Has Apocalyptic Portrayal of Climate Change Risk Backfired?

During the Australian Broadcasting Company documentary titled I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate there is a scene where Anthony Leiserowitz (via Skype video) shares some of what he has learned during his research about climate change attitudes with Nick Minchin and Anna Rose, the show’s protagonists.

Here is how the producers of “I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate” describe Dr. Leiserowitz:

Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. He is an expert on public opinion about climate change and the environment. His research investigates the psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence environmental attitudes, policy support, and behavior. He conducts research at the global, national, and local scales, including many surveys of the American public.

Not only was the discussion enlightening about the reasons why different people end up with different opinions about climate change responses when presented with essentially the same body of information, but it also got me thinking about a possible way to fight back against the Gundersens, Caldicotts, Riccios, Grossmans and Wassermans of the world.

That group of five tend to use apocalyptic rhetoric to describe what will happen to the world if we do not immediately start turning our collective backs on all of the benefits that abundant atomic energy can provide. They spin tall tales of deformed children, massive numbers of cancers as a result of minor radioactive material releases, swaths of land made “uninhabitable” for thousands of years, countries “cut in half”, and clouds of “hot particles” raining death and destruction ten thousand miles from the release point.

Every one of those clowns have been repeating similar stories for at least two solid decades, and continue to repeat their stories even after supposedly catastrophic failures at Fukushima have not resulted in a single radiation related injury or death. According to eminent scientists – like Dr. Robert Gale – Fukushima is unlikely to EVER result in any measurable increase in radiation related illness.

One important element that we have to consider to assess cancer risks associated with an accident like Fukushima is our baseline risk for developing cancer. All of us, unfortunately, have a substantial risk of developing cancer in our lifetime. For example, a 50-year-old male has a 42% risk of developing cancer during his remaining life; it’s almost the same for a 10-year-old. This risk only decreases when we get much older and only because we are dying of other causes.

It’s true that excess radiation exposure can increase our cancer risk above baseline levels; it’s clear from studies of the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of people exposed to radiation in medical and occupational settings, and of people exposed to radon decay products in mines and home basements. When it comes to exposures like that of Fukushima, the question is: What is the relative magnitude of the increased risk from Fukushima compared to our baseline cancer risk? Despite our fears, it is quite small.

If the nuclear industry – as small and unfocused as it is – really wanted to take action to isolate the apocalyptic antinuclear activists, it could take a page from the effective campaign of the fossil fuel lobby. It could start an integrated campaign to help the rest of us to remember that, despite the dire predictions, the sky never fell, the predicted unnatural deaths never occurred, the deformations were figments of imagination, and the land is not really irreversibly uninhabitable for generations.

The industry would effectively share the story of Ukraine’s recent decision to begin repopulating the vast majority of the “dead zone” that was forcibly evacuated after the Chernobyl accident. It would put some context into the discussion about radiation health effects; even if leaders shy away from directly challenging the Linear No Threshold (LNT) dose assumption, they can still show that even that pessimistic model says that a tiny dose leads to a tiny risk.

Aside: My personal opinion is that the LNT is scientifically unsupportable and should be replaced with a much better model. We deserve far less onerous regulations; there is evidence that existing regulations actually cause harm. I hear a rumor that there is a group of mostly retired, but solidly credentialed professionals who are organizing a special session at the annual ANS meeting to talk about effective ways to influence policy changes. End Aside.

Most of us recognize that there is no such thing as a zero risk; repeated assertions of “there is no safe level” should be addressed by accepting “close enough” to zero so that even the most fearful person can stop worrying. The sky has not fallen, even though we have experienced complete core meltdowns and secondary explosions that did some visible damage.

Nuclear plants are not perfect, there will be accidents and there will be radioactive material releases. History is telling me that the risks are acceptable, especially in the context of the real world where there is always some potential for harm. The benefits of accepting a little nuclear risk are immense and must not be marginalized by the people who market fear and trembling.

Update: Posted at 3:13 on May 2, 2012.

I need to add Michael Collins to my list of apocalyptic antinuclear activists who uses fear and trembling. Check out this recent video and see just how many errors you can find.

I visited Michael’s web site at enviroreporter.com. The blog link there leads to a page not found error, so I left the following in the “Contact” form:


As a nuclear energy professional I was completely unimpressed by your recent appearance on “Attack of the Show.”

Why are you working so hard to make people fear something that poses no danger?

Do you have any idea how to measure radiation and how to interpret the resulting units of measure? Do you have any understanding of the fact that filters are specifically DESIGNED to concentrate particulates? Of course a filter that has been cleaning particulates out of the air for 40 days will exhibit higher than background dose rates – if it didn’t, it would not be doing a credible job of FILTERING the air.

If you are really interested in learning more about radiation and its effects on human beings, I have plenty of colleagues who are radiation health professionals who can help you improve your level of knowledge.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

PS – I began my nuclear education in the US Navy’s nuclear power program. I ended up serving as the Chief Engineer Officer on USS Von Steuben. During a part of my career, I was the Chemistry and Radiological Controls Assistant, in charge of the ship’s program for environmental and health monitoring for radioactive materials.

PS – I was amused to note how many ads for water filters, air filters and radiation detectors were running on Michael’s highly promoted site. Hmmm.

About Rod Adams

14 Responses to “Has Apocalyptic Portrayal of Climate Change Risk Backfired?”

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  1. Woll says:

    You didn’t go over the seaweed analysis.

  2. John ONeill says:

    I thought that some revisionist had reinterpreted the data on household radon and concluded that it was only an increased risk factor when associated with smoking. Is that the current consensus?

  3. James Greenidge says:

    The media bias that gets me is how come pro-nukers are never called up for one-on-one interviews like that??

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • Michael Mann says:

      “Pro-nukers” are boring; fear, uncertainty and doubt get viewers… there is a lot of profit in fear, fear is sensational and doesn’t require understanding.

  4. SteveK9 says:

    The program ‘Radioactive Wolves’ by Nature (PBS) is one of the most effective rebuttals out there to over-reaction to the effects of radiation. It examines in detail the nature preserve that has resulted from the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which as Rod points out has plans for rehabitation.


  5. Bill Rodgers says:

    Went to the G4 website to see if there was a way to contact the host about how radiation challenged the “reporter” was and why this type of media exposure does little to raise the education level but does a lot to increase the fear level.

    However I discovered there was no need for me to chime in since the host of the show, Kevin Pereira , was lambasted by his regular viewers for allowing Micheal Collins on the show. And the comments section of the G4 website did not break out into the normal pro-nuclear vs. anti-nuclear lines. The comments reflected the fact that Michael Collins did not know what he was doing when using the rad monitor and was only trying to ramp up the fear.

    So maybe there is a little ray of hope that individuals like Micheal Collins are reaching the end of their 15 minutes of fame relative to Fukushima.

    Also the major error that Mr. Collins makes is that the EPA Radnet is still functioning and providing near real time data. However due to the incredibly low rad levels recorded on the West Coast weeks after Fukushima, the EPA went back to routine monitoring in June 2011.



    But then why let a few facts to get in the way when selling fear of nuclear power is the goal.

  6. John Tucker says:

    Apocalyptic Extremism not based in any science? I think the apocalyptic realties of Climate Change and Acidification for some species and habitats are bad enough. But I know what you mean.

    I think the approach has worked very well for the anti nuclear movement.

    In response nuclear financial interests have been somewhat disconnected to nuclear environmental interests (nuclear financial interests are involved in high carbon fossil fuels as well sometimes) and the nuclear environmental interests are basically unfunded, and dependent on a informed minority.

    Laying the correct groundwork however may pay off in the long run. By not distancing itself from the anti nuclear movement the climate change environmentalists are being undermined. Carbon emission is increasing where nuclear power is shuttered and/or ALL renewable efforts are being negated. Worldwide emissions are skyrocketing.

    Then of course there is the extreme penalty for not laying that groundwork for reasonable discourse that will come back to bite you in the end:

    Wind farm action groups throw down gauntlet to candidates ( http://www.thesouthernreporter.co.uk/news/local-headlines/wind-farm-action-groups-throw-down-gauntlet-to-candidates-1-2255109 )

    Canadians protest wind power subsidies over environmental concerns ( http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/04/03/canadians-protest-wind-power-subsidies-over-environmental-concerns/ )

    the most ridiculous (Ive noticed some names from the anti-nuclear community in there):

    Stop Smart Meters! ( http://stopsmartmeters.org/ )

  7. Curtis says:

    I think an effective graphic to combat the Unusable Land claim would be a picture of either/or evacuation (no go) zones from Fukishima and Chernoyble and compare it to the land used by renewable sources.

    Show how much land was destroyed (and how many people were displaced) by the 3 Gorges Dam in China.

    How much space it would take to get 1000 MW of Solar or wind.

    How much land was made unusable by 3 Mile Island.

    This comparison of how much land is Temporarily made unusable by a worst case disaster vs how much land is made unusable by Regular Operation of renewable sources

  8. Brian Mays says:

    Apocalyptic portrayal?

    I can think of no better word to describe James Hansen’s latest op-ed in the New York Times. The title says it all:

    Game Over for the Climate.

    Interesting thing about this op-ed, there’s lots of talk about “we need to start reducing emissions significantly,” but do you notice what is missing? How about the word nuclear?

    I’ve observed that Rod has railed against Pat Michaels in the past because he failed to mention nuclear power as the technology to replace fossil fuels today (e.g., the Atomic Insights blog post dated 9/8/2010). Will he be consistent and now chastise Dr. Hansen for similar omissions? 🙂

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Brian Mays – Though James Hansen has often made it clear that he supports the use of nuclear energy as a powerful tool in the battle against climate change, I have to agree with you about this op-ed. It is unreasonably apocalyptic. I do not have any fear of Canadian tar sands development – it is about 17% more carbon intensive than other unconventional oil plays, but the total production rate is only 2 million barrels of oil per day. That is just slightly more than 2% of the world total oil production and insignificant when you compare it to the CO2 from daily coal production.

      Even with a doubling of the already massive investment in extraction infrastructure, Alberta tar sands will only produce 4-5 million barrels of oil per day. While that would “move the needle” in terms of monetary income to our north American neighbors, it would not move the needle of global CO2 emissions.

      The people who are most threatened by tar sands development are all of the competitive oil producers that have to compete in a market that is more fully supplied, and thus reaches a lower equilibrium price with Canadian oil included than with it excluded (kept in the ground as some ardent activists have prescribed.)

      Slowly using hydrocarbons is not nearly as dangerous as an ever increasing rate of consumption. The earth does have systems that can mitigate a certain amount; unfortunately, we moved past that level and have no hope of returning without widespread replacement of fossil fuel combustion with atomic fission.

      • Brian Mays says:

        Well, personally, if the Canadian tar sands are going to be developed, I’d prefer to see the energy used for that development to come from SMR’s rather than from something like natural gas.