Facts out, wind outrage in

Despite scientific studies failing to find any detrimental health impacts from wind farms, the anti-wind brigade is fuelling fires. How is this happening and can it be countered?

Recently, I relayed the tale of a man angrily questioning the health effects of wind farms, and proceeding to smoke a cigarette: two risks that he seemed to react to with odd disparity. In that piece, I explored some of the reasons why it can be quite natural for us to adopt pseudoscience, when it’s predicated on fear and uncertainty.

But that’s only part of the chain of events that has led to ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ consuming much of the oxygen of public discourse around wind energy. Community, control and risk perception also play a big role in the genesis of authentic health fears, based on fabricated science.

Technologies designed to meet our ravenous demand for electricity have historically spurred an undercurrent of nervousness in those that live near them. News footage from the early 2000s shows residents dimly lit by the eerie glow of fluorescent tubes held tightly in their hands, underneath high voltage power lines: a dramatic demonstration of their fears around the impacts of electromagnetic radiation. In recent years, analogous health fears have arisen around wind farms.

In late May, ABC’s ‘Background Briefing’ ran a story on the purported health impacts of wind energy, and a 200-turbine development proposed for the small community of King Island, off the coast of Tasmania. Simon Chapman, Professor in Public Health at Sydney University, states during the story that 17 evidence reviews (recently updated to 19) all reach a similar conclusion: the likelihood that wind farms have direct health impacts on human physiology, through inaudible low-frequency noise emissions, is close to nil. 

Despite a conspicuous lack of supporting scientific evidence, opposition to wind farms is regularly predicated on the belief that the health risks are high. Anecdotal reports of health impacts are collated and dispersed by anti-wind groups such as the Waubra Foundation. When the CEO of the Waubra Foundation, Sarah Laurie, visited the King Island community, she informed residents that “Yes, wind turbines do cause adverse health effects” and linked wind energy to autistic behaviour.

Labelling an illusory causal link as established medical truth is not the only technique utilised by anti-wind groups to inspire opposition to wind farms. In concert with pseudoscientific assertions, outrage and emotion seem to be integral in driving the skewed perception that wind farms are a risk to health.

Peter Sandman, a risk communication expert in the United States, developed a simple formula to describe skewed risk perception: “risk perception equals hazard plus outrage.” Given that wind farms present little hazard, anti-wind groups have capitalised on the second variable in this formula by fomenting outrage in communities.

A focus on rousing anger has been at the heart of the anti-wind movement for some time. New York anti-wind activist Calvin Luther Martin wrote in 2009 that wind farm opponents should “screw concerned and start getting angry and defiant.”

The same philosophy has been deployed by the anonymously run blog 'Stop These Things'. Replete with direct vilification of individuals in the wind industry (including myself), death threats, threats of violence and comparisons to genocidal regimes, the anonymous author/s attempt to inspire anger and aggression.

The group behind the site was responsible for the organisation of an ultimately unsuccessful ‘wind power fraud’ rally, hosted by the rancorous Alan Jones. In the lead up to the rally, the anonymous author described wind farm supporters as ‘greentards’, ‘parasites’, ‘thugs’ and ‘weasels’.

Websites like STT are burly and aggressive outrage engines, inspiring anger through derision and insult. The impact of this approach is reflected in the comments sections of anti-wind websites.

“Get out!!! Get out, NOW!!! It will only get worse!!!....If you want to LIVE, YOU MUST LEAVE!!! ….Your brain is being damaged every moment you are exposed to ILFN!!!” states one commenter on Calvin Luther Martin’s ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ site (‘IFLN’ stands for ‘Infrasound and low frequency noise’, ‘IWT’ stands for ‘Industrial Wind Turbine’).

Skewed risk perception, driven by community outrage, is not necessarily bound by economics, geography or education. News footage shows an infuriated community in Sydney’s Northern Beaches protesting the installation of a Telstra mobile phone base station near a kindergarten. Angry residents chain themselves to a fence, and a young Tony Abbott is seen reassuring the incensed residents.

A scientist from the Australian Radiation Laboratory (now the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency) states that “for the general public, there is nil exposure. I’m unable to measure the level of radiation from these base stations.” Eventually, Telstra acquiesced and removed the tower.

Simon Chapman authored a study in 1997, analysing the media coverage of the Harbord community panic. He cites several components of outrage described originally by Sandman. Control, voluntariness and fairness are important factors in risk communication, and Chapman pondered whether better community engagement could have prevented the outrage at Harbord kindergarten.

There’s real worth in examining the viability of alternate models of landowner payments, or community funds distributed by proximity to a wind farm. Involving community members in the development process could also be a worthwhile venture, with benefits on both sides. Much work is being done to empower the wind industry to fully embrace community engagement. These efforts are enormously important, as was highlighted quite a few times at this year’s Clean Energy Week conference sessions.

Despite this, it’s important to acknowledge that rigorous community consultation does not always relax fears about the health impacts of wind energy. Anti-wind groups are highly effective campaigners, and they need only a small undercurrent of disenfranchisement to enter a town and induce genuine health fears around a wind development. Anonymous blogs like ‘Stop These Things’ fuel the resultant outrage with clandestine cruelty.

Critically gauging the impacts of groups that seek to fuel outrage and induce health fears will be a vital component of our efforts to reshape Australia’s energy mix. Given the urgency of climate action, waiting for the phenomenon to fade over time is not an option. Countering the powerful combination of emotion and pseudoscience is a rising priority for the renewable energy industry.

Ketan Joshi is a Research and Communications Officer at Infigen Energy. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. He blogs on wind energy here, and tweets about everything, here.