Scientists and environmentalists have attacked a global campaign to ban plastic bags which they say is based on flawed science and exaggerated claims. The widely stated accusation that the bags kill 100,000 animals and a million seabirds every year are false, experts have told The Times. They pose only a minimal threat to most marine species, including seals, whales, dolphins and seabirds.
Gordon Brown announced last month that he would force supermarkets to charge for the bags, saying that they were "one of the most visible symbols of environmental waste". Retailers and some pressure groups, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, threw their support behind him.
But scientists, politicians and marine experts attacked the Government for joining a "bandwagon" based on poor science. Lord Taverne, the chairman of Sense about Science, said: "The Government is irresponsible to jump on a bandwagon that has no base in scientific evidence. This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counter-productive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn't achieve anything."
Campaigners say that plastic bags pollute coastlines and waterways, killing or injuring birds and livestock on land and, in the oceans, destroying vast numbers of seabirds, seals, turtles and whales. However, The Times has established that there is no scientific evidence to show that the bags pose any direct threat to marine mammals. They "don't figure" in the majority of cases where animals die from marine debris, said David Laist, the author of a seminal 1997 study on the subject. Most deaths were caused when creatures became caught up in waste produce. "Plastic bags don't figure in entanglement," he said. "The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag."
He added: "The impact of bags on whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals ranges from nil for most species to very minor for perhaps a few species.For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either."
The central claim of campaigners is that the bags kill more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds every year. However, this figure is based on a misinterpretation of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland, which found that, between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine mammals, including birds, were killed by discarded nets. The Canadian study did not mention plastic bags.
Fifteen years later in 2002, when the Australian Government commissioned a report into the effects of plastic bags, its authors misquoted the Newfoundland study, mistakenly attributing the deaths to "plastic bags". The figure was latched on to by conservationists as proof that the bags were killers. For four years the "typo" remained uncorrected. It was only in 2006 that the authors altered the report, replacing "plastic bags" with "plastic debris". But they admitted: "The actual numbers of animals killed annually by plastic bag litter is nearly impossible to determine." In a postscript to the correction they admitted that the original Canadian study had referred to fishing tackle, not plastic debris, as the threat to the marine environment. Regardless, the erroneous claim has become the keystone of a widening campaign to demonise plastic bags.
David Santillo, a marine biologist at Greenpeace, told The Times that bad science was undermining the Government's case for banning the bags. "It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags," he said. "The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags. "It doesn't do the Government's case any favours if you've got statements being made that aren't supported by the scientific literature that's out there. With larger mammals it's fishing gear that's the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren't an issue. It would be great if statements like these weren't made."
Geoffrey Cox, a Tory member of the Commons Environment Select Committee, said: "I don't like plastic bags and I certainly support restricting their use, but plainly it's extremely important that before we take any steps we should rely on accurate information. It is bizarre that any campaign should be endorsed on the basis of a mistranslation. Gordon Brown should get his facts right."
A 1968 study of albatross carcasses found that 90 per cent contained some form of plastic but only two birds had ingested part of a plastic bag.
Professor Geoff Boxshall, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum, said: "I've never seen a bird killed by a plastic bag. Other forms of plastic in the ocean are much more damaging. Only a very small proportion is caused by bags." Plastic particles known as nurdles, dumped in the sea by industrial companies, form a much greater threat as they can be easily consumed by birds and animals.
Many British groups are now questioning whether a ban on bags would cost consumers more than the environmental benefits. Charlie Mayfield, chairman of retailer John Lewis, said that tackling packaging waste and reducing carbon emissions were far more important goals. "We don't see reducing the use of plastic bags as our biggest priority," he said. "Of all the waste that goes to landfill, 20 per cent is household waste and 0.3 per cent is plastic bags." John Lewis added that a scheme in Ireland had reduced plastic bag usage, but sales of bin liners had increased 400 per cent.
`Sexed-up' numbers should not always be accepted as science
By Mike Hulme (Mike Hulme is a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia)
In the recent flurry of moves to ban plastic bags a frequently cited statistic is that more than 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastic bags. The original scientific study upon which this estimate relied actually attributed these deaths to fishing tackle in the oceans, not plastic bags. Yet the terms "100,000 marine deaths" and "plastic bags" now circulate happily through our public discourse, solidified as established fact.
But when is a fact a fact? Can facts change over time? And does it matter if they do? Science is instinctively referred to as the source and authenticator of facts such as the one cited above, and rightly so. Yet as this example shows, we need to be very careful about the veracity of the numbers we latch on to, and about what they signify. What may start out as a credible, yet qualified and provisional, scientific estimate may end up, either through distortion or mere negligence, enduring as an urban myth, apocryphal numbers - the modern equivalent of folklore.
My own area of climate change offers plenty of such examples. In December 2005 a study in the journal Nature offered the observation that the circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean, which sustains the Gulf Stream, had weakened by up to 30 per cent over the previous few decades. This figure and its juxtapositioning alongside the melodrama of films such as The Day after Tomorrow were amplified through the cooperation of scientists and media to result in headlines such as "Alarm over dramatic weakening of Gulf Stream" ( The Guardian, Dec 1, 2005). The urban myth that emerged from this episode was that we were closer to a mini Ice Age in the UK than had previously been thought. Eighteen months later, however, and unremarked by the media, two studies in equally reputable journals pointed out that such a trend was within the range of natural variability and may signify nothing at all.
A second example concerns the claim that, "by the end of this century, climate change will have killed around 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa" (Christian Aid, May 2006). This number - 180 million African dead - has become one of the most widely cited numbers in the litany of doom that accompanies talk of climate change. In this case, however, the number 180 million was sexed-up science. Christian Aid took the worst-case climate scenario, the highest population scenario and the scenario with the least public health intervention and conjured the number into being. And here it has stayed, a number detached from its receding scientific origins in which assumptions were overlain on scenarios that captured uncertainties.
Whether through being lost in translation, through the premature citing of provisional science or through the purposeful sexing-up of deeply uncertain numbers, the facts of science are not always to be taken at face value.
No net global warming in eight years
The Kansas Legislature has wisely written a proposed tax on carbon dioxide emissions out of this year's energy legislation. That's the good news: As originally written by the Committee on Utilities, the Sunflower Energy bill's CO2 tax would have been a first, and a very bad precedent. The bad news is that the original bill will be copied and wind up before other legislatures that are more likely to pass it, like those of California and Oregon.
A CO2 tax will largely be levied on utilities that exceed modest limits on their carbon dioxide effluent, so consumers won't "see" it - except in their electric bills. They'll send in their monthly checks, quite unaware that the new tax revenues are likely to be shoved into a slush fund for solar energy, windmills, biodiesel, ethanol and other green gadgetry boondoggles.
Never mind that even The New York Times now acknowledges that biofuels add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the equivalent amount of conventional fuels, or that the diversion of a third of the U.S. corn crop to ethanol production has driven world food prices up so much that we are now witnessing riots, including a major one in Jakarta last month.
Let's just consider the merits of this legislation vis-a-vis some pretty well-known (if poorly publicized) global warming science. Further, we'll cheat a bit and stipulate that the bill results in a 10 percent net reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, and that global warming fever sweeps the nation, resulting in similar legislation passing in every other state.
Based upon a widely accepted formula originated at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., if the entire United States adopted the original Kansas legislation, it would prevent a total of 0.11 degrees F of global warming per century. Read that again, because it's not a typo: Eleven one-hundredths of a degree in 100 years.
Instead, let's apply the original Kansas legislation to every nation on the planet that agreed to limit its emissions under the infamous 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an amendment to a 1992 United Nations global climate treaty that would require the U.S. to reduce emissions far beyond what was written out of the Kansas bill. The new law would prevent 0.27 degrees F of warming per century. That's an amount too small to measure, because global temperatures vary by more than that from year-to-year - global warming or not.
Since 1979, satellites have been measuring lower atmospheric temperatures around the globe. In the last 12 months, they show that the earth's mean temperature has dropped by 1.13§F. Thus, in one year, that natural variability is four times greater than the amount of warming that would be prevented if the entire industrialized world adopted the original Kansas statute.
The satellite temperature surveys also show there has been no net global warming since 2000. It's a little unfair to go back much further in this discussion, because 1998 was an extremely hot year - the high point in both satellite and land-based temperature histories - because of a huge El Nino (which, incidentally, proved to be a great boon to Kansas's wheat farmers).
All of which is to say that global warming isn't exactly proceeding apace. Rather, the rate of planetary warming is falling in line with the low end of 21st century projections made by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the smart money now riding on a bit more than 3 degrees F of warming this century. It's worth noting that the 20th century saw about half of that warming, along with a doubling of life expectancy in the industrialized world, and an approximately ten-fold increase in real personal wealth.
But we hear over and over that if we don't "do" something serious about carbon dioxide emissions in the next eight years (a conveniently presidential number), we are condemning ourselves to an unmitigated climate disaster, as much of Greenland's ice crashes into the sea, raising sea level as much as 20 feet.
That's about as likely as a bill limiting CO2 emissions in Kansas putting a detectable dent in global warming. Congratulations to the legislature for its wisdom in writing out the carbon tax. But beware, electronic copies of the original are flying around the country, looking for places to land.
After two days of toiling through an ocean of charts, graphs and complicated mathematical equations, attendees of the Heartland Institute's 2008 International Conference on Climate Change in Manhattan were provided a starker, significantly less esoteric warning from the president of the Czech Republic over breakfast Tuesday morning. "It is not about climatology," the recently re-elected, Mises and Hayek-quoting Vaclav Klaus intoned darkly. "It is about freedom."
As the sole head of state willing to stand before the self-congratulatory United Nations Climate Change Conference last September and loudly register his dissent from the international groupthink on anthropogenic (i.e. manmade) global warming, Klaus was already a highly-regarded hero in these skeptic quarters. His speech this week, however, went far beyond his UN confrontation in terms of both its relentless defiance -- try to imagine a more scathing indictment of messianic environmentalists than Klaus's description of them as "imprisoned in the Malthusian tenets and in their own megalomaniac ambitions" -- and the Czech president's willingness to draw explicit comparisons between modern environmentalism and communism:
If I am not wrong I am the only speaker from a former communist country and I have to use this as a comparative -- paradoxically -- advantage. Each one of us has his or her experiences, prejudices and preferences. The ones that I have are, quite inevitably, connected with the fact that I have spent most of my life under the communist regime. A week ago I gave a speech at an official gathering at the Prague Castle commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 1948 communist putsch in the former Czechoslovakia. One of the arguments of my speech there...went as follows: "Future dangers will not come from the same source. The ideology will be different. Its essence will, nevertheless, be identical. The attractive, pathetic, at first noble idea that transcends the individual in the name of the common good, and the enormous self-confidence on the side of its proponents about their right to sacrifice man and his freedom in order to make this idea a reality." What I had in mind was, of course, environmentalism and its current strongest version, climate alarmism.
These are, as they say, fighting words.
AFTER I'D RUN A GAUNTLET of polite-yet-stoic Secret Service agents and persevered through a scheduling snafu or four, Vaclav Klaus kindly granted TAS a short interview (in English!) in a suite at the Times Square Marriott. At turns animated and sternly reserved, Klaus carries himself with remarkable poise and exudes a passion for principled policy that is impressive when one considers he's been fighting political battles since 1989. It does not take long to get the impression this is a man who does not suffer fools gladly.
"I was in Iceland a year or two ago and I enjoyed very much the words of the Prime Minister who said, 'Vaclav Klaus is very often politically incorrect, but he's usually correct politically,'" Klaus chuckled. "I like this playing with words, which is for me motivation to continue."
What's more, contrary to the blustery outrage in the international press over his crashing of the United Nations apocalypse party, the president's views may not be quite so far out as his colleagues would have their constituencies believe. Shades of Obama's NAFTA kerfuffle, Klaus insisted he was far from shunned during the three days of General Assembly receptions, meals, and cocktail parties following his speech.
"The funny [part of the] story is that many of them told me, 'Thank you very much for what you were saying. My views are similar,'" Klaus recalled. "So I say, 'Then why don't you say the same?'" The president pushed his voice up a couple registers before mimicking their response: "'Oh, it is impossible and it needs courage.' And so on."
Klaus shook his head, as if he were a competitive captain of a football team spoiling for a fight on game day, only to be hindered by the bunch of scared-of-their-own-shadow wimps the coach has inexplicably recruited. I asked Klaus if it was frustrating for him, as a trained economist -- he's held academic posts at the Forecasting Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Prague School of Economics -- to operate in a political world populated with those who so frequently behave as if they are allergic to facts and basic statistics?
"It's not frustrating if you believe it is your task to fight all forms of irrationalities and to fight the political correctness approach which is killing any serious discussion," Klaus shot back, not without some heat. Far from being a detriment to political careers, this former Minister of Finance said he believed the social and economic sciences had more to offer realist politics than many currently concede and frets global warming skeptics may be focusing too much on science alone.
"Regulation, centralization versus decentralization -- that for me is something that is not just about freedom in a political sense, but another layer, another dimension of the discussion," Klaus explained. This is a matter of philosophical consistency for Klaus, who has expressed serious misgivings about centralized power of the European Union as well.
"When I [talk about] the standard social science and the standard economic approach, it's not just saying you must be a libertarian to stress and promote freedom," he continued. "The standard social science and economic approach will tell you something about the irrationalities of centralization, the irrationalities of over-regulation, the irrationality of the bureaucratization of our lives. This is something I don't hear quite often enough."
Is it any wonder the Competitive Enterprise Institute is honoring Klaus at its upcoming annual dinner? Our time was almost up, but in light of our discussion of the "irrationalities of centralization," I couldn't help but ask the president for his thoughts on the recent election in Russia -- a country he has maintained friendly ties with.
"I must say the Russian elections are not the same elections as in the United States of America or in the Czech Republic," Klaus answered with slow and deliberate care. "So in this respect we both wouldn't be happy to have such elections. But on the other hand, when I look at it in a historical perspective and compare it with the past in Russia, when I compare it with much of Asia, in this respect, these elections were relatively okay. I would not have a highbrow negativistic approach which is quite popular in some circles."
Before I could follow up I noticed Klaus's ceaselessly amiable scheduler leaning into my line of vision across the room. When he was certain I saw him he shot me a half plaintive, half apologetic look. Time to wrap it up. Klaus gave a little single nod of the head, a one-pump handshake, thanked me for the interview and then was on to another. Queries about missile defense, Putin's successor and the U.S. presidential election would have to wait. It was a shame, really: I've met state legislators less candid than this head of state. This isn't the kind of thing the EU exports, is it?
Some Asbestos Grace
The asbestos lawsuit blob has grown so large that many companies have simply given up fighting it. Then there's W.R. Grace, which is on the verge of making legal history with a trial proceeding that could alter the federal asbestos bankruptcy landscape forever.
A building materials company, W.R. Grace was among the firms swept up in a second round of asbestos litigation in the late 1990s. Having chewed their way through asbestos manufacturers, trial lawyers went after companies that had only a marginal asbestos link. By blanketing these firms with an avalanche of claims they recruited, the tort bar pushed at least 30 of these second-tier players into bankruptcy.
Most companies then followed the usual asbestos bankruptcy script. They cut a deal with the plaintiffs attorneys, handing over a big sum to pay current and future claims. Federal bankruptcy judges happily went along, because most view their jobs as getting companies out of bankruptcy quickly and few want the hassle of investigating tens of thousands of individual asbestos claims.
Enter W.R. Grace, and its lead attorney, David Bernick, a veteran of the tobacco and breast-implant wars. Mr. Bernick has taken the unheard-of position that federal rules of evidence apply even in bankruptcy court. He has argued that the only way Judge Judith Fitzgerald can make a legitimate ruling on Grace's liability is for her to decide first how many claims have scientific merit. This is revolutionary stuff.
To her credit, Judge Fitzgerald has allowed Grace to investigate those claims, and present her with its results. The stakes are enormous. At the end of this process, Judge Fitzgerald will make a finding on W.R. Grace's ultimate liability. The plaintiffs claim it is as much as $6 billion, a figure that would make Grace insolvent. The company claims the money necessary to cover legitimate claims is closer to $500 million, a number that would allow it to rejoin the land of the living.
On the evidence so far, Grace's number is correct. The company entered Chapter 11 with some 120,000 pending claims. But Judge Fitzgerald allowed it to send a medical questionnaire to those plaintiffs, and to request proof of a claim. Some 35,000 didn't bother to finish that process.
The judge has also seen a videotape of the "doctors" who diagnosed many of the remaining 85,000 claims. These are some of the same characters from the recent silicosis legal scam, and the court was treated to scenes of doctors recanting their diagnoses or invoking the "Fifth Amendment" to avoid answering questions. One doctor admitted that he charged $35 for a negative X-ray reading, but $70 for a positive one. A retired epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control testified there were no more than 28,000 medically plausible cases of asbestosis in the U.S. male population between 1989 and 2001. Grace was hit with more than 200,000 claims over that period.
In another instance, a doctor presented a study involving 807 X-rays from Grace claimants. Doctors hired by the plaintiffs lawyers had found evidence of asbestosis in about 80% of those X-rays. In a double-blind study in which doctors didn't know the purpose of the work, they found evidence in only 7% of X-rays.
All of this underscores what has long been obvious: The vast majority of asbestos claims are bogus. The plaintiffs lawyers know it, which is why, instead of trying to defend these claims, they've fought every attempt by Grace to examine them. Now that they've lost that battle, they argue that because Grace settled such claims in the past, they should continue to pay them going forward.
That decision now rests with Judge Fitzgerald. Comparisons are being made to federal Judge Janis Jack, who several years ago blew up bogus silicosis claims. But unlike the recent silica fraud, some Grace plaintiffs do have asbestos-related disease. Judge Fitzgerald has to weed out the many false claims from the few legitimate ones, but she does have the tools to do it. The medical community long ago established diagnosis criteria that account for dosage, exposure, and work and medical histories. Plaintiffs lawyers have tried to keep these common-sense standards out of courtrooms, but they clearly belong in any court whose goal is just compensation.
If Judge Fitzgerald does discount most of these claims, it could mark the beginning of the end of the bankruptcy racket. Other judges will find it difficult to ignore the evidence and procedures here. As important, trial lawyers might be reluctant to push more companies (in asbestos or other mass torts) into bankruptcy court if they think false claims may be exposed.
This clean-up would obviously come too late for the dozens of companies that have already surrendered to asbestos trusts now run by the tort bar. But it's encouraging that courts are finally investigating sham asbestos claims. It's never too late for real justice.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when blogger.com is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.