The right’s anti-wind campaign is pure scaremongering (updated)

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Guardian. Of all of the anti-science nonsense peddled by the political right, here and in Britain, none is more stunningly hypocritical than their campaign against the (non-existent) health risks of wind turbines. The self-image promoted by these guys (and, with a handful of exceptions, they are guys) is one of hardnosed scepticism about unproven risks, disdain for emotive appeals to feelings about the environment. But because wind turbines are supported by their tribal enemies, they swallow and propagate utterly absurd alarmist claims.

Attempts will doubtless be made to draw a comparison with leftwing attitudes to nuclear power. But this fails for numerous reasons
* A substantial number of environmentalists support nuclear power as preferable to coal
* Among those who don’t a substantial number (me for example) base their view on the conclusion that nuclear power is simply more expensive than renewables or energy-efficiency measures
*The health risks associated with nuclear power are real, even if they are sometimes overstated
* Finally, even those environmentalists who are reflexively opposed to nuclear power aren’t guilty of the hypocrisy of their rightwing counterparts. Typically, they simply hold extreme concerns about risks of all kinds.

The only environmentalists I would convict of hypocrisy on this issue are people like Robert F Kennedy Jr, who campaigns against both nuclear and wind power while claiming to care about climate change. But RFK Jr is an anti-vaccine loon, whose only claim to fame is the name he inherited from his father. He has been rightly denounced by genuine environmentalists. Meanwhile, even those on the right who know that the scare campaign about wind is nonsense make excuses for their allies (I quote Greg Hunt in the article, and I anticipate more of the same in comments here).

Update I’m happy to say that my predictions on comments have been more than borne out. A number of rightwing commenters have weighed in with the claim (false, when you take account of the underpricing of CO2 emissions) that wind is subsidised relative to fossil fuels. Several comments have implied that, since wind energy is supposedly subsidised, it is OK to make up anti-scientific lies about it. None of our rightwing tribalists has been willing to call out their fellow tribespeople.

More amusingly, on the pro-science side of the debate, we’ve been testing out Poe’s Law. Check out the comments that reject mainstream climate science and put forward alarmist claims about wind. See if you can tell which are real and which are parodies. I had some genuine difficulty.

113 thoughts on “The right’s anti-wind campaign is pure scaremongering (updated)

  1. @Sancho

    Isn’t it a bit of an overstatement, if not crass misuse of language, to say that Quiggin “demonstrated” anything much. Spat out some opinions fit to accompany a pint at the staff club bar perhaps but that’s about it.

  2. Wind power is improving in efficiency of production, costs are coming down, production of power reduces coal emissions on a one for one basis. Why the angst?

  3. @John Quiggin
    @ John Quiggin

    You lightweight obfuscations are not worthy of a tenured full professor JQ. And an attempt to Pretend that you don’t know whether my argument is truly serious is not a convincing way (except with your usual cheer squad) to deal with why Australia should be spending a lot of money (to gather up all the ways in which bad policy makes Australians poorer) to attempt to reduce CO2 emissions when what we do cannot make the slightest difference to our fate should the rate of warming of the earth’s oceans and atmosphere since the last Little Ice Age continue and eventually reach levels unprecedented in the Holocene.

    As an all purpose blogger perhaps you think you know about diplomacy and influence on the rulers of countries with billions of much poorer people in them (including the US). That would be a big claim when a professional diplomat like Rudd made such a fool of himself before and at the Copenhagen conference when the Chinese wouldn’t even let him join the discussions they were having with the US!.

    And can you, if you are prepared to back your opinion on “the science” (quotes because it is not clear that many of the people who some claim to be “climate scientists” have anything convincing to say about the immensely complex business of climate modelling and prediction especially if they attempt, which none seem to do, to explain every major climatic change even during the Holocene) can you give a succinct statement of your sources of belief? That is to show why you should be regarded as having a more worthwhile opinion on scientific matters pertaining to climate than Bolt. You could burnish your credential by publishing a convincing review of “Taxing Air – Facts and Fallacies About Climate Change” by Bob Carter, John Spooner, with Bill Kininmonth, Martin Feil, Stewart Franks and Bryan Leyland”.

    I suspect you would find it to limiting to your time for offering unsupported opinions to actually read it all. But you could just do the completely fraudulent not-read-at-all jobs which one of the American alarmists managed within hours of publication on “The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert” that, carefully read, shows that the basis for all politicians and nearly all bloggers opinions, namely the IPCC reports are totally unworthy of credit.

  4. @Angus Cameron
    “lightweight obfuscations” as opposed to your heavy weight ones. The language is turgid, the logic absent, the cliches abound. The only point that can be sensibly addressed is the one on publishing a review on Carter’s work. It’s been done and the conclusion is it’s rubbish. But you wouldn’t agree so I guess we can expect another 200 word stream on consciousness crapfest.

  5. @Doug
    Yes and no. My guess is that the best wind sites near existing transmission have been taken even though the newer bigger turbines are better. The existing turbines may need to be replaced after 25 years having averaged less than 30% capacity whereas a coal fired power station may run for 50 years at 90% capacity. Some thermal plant cannot be switched on and off easily to avoid heat shock or maintain a head of steam. Some ‘spinning reserve’ thermal plant is maintained among other reasons to cope with wind lulls ie there are emissions even if power is not going to the grid. Some gas turbine plant used for wind firming is almost as CO2 intensive as new supercritical coal plant.

    Thermal plant operators resent the fact renewable energy targets oblige them to take a back seat because the quota must be filled under threat of penalty charges. In Europe they are demanding standby fees or capacity payments. A simpler way to solve all this is to have a single target for CO2 and not additional quotas for a subset of technologies. For example nuclear is low carbon but not renewable so doesn’t get a look in. If low carbon is not the main objective why not have a quota for some other irrelevant criterion ? For example electricity sent through purple wires.

  6. Sounds like a very ineteresting book, the core premise of which is:

    The earth has been cooling for the last 16 years

    Of course those windmills are like big fans. And fans COOL things down. You fools will have us in another ice-age if you allow these massive fans to exacerbate the natural cooling!

  7. @Angus Cameron

    Great stuff! The “tenured full professor” opening really captures the tone of the standard rant, especially since it’s easily checkable that my current position has a 5-year term, with no possibility of renewal. Bonus points for great use of scare quotes, but you really need something like suicidal parrots to lift you above the pack.

  8. “Of course those windmills are like big fans. And fans COOL things down”

    The air is already moving before it reaches the fan. If anything, the fan will slow the air down as it draws energy in order to rotate.

  9. @Sancho

    Occasionally the fanatics in charge bump into the ordinary people. But give them time. They’ve been busy regulating other stuff. They’ll get to it.

  10. @John Quiggin

    Nice chart. What is the South Australia CO2 emission rate per watt in 2005/6 versus 2012/13 for electricity? And what has been the cost per tonne of this CO2 reduction? Some have said it is $1500 per tonne but I’m sure you would have access to more accurate data given your position on the climate commission.

  11. @Jim Rose

    Really, there’s no such thing as academic tenure in Australia. It’s no different from any “permanent” job, where “permanent” means that there is no fixed term. You can still be made redundant, dismissed for poor performance etc. The big difference, for a relatively high-status job, is the large proportion of people on casual and fixed-term appointments.

  12. @John Quiggin thanks. I had heard different reports for different countries.

    I think there is still tenure in the USA because of all the stories I hear about the publish-or-perish tenure track and up-or-out. a fertile ground for data mining.

    a few nobel prize winners did not get tenure at their first university.

  13. John Quiggin :
    Poe’s Law strikes again

    Sadly, it’s clear that Angus is quite serious!

    And Angus wrote: “Actually I am a bit puzzled by your association of the anti wind farm campaigns on environmental grounds with the political right.” Actually, Angus, insisting that what you wish were true, is true, regardless of the evidence, is an essential characteristic of the fundamentalist right.

    The anti-windfarm alarmists are the quintessential NIMBYs – they want their (inefficiently reticulated) electricity to come from coal burning plants that are comfortably out of sight.

    The second major windfarm proposed for the Atherton Tableland is meeting determined and hysterical opposition – with signs reading “Windmill make you sick”.

  14. @John Quiggin

    “dismissal for poor performance”

    Or, as was the case with Bob Carter from JCU, for being a modern day Galileo (and forgetting to do a bit of paperwork around the place – too) and challenging the alarmists with factoids!

  15. Crispin Bennett :
    Pretty much JQ’s point. Because the Right disputes the economic viability of the wind industry, it’ll swallow any superstitious antiscientific nonsense falling on their side of the case. This is the same kind of tribal epistemology that it suffers from with respect to climate change. You’ve nailed it.

    But why? If the economic argument is solid, why do they embrace pseudoscience and conspiracy theories on top?

    Angus Cameron :
    Isn’t it a bit of an overstatement, if not crass misuse of language, to say that Quiggin “demonstrated” anything much. Spat out some opinions fit to accompany a pint at the staff club bar perhaps but that’s about it.

    Australian Environment Foundation, Waubra Foundation, Australian Landscape Guardians. 0.11 seconds to locate via Google.

    Also worth considering why the IPA et al don’t make any effort to deny their Astroturfing. If JQ’s claims were false slurs, published in a major newspaper, don’t you think the innocent victims would come out swinging?

    Tell ya what. Head along to a comment site hosted by someone at the IPA and ask them directly if the IPA runs Astroturf groups. It’ll be entertaining.

  16. @Megan
    Galileo was persecuted for producing observable scientific data that undermined the authority of wealthy and powerful organisations.

    In 2013, who is Galileo? The climatologists producing observable scientific data, or the wealthy and powerful fossil fuel lobby?

    And by “Bob Carter…forgetting to do a bit of paperwork around the place”, you mean “Bob Carter lied about being paid by the Heartland Institute”, right?

  17. Windmills for power generation are relatively new. Hence long term studies on their effects on health and wellbeing aren’t in yet. I wouldn’t give much weight to the NZ study, referenced in the post, involving an experiment lasting for 10 minutes. I would give a zero weight to this study to be precise. Firstly, it ignores the cumulative effects over time. Second, the inference drawn by the authors about psychological effects of media exposure is not watertight. For example, media exposure can convey terminology which enables people to express how they feel or what they experience.

    The general point I am trying to make, sound as a public health issue is a well recognised branch of scientific inquiry (see the publications by the International Congress on Noise as a Public Health Problem, ICBEN).

    Having said that, I state now the obvious, namely it does not follow that therefore windmills to generate electricity should be opposed. The precautionary principle suggests care should be taken as to where the objects are placed in the landscape or offshore.

    Disclosure: I came across the topic of noise as a public health issue in the context of aircraft noise in Sydney. I did present my research at ICBEN..

  18. @Megan

    Windmills are basically fans, Megan, but you’re wrong about the danger of cooling. Fans run on oxygen and spit out carbon dioxide. Wind farms will make global warming worse! People living near them should run for their lives because the blades chop up the air molecules and then you can’t breathe!

  19. @Luke Elford

    But if you are right, which you can’t possibly be because that would validate your point, I believe we humans could use our (Western) genius and ability to engineer a wind turbine (it could run on coal, uranium, hydrogen or even oil – if necessary) which would run backwards and split those CO2 molecules into harmless oxygen and some useful form of carbon, like pencils or diamonds.

    Or maybe even coal, or oil. You would need a scientist or a News Ltd columnist to check that, though.

  20. @Sancho

    Re Galileo;
    It was a bit more complicated than that. One of Galileo’s real problems was that he published a book (which under an earlier agreement with the Church was a bit dicy ) and the Pope thought that one of the characters (Simplissimus) was a parody of him. He had other political/scientific enemies and so on.

    And there was at least one minor problem with the theory: it predicted only one tide a day. Galileo as an Italian who had AFAIK never even lived on the sea coast of Italy did not seem to realise the problem. However I am sure there were many of his enemies from places like Spain or Portugal or France who saw the problem and went, “Gotcha”. Similar to academic debates today.

    What got Galileo was a combination of things and the theory was key but not sufficient. In fact if it was not for the Pope’s reaction to the book even the theory probably would not have been a real problem as it could/would have been passed of as nothing but philosophical musing and not an attempt to overturn Aristotelian science.

    I believe while under house arrest after the trial he managed to publish 1 or 2 more books in Amsterdam so the repression, while not nice, was not too repressive. Of course, during the actual trial there probably was some chance of doing getting burnt at the stake.

  21. @jrkrideau

    I thought his trial hinged on him using biblical references to “prove” his new theory. That he would have been okay if he had not sought to give his theory the authority of God. However I have not studied his trial and this is just Internet hearsay.

  22. @Megan

    I assume Poe’s Law applies to your comment, but as a matter of interest I was a professor at JCU in the 1990s. Carter had already been pushed out of his former position as department head then, and was hanging on to some kind of peripheral appointment. I never found out why, but this was long before his emergence as a climate sceptic.

  23. The article linked to below starts off quite chatty and even seemingly trite. Then it gets down to some reasonable discussion. E. Gross might find it interesting relative to airport and aircraft noise.

    The article asserts, perhaps even demonstrates, that wind turbine infra-sound dB level is well below the levels shown to cause distress or harm to humans. For example, waves on a surf beach produce more infrasound than wind turbines.

  24. @TerjeP

    “Some have said $1500/tonne”. That would be the same “some” mentioned in the OP, I suppose, who also make nonsense claims about health risks.

    It’s easy to check that the correct figure is around $50/tonne.

    Here’s an offer. If you’ll make an honest commenter of yourself by agreeing that the post has demonstrated that the IPA, Devine etc are anti-science hacks, I’ll be happy to do the work for you. But I know in advance that you will stick by your tribal allies at all times, so there is no point showing you why they are wrong on any particular point.

  25. I must say the disproportion in reaction from the right-wing tribe amuses me. The slightest hint or fabrication about wind turbine infrasound dangers has the tribal right up in arms. But when a nuclear power station blows up spectacularly (hydrogen-oxygen explosion) and emits large amounts of radioactive material necessitating evacuation over a wide area and a (now) $50 billion clean-up bill… What do we hear from the right? We hear that nuclear power is safe!

    The absurd disproportion in reaction and judgement is mind-boggling. How do I express the absurdity of it? Words fail me.

  26. @Angus Cameron is on point. quiggin is a sarcastic monkey who is about as talented as jk rowling

  27. To be fair to SA there are electricity price hikes looming in other states notably Qld. If I recall a year or so ago the Electricity Supply Association claimed that SA had the world’s third highest electricity prices after Denmark and Germany. According to AEMO’s (latest) 2011 supply and demand outlook report 44% of SA’s electricity was from burning gas and 26% from wind power, now 30% according to Climate Spectator. While SA has nearly mothballed coal, avoids interstate electricity imports and has many solar roofs the heavy gas fraction makes them vulnerable.

    Therefore we should review the interstate power price comparison later in the year. If Rudd gets up I presume black coal burners (Qld, NSW) will still be paying $24 carbon tax while brown coal burners (Vic) pay near $30 for the same energy. The threatened gas price rises may not hit home until late 2014 when east coast LNG exports start. In the washout SA power prices may be less unflattering at least for a year or so.

  28. “For example, waves on a surf beach produce more infrasound than wind turbines.” – Ikonoclast

    Can we expect the neo-environmentalists to campaign for a closure of beaches on the basis of the threat to human health?

  29. Jack Mehoff :
    @Angus Cameron is on point. quiggin is a sarcastic monkey who is about as talented as jk rowling

    Thanks! Look out for my new bestseller “Harry Potter and the Phantom Menace”, once we can get it past the legal department.

  30. Hermit, I would like you to pay close attention to what I am about to write. Currently natural gas is about $5.50 a gigajoule. There are 3.6 megajoules in a kilowatt-hour and in South Australia it gets burned at about 35% efficiency. This means that if the price of natural gas doubled it would increase the cost of grid electricity by less than 3 cents a kilowatt-hour which is a fairly small amount compared to the huge run up in distribution costs we’ve had in the past few years. Fortunately South Australia has reduced its natural gas use through the use of wind and solar power and will continue to do so, further reducing the effect of any increases in natural gas prices.

  31. @Ronald Brak
    I get 11.3c. Using your figures and assumptions a MJ of gas goes from 0.55 to 1.1c. We need 1.1/.35 = 3.14c to produce an MJ of electricity. Times that by 3.6.

    Put it this way; when Canberra stops paying bribes to Holden they will relocate somewhere else with cheaper power.

  32. Hermit, even if you are talking about just the increase in the cost of producing electricity from gas, how did you get 11.3 cents? There are 3.6 MJ in a kilowatt-hour. At 35% efficiency we need 10.29 MJ of gas to produce a kilowatt-hour. Which means we get a bit over 97 kilowatt-hours from a gigajoule of gas. That makes the current fuel cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity from natural gas about 5.66 cents. So doubling the cost of natural gas would increase its cost by about 5.66 cents. Or since South Australia gets about half its electricity from gas it should increase the cost of electricity by less than three cents. The 11.3 cent figure you got would be the total fuel cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by gas if the price of gas doubled. It is not how much electricity bills would go up by per kilowatt-hour if the price of gas doubled.

  33. “Some have said $1500/tonne”. That would be the same “some” mentioned in the OP, I suppose, who also make nonsense claims about health risks.

    No it wasn’t. But if they have given a figure I’d be keen to hear it as well.

    It’s easy to check that the correct figure is around $50/tonne.


    Here’s an offer. If you’ll make an honest commenter of yourself by agreeing that the post has demonstrated that the IPA, Devine etc are anti-science hacks, I’ll be happy to do the work for you.

    I thought you just did the work. You said it was about $50.

  34. JQ – Your article seems to identify the IPA as a hub around which a bunch of crazy right wingers orbit. Your comment to me about the IPA being anti science hacks furthers that point. So I take it the IPA is the centre of the anti science craziness that concerns you. Some of your links in your article to the IPA have nothing to do with wind power so I didn’t bother reading them. Which leaves one IPA article of relevance which is the following one:-

    Click to access 1248224976_document_the_costs_to_australia_of_renewable_energy-1.pdf

    So I read this paper by Alan Moran to see what so upset you. And I really don’t get it.

    Basically the paper from 2009 says that increasing the MRET to 20% will make electricity more expensive. It says that MRET is about picking winners and a ETS would be a more sound economic option. Admittedly the conclusion has some hyped remarks about civilisations in decline but that was more a historical comment than a scientific one. Leaving that aside I pretty much agreed with the cut and thrust of what Alan had to say. Maybe others can have a look through this paper and see what got you hyper ventilating about the IPA but personally I can’t see it.

  35. @TerjeP
    I suppose the credulous or naive might be won over by Terje’s equanimity in accepting JQ’s authority on this, Andrew Bolt’s on that, and so on.

    How about my authority Terje when I assure you that scientists and professors of economics normally prefer a learned reference or three from somebody who’s just told them their prior assumption has been out by a factor of thirty?

  36. @John Quiggin
    Yes “full professor” would have made the point (in part that I know the difference between what young journalists often call a “professor” and a full professor. When sitting on professorial selection committees I am happy to say we never had applications from the truly grade inflated American Assistant Professors!). Since you apparently only have 5 years in which to do some useful work for your employer I wonder why you are demeaning yourself with this blog.

    “Scare quotes”. That’s not even a fair reading of what I wrote and further demeans someone with the title (albeit guaranteed only for a limited period) of Professor because I was explicitly putting “the science” in quotes to allow me to draw attention to some problems of definition which non-scientists, in particular, ignore or don’t recognise and, secondly, because you could hardly fail to pick up the reference to believers and/or partisans’ repeated statements that “the science [sic] is settled”. Well, maybe you could fail to, so just allow me a little tutoring help by inviting you to consider whether the word “the” isn’t very important here.

    You really are wasting your employer’s time aren’t you? Why throw in a gratuitous reference to parrots when I made perfectly clear that my anti-windfarm activity related to a particular blight on the landscape affecting an important part of our built and natural heritage? You don’t deserve to be taken seriously I now find after reading some of your stuff in the past which made you sound quite like a regular mainstream economist who knew when he was saying something interestingly different.

    @Ron E Joggles

  37. How about my authority Terje when I assure you that scientists and professors of economics normally prefer a learned reference or three from somebody who’s just told them their prior assumption has been out by a factor of thirty?

    I said $1500. I gave no reference. I then said JQ probably had better numbers. JQ said $50. He gave no reference. What part of this exchange are you concerned about?

  38. @patrickb
    Start please with a demonstration that you have any standing whatsoever for assertive abuse on the matter of style, or logic. Just tell me what the clichés are?

    If you can’t follow the logic that is your problem of intelligence or education.

    I’ll give you a pass on “turgid” because you are obviously limited in your ability to express objection to my discourteously long parenthetical sentences. (Discourteous because, though they are nearly all grammatical and logical, they should have time taken on them to make the finished whole easier to read).

  39. @TerjeP
    I’m unconcerned and barely even amused, truth be told. The bit that barely amuses me is the way in which you may think you’ve cleverly avoided Professor Q’s challenge to you.

  40. @Ron E Joggles

    Perhaps you are too young to remember or otherwise to have learned of the course of opinion on environmental matters over the last 60 years. Conservation was a typical upper middle class enthusiasm. Even the Australian Conservation Foundation had its origins with people like Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Sir Garfield Barwick and Baillieu Myer, none of them lefty. The English National Trust likewise was not a leftwing cause though dealing with landscape as well as old houses and other buildings. I would be surprised if many lefties had planted as many trees as I have (not for forestry) or done as much to preserve houses and gardens.

    As for the reference to NIMBYs – which was totally irrelevant to my limited interest in protecting a historic garden and landscape from some greedy ex-friends of my friends who wanted to take the money for a windfarm site and then get out – what on earth has NIMBYism to do with being right or left!?!

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