The ability to hold onto a belief despite all conflicting evidence is quite likely the thing that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal world. I’d call it cognitive dissonance, except that many of us seem to manage it without discomfort or stress. After a while, you tend to stop noticing the ones you live with every day. It takes going somewhere new to see them again –as I did, on a recent trip to Australia.
For example, it’s long been my impression that Australia is the poster child for climate change. Every year, January’s Australian Open tennis championship is played under hotter on-court temperatures. Last year crossed some particularly notable thresholds: a water bottle placed on the court surface by perennial top-tenner Caroline Wozniacki partially melted, and multiple players had to withdraw due to heat illness. The 2015 edition of that tournament won’t begin for another couple of weeks as I write this, but on January 4 at Perth’s Hopman Cup the temperatures are above 40C, and bush fires are raging northeast of Adelaide fanned by extreme heat and 100kmh winds. A locally-based commenter on the Guardian site compared going outside to walking into a giant hairdryer. While I was there, the temperature was already spiking to 40C some days – and it was then only November (their equivalent of May).
And yet: one of the first things you learn when you go there is that the current prime minister, Tony Abbott, has called the science behind climate change “crap”. That was in 2009. In 2013, he denied the possibility that that year’s brush fires might be linked to climate change, calling them a fact of life in Australia since European settlement began. Abbott has more recently said he takes climate change seriously – but not, it appears, seriously enough to appoint environmentalists instead of business leaders to advisory positions, or stop deregulating environmental controls or cutting the budget of the Department of the Environment.
How does someone in charge of a country – even more, in charge of a country’s budget for cleaning up disasters – manage to ignore such a sizeable threat to its well-being? Australia was probably the last place I expected to find a denier in charge. Forget scientists; when the world’s insurance companies start reporting, as they have, that climate change is having a real effect on their bottom line, that ought to be pragmatic enough for anyone. But Australia is the world’s second largest exporter of coal …
Granted, the US has not been a whole lot better in recent years, though President Obama seems inclined to take things more seriously. While I was in Melbourne, he appeared on the morning news chiding Australia for not taking better care of the Great Barrier Reef. The minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, stopped just short of pointing out the US’s record as the world’s biggest energy consumer.
Less an example of cognitive dissonance and more just one of those new beliefs you run into sometimes is wind turbine syndrome, the subject of a campaign that began in 2009. To some extent, every country has its own set of obsessions. My favourite along those lines is Germany’s earth rays (“Erdstrahlen”), a dangerous phenomenon that is unknown elsewhere (lucky us) but that the German sceptics routinely encounter. The radiation is detectable only by dowsing, and is said to cause various illnesses. In Australia, Ketan Joshi, an engineer in the renewables industry, told me a number of people believe that the “infrasound” generated by wind turbines makes them ill.
As of May 2014, Simon Chapman, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, had compiled a list of no less than 236 different symptoms that people claim are linked to turbines. On their own, many of these sound plausible: why shouldn’t “infrasound” have health effects like fatigue, insomnia, or headaches? It’s when you see all the illnesses, aches, pains, and syndromes wind turbines are supposed to cause set together in a list that the whole idea becomes breathtaking: everything from pericardial thickening to piglet deaths. My personal favourite is the Buddhist group who claim that proximity to wind farms causes a drop of 70 percent in concentration. How do you suppose they measured that?
As Chapman writes, “When you read the list below, you may ask whether you can recall any account of any threat to humanity which poses a greater threat. Old Testament accounts of pestilences and plagues seem mild compared to the effects attributed to wind turbines.”
Published studies have so far failed to find a connection between wind turbines and adverse health effects. Chapman himself has found that 63 percent of Australia’s 49 wind farms have never been the source of any complaint. It’s the ones that are sited near the anti-wind farm campaigners that are causing all the trouble. There’s an obvious solution to that …