I try to give President George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt. Really I do. So when he recently made a decision on power-plant emissions that essentially blew smoke in the face of a global-warming report he had requested from the National Academy of Sciences -- not to mention the Kyoto Protocol and other reasoned responses to global warming -- I figured maybe he has the same problem with scientists that I do.
I was spoiled by the white-coated beaker-tweakers in the science-fiction movies of my youth. They made their positions clear by running toward you shouting, "It's coming! We're all going to die! Aieeee!!!"
Growing up expecting such unequivocal statements in no way prepares you for the complexities and reasoned parsing of an actual scientific paper. I read the "Climate Change Science" report presented to Bush. The alarming concerns are all there, about man-made causes contributing to the greenhouse effect, which may make life on this planet untenable -- new temperature and weather extremes, flooding, drought, tropical diseases, extinctions, etc. But it is also a scientific paper, meaning that instead of "Aieee!!!" it says "uncertainty" a lot.
Factoring in the unknowable is an integral part of science -- nuclear physics is full of uncertainties and probabilities, yet the bombs still kill you -- but one could see how a soundbite-oriented president might read this report, scratch his nubby head and say, "Screw it. Let's go make some money."
Make it fast, though. When the National Academy of Sciences weighs in on a matter, you're not talking fringe wackos, but the best and the brightest of mainstream scientific thought. It has joined the consensus of other studies in predicting drought in the Great Plains (a.k.a. "the world's breadbasket"), rising sea levels, ecosystem collapse and such by the end of the century.
Two of the report's 11 authors are from UC Irvine: Chancellor Ralph Cicerone and Chemistry and Earth System Science professor F. Sherwood Rowland. I spoke recently with Rowland, a man with mobile eyebrows and a marvelously cluttered office in a building now named for him.
If anyone has cause to be peeved at the president, it's Rowland and the report's other august authors, who dropped everything last spring to produce the now-ignored report at the breakneck pace requested by the White House. Though Rowland has been branded an alarmist by Orange County Register editorial writers (for his previous research linking aerosols to ozone layer depletion), I couldn't coax an anti-Bush rant out of him no matter how I tried. He remained unflappably measured and detached in his responses, so much so that one suspects that if Rowland's head was on fire, he would busy himself measuring its carbon dioxide emissions. I'm not suggesting this objectivity is a bad thing. Scientists need it if they're going to be listened to, not that the media or Washington is.
After being subjected to skepticism and ridicule from the Wall Street Journal, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (who called Rowland "another Chicken Little") and other non-scientists, Rowland's theories on ozone depletion were ratified after a gaping hole was discovered in the ozone layer in 1985, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995. As for the continuing skepticism about global warming, he said, "There are people who simply don't believe in science, so there is no way you can discuss scientific results with them."
He said the initial White House response to the global-warming report seemed positive. "Our conclusion was that the man-made effect was a very important factor in the fact that the temperature is going up," Rowland recalls. "They seemed to appreciate that, and I thought their position was, 'We accept that global warming will occur, and we are going to prepare a response to it.' But their talk about 'uncertainties' last year spread to being 'maybe there isn't any global warming' or that maybe it was all a natural effect."
When it came time for action -- with the power-plant-emissions policy announced in February -- Bush dwelled on the report's uncertainties, saying it was too inconclusive to warrant risking a slowdown in the nation's economy, claiming that solutions result from growth. And a heroin addict might reason that more heroin will fix his problem. Bush was essentially saying that the richest, most polluting nation in the world is too selfish and immature to face the realities that other nations are facing and that we can only prosper by burning up our children's future.
This was me editorializing, by the way, not Rowland. He did note, though, that the uncertainty Bush has grabbed hold of is a double-edged sword. It is difficult to project how things will be 50 or 100 years from now, and conditions may not be as severe as many scientists are speculating. But they can also be worse in ways as yet unimagined.
Ironically, one of the sources of the report's uncertainty is scientists' not knowing what or how much human societies might do to slow their effect on global warming. Using that uncertainty as a reason not to act tends to make it more certain that the warming will be worse.
"Climate change in the next 50 to 100 years is probably going to have a mixture of things that are inconvenient all the way up to catastrophic," Rowland said. "The expectation is that the Earth in general will be a warmer place, but some places will be warmer, some colder. In most places, the infrastructure has been built with the present climate in mind. If 50 years from now, that's not the climate anymore, there will be aspects of the infrastructure that don't fit. For an affluent group, that may turn out to be merely inconvenient, but it may also, if it floods your island, be catastrophic locally."
At the risk of being accused of promoting class warfare, may I highlight the projection that the same folks who get rich causing global warming will be the ones best situated to coast through it -- able to move or rebuild -- while everyone else gets the stick? It is not a soothing notion that we'd find equality only in catastrophe.
Scientists don't see global warming as a steady dial indicating rising temperatures, but rather a sequence of feedback actions and switches. For example, the upper latitudes are warming faster than the rest of the planet, resulting in the exposure of more heat-absorbing soil and less heat-reflecting ice and snow, which then hastens the melting of ice and snow, which, while also raising sea levels, may cause a switch to go off in nature. "In the North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream carries warmth to Europe. One of the possible switches is that fresh water coming in from melting Arctic ice might turn off the North Atlantic circulation, making Europe a colder place," Rowland said.
While he listed a number of qualifying uncertainties with that, he considers global warming more likely than other threats attracting far greater funding and public attention.
"Look at the enormous amount of money spent on anti-missile defense," he said. "While there should be an amount of worry about stray nukes, if anyone wanted to use one against an American city, it would be far easier and more accurate to ship it here on a freighter than to build a missile."
When we spoke, it was before recent news that a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island weighing 720,000,000,000 tons (that's 720 billion tons, heft fans) had disintegrated off the Antarctic ice shelf in the rapidly warming climate. "The speed of it is staggering," said British glaciologist David Vaughan, quoted in a seven-paragraph story on page 10 of the Los Angeles Times, which is better play than they usually give global-warming news.
I know that scientists need to maintain their dispassion and objectivity. That's part of their gig. But, inside, they're as human as the rest of us, and I'd like to think I speak for them in saying, "Aieee!!!!!!!!!!"
If you buy illegal drugs, you may be supporting terrorism, the Bush administration tells us in a $10 million ad campaign. Now, if you buy granola you may be buying illegal drugs, according to a barely-reported Federal Drug Enforcement Agency ruling made last October 9 that reclassifies your larders hemp granola, waffles, oil or other hemp food products as a Schedule 1 narcotic. Since then, the budding American hemp foods industry has been fighting for its life, waging an even less-reported legal battle that took a dramatic turn last week.
Under Bush appointee Asa Hutchinson -- the defeated ex-congressman who previously helped rescue our republic from Bill Clintons errant semen -- the DEA made an "interpretive ruling" on the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, determining that the law now covers any ingestible product that may contain any measurable amount of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in pot), however minute.
In announcing the ruling in October, Hutchinson said, "Many Americans do not know that hemp and marijuana are both parts of the same plant and that hemp cannot be produced without producing marijuana." He might also have mentioned that the poppy seeds in your bagel contain trace amounts of opium, and that the level of THC in industrial hemp or in hemp food products is so negligible that youd be more likely to get high from reading the word "hemp" than you would from consuming pounds of hemp foods.
Most hemp products sold in America are grown in Canada, where government testing assures there are no psychoactive levels of THC present. Most American hemp food companies adhere to a standard of no more than 1.5 parts per million, while the concentration needed to even begin getting you high is some 10,000 times that. The DEA ruling, however, requires that there can be no discernable amount of THC whatever in the foods. At the DEAs website, the list of suspect products includes veggie burgers, snack bars, salad oil, beer, cheese or other items made with hemp. This, from the same administration that attempted to ignore studies about unsafe arsenic levels in our drinking water.
No studies have suggested there may be health or psychological problems related to consuming hemp foods; rather, they have been found to have considerable nutritional value. According to Mothers Market director of operations Paul Holden, "Hemp oil contains the highest concentration of essential fatty acids of any oil, as well as a complete protein and other valuable nutrients. Thats why people buy it. Its not a drug. This is an utterly nonsensical ruling."
The October ruling, which allowed a grace period for stores and consumers to dispose of their stocks, went into effect February 6, but within a couple of days a new grace period was allowed, until March 18, possibly to preempt an emergency stay requested in the Federal 9th District Court of Appeals by the Hemp Industries Association (HIA). That stay was indeed granted on March 7, and should remain until the court can rule on the validity of the DEA ruling. An emergency hearing is scheduled for April 8.
Though hemp foods were briefly illegal on Feb. 6, many local stores, including Mothers and Trader Joes, continued to stock them. That is no trivial matter, according to DEA public information officer Will Glaspy, reached at the DEAs Washington D.C. headquarters. Reached before the stay was granted, Glaspy said, "THC is a controlled substance, and any detectable amount of it is illegal. The burden is on the seller and buyer to make sure theyre dealing in a legal product. Technically, it could be a criminal matter."
That extends to you, the consumer, and to me who just finished a tasty Govindas Hemp Bar while writing this. (Its Ziggy Marley-approved! Come and get me, Copper!) While Glaspy said that the feds rarely prosecute simple possession cases--"I dont anticipate someone getting thrown in federal prison for possession of a granola bar with a minute amount of TCH in it" -- the fact remains that would be their call whether or not to prosecute you as a felon for that hunk of hemp cheese in your fridge.
"Its a real Catch-22," said David Neuman, VP of sales and marketing for Natures Path in Blaine, WA, which markets HempPlus waffles and granola. "Theyre saying, You can sell your hemp food product if theres no THC, but were not giving you the standards for saying theres no THC, and its a class one felony controlled substance. Many of our customers attorneys are insisting on written assurance from us that there is no THC in our product, and there isnt down to one part-per-million, which is as far as our testing goes. But if the DEA has some test that can show smaller amounts than that, then weve perjured ourselves or falsified documents."
Prior to the courts stay, Neuman said Natures Path was going out of the hemp foods business, at a cost of income and jobs. "And why?" he asked then. "No one has ever been intoxicated by hemp foods, ever. So what is the basis for this very radical action? There is none."
Reached at a health foods convention in Anaheim last weekend, he was in a more upbeat mood, having just posted a sign at the companys booth reading: "HempPlus wins, DEA defeated now taking orders."
"Trader Joes placed a truckload order today, and two days ago, we wouldnt have been able to fill that without fear of reprisal," Neuman said. "Our lawyers tell us to expect a summer-long debate, and were confident well win in the end, so were getting back into production. The court has granted an emergency stay and has scheduled an emergency hearing, which they typically only do when they realize that rights are being infringed."
"The DEA ruling was entirely a political decision. Its not a scientific one," claims David Bronner, president of Escondido-based Dr. Bronners Magic Soaps, and chair of the HIAs Food and Oil Committee. He said that many HIA organization members have continued to make and sell their products on the presumption that--lacking a clear scientific standard from the DEA -- it is sufficient that their products are THC-free by the Canadian standards.
Bronners product lines arent affected, as soaps, shampoos and other non-consumables dont fall under the ruling. Hes an ardent opponent of it nonetheless.
"As a company, we engage in a lot of ecological or socially progressive causes. Industrial hemp has so much potential to substitute for polluting petrochemicals or threatened timber stocks [Hemp also grows readily without pesticides or herbicides]. And the food markets are really the near-term market driver for industrial hemp. The nutritional profile of the seeds is so high that theres a lot of potential there to ramp-up the economies of scale so that hemp fiber can compete price-wise with timber and petrochemcial processes. Thats what motivates us," he said.
Like Neuman, hes confident the HIA will prevail in court. Meanwhile there is another challenge to the ruling via an unanticipated medium: NAFTA. Kenex Ltd., a leading Canadian hemp producer, has filed an arbitration claim arguing that the US ruling amounts to an unfair restraint of trade.
Bronner explained, "Under NAFTA, if the US government is going to institute something thats going to effect trade, it has to have some defensible reason, a scientific rationale. The DEA failed to conduct any sort of risk assessment or science-based analysis justifying a ban on trace THC in foodstuffs. Meanwhile the industry can demonstrate that there are no health concerns or interference with drugs tests or anything else. So theyre arguing through NAFTA that the US is closing their markets and raising a barrier to trade without following the NAFTA or WTO provisions."
Even prior to Octobers ruling, the DEA had busied itself by interdicting tons of sterilized hemp birdseed at the Canadian border, at least saving our birds from becoming felons. Unless the HIA prevails in court or NAFTA overrides the law (as it already has in instances usually detrimental to the environment or workers) beware of what you eat: It may contain a felony.
To find out more on the issue or to become involved, check out www.votehemp.com and www.dea.gov on the web.