The environmental movement is being aided by governments and the media in spreading disinformation about the condition of the environment.
Much good news about contentious environmental issues is regularly kept quiet by regulatory agencies, activist groups, and the media. Why this is so is the question we have continually asked ourselves after closely examining the most recent scientific research behind three of the most important contemporary environmental debates in the United States: the health of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, global warming, and the impact of hog farming on water quality in coastal North Carolina.
The good news is that there is plenty of good news. The bad news is that hardly anyone is reporting or discussing it, so that the public continues to believe in environmental crises that are nonexistent. Because such crises often result in new laws, policies, and regulations—and thus have widespread and lasting effects on our communities and economy—we ignore the blackout on good news at our peril.
In August of this year, President Bush visited the Ice Harbor power dam on the Snake River to celebrate the strong Northwest salmon runs of the last two years. Salmon numbers in the Columbia River Basin have lately been the highest in four decades. Salmon fishermen in northern California celebrated the Fourth of July (and record salmon hauls) by giving their fellow citizens free salmon.
Environmentalists, however, were horrified by the presidential visit. They have been trying to get the Ice Harbor dam (and three others) breached. They have said the dams caused the recent decline in the Northwest salmon population, and that despite the recent recovery, the dams must still be breached to protect the long-term stocks of a fish that is second only to the American eagle as an environmental icon.
Never mind that the salmon recovery effort has already been the most costly and complicated federal effort to restore an ecosystem in U.S. history. Never mind that the eco-activists had earlier blamed the salmon declines on commercial fishing, logging, irrigated farming, and pollution, and spent a huge amount of public dollars on solving those “problems.”
The Washington Post reported on August 20, 2003, “Everyone agrees that the primary reason for the recent abundance of salmon is a dramatic improvement in ocean conditions.” That is a lie by omission.
The key fact to remember about Northwest salmon is that they migrate in a twenty-five-year cycle, as faithful readers of American Outlook already know. (See earlier stories.) For twenty-five years at a time, the Pacific currents carry lots of salmon food (bait fish) to the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, and the salmon thrive there. Meanwhile, the salmon to the north in the Gulf of Alaska go hungry and decline. Then, for the next twenty-five years, the fish food goes up to Alaska, and the salmon in the Columbia River basin appear to be going extinct. Nature allows each of the two fisheries to thrive alternately, but never simultaneously.
Fishery journals going back at least to 1915 have documented this pattern, which scientists call “co-variance.” The salmon catch data for Oregon show one of the clearest such patterns to be found in nature. You can almost set your calendar by the salmon runs; the recent downtrend in Columbia River salmon numbers started in 1977.
Last May, however, a federal judge ruled that the federal plan for salmon recovery was inadequate, because it did not include breaching the dams. Neither the National Marine Fisheries Service (which designed the plan), nor any of the seventeen environmental groups suing to get the dams breached, mentioned the twenty-five-year salmon cycle to the judge. The Fisheries Service did not want to lose its funding for salmon recovery, and the eco-groups did not want the judge to know that the dams were basically irrelevant to salmon numbers.
This long-known natural cycle has been kept secret for years now. We first reported it in 1999, in a column that went to more than four hundred Knight-Ridder-Tribune newspapers, and was published by perhaps a dozen of them. Respected researchers such as Nathan Mantua and Stephen Hare of the University of Washington, and Ted Strub and Harold Batchelder of Oregon State University, have been writing about salmon co-variance for more than five years in respected journals such as Oceanography and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The catch data are also available to reporters, and anyone else who may be interested, on the Internet.
Nevertheless, when the salmon runs began—predictably—to improve two years ago, the Portland Oregonian pioneered the explanation of “improved ocean conditions” later cited by the Washington Post. The newspapers have not identified any specific ocean conditions that have changed. This omission has allowed them to avoid telling their readers that they failed to explain the salmon cycle in 1977, when the population decline began and the activists commenced to wail about “salmon extinction” and demanding the shutdown of commercial fishing, logging, and farming in the region. It is difficult to believe that none of the Oregonian’s readers have pointed out the cycle phenomenon to the editors, as some of the region’s fishermen have lived through two or even three of the twenty-five-year cycles. It seems likely that the newspaper has deliberately suppressed this information.
President Bush, too, failed to mention the salmon cycle during his Ice Harbor event, although one of our columns on the issue was mailed to him earlier this year, along with copies of Mantua and Strub papers on the phenomenon.
On November 16, 2001, the journal Science published an elegant research report, done by unimpeachable scientists, recounting the earth’s temperature history for the past 12,000 years. The report directly linked Earth’s changing climate to the variable behavior of the sun. Dr. Gerard Bond and a team from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York (and affiliated with Columbia University) compiled the report titled, “Persistent solar influence on North Atlantic climate during the Holocene.”
Science gave it star treatment. The magazine’s Richard Kerr wrote, in that issue,
Paleo-oceanographer Gerard Bond and his colleagues report that the climate of the northern North Atlantic has warmed and cooled nine times in the past 12,000 years in step with the waxing and waning of the sun. “It really looks like the sun has mattered to climate,” says glaciologist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University, University Park. “The Bond et al. data are sufficiently convincing that [solar variability] is now the leading hypothesis” to explain the roughly 1,500-year oscillation of the climate seen since the last ice age, including the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century, says Alley. . . .
Time series analyst David Thomson, soon to be at Queen’s University, Ontario, agrees that the statistics are good, “but their experiment may be good enough even without statistics. I think they’ve got a fairly convincing case. [“A Variable Sun Paces Millennial Climate.”]
The research implies that global warming has nothing to do with the activities of mankind. This scientific bombshell was almost totally ignored by the media, despite the favorable comments in Science, which journalists watch carefully for news. In fact, an Internet search revealed that not a single publication other than Science and American Outlook reported the Bond research.
Contrast this with the massive media play given to a scary “abrupt climate cooling” scenario published in 2002 by Dr. Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Gagosian speculated that too much warming—releasing too much fresh water from glaciers—might overwhelm the Gulf Stream, which carries warm tropical water north and moderates the temperatures in the North Atlantic and Europe. He predicted that the Northeastern United States might chill by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, freezing our rivers and forcing wholesale changes in farming and fishing, even as our energy costs soared exponentially. “We’re walking toward a cliff blindfolded,” said Gagosian—who then demanded that the world spend more money on marine research to match the scare-driven spending on atmospheric climate research to combat global warming.
Gagosian was merely offering a theory, of course—and making an obviously self-interested pitch for research dollars. But his scare scenario was widely published, in both Science and Nature, and in prominent newspapers such as the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Canada’s National Post. It was also widely publicized on the Internet sites of the World Economic Forum, the Cambridge Conference, Sustainable Minnesota, and the University of Georgia.
Both the Bond and Gagosian stories came from reputable research institutions. One reported actual historical facts that should ease our fears. It remains virtually ignored. The Gagosian scare offered an undocumented theoretical horror, and was spun instantly and broadly across the world.
Although there have always been hog farmers in North Carolina, the industry was fairly small until the mid-1980s. At that time, a major new hog slaughter plant opened in the state, and dozens of new confinement hog farms were set up to take advantage of eastern North Carolina’s low employment levels. As a result, hog farming in eastern North Carolina took off in the late 1980s and early 90s.
The core of this hog farm expansion was located in Sampson and Duplin Counties, two adjoining counties drained by two rivers—the Black and the Northeast Cape Fear. Between 1985 and 1995, the hog population within these two coastal watersheds increased tenfold, from 500,000 to 5.5 million animals. By 1997, this area accounted for 10 percent of the total U.S. swine inventory, making it Hog Central, USA. (The balance of the state’s hog population, consisting of some two million animals, is scattered throughout the coastal plain.)
The rapid expansion of the hog population, the growing number of larger, integrated farms, and the central role of corporations alarmed environmentalists and social activists, who generally do not like either large corporations or large, intensive farming operations.
The controversy began in February 1995, when the Raleigh News & Observer ran a harsh, five-article series titled, “Boss Hog: North Carolina’s Pork Revolution.” The series detailed the explosive growth of the industry and questioned the environmental and social impacts of intensive hog production. The top concern cited in the articles was the “9.5 million tons” of hog waste coming from the “megalopolis of seven million animals that live in metal confinement barns” in eastern North Carolina. The articles charged that hog waste was polluting both groundwater and the state’s rivers and streams, harming the environment and posing a potential health threat to nearby residents. The “Boss Hog” series netted the News and Observer the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism.
Over the next two years, unprecedented rainfall during the summers of 1995 and 1996—including a “once-in-five-hundred-year flood,” two hurricanes, and a tropical storm—caused roughly thirty hog waste holding ponds (which store the hog waste until it can be applied to cropland as organic fertilizer) to spill, overflow, or otherwise malfunction, adding ammunition to the activists’ attacks on hog farms.
It should be noted that the twenty-two malfunctions reported in the summer of 1996 represented only 0.5 percent of the 4,000 holding ponds (also known as “lagoons”), compared to the vastly higher 40 percent failure rate among municipal sewage treatment plants during these same storms.
According to activists, however, the hog farms were badly fouling the waters—even in the absence of hurricanes and massive floods. Michelle Nowlin of the Southern Environmental Law Center, a relatively moderate voice among the activists, wrote,
The slow rate at which [coastal rivers and streams] drain into the ocean creates problems: as nutrient inputs increase upstream, they accumulate in unhealthy levels in the estuaries and sounds. Eutrophication is accelerating in the estuaries, and algal blooms and fish kills have become commonplace on the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse Rivers. . . . Land use models show agriculture is the leading source, accounting for 56 percent of the nutrient input into the Neuse River estuary, and 76 percent into the Tar-Pamlico River. . . . Prevailing nutrient management practices implicate the swine production facilities as a primary source. [Point Counter Point, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, volume 53 (3), 1997]
By 1997, the combined impact of the News & Observer article series, the media focus on the hog lagoon spills, and the efforts of environmental activists led to the passage of a new state law, the Clean Water Responsibility and Environmentally Sound Policy Act (CWRESPA). The Act was supposedly a “temporary” two-year moratorium in North Carolina on the construction or expansion of hog farms having more than 250 animals. That “temporary” moratorium has since been extended three times, most recently until September 2007. The very name of the law indicates that protecting clean water was the justification for putting a lid on North Carolina’s hog industry.
Yet there is still no evidence whatsoever that water quality has gotten worse in North Carolina. As researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment noted in research published in 2000,
Eutrophication [of the Neuse River estuary] is believed to have worsened in recent years. . . . However, our results indicate that while nitrogen concentrations have not changed significantly, they may have declined slightly overall in the lower river and estuary in the last twenty years. Additionally, phosphorus concentrations have dropped considerably at all locations since the mid 1980s. [“Seasonal and long-term nutrient trend decomposition along a spatial gradient in the Neuse River watershed,” Environmental Science & Technology 34, 2000. Italics added.]
In fact, the Duke researchers speculated that it was the improved water quality—the lower levels of phosphorus—that changed the critical ratio of nitrogen-to-phosphorus, leading to an increase in algal blooms in the Neuse estuary. This created the false impression that the water quality was declining. All too predictably, not a single North Carolina newspaper reported on this research or its implications in the debate over the environmental effects of hog farming.
There is, in fact, strong evidence that hog farms haven’t harmed water quality in the region. In early 2003, at the request of the Cape Fear River Assembly, the authors of this article set out to perform an extensive review of the historical water quality data in the Black and Northeast Cape Fear rivers (home to roughly 80 percent of the state’s hogs) for the period prior to and after the hog farm expansion.
When we called the Water Quality Division at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to obtain the data, the director declined to release it to us. He claimed that an analysis of that data had already been conducted as part of the DENR’s five-year environmental assessment published in 1999.
But the DENR’s report omitted the water quality data for the Black and Northeast Cape Fear rivers completely. Instead the report focused on “biological indicators” of aquatic health (such as inventories of fish) that implied a slight worsening of river conditions since the previous environmental assessment in 1994.
Yet there was a major flaw in relying on these indicators rather than actual water quality data. After the major flooding and hurricanes in 1995-96, North Carolina received federal grants to clear fallen trees and woody debris clogging rivers and streams, to prevent future flooding. The DENR report admitted that this factor made it impossible to blame hog farms for the decreases in biological indicators in the regional waters:
Zealous pursuit of this goal often totally cleared all woody material from the stream, material that is a critical habitat for both fish and invertebrates. For some streams, heavy machinery was used along the banks. . . . It is difficult to separate out the effects of de-snagging in these streams from the potential impact of increased numbers of hog farms within the same area. [Italics added.]
The 1999 report included the water quality data for the other rivers within the Cape Fear basin, so why did the agency omit only the data for the two rivers draining the intensive hog farming areas? Why did the DENR instead rely on a flawed proxy of water quality? When we insisted that we wanted to examine the data ourselves, the head of the Division of Water Quality at DENR refused to provide it. It wasn’t until legal action was threatened that we were provided the data.
These numbers clearly show that the water quality within and downstream of the hog farming areas is as good now as it was before the hog industry expansion (see “North Carolina Hog Farming & Water Quality: Time Series Analysis Fails to Reveal Significant Impacts,” Hudson Institute [http://www.cgfi.org/pdf/NCHogImpactReport.pdf]). Despite a tenfold increase in the hog population, there has been no increase in nutrient concentrations, no reduction in dissolved oxygen levels, and no increase in sediment loads.
Incredibly, during nearly a decade of intense, acrimonious debate between environmental activists and hog farmers—whipped into a frenzy by articles like the News & Observer’s “Boss Hog” series—the DENR suppressed its own water quality data and failed to inform the public and policymakers of the real conditions of the rivers and streams in question.
In this way, the government of North Carolina effectively stole the great economic opportunity of hog farm expansion from some of its poorest citizens, to placate affluent city dwellers and urbanites well beyond either sight or smell of the farms.
This time, our own report was not totally ignored by the media. The Wilmington Star-News did run a single article on the study, published before our report was even written. The headline to the story tells you everything you need to know about press coverage of the controversy: “Defense of hog farms full of holes, scientist says.”
Watchdogs—or Attack Dogs?
These three instances amply demonstrate that the public is too often given only one-sided, simplistic, pessimistic versions of environmental realities by the news media and even by our government agencies and researchers.
The reasons why are fairly simple and obvious: money and power. For the news media, bad news sells. It doesn’t take a genius to know that a newspaper with a scary headline will sell far more copies than the paper declaring, “Nothing Bad Happened Yesterday, Tomorrow Looks Great!” It is a basic fact of human nature.
For our regulatory watchdog agencies, bad news means huge increases in research and staff funding. The amount of dollars spent on climate change research and watchdogging is billions higher today than before the threat of human-caused climate change was postulated. Likewise for environmental groups, whose donations and memberships skyrocket with these crisis campaigns.
The journalism profession in the United States has been given two huge dispensations to foster their role as facilitators of democracy through an informed electorate: the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees the right of free speech, and a legal code in which truth is an absolute defense against libel. These protections were given specifically to foster the rise of truth in public discourse. Today, however, it appears that these mechanisms are not enough. The system no longer seems to be working to ensure truthful and fair treatment of important issues.
Of course, we expect activist groups to be active and rail for change. However, today’s nongovernmental organization activists are a relatively new species, and their power has been growing throughout the past thirty years. Today there are very few checks on these groups other than the skepticism of journalists, a factor that, as this article documents, is all too rare these days.
Any decent society will have a healthy level of scientific disagreement and discourse. In fact, vigorous debate is critical for the progress of science. But that is exactly the point: true scientific debates are being stymied in the media and within our regulatory agencies. Remarkably enough, one of the great challenges of our time will be to encourage truth-telling by our journalists. In the modern world, the lie by omission has incredible power over our lives, our society, and our future well-being. Today’s issues are often too complex and far-reaching for most members of the general public to find the truth themselves. Even within academic disciplines, the breadth and depth of knowledge is too broad for any one person to know it all. Thus, journalism has never been more important to our society, and, perhaps, never less adequate.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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