Last Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported on a new study that ties together two highly charged issues in the ongoing political battles over science: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and climate change. According to the story:
Growing rice emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas — to the tune of 25 million to 100 million metric tons of methane every year, a notable contribution to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
As the world’s population grows and needs more food, the problem is likely to get worse, but genetic engineering could help, a new study reports. By transferring a barley gene into a rice plant, scientists have created a new variety of rice that produces less methane while still making highly starchy, productive seeds. The development of the new rice strain is described this week in the journal Nature.
The study comes at a time when both GMOs and climate change increasingly are in the news. The U.S. House of Representatives just voted to pre-empt laws in California and several other states requiring labeling of genetically modified foods. And on the climate front, the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to release the final version of its Clean Power Plan, which mandates reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants.
The authors of the methane/rice study are prudently cautious, saying that “[m]ore research about how much methane whole rice paddies (and not just individual plants) emit over the entire growing season is necessary.” But even before this study, there was good reason to think GMOs could help lower greenhouse gas emissions. Existing GMO crops allow for less use of fertilizers and tilling, thus potentially reducing emissions and aiding carbon sequestration. Future modifications might make plants capable of pulling more CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Public opinion on climate change in the United States is highly polarized along ideological lines. Liberals tend to think it’s a big threat, while conservatives tend to think it’s no big deal. Views on GMOs are similarly polarized in Europe but, at least historically, haven’t been in the United States. Most Americans don’t care about GMOs, and what little opposition does exist is spread across the political spectrum.
However, as more attention is drawn to the issue, there is a risk that opposition to GMOs will become politically polarized in a way similar to climate change. This recent exchange on Bill Maher’s HBO show, for example, is quite troubling.
If GMOs can be shown to mitigate climate change, will that make liberals more open to accepting them? Maybe, but probably not. In fact, the left’s growing opposition to GMOs could have the perverse effect of making liberals more skeptical of climate change.
To see why, consider a famous psychological experiment from a few years ago about how people form their opinions on climate change:
The study involved an experiment in which subjects assessed a scientific study on climate change. The study (a composite of two, which appeared in Nature and Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences) reported researchers’ conclusion that previous projections of carbon dissipation had been too optimistic and that significant environmental harm could be anticipated no matter how much carbon emissions were reduced in the future.
The subjects, all of whom read the dissipation study, were divided into three groups, each of which was assigned to read a different mock newspaper article. Subjects in the “antipollution” condition read an article that reported the recommendation of scientists for even stricter CO2 limits. Subjects in the “geoengineering condition” read an article that reported the recommendation of scientists for research on geoengineering, on which the article also supplied background information. Finally, a “control condition” group read an article about a municipality’s decision to require construction companies to post bonds for the erection of traffic signals in housing developments.
Participants were then asked to assess the validity of the scientific arguments showing that climate change was worse than previously thought. From a strictly logical point of view, whether these arguments are correct is independent from the question of what should be done about it, so it shouldn’t matter what solution was proposed.
But if you’ve met any flesh-and-blood human beings, you won’t be surprised to learn that the solution presented had a big impact on how people assessed the science. Conservatives were less skeptical of the study when paired with geoengineering as a solution, and were more skeptical when regulation was presented as the answer. By contrast, broaching geoengineering as an option made liberals more skeptical of climate change being a serious threat than they were when no solution or a regulatory solution was presented.
In other words, to the extent that GMOs creep liberals out, pitching them as a solution to climate change isn’t likely to change that, and could even backfire.
This has been your daily dose of despair.