It’s fair to say that plenty of politicians and organizations on the right or far-right are considered to be almost inherently anti-scientific. Facts don’t mean as much as feelings to people like Trump or enormous corporations like ExxonMobil, who see issues like climate change and environmentalism as inconveniences at best and global conspiracies at worst. This is well-known, and their avoidance of scientific facts and evidence is often called out by the media.
However, groups and individuals who generally represent "the left" can be just as anti-science. Not only are their views sometimes just as erroneous as their counterparts on the other side of the fence, but they can also be just as dangerous if enough people listen without pausing to question them.
Greenpeace is a perfect example of this. Revered by plenty of left-leaning people – 2.8 million, according to their own website – this organization’s wide-reaching mission is certainly a noble one, in that it wishes to prevent environmental degradation and mitigate climate change, whatever it takes. Many agree, and to its supporters, this group represents the “voice of the people”.
Yet Greenpeace adherents despise nuclear power, which happens to be a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change. They (correctly) point to the fact that buried waste is a problem, but their objectivity, and sense of perspective, seems to stop there.
“While nuclear power is considerably more risky than the industry will actually admit, our opposition to new nuclear is predicated upon the opportunity costs involved, not upon fear,” Dr Paul Johnston, the principal scientist of Greenpeace's Science Unit at the University of Exeter, told IFLScience.
A quick look at Greenpeace’s website on nuclear power brings up an ominous banner saying: "It’s time to end this nuclear nightmare", with a direct reference to Fukushima. This certainly looks quite fear-inducing, but does nuclear power deserve it?
First of all, we are now five years on from the Fukushima event, and there has not been a statistically significant increase in cancer rates in the region. Significantly, this is only the 3rd nuclear incident in human history, with only Chernobyl – a result of poor oversight and lazy, unregulated construction – being a disaster that truly shook the world.
In over 16,000 cumulative years of commercial nuclear power, less than a hundred or so have died from related radiation sickness. Compare this to the tens of millions of people that die every year from fossil fuel-based pollution, and add that to the millions more that die as an indirect result of fossil fuel-driven climate change, and it is clear that the threat of nuclear power is massively overstated.
A Costly Endeavor
Johnston also pointed out that nuclear power is often expensive compared to fossil fuel plants. This is true, but nuclear power could be made more competitive with a nationwide carbon tax. Besides, just because something is expensive that doesn’t make it bad – a sentiment any space agency would agree with.
Johnston added that “every one of those billions is a dollar not spent on sources that will deliver energy within the very short time frame required to stop catastrophic climate change.” The word “sources” in this case refers to renewables.
They may be expensive, but without them, the world would rely far more on fossil fuel power plants. hxdyl/Shutterstock
Solar power and wind power are the only two major renewable power sources that every country can practically adopt, and - as effective, efficient and clean as they are - these are currently not able to provide every single community on Earth with a constant source of energy. This is for a variety of reasons, but a reliance on fossil fuels is hard to break, particulalry as they're still so cheap to use.
There's also hydropower and geothermal heat, but these are only available to certain nations. Even then, this energy cannot currently be stored in the long term unlike nuclear power, whose fuel can wait around ready to be used when needed. (Saying that, battery technology is making huge leaps and bounds right now, and it might not be long before renewables and battery technology are all that most communities need.)
Most importantly, renewable power alone cannot currently sustain the entire planet, particularly as its population grows and electricity demands continue to rise. Theoretically speaking, it could, of course – a Sahara desert even partly covered in solar panels would technically be enough – but this is idealism without pragmatism.
At present, if current trends continue, coal will be phased out, but it'll be replaced by a mixture of increasingly cheap natural gas, solar and wind power. Fossil fuels could be pushed into the dustbin of history a lot faster, however, if nuclear power is adopted.
Nuclear power has a very low carbon footprint. A comprehensive study in 2008 found that modern nuclear power plants have a footprint 14.5 times lower than that of coal-fired plants and 6.7 times lower than natural gas-fired plants. A world running on nuclear and renewable power would produce magnitudes less carbon dioxide than the one we live in right now.
Johnston said he isn’t aware of any studies suggesting that nuclear power should be combined with renewables, but there is plenty of evidence out there to be found. Many experts commenting on the groundbreaking Paris agreement have also concluded that in order to meet the modest targets, nuclear power is essential.
Shades of Green
“Green” political parties are not much better in this regard.
The US, for example, has its own Green Party. It’s headed by Dr Jill Stein, who is a candidate for the US presidency. Although her viewpoints can seem appealing to her base of left-wing supporters, a closer look reveals that she is actually extremely unscientific in her approach.
Her party wishes to turn the US into a 100 percent renewable nation by 2030, something that practically speaking, is highly unfeasible. Stein’s party also has a distinctly anti-nuclear stance – a position shared by the UK Green Party, the Australian Greens, and similar groups from many other countries. Without nuclear power, climate change will march on.
Incidentally, Stein also believes that Wi-Fi is harmful to people’s health, which all evidence concludes that it is not. On this issue, she actually disagrees with her own manifesto, which calls for universal access to the Internet. A recent Reddit AMA revealed that she is still, at the very least, ambivalent about Wi-Fi.
Stein has also used some concerning language regarding vaccinations in the past, and her party only just this year removed its support of teaching and funding homeopathy from its manifesto. Worrying signs indeed.
More broadly, Stein wishes to influence scientific research policy by continuously acknowledging the opinions of the public, which could very easily let anti-scientific views seep into the discourse. Americans fear clowns more than climate change, so if Stein stages a revolution in 2016, expect anti-clown research to get a huge cash injection.
Comedian John Oliver recently picked apart, among other things, Stein’s scientifically dubious viewpoints on national television. Taking that fateful step from cynicism into outright conspiracy theory madness, she declared Oliver a member of a conspiracy linked to none other than Hillary Clinton.
And then, there’s genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GMO crops are primarily designed to become resistant to diseases, harsh environments, and to become unreliant on potentially toxic pesticides. As you are probably aware, they have been met with unyielding opposition from many green parties and groups, including Stein.
“Greenpeace is not opposed to biotechnology – nor the use of GMOs – in contained environments,” Johnston told IFLScience. “We remain opposed to releases of [GMO] crops to the wider environment.” This implies, quite oddly, that they should never leave the laboratory, which really is the end game of the research.
Let’s be clear: There is overwhelming scientific evidence that GMO crops, which mostly consist of maize and soybean, are safe for human consumption. A major report by the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released just this year was cited by Johnston to conclude that there is no consensus on the safety and effectiveness of GMO crops, but a reading of the study shows that almost the exact opposite is true.
It points out that, with some minor exceptions, GMO crops “have generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers,” noting that crops with insect-resistant genes “decreased yield losses and the use of insecticides on small and large farms” with respect to non-GMO varieties.
After examining a plethora of experimental studies and long-term data on livestock and human health, the committee found “no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.”
When it comes to GMOs, many “green” politicians are worried about large, opaque conglomerates like Monsanto owning too much of the world’s food supply. Although this type of monopoly is a legitimate concern – as is their overuse of potentially harmful pesticides – it does not make GMOs themselves dangerous.
Regardless, groups like Stein’s and Greenpeace strongly adhere to the idea that they are. They are not teaching people to be skeptical about GMOs, but rather advocating outright opposition against the technology regardless of the available evidence.
GMO crops are sometimes specifically manufactured to save lives. Golden Rice – a project funded and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – is an excellent example of this. It is a variety of the common crop that has more vitamin A in it than usual.
It’s designed to be grown in parts of the world where populations suffer from major deficiencies in it. At best, they go blind; at worst, they die – and 2 million a year do.
Although more testing is required, Golden Rice has shown promise in fixing this problem effectively and quickly. Greenpeace nevertheless protest it without scientific reason to do so, potentially endangering millions of lives every year. Over 100 Nobel laureates have asked them to stop spreading what they consider to be misinformation about the subject, but to no avail.
As part of an exclusive interview with IFLScience, Bill Gates noted that this type of protest will harm less developed countries the most.
“The fact that some rich countries aren’t going to take advantage of more productive or more nutritious food, that’s not any kind of problem at all,” he said. “What I would view as problematic is imposing that view on countries where the benefits are quite dramatic – in terms of avoiding crop diseases that lead to starvation, or growing crops that improve nutrition and provide vitamin A to people.”
Remember: There is nothing wrong with being a skeptic, and environmentalism is a cause worth fighting for, but you need to arm yourself with the correct information before you head out to battle. Otherwise, you could be perpetuating a great harm. Do your research and check your sources.
You don’t always have to be on the right of the political spectrum to be wrong on the science.
Update: A clarification has been added to the section about renewables and nuclear power; specifically, why solar and wind power alone can't currently power the world.
Golden Rice has the potential to be a life-saving game-changer of a crop. Aireo/Shutterstock