How understanding Type I and Type II errors and p-values helps in assessing the conclusions of the Ramazzini Institute 13-week pilot study on Glyphosate

As regular followers of this blog know, my graduate research involved developing systems to allow data collected by researchers to be evaluated for reliability and made available for subsequent re-use by other researchers. I carried out my research in an era before the wide availability of computerized statistics programs. As a consequence, all my statistical calculations were done with a calculator and statistical look-up tables. Due to the difficulty in completing these analyses, we were taught some very important lessons about evaluating research studies. In this blog post I want to share some of those lessons while examining the most recent paper from the Ramazzini Institute 13-week pilot study on glyphosate.

To do this, I am going to introduce a couple important concepts in science (Type I and II errors and p-values) and then use that information to explain why the study, as designed, could not come to any definitive conclusions. Or put another way, because of the study’s design it is virtually impossible to derive any definitive conclusions from the research and any activist attempting to do so needs to spend more time learning about the scientific method.

Type I and Type II Errors

In science we identify two primary types of errors (okay some argue there are at least three types but I will not go into that today):

  • A Type I error, which represents a false positive, involves claiming that an observed hypothesis is correct, when in reality it is false.
  • A Type II error, which represents a false negative, involves claiming that an observed hypothesis is incorrect when it is actually correct.

In my opinion, the best visualization of the difference between the two is this graphic: (which I have seen in numerous locations and whose origin I have been unable to confirm although I believe it comes from the “Effect Size FAQ“).

The tools used to avoid Type I errors mostly involve better understanding the nature and characteristics of the populations under study. It is generally accepted by the scientific community that an acceptable risk of making a Type I error is the 95% confidence level (a p-value of 0.05). In order to derive an acceptable p-value, certain characteristic of the population must be understood. Primarily its distribution, or lack of an understood distribution.The details of how statisticians evaluate populations for this purpose involve mathematics that I won’t go into today.

The tools used to avoid Type II errors are less well-refined (but are getting better every day). Most depend on improving our understanding of the nature of the distribution that is being tested. Lacking that understanding an increase in sample size will increase the power of an analysis and reduce the likelihood of a Type II error.

P-Values: what do they mean?

P-Values are one of the most misunderstood features in research. A p-value helps you establish the likelihood of a Type I error. It does nothing to help avoid Type II errors and has absolutely no information about whether your results are “right” or “wrong”. Remember in science all results are right since they represent observations. It is just that some observations may help support a hypothesis while others may not.

As described in this article in Nature, when Ronald Fisher introduced the p-value in the 1920’s he did not mean for it to be a definitive test but rather one tool in the researcher’s tool belt. Nowadays there is an entire edifice in science built on the importance of achieving a p-value less than 0.05 (see a xkcd comic which makes fun of that idea). The problem is that a low p-value is not a proof of anything. A p-value simply provides the probability of getting results at least as extreme as the ones you observed. A really clear write–up on the topic is provided in this link. Unfortunately, even practicing scientists have a really hard time explaining what a p-value represents.

As I mentioned above, a p-value indicates the likelihood that an observation supports your hypothesis. At a p-value of 0.05 (95% confidence) we still have a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong (a Type I error). My son loves playing Dungeons & Dragons and in that game 20-sided dice are used for all battles. Roll a natural 20 (a critical hit) and your level 1 barbarian actually hits the other guy’s level 18 druid. Roll a 1 and your level 12 barbarian can’t even hit a wall.

Now the truth every D&D player knows is if you roll the dice enough times eventually everyone rolls a 20 and everyone rolls a 1. That is how statistics works. It is also true that speaking from a purely statistical stand-point it is incredibly unlikely that any one person will win the lottery, but eventually every lottery prize gets won. So when someone gets a “significant” result in a study you need to examine how many times they rolled the dice and how well the researcher understood the relationship between the observations and the conclusion. False correlations happen all the time in science and are so common there is a great web site dedicated to the more entertaining examples.

The Ramazzini Institute 13-week pilot study on Glyphosate

This brings us to the the “Ramazzini Institute 13-week pilot study on Glyphosate”. This is a project intended to try and find whether glyphosate has a potential effect on various human health endpoints. This research project appears to have started with the assumption that these impacts exist and so is using a shotgun approach to try to find topics for further study. So what have they done in this study?

In the study cited they exposed a relatively small number of rats to glyphosate in two forms, as pure glyphosate and as the Roundup formulation and then did all sorts of measurements and assessment to see if any significant effects were observed.

Now remembering what we read earlier look at the paper the number of times they rolled the dice. They generated eleven tables with dozens and dozens of comparisons between the treated mice and the controls. As you can expect, in the end they found a number of “significant” differences, but should we be convinced by this fact? Once again I direct you to an apt comic from xkcd.

Well, let’s start with the obvious question: since both glyphosate and Roundup have the same critical active ingredient you would expect the two treatments to have the same effect. So any case where only one of the two treatments had an effect should raise some red flags. From the Type I error perspective, given the number of comparisons that were made, this outcome would not represent anything different than you would expect by simply rolling 20-sided dice. There was one single occurrence where both the glysophate and Roundup significantly differed from the control, but once again given the number of comparisons that is not an altogether unexpected result.

How about false negatives? Well from a Type II error perspective, the number of rats in the study are so low as to not really prove anything either. Look at this study of “Pesticide use and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoid malignancies in agricultural cohorts from France, Norway and the USA: a pooled analysis from the AGRICOH consortium“. They looked at 316,270 farmers accruing 3,574,815 person-years of exposure to glyphosate and found no effect. This puts the inclusion of 99 rat pups in this study into perspective doesn’t it.

So what is the point?

By now a lot of you are likely asking: if the study had little chance of coming to a solid conclusion what is the point of this type of study? The simple answer is a pilot study is exactly that, a pilot study. You throw stuff at a wall to see if anything sticks. If something does stick then that is a good direction for further research.

Due to its small sample size; massive number of potential comparisons; and lack of refinement all a pilot study of this type does is sets the project up to do a more directed study sometime later. Another research group can use the information from this study to design an experiment to see if the initial observed correlations can be repeated. Until those more-detailed studies are done, the results from this pilot study really tell us nothing useful about whether glyphosate is the cause of the observed changes or whether those numbers are simply the result of a random roll of the dice.

Conclusion

As I finish this blog post I know the question I am going to be asked is: well did glyphosate have an effect or not? My response is: I don’t know and neither do the authors of this study. The study was not designed to answer that question and as such is unable to do so but rather opens up directions for future investigations. The only people who are going to express certainty about the outcome of this study are activists who will trumpet it as proof that glyphosate is a danger. Because of the study’s design it is virtually impossible to derive any positive or negative conclusions from the research but that won’t stop the activists or their friendly journalist friends who love a scary headline. All I can hope is that if enough observers understand the limitations of sample design and statistics they will call out the activists when they make these inaccurate statements.

Posted in Chemistry and Toxicology, Risk, Risk Assessment Methodologies, Risk Communication, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Understanding the difference between a “hazard” and a “risk” or why scare stories about glyphosate and pesticides in your food shouldn’t frighten you

I have written a lot at this blog about how chemical risks are communicated to the public and so I am often asked about news stories depicting the latest science scare story. Sometimes they are handled badly, like the CTV National news report about glyphosate with the chilling title: Weed-killing chemical found in pasta, cereal and cookies sold in Canada: study. Sometimes it is done much better, like the Global New take on a similar topic with ‘Dirty Dozen’: Do these fruits and veggies really have harmful amounts of pesticide? As I will explain in this blog post, ultimately it comes down to understanding that we have to stop asking the question “can this compound cause cancer?” and instead ask: “is this compound expected to cause cancer at the concentrations encountered in that study?” because while the answer to that first question may be “yes”, the answer to the second will almost always be “no”. In asking those questions we can understand the fundamental difference between a hazard and a risk.

As many of my readers know, one of my areas of professional practice is risk assessment. In my practice I often hear people interchange the words “hazard” and “risk“. These are not interchangeable terms. I can’t repeat this enough, the words “hazard” and “risk” mean very different things and it is important to understand that something can be a hazard without posing a serious risk.

  • A hazard is anything that has the potential to cause harm
  • A risk is the likelihood that a hazard will cause harm.

Notice the difference? An unfenced swimming pool is a hazard to toddlers. But if that unfenced swimming pool is on a fenced estate where toddlers are not allowed then it poses no risk to your toddler.

So let’s bring this back to the idea of pesticides like glyphosate.

Well by now we all know that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has designated glyphosate as a Group 2A carcinogen meaning they believe it is “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

There are very strong arguments that the IARC conclusion was incorrect and that glyphosate is likely not a carcinogen . The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Health Canada and the US EPA all agree on that the IARC is wrong. Strong articles have even been written to suggest the IARC decision was fundamentally flawed.

That being said, let’s assume that every other major health agency is wrong and the IARC is right. In their Monographs (research studies) the IARC makes a very important point

The IARC Monographs Programme evaluates cancer hazards but not the risks associated with exposure. The distinction between hazard and risk is important. An agent is considered a cancer hazard if it is capable of causing cancer under some circumstances. Risk measures the probability that cancer will occur, taking into account the level of exposure to the agent. The Monographs Programme may identify cancer hazards even when risks are very low with known patterns of use or exposure [my bold].

Even in their own document the IARC explains that a pesticide can pose a hazard and not be a risk to human health.

The other thing to understand is analytical chemists are really, really good at finding very small amounts of compounds in mixtures. As I pointed out in a previous post; analytical chemistry has got so precise that a modern mass spectrometer can distinguish to the parts per trillion range. That would be 1 second in 30,000 years. So when an activist says they found “detectable” concentrations of a pesticide in a sample you should probably take that with a grain of salt. Reading the two studies presented at the top of this blog they found pesticides in the parts per billion range. A part per billion would be a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In toxicology and risk assessment the way we determine whether an exposure to a chemical poses a risk is to calculate the reference dose, (RfD). A RfD is a concentration or dose of a compound in question to which a receptor may be exposed without causing adverse health effects (i.e. a dose that is considered “safe” or “acceptable”). For pesticides, Health Canada calculates maximum residue limits (MRL) that represent concentrations of a compound that are not considered to pose a significant risk to the public.

Health Canada has established MRLs for glyphosate for all sorts of foodstuffs. The entire list is here. This list establishes concentrations that are considered to be entirely safe (i.e pose no significant threat to the public). This is where journalists like in the CTV story, can get it wrong. To explain let’s look at a post from Joe Schwarcz who looked more deeply into that study:

the highest amount of glyphosate found was 760 ppb which is way, way below Health Canada’s standard for oat products at 15,000 ppb. A small child eating 100 grams of the cereal would consume 0.076 milligrams of glyphosate. Most regulatory agencies have concluded that consumption up to 0.5 mg/kg body weight per day presents no problem, so that a 10 kg child could consume 5 mg per day. The 0.076 mg consumed is 1/66th of this.

That is, a 10 kg child (a baby) would have to eat 66 bowls of Cheerios a day to experience a detectable risk to their health.

This brings us back to our story about fear-mongering and glyphosate. I can’t count the number of people on my social media feed who pointed out that a jury found Monsato guilty for causing a man’s cancer. Well I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, to point out that US juries are not known for their ability to understand science. Another jury once believed the story about an infamous glove “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” and we now all agree they were out to lunch.

Instead of trusting US juries for our science I think we should stick with the professionals and they all agree (even the IARC) that the concentrations of glyphosate you encounter in your daily life in your breakfast cereals and in your nutritious fruits and vegetables are not high enough to cause any harm. In other words, while glyphosate may represent a theoretical hazard to human health it does not pose a real risk to you or your children.

To conclude let me reiterate. When you see a study like those presented above do not ask: “can this compound cause cancer?“. Instead ask: “is this compound expected to cause cancer at the concentrations encountered in that study?” By doing so you will get the correct answer. Then you can ignore the fear mongers and go back to eating those healthy fruits and vegetables in peace.

Image from Shutterstock

Author’s note:

Because I deal with risk all the time in this blog I have prepared a series of posts to help explain the risk assessment process. The posts start with “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 1: Understanding de minimis risk” which explains how the science of risk assessment establishes whether a compound is “toxic” and explains the importance of understanding dose/response relationships. It explains the concept of a de minims risk. That is a risk that is negligible and too small to be of societal concern (ref). The series continues with “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 2: Understanding “Acceptable” Risk” which, as the title suggests, explains how to determine whether a risk is “acceptable”. I then go on to cover how a risk assessment is actually carried out in “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 3: the Risk Assessment Process. I finish off the series by pointing out the danger of relying on anecdotes in a post titled: Risk Assessment Epilogue: Have a bad case of Anecdotes? Better call an Epidemiologist.

Posted in Risk, Risk Assessment Methodologies, Risk Communication, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Some thoughts from a Pragmatic Environmentalist for the Climate Strikers

As a pragmatic environmentalist who has been working to advance environmental causes for the last 30+ years I would like to take a moment to provide some advice to the youth of today on your 2019 Climate Strike.

First let me start with congratulations. You have taken the first step by starting a movement, hopefully one that will go on to do great things. But movements can easily get sidetracked. This is a particular concern in a movement like yours. You have deeply held and sincere beliefs, but little experience. You need to understand that knowing a problem needs to be solved is very different from knowing how the problem should be solved.

How energy is generated and used is not a topic you can learn quickly or easily. It has complexities that experts who have spent their lifetimes studying the topic still struggle with. One of my big concerns with the climate strike is that it is being driven by people who really aren’t aware of the complexity of the energy debate and instead talk about simple answers to complex problems. This is not a field that lends itself to simple answers.

As an example, I keep listening to the demands of the Climate Strikers and it is all about stopping all fossil fuel use now and blaming the previous generations for the conditions of the present. Well that approach ignores the realities of our era. I read that:

What Thunberg and her fellow protesters want from their governments is to “keep fossil fuels in the ground, phase out subsidies for dirty energy production, seriously invest in renewables and start asking difficult questions about how we structure our economies and who is set to win and who is set to lose,” 

What I don’t hear from your speakers is a recognition that we currently have a transportation (and thus food supply) system that is utterly dependent on fossil fuels and will be for the next 20+ years. We simply don’t have widely available fossil fuel-free options for transport trucks, container ships, cube vans or airplanes. Were we to “keep fossil fuels in the ground” our food supplies would quickly dry up and people would starve. This means to fight climate change we need to figure out how to address non-transportation uses while we innovate in the transportation field.

Part of this fight means getting electricity from fossil fuel-free sources and getting off fossil fuels for household uses. The City of Vancouver model is a great start on that front moving away from using natural gas for residential uses and using less electricity in those residence. In addition, we need carbon taxes to provide funds to pay for the research that will fuel innovation. This will also get more people into electric vehicles.

As activists we need to understand that it is a bad idea to undercut governments that are actively trying to enhance our fossil fuel-free energy alternatives (like Site C and run- of-river) and not knee-capping sympathetic governments (like Rachel Notley’s government in Alberta) when they try to get incremental change implemented. While many complained that Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan didn’t get everything you wanted it did involve spending hundreds of millions getting Alberta off coal while investing in renewables. Those activists who fought the program are helping elect a government that will be massively antithetical to the cause. This will ensure Alberta ceases being a climate leader and instead has to be dragged into the fight.

I know you believe that you need to inhabit the moral high ground, but holding the moral high ground as the planet burns around you will get you nowhere. You need allies and fellow travelers to achieve your goals. This brings me to my most important piece of advice: don’t let outsiders with political motivations corrupt your movement. If you want it to grow and thrive it has to be non-partisan. You have to avoid being drawn into historic political battles because the only way we can get global change is to build a big tent. Excluding fellow travelers because they have different political views will ensure that your movement fails.

Historically, environmental movements have allied themselves with socially progressive groups. As someone who has studied environmental history I can assure you that this approach has failed every time it was tried. In the cases when the progressives finally won political power, with the aid of environmentalists, the environmental goals of the resulting government were mostly ignored while the progressives concentrated on their social goals. Your big tent movement has to include free-enterprise conservatives and political moderates to succeed.

You have to detach yourselves from the political activists who have latched onto your movement. Especially the watermelons who insist that the only way forward is to destroy the current system and start again. We don’t have the time, and the public does not have the appetite, to follow that road. Look at the environmental performance of every strictly socialist country to date. The results have been abject failures because as described in the “Tragedy of the Commons” when individuals don’t have a stake in the protection of a resource they don’t protect that resource. Look around the world, the countries that have done the best on the environment are ones that combine the best of all systems, like Canada and the Scandinavians.

Now I am going to say something you won’t want to hear. It is time to stop demanding impossible changes and to start looking at what is possible. If you insist on virtually impossible goals, like the purveyors of 100% wind, water and sunlight, then you are going to fail. You need to consider a pragmatic approach to energy which includes regionally appropriate renewables combined with low-carbon, high-density supporting power like nuclear.

The movement also has to eject the anti-scientific core of people who refuse to accept that real alternatives (like nuclear) are a necessary part of the solution. We also have to take a global look at emissions. Ask yourself: what can we do regionally to help reduce global emissions? If that means developing the BC LNG industry so we can reduce the amount of carbon emitted by China well that is something we should do because we live in a global environment and we can’t ignore what is happening in Asia and Africa.

Put another way. If you are in a sinking ship with a massive hole in the side you don’t wait until you can fully fix the hole before you start trying. You first try and stem the flow of water into your ship to give you more time for a permanent fix. BC LNG is a tool to reduce the amount of water flowing into the ship so we have more time to fix it permanently.

We live in a world where 1.1 billion people live in energy poverty and each year 4.3 million people a year die from preventable indoor air pollution directly resulting from that energy poverty. Their governments are going to prioritize the health of today’s people over those of tomorrow. It is easy for climate strikers and activists who will go to bed well-fed and warm in Canada and Europe to tell the world we should use less energy but the governments of China and India still have deep poverty and hardship to fight and will ignore your cries.

So we need to do what we can at home. We need to reduce our personal emissions, while working to reduce our community emissions and working to get policy change so we can develop the technologies that we can share around the globe to ultimately reduce global emissions. It is time to take the power of this movement and use it to implement real, incremental change because your current demand that we burn it all down and start again is surely doomed to fail because it leaves out the 5 billion who are just trying to survive. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what we do in Europe and North America if we can’t bring Asia and Africa along with us because there are over 5 billion Africans and Asians who will ultimately decide whether we have a chance to beat climate change.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Debunking some Viral Climate Change Alarmism

As my regular readers know, the emphasis of this blog is evidence-based, environmental decision-making. I care that reliable scientific data is being used to make informed policy decisions. As such, I try to push back when science is abused by individuals attempting to sway environmental policy. Few topics see this type of behaviour more than in the climate change debate where a whole school of activists have decided that apocalyptic language is the key to achieving their goals. These Chicken Little’s regularly make extraordinary, and generally unsupportable, claims and are seldom called out when they do. Today I am going to examine one recent example to demonstrate why I believe this approach is so misguided.

The example comes from my Twitter feed. In it a literature teacher from a high school in Paris made a series of simply ridiculous claims. Instead of being rightly ignored, this post went viral. Here is the post which at current count has received almost 136,000 retweets and almost 250,000 likes.

Needless to say when I first saw the tweet (when it still only had a few dozen retweets), I responded:

What to say? Virtually none of these statements is correct. The oceans are not being killed, forest cover is increasing, fertile soil is at similar levels to what it was decades ago, the insect story is not true… apocalyptic claims do not help the fight against climate change

I was quickly attacked with the common response asking me to prove that what I claimed was true, my favourite being

WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE THAT THESE AREN’T TRUE?

While you have to admire the all caps tweeting, anyone familiar with the scientific method knows it is up to the person making the extraordinary claim to prove their thesis; or as Carl Sagan put it: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“.

Perhaps spurred on by my request, the author provided a series of tweets to support his claims. As I will demonstrate, these tweets (while appreciated by his followers) did nothing to support his opinions. Instead, it appeared they were offered safe in the knowledge that few of his followers would ever bother to read them.

In the next sections, I will briefly show why these references don’t support his contentions. I will then conclude with my take of why viral disinformation like this doesn’t help in the fight against climate change. Those not interested in the debunking feel free to go straight to the conclusion, as for the rest of you:

1) The oceans are being killed

In each of these cases the author (Ben) starts with an issue of concern to the scientific community, and then turns up the rhetoric to an 11. We can all agree that: “Overfishing, acidification, coral & seabed destruction, plastic & chemical pollution, ocean anoxia, phytoplankton, etc...” are serious issues that need to be addressed. However, we also know that none of these is indicative of the oceans “being killed“. Instead, each represents an ongoing challenge that reduces the quality and diversity of life in our oceans.

Looking at the references he uses to support his claim: the Forbes article is about overfishing; the Geochemical article is about microplastics; the Cell article is about ocean wilderness; and the PSMag article is about marine plastics. The one thing they all have in common is none supports Ben’s general argument that the “oceans are being killed“. They talk about risks to certain populations or sub-populations within the oceans but none of them support the general premise that the oceans will die in any real sense. They simply don’t support his wild rhetoric.

Forests will soon be gone

As for these citations: the Science Daily (20,000 scientists) article does not mention forests at all while the Academic.oup (Biosciences) is a particularly egregious misstatement. He presents the line “especially troubling is….deforestation” in his tweet; however this is another example of why ellipses are so often used by the unscrupulous. Here is the entire section in the original article:

Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels (Hansen et al. 2013), deforestation (Keenan et al. 2015), and agricultural production…

The article does not claim that all forests are disappearing due to climate change, but rather that deforestation of some forests is increasing GHG emissions. I can’t imagine that careful use of ellipses was accidental. As for the PNAS article, it isn’t even about forests. So once again what appears to be deliberate misuse of irrelevant articles to support an unsound premise. Anyone sensing a trend?

In response to this tweet I pointed readers to two recent high-profile sources a study from NASA and article in Nature. Both detail the fact that in the last few decades the planet has greened and forest cover has increased. To be clear, we aren’t talking about obscure journals or organizations. This is NASA which is specifically tasked to study this problem and an article in Nature (one of the highest profile journals in the world). These are sources an activist who claims to care about forest cover should be familiar with.

Fertile Soil Is Disappearing

Now we all know that farming and land use practices have degraded our topsoil but Ben doesn’t even try to support his claim in this tweet. Instead he just provides a Guardian article that says that they aren’t doing enough to protect topsoil. It doesn’t back up his position that “fertile soil is disappearing” but any reasonable observer would have realized that this would be the case by now wouldn’t they? As a note, while the degradation of topsoil is a critical environmental concern, recent changes in farming approaches (like no-till farming) are making great strides in protecting our precious topsoil.

Megafauna risk extermination

This time Ben links to a thread of his own that warns of the issue while never indicating the technical basis for his concern. No links, no problems for his supporters; 703 of them re-tweeted his claim. Apparently none noticed that he failed to actually provide support for his case.

Admittedly this is the one claim that is closest to being true, large mammals are in trouble thanks to human encroachment on their habitat, but still Ben’s claim is a massive exaggeration.

Insects are vanishing

In this case the first link is to the article that is the source material for my last blog post where I showed that the article algorithm wasn’t able to support the hypothesis. The second is a link to an article that talks about loss of insect biodiversity in a small portion of Germany. Neither supports his greater claim of a global insect apocalypse.

You must get the point by now. In each case presented, the references proffered to support his statements do nothing of the sort. Given the length of this post already I will end the debunking here.

Conclusion

One might ask what an activist has to gain (except lots of “likes” on Twitter) by posting such a ridiculous list of claims. I’ve been informed (by another activist) that they do this to open the Overton Window. For those not familiar with the term here is a good definition:

The Overton window is the range of ideas the public is willing to consider and accept — ideas a politician to could successfully campaign on. This window shifts over time, as it’s subject to the trends of social thought and norms. All social reform movements have to shift the Overton window to make progress. 

The problem is that you don’t open the Overton Window by attempting to mislead. There is a reason why the story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” resonates so strongly in our society. It is because virtually every culture agrees that repeatedly making false claims destroys your credibility. You don’t open the Overton Window by deliberately misleading the public, you slam the window of discussion shut. People tune you out and politicians avoid you for fear that your dishonesty will stain their reputations. That is why so few professional scientists are willing to step up to support these people. It is always young graduates (with no reputations to protect) and retired professionals and academics (who can trade in on their history) who tend to speak out on these files.

The fight against climate change is going to be a long, hard struggle and as I have said time-after-time you win these fights by being known as the person everyone trusts to shoot straight. If you sell your reputation for momentary social media glory you will burn out just as quickly. Fighting climate change isn’t going to happen in one day. It is about incremental change. Going from coal, to natural gas to a mostly renewables energy system will take time and a lot of money. Developing new battery technologies that will allow long-range trucking and rail to electrified is a daunting and expensive challenge. These are how climate change will be beaten. Not by viral tweets that misinform and mislead but by the action of leaders everyone is willing to trust.

Posted in Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Why sample design matters or Why that “Insects are Vanishing Paper” does not tell us much about world insect populations

As followers of this blog know, one of my big interests is evidence-based, environmental decision-making. I care that good scientific data is being used to make informed policy decisions. As such the recent “insects are vanishing” meme that is spreading through my social media feeds has me concerned. Most of these stories derive from a single paper that recently came out in “Biological Conservation” titled Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris A.G.Wyckhuys. This paper provides a classic example of how a search algorithm designed to answer one question can result in a skewed output dataset when asked to answer a different question. Now most of the time this type of study has little effect on public policy; unfortunately, this study is the exception to that rule. As such it is important to understand what this paper did both wrong and right and what this paper can and can’t tell us about global insect population trends. Ultimately this is important because of how it informs future environmental policy decisions.

Reading the paper it becomes clear that the authors appear to have started their work simply seeking to understand the general drivers that influence insect population decline, where those declines are being observed. Somehow over the course of their research (and possibly the peer review process) they decided to extrapolate their results to make more globalized generalizations. The problem was that their initial dataset was not the appropriate tool to make these types of generalizations. The result is a paper that makes broad claims that are unsupported by the underlying data.

What do I mean by that? Well let’s look at the search algorithm used in their study:

we performed a search on the online Web of Science database using the keywords [insect*] AND [declin*] AND [survey], which resulted in a total of 653 publications. 

They then used tools to winnow down that initial list of 653 papers to a smaller group of

73 reports on entomofauna declines in various parts of the world (Fig. 1) and examines their likely causes (Table S1). Because the overwhelming majority of long-term surveys have been conducted in developed countries, particularly in the northern hemisphere, this review is geographically biased and does not adequately cover trends in tropical regions, where information on insect biodiversity is either incomplete or lacking (Collen et al., 2008).

The problem with the reporting on this paper is that it ignores all these provisos and instead makes huge claims based on scant evidence. So let’s start with the biggest failing of the paper: the original search algorithm.

The search algorithm looked only for papers that included some variation on insect, declin[e] and survey and then used that collection of papers in their further analyses. The problem is that is a pretty limited dataset. Would this search algorithm find a paper like:

Increasing abundance and diversity in the moth assemblage of east Loch Lomondside, Scotland over a 35 year period? No of course it wouldn’t.

The search algorithm only looked for papers where populations were declining not where they were increasing or were observed to be relatively stable. To be absolutely clear here, I don’t know if global insect populations are decreasing, increasing or stable, but this search algorithm won’t help anyone find that information out. It only looked for studies that found declining populations.

To help my readers understand let’s use a different example. Imagine you did a search of newspaper headlines for [Vancouver Canucks] and [loss*] and [2018]. That search would give you a list of Vancouver Canucks losses. Does that mean the Canucks never won a game? No, but that wasn’t what you were looking for.

Going back to the paper, they provide an incredibly important proviso in the methodology section but this proviso is virtually ignored in the reporting of its results. I included it above but it bears repeating.

Because the overwhelming majority of long-term surveys have been conducted in developed countries, particularly in the northern hemisphere, this review is geographically biased and does not adequately cover trends in tropical regions, where information on insect biodiversity is either incomplete or lacking (Collen et al., 2008).

Take a look at the geographic distribution of their papers:

Talk about a Eurocentric paper. Any Biologist will tell you that most insect diversity is observed in the Tropics and yet the article’s data density in the Tropics is virtually non-existent. Looking in their Supplemental Data we find that the paper includes less than a handful of papers dealing with the Tropics.

Let’s think about this. Is there any field of study where we would extrapolate ecological conditions in Europe to indicate global conditions? Europe is a horrible model for any ecological study because Europe has been heavily populated, intensively farmed and disturbed for centuries. If you were looking for the worst place to extrapolate world ecological trends from, Europe would be an excellent choice.

So you are probably wondering why I care some much about this topic? The answer is because when you use bad data as an input into a policy development process you get bad policies as an output. The one thing this paper makes clear is that human land use decisions are the biggest driver of insect population declines, where they have been observed. Sure climate change is a minor driver but the bigger problem is how humans manipulate our environment to make it more comfortable for other humans.

I have said time-and-again at this blog that one of my biggest concerns is habitat preservation and with insect populations we have another topic where habitat preservation appears to be the key. The paper makes it clear that preserving habitat is the single best way to help protect insect populations. To do that we need to reduce our ecological footprint by densifying our populations and changing our farming practices. From a practical perspective we need to stop relying on biofuels that eat up valuable potential wild spaces to produce liquid fuels or biomass for electricity. We need to stop building huge solar farms and even bigger wind farms that eat up valuable potential wildlands and instead massively increase the number of small solar collectors and “small wind” vertical turbines in our urban environments.

This is the Ecomodernist mantra I have repeated throughout my blogging. We need to change the way humans make use of the planet. We need to use a smaller part of it more intensely so we can leave a larger area for nature to do its thing with minimal human interference or influences.

As for all these blaring headlines about the insect apocalypse; well this paper is not supportive of them. Only in the activist press could a study with this limited reach and breadth be used to extrapolate world conditions.

To conclude, I can’t say it enough. I don’t know whether insect populations planet-wide are increasing, decreasing or are stable. But neither do the authors of this paper and neither do the activists who are using the headline from this paper to beat decision-makers over the head. Good environmental decision-making needs good data and while this paper helps describe certain phenomena, mostly in Europe, it does little to add to our understanding of worldwide insect conditions. Moreover, what it does tell us is that if we want to keep our insect populations healthy we need to change the way humans interact with our natural environment. We need to reduce our ecological footprint and give nature the space it needs to thrive.

Posted in Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Risk Communication, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

On the Achilles Heel of these Climate Damages Lawsuits: Municipal Zoning Bylaws

By now everyone has heard about West Coast Environmental Law’s (WCEL’s) Climate Accountability Letters campaign. This is the campaign where a group of enterprising lawyers are:

asking your municipality (or regional district) to send “Climate Accountability Letters” to 20 of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies asking them to pay for climate costs that are being incurred by your community.

The theory goes that if enough communities get involved it will somehow stop these companies selling fossil fuels? Yes, I agree the premise is a bit confusing. Given that our society is not in a position to operate without fossil fuels getting rid of all the suppliers seems like a bad plan. Sort of like cruising at 40,000 feet in a jumbo jet and simultaneously demanding that the pilots turn off the engines.

Admittedly, the plan doesn’t really have to make sense since the ultimate goal appears to be “the possibility of a class action by all BC local governments against some fossil fuel companies“. Now given that the group initiating this process is also the legal team that would likely lead that class action lawsuit (and generate all those fees) it is understandable why they might be encouraging this action. That being said, I would like to suggest a few holes in the logic of this approach.

To be clear, I am not the first person to take on this topic and some very good writers have poked massive holes in the WCEL’s arguments. If you have not yet seen it, read this piece by Terry Etam at The Orca called Dear Victoria City Council which highlights some of the mathematical flaws with the WCEL argument.

I have also seen the topic discussed on Twitter. Most of the arguments there decry blaming a supplier of a necessary good for the consequences of using that good. But that is a story for another day.

Instead in this post I want to point out one argument I have not seen elsewhere. In my view, this argument is one of many reasons why any community that decided to go the class action suit route would get absolutely toasted in the courts. I am talking about how historic community zoning decisions will torpedo any future lawsuit.

Anyone who has followed the US class action lawsuits on this topic knows that there is a pretty high bar to cross to win this type of case and hypocrisy makes that bar much higher. Who can forget the City of Oakland exposing itself to massive lawsuits because it simultaneously claimed that climate change was an existential threat in a lawsuit while claiming it wasn’t in a bond issue.

So we know hypocrisy plays in the courts and where do our municipalities really display their hypocrisy on the climate change front? Well that would be their zoning bylaws. The zoning and re-zoning of land is one of the most important powers a municipal government has and how a municipal government zones its lands strongly expresses how that municipality feels about a particular issue.

If a municipality felt that climate change was an existential threat then that should be reflected in their zoning decisions. You wouldn’t zone a car-dependent development if you felt that cars were killing the planet would you? Allowing a subdivision to be developed where every commuter had easy access to transit and the ability to walk to all necessary amenities would seem a minimum requirement for a community that wanted to blame others for the effects of climate change on that community.

Let’s also remember that the basis of these lawsuits is that the fossil fuel companies knew about climate change for decades and did little to address the issue. Well here is a secret, so have local communities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988 and its first report was produced in 1990. That means that any land use decision since 1990 would have to be considered in a lawsuit. Anyone want to guess how many car-dependent developments have been approved in Victoria or any of the other signatory municipalities since 1990? I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure that during any class action lawsuit every one of those developments will be presented as evidence that the communities are the authors of their own misfortune. Unless these communities can demonstrate that their last 30 years of land use decisions have unanimously been intended to increase density and eliminate reliance on automobiles and trucks then there will be issues at trial.

I can hear a lot of people saying, “so what, at least if enough communities do this it will cripple the oil companies“. My response is to point out that when the court finds a lawsuit is frivolous or unwarranted the result is often that the person/group who brought the lawsuit ends up being dinged for the entire cost of the lawsuit. Look at what happened to the City of Burnaby when it lost its most recent Trans Mountain lawsuit. The City paid its own lawyers over $1 million so we can only surmise that it had to pay a similar amount to Trans Mountain’s lawyers. That is over $2 million poured down the drain for zero public good. Imagine how much more good that $2 million might have done if simply donated to the food bank.

Anyone notice a trend here? The only people who are most assuredly paid in this fight are the lawyers. So can you really blame a team of lawyers for suggesting that communities should initiate big class action lawsuits? They get paid no matters who wins. As for community leaders, the upside of this process is pretty hazy. Admittedly a lot of the people initiating these processes are municipal politicians who likely won’t be around when the bill collector comes knocking. But residents of these communities will still be there; and when the piper comes around asking for his due it will be their pockets that will be emptied pay for a politician’s stunt from 2019.

Needless to say, as a taxpayer in the Township of Langley, if my council takes up the discussion of climate accountability letters and class action lawsuits I will be making a presentation to council. I have no intention of lining a team of lawyers’ pockets for a meaningless gesture. I will continue to work to fight climate change at the local level by encouraging the Township to get improved transit in our area and to build more walkable developments but I will fight any attempt to shift the blame to someone else. As a consumer of fossil fuels I am the one responsible for my actions and as communities we are all responsible for our car-dependent communities. I know it is the current practice to look for others to blame for the wrongs of the world, but the truth is that you and I are to blame and trying to get someone else to pay for decisions made on our behalf, by our community leaders, is simply the wrong approach.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Debunking more activist talking points about BC LNG: on “illegal dams”, electrification, and LNG as a bridge fuel

The thing I really don’t understand about the activist class in BC is their intellectual incoherence. They argue that climate change is an existential threat to our planet; but that we should only fight climate change using a small suite of their preferred technologies. They argue that we should care about greenhouse gases; but only those emitted within the borders of Canada. They argue we should electrify our economy; but only if we do it in their preferred manner. They have a parochial view of the world that ignores the international nature of the fight against climate change. On few topics, do they show all these failing at once, but topic of BC liquid natural gas (LNG) is certainly one example.

In this blog post, I want to blow up a few of the latest myths and painful arguments being foisted on the public by the anti-LNG activists out there. Specifically, I want to deal with the LNG topics of “illegal dams”, electrification and LNG as a bridge fuel.

On “Illegal Dams” in the BC Northeast

By now anyone interested in LNG in BC has heard of Ben Parfitt from the CCPA. Ben is the CCPA’s point man on the LNG file. A former investigative journalist, Ben has really made his mark. In particular over the last year he has concentrated on “illegal dams” in Northeastern BC. I put “illegal dams” in scare quotes because, as I will point out in this post, if you want to be technical about it, most of these “dams” aren’t what you and I would consider a dam and most of the “illegal dams” were built following the rules of the day and most of the identified infractions involve catching up with the paperwork associated with a recent regulatory change.

So let’s start with the “dam” thing. Being from BC when I think of a dam I think of structures like the Revelstoke or WAC Bennett dams. Massive structures that stick out of the landscape. An unregulated dam is a terrifying thought as a dam failure would surely result in massive destruction and casualties. But that is not how the regulator sees it. Under the Dam Safety Regulation (DSR) of the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) a dam is defined as:

(a) a barrier constructed for the purpose of enabling the storage or diversion of water diverted from a stream or an aquifer, or both, and

(b) other works that are incidental to or necessary for the barrier described in paragraph (a);

What that means is that a hole in the ground where water from a shallow aquifer can pool on the surface can technically become a “dam” under the DSR. As Ian Fife explains most of the “dams” described by the CCPA in their reports are simply water retention ponds created as part of road-building. To explain: much of the BC northeast is soggy with very shallow groundwater. In order to build roads in these areas the ground has to be built up. To build up ground means you have to find aggregates and fills to use as road base material. When that material is dug up, the resulting holes fill up with groundwater and runoff and voilà this structure becomes a “dam” under the DSR.

As for the dams being “illegal”, in February 2016, the WSA replaced the old B.C. Water Act. Under the Water Act dam owners could extract water from their ponds without special permits. Under the WSA dams owners now need to have a water licence to draw water from their ponds. So technically, until the owners complete all the water licensing paperwork for each of their ponds they are illegal dams in CCPA parlance. Understand, this type of thing always happens when a new regulatory regime get enacted. Older projects are almost always in noncompliance with the new rules and are gradually all brought into compliance with the new rules. Only in the activist community would this type of thing warrant the level of furor we have seen to date.

To summarize, most of these “dams” are not really dams they are at-grade water retention ponds, dug to supply the material needed to build roads, that contain exposed groundwater and because they were built before the WSA was enacted they do not currently have an associated water permit.

As for the Lily Dam Ben uses as his example in virtually every one of his stories (Ben has written no less than 5 reports for the CCPA about the Lily Dam). It is a very special case. As I mentioned previously, most of the retention ponds are at-grade structures (holes in the ground where the water level is at or near the regional grade). However, if the sides of the water retention pond exceed the arbitrary 15 meter height limit described in Part 5 of the Reviewable Projects Regulation of the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) then that “dam” becomes a reviewable project under the EAA.

So how can a water retention pond exceed 15 m in height? When it is built on a hillside. As for the Lily dam here is how he describes it:

The main report before the EAO in support of Progress’s Lily dam project (Progress Energy Lily Dam – Project Description) describes a nearly 23-metre-high earthen structure, or a dam roughly as tall as a seven-storey apartment building.

Now let’s look at this “towering earthen structure” that is worth so much of Ben and the CCPA’s time:

This is not a mighty dam, with a massive reservoir built on a raging river; it is a mid-sized retaining pond built into a hillside over a dozen miles away from the nearest human habitation. Its height is not due to it being built upwards (like you would expect for a dam) but rather due to the supporting structures on the slope upon which it sits. As for its danger to the local community these were addressed by the Environmental Assessment Office in the Dam Inundation Assessment (the assessment of what would happen if the dam failed). That report concluded:

1) the determined flood inundation zone does not impact any permanent residences, seasonal cottages or known recreation areas.

2. Once the flood waters enter the Sikanni Chief River [the nearest downgradient water body], the flow dissipates rapidly to approximately 4 m3/s. This is anticipated to have a negligible impact on the river flows and height, and the mapping was terminated at that point.

3. Considering the above, there is no identifiable population at risk from the d-042-K Dam, other than through unforeseeable misadventure.

For those of you who don’t read legalese the assessment established that if the dam failed the result would be no risk to human or ecological health. The water would run down the hillside and would have insufficient volume to negatively affect the nearest fish-bearing stream. The only potential harm would be if someone was standing immediately downgradient of the dam when it failed and that would be highly unlikely as there are no communities anywhere near the dam.

So this “not quite a dam” doesn’t actually dam a river; its failure would hurt no one; and its massive height is based solely on it being built on a hill. Is there any wonder the Environmental Assessment Office chose to exempt it from requiring an environmental assessment certificate. Yet this is the poster child used by the activists for dangerous, illegal, LNG, fracking dams.

As for the other “dozens” of illegal dams described by the CCPA, only the Lily and the Town dams meet the EAA review requirements and both have been given exemptions because they don’t pose any real risk to human health or the environment. The rest are, as previously described, are mostly small at-grade water bodies that pose a negligible risk to the local environment.

On Electrification of LNG

Now Ben was not satisfied with banging the drum about illegal dams, he is also all astir about the use of electricity to power BC LNG. This latest is the topic for his recent report How clean is a BC that subsidizes accelerated fossil fuel extraction? In this report Ben argues that the electrification of our LNG supply chain is a bad thing. Here is Ben in the Vancouver Sun:

The government wants us to believe that using hydro power to electrify LNG production somehow reduces emissions. But all that electrification actually achieves is to save gas from being combusted in BC so that it can be piped out of the province and burned somewhere else.

Talk about being parochial and missing the point. Let’s remember that the CCPA is an organization that argues we should be fighting climate change. It manages to do so while simultaneously making the unscientific argument that we should only consider domestic emissions when considering BC LNG.

The problem with the CCPA’s argument is that GHG emissions are global and we know that Asia will be needing (and using) natural gas for the foreseeable future. The only question is what natural gas will it be using? Will it use high-carbon natural gas from Qatar or lower emission natural gas from British Columbia?

The most recent research on this topic is the peer-reviewed article: Country-Level Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Liquefied Natural Gas Trade for Electricity Generation by Kasumu et al. This article demonstrates conclusively that when replacing coal in Chinese energy facilities, BC LNG produces lower total, life-cycle emissions. Moreover, if we can electrify the process then our LNG becomes among the cleanest and lowest carbon LNG on the planet.

To put numbers to that argument consider those from my blog post: On the global climate change math supporting BC LNG using the Pacific Northwest gas (PNG) project as an example:

doing the simple math the PNW LNG project has a 18% lower greenhouse gas intensity versus our average competitor… If the British Columbia government can electrify the process then the PNW LNG project can operate at an intensity equivalent to 80% of our competitors. What that means is that if consumers in Asia use British Columbia LNG the global emissions for the LNG will be 20% lower than existing LNG sources. If this LNG replaces coal as an energy source the global benefit of using BC LNG is even greater. So from a global perspective this is also a slam dunk, we sell our LNG to Asian clients and in doing so prevent the emissions of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that would otherwise have come from using coal or dirtier LNG sold by our competitors.

Ben can make his parochial local claims until he is blue in the face, but Kasumu et al. makes it clear. BC LNG (especially BC LNG using clean hydro electricity for the compression and transmission steps) will radically reduce Chinese (and thus global) GHG emissions. BC LNG generated using clean BC electricity will reduce global GHG emissions even more. There is no doubt about that fact.

Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel

To conclude, I want to quickly point to an even more gob-stopping example of an activist losing the thread. This would be the article: The Inevitable Death of Natural Gas as a ‘Bridge Fuel’ by Justin Mikulka at DeSmog blog. The author argues in the article that natural gas is failing as a “bridge fuel” because after having used natural gas to break its coal habit the US is now building more renewable energy infrastructure and therefore has less need for natural gas.

Apparently the author doesn’t understand that the entire point of a bridge fuel is that it will be used until it is not needed. Once you cross a bridge you shouldn’t need to use it again. If LNG is no longer needed then that is a good thing not a failure.

Conclusion

Reading back over this post I see another classic example of how the activists work. They count on their supporters never actually following up or looking deeply into the information they present and they love to make mountains out of mole hills. For the last year I have read again and again about all these “illegal dams” in northern BC and only after seeing Ian Fife’s post on the topic did I spend the time necessary to look into the topic myself. What I found is that the water retention pond down the street would qualify as a “dam” under the DSR and that all these dams are not an existential threat to northeastern BC instead they are essentially just another 50 or so water features in an ecosystem with countless small water features. As for BC LNG, it is a valuable way to help fight climate change.


Posted in Canadian Politics, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Site C, Uncategorized | 1 Comment