|The Week That Was
February 15-21, 1999
We could use a little global warming here in Washington, D.C., this week, where lows will dip briefly to 12 degrees F but remain all week in the PDC range (pretty damned cold!). It's snowing over Glacier National Park again, and in Kansas City, Omaha, Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Moscow, Vienna, and Warsaw. It's supposed to, of course. It's winter*.
But is something else at work here? Government-paid scientists most closely associated with the global warming issue seem to have lost their resolve as quickly as they lost their El Niņo. Consider these recent events:
o James Hansen of the National Atmospheric and Space Administration, 99 percent sure a decade ago that global warming had arrived, publishes a paper saying that climate models are unreliable.
o Jerry Mahlman, prominent climate modeler at Princeton University, co-authors a paper that says natural carbon sinks in North America may be absorbing all of the region's industrial/auto output of CO2, and further says that attempts to link 1998's warm weather to global warming are baloney.
o Tom Karl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an old reliable at the Al Gore/global warming press briefings last summer, reports to the National Research Council just two weeks ago that current systems for observing the planet's climate change are inadequate and raise questions about the accuracy of some findings.
o Now Stephen Schneider, the admirably flexible Stanford professor who successfully promoted both the ice age scare AND the global warming scare, advises caution in an internal paper prepared for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to the February 20th issue of The New Scientist, Schneider warns that there is a "well-documented tendency" for scientific committees to overstate the confidence of their guesstimates. (Gee, no kidding.)
Is Schneider gearing up for another career move? Have the views of the "out of the mainstream" contrarians suddenly become "mainstream?" Is there an outbreak of weak knees due to a hard winter? A weighty conscience? Can those of us at The Science & Environmental Policy Project pack up our tent and go home?
Well, not quite yet. Reporters, beginning to feel a little silly penning scary copy about global warming with their tootsies shoved up against a space heater, have moved on to other hair-raisers. Polyvinylchloride, for example. Greenpeace, which put parents in a tizzy just before Christmas with claims that kiddies were sucking PVC additives (phthalates) out of their toys, now says that PVCs in plastic tubing and blood bags might cause cancer in hospital patients. Bureaucrats with the Food and Drug Administration, who have already examined the PVC issue a number of times, say--sigh--they'll do it yet again.
The anti-PVC crusade hasn't been without its mishaps. The Green-controlled German government is set to hop on the Greenpeace bandwagon, but the German courts are a bit more skeptical, ruling recently that the organization was a "sect," has military-trained activists, and "spreads half-truths." In Washington, after cold weather caused dozens of metal and concrete-based water mains to burst, the Chlorine Chemistry Council pointed out that the city wouldn't have incurred citizen complaints and huge repair costs if it had used PVC pipe.
Fran Smith, director of the consumer group Consumer Alert, thinks Greenpeace is planning a multipart series on PVC. Part 3 will be PVCs in plastic wrap. Part 4: PVCs in plastic bottles. Part 5: PVCs in shower curtains, etc. Showers are especially dangerous, of course. Green activists have already claimed that radon from tap water, inhaled in shower steam, causes lung cancer and that the chlorine turns into chloroform vapor. Then there's the hazard of slipping on soap.
Speaking of which, the London Sunday Telegraph made a splash last week with a report that said scientists were claiming that polio vaccines administered before 1963 may have been contaminated with a monkey virus that causes cancer. By Wednesday the story had spread into many U.S. newspapers. By Thursday, one of the scientists in question called a press conference in Houston to say that the Telegraph had gotten the story all wrong.
Dr. Janet S. Butel, who heads the Division of Molecular Biology at Baylor College of Medicine, denounced the Telegraph's headline, "Pre-1963 Polio Vaccines May Be Killing Hundreds Through Cancer," as unnecessarily alarmist. (Butel, it seems, was just calling for more research.) A spokesman for the medical school said, "It's never been proven there's any direct causal relationship between the monkey virus and human cancers." And a National Cancer Institute study, published just last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that there has been no increase in humans of the type of cancer associated with this virus.
We applaud the quick action by Dr. Butel and Baylor School of Medicine to correct the Sunday Telegraph story. Let's hope, for the public's sake, that other researchers take similar action to correct distorted reporting.
Here in Washington, six protesters with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals chained themselves outside the office of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to protest government hog farm subsidies. Chanting "Jail, not bail, for pig farmers," they were quickly taken into custody by officers with the Federal Protective Services.
Last week, Greenpeace (yep, them again), the Center for Food Safety, and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (organic farmers) filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop the production of genetically altered food plants that incorporate a natural insect toxin called Bt--the same natural toxin organic farmers spray on their crops. In short, the plants don't need to be sprayed and, for some reason, activists don't like that. (It should be noted that the EPA incurs no cost with such lawsuits, since legal fees are paid not out of the EPA budget but out of the General Treasury Fund--one reason many suspect that the EPA deliberately invites Green groups to sue.)
Finally, this being a science-based project, we don't often refer readers to articles that turn up in political magazines, but coverage of Vice President Gore often straddles the line between science and politics, as it does in the March 8 issue of the decidedly conservative National Review, just out. The cover story "Apocalypse Gore: The Dark Vision of the Vice President" by Adam Wolfson takes a hard look at Gore's environmental treatise Earth in the Balance. We consider both Wolfson's article and Gore's book a "must read." The article is on-line at Steve Milloy's Junk Science Home Page at http://www.junkscience.com/feb99/apocgore.htm.
This beat, unfortunately, goes on...
* Actually it's been a rather sobering winter with heavy snow triggering dangerous avalanches all over Europe and in many parts of the United States and Canada. That, obviously, is nothing to speak lightly about. Watch for severe flooding this spring when warmer weather arrives.
TW2 is compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall