A few weeks back, I took a look at the Friends of the Earth campaign that links Samsung to environmental destruction in Indonesia. FoE wanted to mobilise public opinion, using the standard method of generating consumer guilt with shocking images of poor people and lush landscapes denuded of trees. The message is simple: you did that, by buying a smartphone.
But the tin used in Samsung’s smartphones amounted to no more than 95 tonnes of hundreds of thousands of tonnes produced annually. The emphasis on smartphones was a strategy, though was presented as something of significance.
FoE currently have another campaign running — the Bee Cause — which aims to protect Britain’s bee population. FoE want the public to sign their petition, the wording of which is as follows:
Dear David Cameron,
Britain’s bees are under threat. Yet we need bees. They’re important to our food supply, economy and quality of life.
Along with thousands of others, I’ve joined The Bee Cause to help protect Britain’s bees.
But the Government needs to act too. Please adopt a National Bee Action Plan to ensure that the way we farm our food and plan our towns and cities gets bees back on track. The Government must also have the right experts in place to protect our most threatened species.
Who doesn’t love the humble bumble? And who wouldn’t want to sign up to to protect the fluffiest of insects? But what would it mean to sign this petition, to demand the Prime Minister protects the bees?
It’s not apparent what the aim of the Bee Cause actually is. For that, one needs to look more deeply at the FoE’s campaign literature. And no environmental campaign is complete without two important elements: 1. Demanding that something be more heavily regulated or banned. 2. Claiming that the campaign is sanctioned in some way by science.
The National Bee Action Plan should set out how the UK Government will achieve a quantifiable reduction in the use of pesticides, including encouraging alternative pest control methods. It should commit to improving the assessment of pesticides’ impacts on bees, and to suspending the use of those pesticides thought to be linked to bee deaths until fully independent reviews prove they’re not contributing to bee decline.
The science comes courtesy of Tom D. Breeze, Stuart P.M. Roberts and Simon G. Potts at University of Reading Centre for Agri-Environment Research, who were commissioned by FoE.
But at least one researcher has pointed out that there are problems with the emphasis environmental campaigners are putting on pesticides. Lynn Dicks from the University of Cambridge wrote in Nature this week that,
There is no doubt that the proposed restriction on the use of these neonicotinoids on nectar- and pollen-rich crops such as oilseed rape will reduce a potentially serious risk to bees. It seems a crucial step towards reversing or halting observed declines in bees and other flower-feeders. But that is not enough for some environmental campaigners, who have framed the problem as one of the very survival of an unspecified number of bee species. Two and a half million people have signed an online petition telling EU decision-makers: “If you act urgently with precaution now, we could save bees from extinction.”
The assertion that a ban on neonicotinoids in Europe will save bees from extinction is absurd. There are bee species around the world in genuine danger of extinction, such as the once-common rusty-patched bumblebee in the United States, which has vanished from 87% of its historic range since the early 1990s. Diseases, rather than pesticides, are suspected of driving that decline. And although there have been dramatic falls in the numbers of managed honey bee Apis mellifera colonies in some countries, it remains a widespread and common bee, not in imminent danger of extinction.
Well-meaning exaggeration is common. The Guardian, a pro-environment British newspaper, mangled my parliamentary evidence on moths and beetles to claim that three-quarters of all UK pollinator species, including bees, were in severe decline.
Dicks is speaking about Avaaz.org’s petition, similar, but perhaps more determined than FoE’s. The text of their petition reads:
To EU decision-makers: We call on you to immediately ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. The catastrophic demise of bee colonies could put our whole food chain in danger. If you act urgently with precaution now, we could save bees from extinction.
Now the campaign has acheived 2.5 million virtual signatures, and the site proudly proclaims:
Our voices were heard! After we delivered the petition, the European Commission recommended suspending 3 deadly poisons! But some countries and pesticide companies could try to block it before the final vote. Let’s build the buzz to get a full ban on all bee killing pesticides!
The Guardian, which Dicks also mentions has a whole section on Bees. It’s contribution to the campaign to save the bee is mostly penned by Damian Carrington – the Guardian’s ‘head of environment’. Carrington, as he is inclined to, ‘mangled’ Dicks’s research, fingering pesticides as the cause of bee problems over a number of articles.
EU proposes to ban insecticides linked to bee decline
Three neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used insecticides would be forbidden across the continent for two years
Insecticide ‘unacceptable’ danger to bees, report finds
Campaigners say the conclusion by the European Food Safety Authority is a ‘death knell’ for neonicotinoid pesticides
Insecticide regulators ignoring risk to bees, say MPs
A parliamentary inquiry has uncovered evidence that links widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides to decline in bees
Evidence of pesticide harm to bees is now overwhelming
Yet more top-quality research shows current regulation is woefully inadequate in protecting the creatures that pollinate much of our food
The silence of the bees: government refuses to act on pesticide evidence
Extrapolating scientific data appears to be fine if policy-makers like where it leads – such as a badger cull – but is abhorrent if they don’t, as with bees
But the evidence Dicks gave to Parliament is summarised:
1. Wild bees and other pollinating insects are known to be declining in the UK and elsewhere in response to multiple interacting pressures, including the use of pesticides.
2. There is an urgent need for data on the actual exposure of wild pollinators to neonicotinoids or combinations of pesticides in their natural environment.
3. The Defra project (PS2371) that is supposed to fill this knowledge gap seems unlikely to. I cannot scrutinise the methods, but as described it is a small case study with a potential methodological flaw.
4. Recent evidence on the sub-lethal effects of field-realistic levels of neonicotinoids on bumblebees shows that serious implications for bumblebee colonies are possible.
5. No similar evidence has been published for solitary bees or other flower-feeding insects.
6. There is a lack of transparency in the pesticide regulatory system. The details of studies supporting the regulatory assessment are inaccessible.
7. There are many alternative farm management measures to enhance the natural pest control service provided in farmed ecosystems. My team at Cambridge are compiling a synopsis of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of these.
In other words, Dicks is far more circumspect than Carrington. The main difference is one between saying that there is sufficient scientific evidence to call for an outright ban on the one hand, and on the other calling for more evidence. But then Dicks herself makes a curious claim:
As a scientist involved in this debate, I find this misinformation deeply frustrating. Yet I also see that lies and exaggeration on both sides are a necessary part of the democratic process to trigger rapid policy change. It is simply impossible to interest millions of members of the public, or the farming press, with carefully reasoned explanations. And politicians respond to public opinion much more readily than they respond to science.
This is a fairly explicit justification of environmental alarmism: it is a legitimate and necessary strategy. But it also begs the question. If the premise of ‘rapid policy change’ is ‘science’, then any exaggeration of the science deprives the policy of its basis in science. As is ever the case with environmentalism, a feckless public is fingered as the agent responsible for both inertia and the low quality of public debate. And yet it is researchers, politicians and journalists who act in concert. Dicks continues:
There is a precedent here. The 1987 Montreal Protocol that banned chlorofluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer is commonly held up as a shining example of a rapid policy response to emerging science. Yet it was agreed against a backdrop of wild stories of millions of extra cases of cancer and industry warnings that it would cost the US economy billions of dollars.
Is this a good precedent? And was it really true that the Montreal Protocol was a response to public pressure? As this blog has argued, public opinion and supranational environmental agencies move in spite of each other. In other words, things like the Montreal Protocol happen precisely because national governments cannot mobilise public opinion, or rather, form fully-functioning democratic mandates. It’s much easy to take your licence from panet-saving super-panels than from the hoi polloi. Dicks herself recognises the problem:
There is a risk, of course, that rapidly made, responsive policy changes will not turn out to be the most intelligent ones. We saw this in the European biofuels policy, which set a target of 10% renewable content in transport fuels by 2020, despite evidence at the time that this was not the best way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions using renewable energy.
It would be hard to think of any EU directive which wasn’t as equally counter-productive, if not self-destructive. The EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive, for instance, is causing a 16GW energy gap to emerge in the UK. To close the gap, it would be necessary to speed up the rate of wind farm building by 6000%, and cost billions in subsidies. Britain will be going the way of Germany: facing a much increased risk of power cuts, multiplication of energy bills, 100s of billions in subsidies and related problems throughout the economy. These failures will join the European Emissions Trading System and the emissions reductions targets, and the more general failure of the EU to influence global policy, leaving it in an island of expensive energy and redundant technology. But I digress…
This risk means that communicating the science itself directly to appropriate decision- makers remains extremely important. Scientists must not be turned off by the rhetoric, but motivated by it. We should engage with the debate throughout. It is important to get as near to the decision-makers as possible, providing clear and well-referenced information with an independent voice.
The problem should be immediately apparent. Researchers are not independent. The researchers at Reading, for instance, were commissioned by FoE. I, like many people, have no time — and perhaps not the expertise — to look into theirs or Dicks’s claims. Nor do we have the money to commission research. And FoE and other organisations are themselves funded by the European Union precisely to lobby MEPs. FoE staff are seconded into government departments — in the case of Bryony Worthington, a short stint at FoE, then DEFRA was all it took to make her a member of the House of Lords. Similarly, researchers are increasingly sought to provide the evidence base for policy which appears in many cases to have been decided before the research even begins. Policy-based evidence-making is only the half of it. As this blog has pointed out, environmentalism is a political idea, which a great deal of seemingly scientific research takes its premises from.
It gets worse:
You can’t switch off the lies and exaggeration. But don’t worry about them. When I saw the exaggerated pollinator-decline claim attributed to me in The Guardian I did not seek to correct it, because the correct information, with references, will go into a forthcoming parliamentary-committee report. Unlike stories in the press, that report will definitely be read by officials who advise the politicians who, for the United Kingdom at least, make the final decision. And because of such reports, and a recent risk assessment from the European Food Safety Authority, we can be fairly sure that the decision on whether to restrict neonicotinoid use in Europe will not be made on the basis of avoiding 20% yield losses in crops, or saving the world’s bees from extinction.
Dicks can sleep easily at night, perhaps, knowing that she did what she could to best inform the UK’s policy-makers. But higher courts makes the decision: the European Commission and the EU Parliament. And at least one of those bodies seems to have reacted to the demands of NGOs, rather than to the counsel of scientists. As Carrington reported at the end of last month,
Insecticides linked to serious harm in bees could be banned from use on flowering crops in Europe as early as July, under proposals set out by the European commission on Thursday, branded “hugely significant” by environmentalists. The move marks remarkably rapid action after evidence has mounted in recent months that the pesticides are contributing to the decline in insects that pollinate a third of all food.
This doesn’t seem to have proceeded on the basis of clear and independent science, but on the basis of incestuous relationships between the environmental movement, researchers and technological bureaucracies. I don’t claim any expertise in bees here. What I am aware of, however, is a growing tendency of politicians at all levels of government to be easily moved by flimsy, alarmist tales of ecological decline on the scantiest evidence — which is often nothing more than speculation. There is also a tendency of NGOs seeking to assert themselves politically, on the same groundless claims, and by mobilising the public on similarly wildly exaggerated claims — the FoE’s campaign against Samsung, for example. I’m also aware that, in spite of the claims that the world’s bee population is in precipitous decline, this is still possible:
If it were really the case that bees were dropping out of the sky, how is it possible to buy a third of a kilo of honey for £0.99(US$1.51)? When I asked on Twitter, I had a number of interesting replies:
Because most honey is mostly fake. Even when it says it’s real.
cos it’s probably not proper honey
Because fake honey is being sold.
You can buy cheap “honey” because it may not be “honey” you’re buying
My tweet had been a reply to Richard Dawkins, who had claimed:
Bees are more important for our economy than most people can imagine. Bee survival is dangerously threatened by poisons http://bit.ly/WMX3zN
And on Dawkins’s own site to which the tweet linked:
Quietly, globally, billions of bees are dying, threatening our crops and food. But in 48 hours the European Union could move to ban the most poisonous pesticides, and pave the way to a global ban that would save bees from extinction.
It seems obvious that the extent of bee decline and our dependence on bees has been overstated. This over-sensitivity to trends that may or may not have any truth to them seems to be environmental ‘ideology’ in motion. And it’s from this presupposed idea of imminent, inevitable collapse of the systems which we purportedly depend that this ‘ideology’ turns into political power.
Lynn Dicks may well think this necessary — that we remain in a state of anxiety and ignorance in order to make decisions possible. But this isn’t a healthy form of politics. What it really speaks to is the disengagement of the public from elite politics — a state of affairs that scientists such as Dicks services and sustains, rather than criticises and sheds any light on. It’s not enough simply to have an arrangement between policy-makers and scientists, in which the latter supply the former with ‘independent’ advice. As we can see, too much interferes with that communication, and there is good evidence that suggests that seemingly independent researchers are as vulnerable to the hype, alarmism, and misleading ideas about the natural world and society as the feckless public. Dicks should have challenged the Guardian, and Avaaz, and FoE. That is, of course, what democracy means. It’s no good pretending that ‘good science’ and independent research can happen without it.