CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab which recaps the latest in the world of misinformation and fact checking, drawing on the work of FactLab and its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.
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CheckMate June 24, 2022
This week, CheckMate looks into whether Germany, a poster child for renewable energy, remains reliant on brown coal for almost three-quarters of its electricity production.
We also bring you the facts on "sudden adult death syndrome", and dig into claims that cow deaths and fires in the US are all part of a plan to create food shortages.
Why claims about Germany's reliance on brown coal are bunkum
As Australia battles an ongoing energy crisis and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese commits to a 43 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, the Labor government has promised to "provide the framework for renewable energy for storage and transmission".
But when it comes to the success of other countries in embracing renewables, some people online are casting doubt on Germany, a country long held up as the "gold standard" for economies looking to transition away from fossil fuels.
According to a number of posts to Twitter and Facebook, including one by an independent candidate in the recent federal election, Germany continued to be overwhelmingly powered by brown coal.
"Germany has spent $750 billion on its transition to renewable energy so far," Stuart Bonds, a coal miner and candidate for Hunter, wrote on Facebook alongside a chart purporting to show energy sources in the country.
"At 2am this morning [Saturday, June 18] Germany was running on 72% brown coal and 15% nuclear."
But that's incorrect.
The graph included in the social media posts, which appears to have first been published on Twitter by a climate sceptic and author with more than 120,000 followers, shows a point-in-time breakdown of the mix of energy sources being produced by German energy company RWE.
Of the electricity being produced at that time, the graph shows 72 per cent was sourced from lignite (commonly known as brown coal), 15 per cent from nuclear, 7 per cent from storage and 4 per cent from offshore wind.
In an email, a spokeswoman for RWE confirmed the graph had come from its website, but explained that it did not represent energy production in Germany as a whole.
"Since we are only one of many electricity producers in Germany, it says nothing about the energy mix of Germany as a country," the spokeswoman said, pointing to an official government website for whole-of-market statistics.
According to a government news release published on that website, renewables accounted for 47.9 per cent of energy production in Germany in the March quarter, while 52.1 per cent came from "conventional" sources, including 17.8 per cent from brown coal.
The RWE spokeswoman also provided CheckMate with a link to a graph showing that more than 60 per cent of Germany's electricity production on June 18, the day referenced in the social media posts, was sourced from renewables.
Additionally, Anne Kallies, a senior lecturer at the RMIT Graduate School of Business and Law, told CheckMate that RWE operated a "particularly big conventional power fleet".
"RWE is the biggest owner of lignite stations in Germany — they own and run three of the four biggest lignite power stations," said Dr Kallies, who researches energy, environment and climate.
News reports this week said that despite the country needing to reopen previously closed coal-fired power plants after energy supplies from Russia were cut, Germany remained committed to its goal of closing all coal power stations by 2030.
US food factory fires and cattle deaths no evidence of planned food shortages
News that thousands of cows died suddenly in the US state of Kansas has added fuel to conspiracy theories that powerful elites, including Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum's Klaus Schwab, are orchestrating food shortages to force a shift away from meat consumption and towards alternatives such as edible insects.
The deaths — estimates for which range between 2,000 and 10,000 over two days — have also been linked to claims that America's food supply was "under attack" following an apparent spate of fires affecting food processing plants.
"10,000 cows died overnight in Kansas … 79 food processing plants mysteriously burn[ed] down…and then this," reads one tweet, accompanied by an image of the world's largest edible cricket farm, which is set to open in Canada.
According to another Twitter user: "If you believe 3k cows dropping dead in Kansas all at once has nothing to do with the orchestrate[d] food shortage and the mysterious burning of dozens of American food manufacturing plants to the ground, you deserve EVERYTHING that's about to come your way."
However, such claims are baseless.
This was due to a combination of local factors that experts described as a "perfect storm": minimal wind, temperatures above 37 degrees Celsius and high humidity, all of which occurred close together over several days.
Importantly, one expert told FactCheck.org, temperatures remained above 21 degrees in the evenings, meaning the cows were unable to shed the heat they had accumulated during the day, as they normally would.
Meanwhile, claims that food plant fires were on the rise have been debunked by several fact-checking units, with Reuters finding that such fires were no more common than usual and that there was no evidence these incidents were intentional.
Indeed, a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association told FactCheck.org that between 2015 and 2019 there were more than 5,300 fires each year, on average, in US manufacturing and processing facilities of any type, and that these fires "happen more often than people think".
An investigation by Snopes also revealed that at least some of the examples circulating online did not support the claimed increase, including, for example, a fire in a butcher's shop, another in an abandoned building, and yet others that did not affect food production.
CoronaCheck: No increase in Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, despite claims
A spate of news articles about a condition known as Sudden Adult (or Arrhythmic) Death Syndrome (SADS) has driven a new wave of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
An article originally published in late May by the Irish Mirror detailed the sudden death of a 31-year-old woman in Ireland, and was subsequently referenced in a number of Australian news stories published by media outlets including news.com.au and 7 News.
Despite not making mention of COVID-19 vaccines, the articles garnered thousands of social media comments baselessly linking SADS deaths to the vaccines.
Also making the vaccine link, conservative news website Spectator Australia went as far as to say that "a strange new medical anomaly has doctors baffled as it sweeps across the country".
However, as the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute's Elizabeth Parazt told CheckMate, there was nothing to support such claims.
"There is no evidence of either a rise in SADS nor that COVID-19 vaccines are contributing to a rise in SADS," Dr Paratz said in an email.
According to the RACGP, SADS is an "umbrella term to describe unexpected deaths in young people" 40 or under, whose cause of death could not be determined during an autopsy.
As Dr Paratz explained, SADS had "been recognised for many years" as "the most common cause of sudden death in the young".
Indeed, research published in the Medical Journal of Australia as far back as 2004 has examined the occurrence of sudden cardiac deaths in young people.
Speaking to CheckMate, Sean Lal, a clinical academic cardiologist at the University of Sydney and director of acute heart failure services at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, said he has not seen an increase in SADS.
"There has not been an increase in sudden cardiac death due to COVID vaccination," Dr Lal said.
"In fact, we saw an increase in sudden cardiac death in the young because of COVID infection secondary to severe myocarditis [heart inflammation].
"Vaccination protects patients against such severe illnesses."
Internationally renowned cardiologist Christopher Semsarian, who is also a professor at Sydney University, agreed with Dr Lal.
"I'm unaware of any data that suggests there is any rise in SADS in Australia. I do think there is more awareness of SADS both in the medical world, and the community," he told CheckMate.
Mark Latham says more than 13,000 NSW teachers cannot work because of their vaccine status. Is that correct?
As teachers in NSW speak out about "atrocious" staff shortages and increased workloads, NSW One Nation MLC and former federal Labor leader Mark Latham has suggested vaccine mandates are to blame.
"The latest data shows that 13,699 teachers on [the NSW Department of Education] payroll system are not allowed to teach because of inadequate vaccination status," Mr Latham tweeted. "That's your NSW teacher shortage crisis right there."
But RMIT ABC Fact Check this week found that claim to be misleading.
According to a report that Mr Latham pointed to as the source of his claim, only 865 teachers on the NSW Department of Education payroll were confirmed, as of March 31, to be unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated, or to have provided evidence of vaccination that was subsequently rejected.
A spokesman for the department told Fact Check that, as of June 6, just 208 permanent teaching staff and 381 teachers on temporary contracts had been dismissed for not complying with the vaccine mandate.
The bulk of the figure quoted by Mr Latham was made up of inactive teachers who had not attested to their vaccination status. These teachers were not currently working and, therefore, not required to attest, nor were they necessarily seeking work.
The figure also captured active teachers who had not attested to their vaccination status but who may not have been required to do so. These teachers may have been nominated to join a school but not yet assigned a role, or may have been on extended leave.