by Dave Kopel
Modern environmentalism is thoroughly polluted by junk science and cynical hysterics. As Ben Bolch and Harold Lyons detail in their new book Apocalypse Not (Wash. DC, Cato Institute, 1993), a vast portion of what passes for environmentalism is little more than scare-mongering. Unfortunately, environmental groups have sometimes found that donors and members are more responsive to (dubious) claims about environmental problems that supposedly put the donor's health at risk, and are insufficiently interested in genuine environmental problems that do not pose a threat to the donor.
Take global warming, for instance. The theory is that increasing carbon buildup in the atmosphere, as the result of the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, traps heat, and is raising the earth's temperature, with catastrophic consequences.
Much of the environmental media takes global warming as an accepted scientific fact. Vice-President Gore argues that newspapers shouldn't even quote scientists who doubt global warming. The only question seems to be how high we should raise taxes on fuels and increase regulation of every phase of people's lives in order to coerce them into using less carbon.
But, as Bloch and Lyons point out, it's not really so clear-cut. In a survey of climatologists (the folks with actual expertise), about half of them doubted whether global warming was actually taking place, and many of the rest thought that any warming would be quite small, with possibly benign effects on the environment (e.g. making is easier to grow food on the Canadian prairie). Of the rest, many thought that were no need to take drastic action at the present time.
It's well-established that global temperatures rise and fall in cycles lasting hundreds and thousands of years. World temperatures have risen slightly in the last 500 years -- but almost all of that increase was took place before the 19th century, which was the time when fossil fuel burning began to increase rapidly.
The difficulty of proclaiming global warming as a certainty is highlighted by the difficulty that the world's best climatologists using the most advanced computers have in predicting temperatures 90 days in the future. If asked to predict whether the temperature 90 days hence will be higher than the historical norm, lower, or about the same, the best scientists are right only about 2% more often than would be someone who was guessing randomly.
The computer models which predict future global warming suffer from a serious flaw: when fed data about conditions a hundred years ago, they "predict" temperatures several degrees hotter than the temperatures which historically occurred. If the models can't even describe the past accurately, how can they be the basis for drastically expanding the future role of government?
Unfortunately, the catastrophic "global warming" theory appears to have much in common with "nuclear winter," a now-discredited theory that nuclear warfare would (besides all the other damage inflicted) cause catastrophic global cooling. In retrospect, "nuclear winter" had less to do with realistic science than with the desires of anti-nuclear groups to frighten the public into supporting their cause.
Junk science pervades not only large issues such as global warming/cooling, but smaller ones such as the alleged dangers in your basement. Radon is a natural gas emitted from uranium. Small quantities of radon exist almost everywhere, with the greater concentrations being found in areas where gases from natural rocks accumulate most, such as mines and basements. Radon gas decays naturally, and some of the isotopes resulting from the decay can cause lung cancer at high doses.
The high-dose carcinogenic effect has been demonstrated beyond doubt by studies of miners who have suffered long-term, high-level radon exposures. Radon appeared to be particularly carcinogenic when it interacted synergistically with tobacco smoke.
If high levels of radon can cause lung cancer (especially in smokers), are low or minute doses also carcinogenic? Well, not necessarily. After all, salt or alcohol can kill at high doses, and can promote better health at lower doses.
In 1980, a massive study of 140,000 Chinese, half of whom lived in an area with high natural levels of radon, and half of whom lived in an area with much lower levels, found no statistically discernable adverse affects.
Thus, the carcinogenic effect of radon appears to be non-linear. Very high levels of exposure cause cancer, but more moderate levels appear to have no effect at all. The studies of uranium miners found no adverse health effects at all when radon exposure was smaller than 12,000 picocuries per liter of air.
In the face of all this evidence, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that exposure to radon at a dosage of greater than 4 picocuries per liter of air could cause cancer. EPA then determined that a residence would require remediation to reduce radon levels if the 4 picocurie level were exceeded in the home's basement. In setting the 4 picocurie level, EPA assumed that people spend at least 70% of their total lives inside their home, and spend most of their home time in the basement, where radon exposures are greatest.
Having built a mountain of regulations on a molehill of science, EPA then proceeded to terrify America with misleading advertising. One TV commercial showed a child receiving an X-ray every few seconds, and implied that living in a home with radon above the EPA levels was equivalent to being continuously bombarded with chest x-rays.
The total costs of modifying homes and schools to meet EPA's criteria ranges from 10 billion dollars to 100 billion, almost all of it wasted. Money that could have gone to improve education, or to make people happy through spending their own money as they best saw fit, has been spent making EPA bureaucrats happy and expanding the already overgrown federal government.
As Bloch and Lyons detail, junk science is not an isolated problem in environmental policy. The "ozone hole," acid rain, and nuclear power are among the many issues that have been hopelessly distorted by activist groups that have repeatedly chosen fear-mongering over science.
The world is in fact full of immense environmental problems, including the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the genocide perpetrated against rainforest Indians, the Chinese government's war against the people and the environment of Tibet, and the immense chemical pollution created by the former Communist governments of eastern Europe. Dedicated environmentalists have more than enough problems to tackle to keep them busy for a lifetime. Too often, well-meaning activists are distracted by phobias of little scientific merit, and energy that could have used to help our planet is wasted on curing a "problem" that never existed except in the minds of professional panic-mongers.