From the invention of the wheel to the astounding technical achievements our modern society takes for granted, scientific discovery has underpinned human advancement.
Yet paradoxically, the vast majority of mankind has no appreciation or understanding of the technology they use every day, and often harbour myths that have no scientific basis.
One current myth that’s gained traction is that electromagnetic communication devices cause disease. I was reminded of this when delegates at last year’s B.C. Municipalities Convention vigorously debated a resolution demanding a moratorium on BC Hydro’s wireless “smart meter” reading program.
Seems none of the delegates knew they were using exactly the same Wi-Fi technology when they turned on their laptops at the convention.
Politicians and regulators frequently come under intense pressure from ill-informed groups opposing commercial ventures even when it’s abundantly clear there’s no evidence of a discernable impact – environmental or otherwise.
Consider the numerous proposals to bottle and sell water from four of BC’s remote coastal mountain streams. Although the amount of water that would be siphoned off is infinitesimal compared to flow volumes, and the fact that this fresh mountain water will co-mingle with saltwater in the Pacific Ocean only a few kilometres downstream, five different environmental groups have demanded a costly, full-scale environmental assessment of “cumulative impacts”.
Politicians are also prone to knee-jerk policy decisions based on incomplete scientific analysis and reverberating rhetoric.
The ban on incandescent light bulbs is a classic example. Calculations of energy savings from switching to fluorescent bulbs only considered the reduction in electricity use.
While this may be an adequate approach in the Southern US and other warm regions, it leads to erroneous conclusions in Canada’s northern climate. Why? Because heat given off by incandescent bulbs serves to offset energy needed for space heating during our colder fall, winter and spring months.
And during our short summers, Canada’s northern latitude enjoys long days of sunlight, further lessening the energy savings from fluorescent lighting.
Besides these flawed calculations of energy savings, the analysis used to justify banning incandescent lights didn’t examine the health and environmental impacts of mercury used in the manufacturing of fluorescent bulbs.
The federal government recently announced a two year deferral of the incandescent bulb phase out to the end of 2014, “to consider the concerns about . . . perceived health and mercury issues including safe disposal of compact florescent lamps”.
Meanwhile, manufacturers have already moved to shut down incandescent production, creating another knee-jerk “green” policy fiasco based on incomplete scientific analysis.
Sometimes costly decisions are made in response to populist public perception, even when thorough scientific analysis shows the expenditure wouldn’t benefit, or may even harm, the environment.
A text-book example is the proposed $782 million sewage treatment plan for Victoria, BC. The city’s sewage currently undergoes primary screening before being pumped offshore into Juan de Fuca Strait.
Because of its unique oceanographic setting, huge tidal flows through the Strait drive strong currents that break-up and oxidize the sewage quickly and thoroughly.
Measurements show that within just one hundred metres of the outflow point, effluent quality as good as that disposed by cities much larger than Victoria into rivers of comparatively tiny flow volumes.
An expert panel appointed by the Victoria Capital Regional District found no scientific evidence of significant contamination and more than 10 marine scientists and six current and former medical health officers have stated that deep ocean disposal presents minimal effect on the marine environment and no measureable public health risk.
Yet both the federal and provincial government have insisted that a land-based treatment system be built. Why?
Prophetically, the expert panel report signalled that its conclusions may be ignored because of public sentiment based on “ethics, aesthetics or other factors that cannot be resolved on purely scientific grounds”.
But the pending victory of public perception over scientific fact doesn’t end there.
While ocean disposal was thoroughly assessed, the environmental impacts of land-based treatment were not.
These impacts include utilizing good farm and/or recreational land for sewage treatment plants, odour emissions to adjacent residential areas, substantial energy consumption, atmospheric emissions and surface contamination from treating, transporting and disposing of thousands of tonnes of sewage sludge per year.
Public policy decisions that ignore scientific facts in favour of pressure from vocal minorities can kill job creating commercial ventures, or cause unnecessary public expenditures.
In both cases, society loses.
Gwyn Morgan is the retired founding CEO of EnCana.
Courtesy of Troy Media.