface temperature change call global warming into question? If the climate is changing, are human activities responsible, or is it being caused by natural factors?

When we take the long view on climate change, we face these same uncertainties and risks. Climate projections for the year 2100 (when many children born this year will still be living) give a range of plausible temperatures. We are uncertain whether we will experience the high or low end of the range, but the risks of bad outcomes increase greatly at the high end of warming scenarios.

I want to make it as clear as I can. I am not a climate change skeptic; I know it is happening. I’ve been convinced by reading about the science and by lengthy discussions with climate scientists who rationally recommend that addressing the challenge requires the best use of all available tool, including nuclear fission.

I am also not a skeptic about the fact that radiation above certain doses can cause mutations, cancer or even death in a short period of time. It is important for everyone to understand the risks associated with excessive alpha, beta and gamma radiation exposure in exactly the same way that all of us need to understand the risks associated with excessive ultraviolet radiation exposure.

What I don’t believe is that society needs to seek to reduce either “man-made” CO2 or “man-made” radiation doses to near zero. There are reasons to limit both CO2 and radiation doses, but there is no logical or moral reason to impose too tight a limit on either one.

In fact, I’ve often found that people working very hard to impose such limits don’t even like other people and seek to restrict their access to economic prosperity and physical power.

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