In 1998, the now-discredited surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield published a paper that suggested there was a causal link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine given to most young children and the appearance of autism.
Though Wakefield’s findings were “badly written”, “dishonest” and near-unanimously rejected by the scientific community, with study after study failing to find any evidence to support his hypothesis, MMR became a major health scare.
It has been suggested that responsibility for this lies not with Wakefield, but with the media.
In his critically-acclaimed 2008 book Bad Science, science writer Dr Ben Goldacre says, “The blame [for the MMR scare] lies […] with the hundreds of journalists, columnists, editors and executives who drove the story cynically, irrationally, and wilfully onto the front pages for nine solid years.”
Those journalists, columnists, editors and executives did this principally through the selection of their sources. A 2007 study analysing coverage from all mediums found that though they were the most quoted group, only 24% of sources on MMR were doctors.
Politicians, parents and anti-vaccine pressure groups were often presented on an equal footing, their opinions given the same weight as those of experts.
Of course, the vast majority of these voices will not have been intending to mislead the public. Many would have been earnestly concerned, angry or confused. But their positioning against science in the media’s narrative allowed a misrepresentation of the facts.
Goldacre argues this kind of reporting “contributed to a pervasive sense that scientific advice is somehow arbitrary, and predicted upon a social role – the ‘expert’ – rather than empirical evidence”.
My younger brother Alex, an aloof, gentle, unreasonably tall Manchester United fan with an encyclopaedic knowledge of each week’s TV listings, is autistic.
When the national news picked up Wakefield’s study years later, my parents, like many more around the world, believed that the MMR vaccine was responsible for their child’s disability.
Aside from the less tangible, emotional impacts, Wakefield’s fraudulent study had a lot to answer for.
Between 2002 and 2003, only 82% of children under the age of two received the MMR jab, compared to 92% in 1995 to 1996. As uptake of the vaccine dropped, outbreaks of measles and mumps increased.
To compare this to climate change is most definitely to compare apples and oranges. But there is a parallel to be made here. The effects of undue, distorted balance are severe.
The consequences of runaway climate change will be far greater than measles. They will be devastating. Lives, economic output, even entire cities may be lost.
Without pressure from voters, politicians can easily push questions of climate change down the policy agenda due to its distant, abstract nature.
With so much at stake, the mainstream media has a responsibility to portray the risks of our unsustainable path accurately. Sadly, they are not.
When it comes to climate science, the most reputable institutions are still making the same mistakes that so many did with MMR.
As the parliamentary science and technology committee complained last week, BBC News is still presenting the arguments of climate scientists and less informed and often self-interested commentators with equal weight.
The most recent example of this was a debate between scientist Brain Hoskins and the notoriously climate sceptic politician Lord Lawson on Radio 4’s Today programme in February.
Last week, the author of a 2011 BBC Trust report on impartiality and science coverage also accused BBC News of “sticking two fingers up at BBC management’” by failing to act on his findings.
As 97% of scientists are confident human actions are driving climate change – a similar degree of certainty as that in the link between smoking and cancer – it is reasonable to wonder why the BBC does not invite tobacco lobbyists to its health reporting.
Appropriate balance in this case would be pitching Lord Lawson against 32 climate scientists – perhaps the only way science will ever manage to keep the former chancellor quiet.
In an insightful TED talk, the award-winning filmmaker David Puttnam, now a member of the House of Lords, asked if the media has a duty of care. The answer, to summarise, is yes.
Of course, the BBC is not the only institution to make these mistakes, but evidence presented to the science committee by the Glasgow University Media Group suggested that audiences trust the BBC more than any other news outlet. As a state-funded broadcaster, the BBC has a greater duty of care than most.
It has a duty of care to present an informed, precise picture of the evidence to its audience. Climate change should be scrutinised, but by science, not by a jury of deniers and lobbyists.
While the media failed with MMR, in the area of health scares the media is on the whole far more responsible than it was at the turn of the century. There were many signs that bruised journalists and editors had learned from the post-MMR fallout.
Science correspondents and editors became a more common feature of Fleet Street, and relations between journalists and scientists improved with the rise of organisations such as the Science Media Centre. Later vaccination scares, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), were reported thoughtfully.
To realise the responsibilities it holds to its audience, the BBC must transfer such lessons to its reporting of climate science.
Photo: Brian Hoskins via Free Images
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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