Straddling Solutions and Survivalism
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Straddling Solutions and Survivalism
(Talk at Mass. Climate Action Network Conference: Nov. 19)
Those of you that have heard me talk before will be relieved to know I'm not going to go through a catalogue of new impacts or weather events like the 1-in-200-year rainstorm this spring that left $100 million in damages in three mid-Atlantic states. Or the startling jump in polar bear mortality the USGS reported the other day.
Instead I'd like to use some of this afternoon's talk to remind you why even the most climate-conscious officials feel frustrated by the lack of public support for significant emissions reductions -- I want you to know what you're up against -- and also what I see as the most promising strategic approach for local activists.
And, along the way, I'll throw in a pitch for a set of macro-level, global-scale solutions which, if nature would allow us time to implement them, could achieve the 75 percent reduction in carbon emissions and, at the same time, provide the basis for a much wealthier, more stable and more secure world.
But I'd like to start with a couple of anecdotes that illustrate how profoundly out of step with the rest of the world we are.
Last summer, right after Katrina hit the Gulf coast, I published an op-ed article in the Boston Globe titled, "Katrina's Real Name." The piece linked global warming to higher sea surface temperatures which, of course, fuel more intense hurricanes. And it put Katrina in the context of lots of other extreme weather events which constitute a hallmark of early-stage global warming.
The piece proved to be somewhat controversial. I got a bit of flak for it -- and ended up doing something like 40 radio interviews in the following two weeks.
About two months later, there came to Boston a group of German news editors -- from high profile publications like Der Spiegel, Stern and German Public Radio. The editors invited me to meet with them to discuss journalistic issues involved in covering the climate issue. And before the meeting, the organizer of the tour gave the editors copies of the Katrina op-ed. About half way through our conversation, two of these editors spontaneously held up copies of the op-ed and one said: "Mr. Gelbspan, no disrespect intended, but we have no idea why you published this article. There's absolutely nothing new here. Why did you waste the newsprint to tell us what we already know?" It was like, "Welcome to our world."
Similarly, when I was invited to speak at Oxford University in September, I prepared an overview of the climate crisis. But before I gave the talk, my hosts made it clear most, if not all, of the audience knew at least as much as I do about the situation. What they really wanted to know was why the American public -- and the Bush Administration in particular -- are so blind to the urgency of the climate crisis.
What shocked both the German and British audiences is the extent to which industry money dominates our national political process and the degree to which it has distorted news coverage -- at least in the climate area. Such a profound contamination of our political process by industry money apparently is not a part of their own civic experience -- at least not when it involves issues of truly monumental consequence.
That is evident from the fact that Holland, the U.K., Germany and France have vowed to cut their emissions from 50 to 80 percent over the next 45 years -- in keeping with the dictates of the science.
So I think one take-home message here for those of you who are working with local officials is that If significant change is going to happen at all, it's going to have to percolate from up from the grassroots into the national consciousness.
This puts a difficult -- and an unfair -- burden on your shoulders. But it also puts those of you working at the local level in a particularly strategic position.
For one thing, most of you will not have operatives from the carbon lobby putting their fingers in your eyes. While big coal and big oil and have paralyzed action at the national level, they just don't have enough foot soldiers to stifle action in localities around the country.
Moreover, it's easier to get access to smaller local media outlets. And if you explain to local reporters the bigger picture about why you're working to make your city or town Kyoto-compliant, that is a great way to link what you're doing locally to what's going on around the world.
For example: we all know that climate change hits poor countries hardest. So as you succeed in reducing carbon emissions in Watertown, you are also helping lessen the impacts on people halfway around the world whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes, whose homelands are going under from rising sea levels and whose borders are becoming overrun by environmental refugees.
But I very much want you to understand that whatever kind of reductions you can make in your own town's carbon footprint are less important for emissions avoided than they are for the political awareness they can create. It's not enough to reduce emissions. You need to let people know -- loudly and clearly -- why you're doing it.
As promised, I won't rehearse all the climate impacts and scientific findings that are surfacing almost on a weekly basis in the literature. But I would like to frame this talk with a couple of large-gauge observations about global climate change.
The first is its speed. We have all been absolutely blindsided by global warming. Global warming didn't even surface as an issue in the public arena until 1988. That was the year the UN first began to put in place the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That same year, 1988, was the year that NASA Scientist Jim Hansen went before Congress to testify that "global warming is at hand."
Today, a mere 18 years later, scientists are telling us that we are approaching -- or are already at -- a point of no return in terms of staving off climate chaos. That is an incredibly short period of time -- the blink of an eye historically speaking -- for such enormous changes in these massive planetary systems. As Harvard's Dr. Paul Epstein said, "We are seeing impacts now that we didn't expect to see until 2085."
The second point -- which presents one of the most difficult aspects of the challenge -- has to do with lagtimes and feedbacks. Carbon dioxide stays up the atmosphere for about 100 years. So many of the impacts we are already seeing are probably the result of emissions we put up in the 1970s and 1980s -- just as China and India were beginning to accelerate their surge of coal-fired industrialization. This makes it virtually inevitable that we will see many more events of the magnitude of Katrina and the European heat wave of 2003.
The issue is further compounded, as you know, by the existence of feedbacks in which small changes in certain planetary systems trigger much larger changes in other systems. For example, the tundra in Siberia and Canada for thousands of years has absorbed methane and carbon dioxide, locking them into the frozen terrain. Now, however, those areas are beginning to thaw and release those gases back into the atmosphere -- which could well trigger a new spike of heating.
The final point involves the extreme sensitivity of earth's systems to just a tiny bit of warming. As you all know, the glaciers are melting, the deep oceans are heating, violent weather is increasing, the timing of the seasons is changing and all over the world plants, birds, insects, fish and animals are migrating toward the poles in search of stable temperatures. And all that has resulted from one degree of warming. And for context we are looking forward to a century of 4 to 10 degrees more heat.
What we need is a rapid worldwide switch to non-carbon energy -- wind, solar, tidal and wave power, biofuels and, ultimately, hydrogen fuels. And we need it yesterday.
That does not mean we will all have to sit in the dark and ride bicycles. Those sources can give us all the energy we need even as they would make the human enterprise far more compatible with the requirements of a stable species home.
The fossil fuel lobby knows this perhaps better than anyone else. And its response has been to protect the industry at the expense of the rest of us in general -- and, more specifically, at the expense of the lifeblood of any democratic system which is honest information.
For more than a decade, the fossil fuel lobby has mounted an extremely effective campaign of deception and disinformation, almost exclusively in the U.S., to persuade the public and policy-makers that the issue of atmospheric warming is still stuck in the limbo of scientific uncertainty. That campaign for the longest time targeted the science. And in so doing, it marginalized the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the U.N. in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. It then misrepresented the economics of an energy transition. And most recently, with its champion in the White House, it has attempted to demolish the diplomatic foundations of the climate convention. And it has been extremely successful in maintaining a relentless drumbeat of doubt in the public mind.
From the perspective of an investigative reporter, the central drama underlying this issue is crystal clear. It pits the ability of this planet to sustain civilization versus the survival of one of the largest commercial enterprises in human history. The oil and coal industries together generate more than a trillion dollars a year in revenues. In this battle, their resources are virtually without limit.
A few recent examples.
In the mid-1990s, the coal industry launched a disinformation offensive using a few greenhouse skeptics -- three of whom received about a million dollars in industry money under the table in a three-year period which was never publicly disclosed until we published it. The campaign featured a $250,000 video designed to persuade us that global warming is good for us. That was in the mid-1990s.
What you need to understand is that these people are extremely persistent.
We obtained a new memo this July from a group of coal companies about the launch of yet another covert disinformation campaign -- producing a major movie to counter Al Gore's film, increasing the carbon industry's support for Sen. James Inhofe, from Oklahoma, who calls global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and raising hundreds of thousands more dollars to buy more air time for more skeptics.
This manufactured denial is by far the biggest obstacle facing all of us at work on this issue. Launched a decade ago by the coal industry, it has been carried forward more recently by the oil industry which spent more than $15 million since 1998 to bankroll these skeptics and their institutions.
ExxonMobil has been an especially active player in this game. In 2001, the head of the ICCC, Dr. Robert Watson, suggested the US was doing less than it might to address global warming. In response, ExxonMobil sent a memo to President Bush telling him to get rid of Watson. In short order, Watson was out of a job.
Just days after the Bush Administration took office in 2001, Lee Raymond, then CEO of ExxonMobil, had a private meeting with Vice President Cheney to discuss the composition of his energy task force. The group ultimately included representatives of every major coal and oil company -- and not one member of the environmental community.
ExxonMobil also made clear in a series of ads on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, that it was vehemently opposed to any US involvement with the Kyoto Protocol.
Behind the scenes, the company engineered the appointment of an oil-friendly operative, Harlan Watson, to be the Administration's chief climate negotiator. Whereupon Watson promptly announced that the US would not join the Kyoto process for at least a decade -- if at all.
And when President Bush formally did withdraw the US from Kyoto, the White House sent several notes thanking ExxonMobil for its "active involvement" in helping determine the administration's climate policies.
The oil industry's influence on the Administration's climate and energy policies surfaced again last year. Early in his administration, President Bush appointed Phil Cooney, an official of the American Petroleum Institute, to head up the White House climate office. Last year, Cooney was found to have personally altered a major scientific report on coming climate impacts in the U.S., deleting and softening references to the dangers of climate change. When his hand-altered document was provided to the press, a public outcry forced Cooney to resign from the White House. A few days later, he was hired by ExxonMobil.
As recently as four months ago, the company took another step to further distort public policy. At the beginning of the year, a group of 86 Evangelical ministers had urged strong action on global warming to help preserve God's creation -- and to protect the world's poorest and most vulnerable residents from the ravages of climate change.
That was followed, in July, by a statement by a different group of evangelical organizations proclaiming climate change is God's will and downplaying its severity. It turns out the fundamentalist groups that formed the core of this new coalition received $2.5 million in funding from ExxonMobil.
And last month, Exxon's recently-retired CEO Lee Raymond was appointed by President Bush to head up a new panel to determine America's energy future.
In short, the White House has become the East Coast branch office of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal -- and climate change has become the preeminent case study of the contamination of our political process with money.
This fusion of corporate interests with government power has proved an almost insurmountable obstacle to the climate movement's ability to get its larger message across.
So I think the really critical focus for climate activists should be on the press. I know from my own experience that, were the press to cover this issue thoroughly and consistently, that would mobilize the public in six months.
Unfortunately the industry public relations specialists have been so successful in promoting equivocal and confusing climate coverage that the American public is at least 10 years behind the rest of the world in understanding the magnitude and urgency of the issue.
There are a number of reasons for this none of them, given the magnitude of the story, justifiable.
One reason, I think, involves the fact that the career path to the top at news outlets normally lies in following the track of political reporting. Top editors tend to see all issues through a political lens.
Let me mention just one -- out of scores -- of recent examples:
Prior to his withdrawal from Kyoto, President Bush declared he would not accept the findings of the IPCC because they represented foreign science (even though about half of the 2,000 scientists who contribute to the IPCC are American.) Instead, Bush called on the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to provide American science.
What I found astounding was this. Even as the Washington press corps reported this story, not one reporter bothered to check the position of the NAS. Had they done so, they would have found that as early as 1992, three years before the IPCC determined that humans are changing the climate, the NAS was pushing for strong measures to minimize the impacts of human-induced global warming.
So thats just a quick nod to the culture of journalism which is, basically, a political culture which is not particularly hospitable in fact, I think it's institutionally arrogant -- toward non-political areas of coverage.
The next reason has to do with this campaign of disinformation launched by the coal industry and most recently carried forward by ExxonMobil. As I mentioned, the fossil fuel lobby paid a tiny handful of scientists virtually all of whom had no standing in the mainstream scientific community to dismiss the reality of climate change. That campaign has had a profoundly corrosive effect on journalists by insisting the issue of climate change be cast as a debate -- when, in fact, there is no debate in the community of mainstream climate scientists.
For the longest time, the press accorded the same weight to he "skeptics" as it did to mainstream scientists. This was done in the name of journalistic balance. In fact, it represented journalistic laziness.
The ethic of journalistic balance comes into play when there is a story involving opinion: Should society sanction gay marriage? Should abortion be legal? Should we withdraw our troops from Iraq? When a story involves opinion, a journalist is ethically obligated to give each major competing view its most articulate presentation and roughly equal space.
But when its a question of fact, its up to a reporter to get off her or his butt and find out what the facts are. The issue of balance is not relevant when the focus of a story is factual.
Granted there have been a few credentialed scientists although only Dick Lindzen comes to mind -- who have published in the peer-reviewed literature and who minimize climate change as relatively inconsequential.
In that case, if a journalist wants her or his coverage to be balanced, the story should reflect the weight of opinion in the scientific community -- and that means that the mainstream climate scientists would get 90 percent of the story and the dissenters would get a couple of paragraphs at the end.
Today, that is finally beginning to happen -- although very belatedly.
As one co-chair of the IPCC told me: "There is no debate among any statured scientists working on this issue about the larger trends of what is happening to the climate." That is something you would never know from US press coverage.
But it is something you should point out to every editor and reporter you encounter as you work to get your message out. Stop approaching reporters like beggars, asking for a handout. Let them know how angry you are at them for allowing themselves to be conned into betraying their public trust.
One researcher, who surveyed more than 900 peer-reviewed research articles two years ago