Kelpie Wilson Interviews Ross Gelbspan

TO’s Environment Editor Kelpie Wilson recently interviewed Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat is On and a new book, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis – And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster. Mr. Gelbspan was a longtime reporter and editor at the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. Somewhere along the way, he made the transition from journalist to activist as he realized that the overwhelming impact of global warming on humanity required much more attention than the U.S. mainstream media was willing to grant it. He has joined with the Climate Crisis Coalition to launch a drive to gather millions of signatures from U.S. citizens for a “People’s Ratification of the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty.” The petition is online here.

Kelpie Wilson: Ross, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on global warming solutions with Truthout readers. The latest scientific reports on climate change are very grim. I am finding it hard to imagine what the future will be like. Americans used to be a very future-oriented, progress-oriented people, but that kind of optimism about the future seems to have disappeared. I would like to start by asking you to paint two different pictures for us. The first would be what the planet will look like 50 years from now if America and the fossil fuel corporations are allowed to continue with business as usual. The second picture I’d like you to describe is what life might be like 50 years from now if America rejoins the world in the process of de-carbonizing our energy supply.

Ross Gelbspan: It may be easier to imagine the more positive outcome than the more negative one. That’s because it is very difficult to know which systems of the planet will begin to unravel, in what order and with what kind of ripple effects. One thing a non-scientist quickly learns in doing this work is how enormously and exquisitely complex nature really is – and how very primitive is our own understanding of all its interrelationships and connections.

The conventional scientific projections tell us we will see a relentless increase in extreme weather – longer, more severe droughts, more frequent heat waves, more intense storms, and many more flash-flood-type rain events than we are used to experiencing. Clearly that will take a toll on agriculture. Already, for the first time in history, the world has consumed more grain than it has produced for four years in a row. That means that food stores are being drawn down, China has become a net importer of grain, and the prospect of resource wars is much more imminent. Increasing temperatures will aggravate water shortages and perhaps trigger armed conflict over water resources. All the relevant scientists agree that as the temperature rises, we will see a big increase in the population of crop-destroying and disease-spreading insects. Globally, malaria quadrupled between 1995 and 2000. Scientists also project big forest die-offs. One set of computer models has the thickly-forested southeastern quadrant of the US dying off, with the trees being replaced by grasslands and savannas. In terms of the oceans, we are already seeing the collapse of ecosystems in the North Sea and elsewhere. That’s because warming ocean waters are changing the composition of the plankton (the tiny organisms that provide food for fish and sea animals), which, in turn, is leading to the die-off of fish species and some types of sea birds. That’s a snapshot of some of the physical changes. Clearly, along the way, we will see very significant political and economic changes as well.

Unfortunately, these are just the changes that occur in an incremental, linear way. What worries most scientists is the prospect of a non-linear change – what researchers call a rapid climate change event. This happens when natural systems are forced across invisible thresholds and snap into new states. The most dramatic example, perhaps, was exaggerated in the film, The Day After Tomorrow, when a period of prolong warming altered ocean currents and ended up plunging the northern hemisphere into a rapid deep freeze. (This actually did occur about 11,000 years ago – and it took place in about four years). There are other kinds of traumatic, punctuated changes as well. For instance, were the Greenland ice sheet (which is the biggest glacier on the planet and which is now melting with increasing speed) to slide into the ocean, that would suddenly raise sea levels by some 20 feet, inundating many of the world’s coastal areas where, parenthetically, about 50 percent of the world’s people now live. These are the kinds of surprises which are totally unpredictable – but which, at the same time, are becoming increasingly likely.

So it is very difficult to flesh out a portrait of the world in 2055 in which atmospheric carbon levels have nearly doubled from their historical levels. What we can say with certainty is unsatisfyingly general: many types of natural systems and species would die off, we would enter an area of increasing conflict over shrinking resources, and our civilization would deteriorate into a much more splintered, combative and degraded kind of existence.

Kelpie Wilson: And what about the more positive scenario, where the world unites to put the brakes on climate change?

Ross Gelbspan: Were the US to reverse course and join the rest of the world, that could provide the opportunity for an extraordinary step forward in our species’ history. It would bring the nations of the world together in a project that transcended alliances, coalitions and national boundaries. Given how central energy is to our existence, a global public works program to rewire the planet could also change many destructive dynamics at work today.

The science is unambiguous on one point: climate stabilization requires humanity – worldwide – to cut its use of coal and oil by 70 percent. That consensus finding is central to the goals of other countries. Holland completed a plan to cut emissions by 80 percent in 40 years. Tony Blair has committed the UK to cuts of 60 percent in 50 years. Germany has pledged cuts of 50 percent in 50 years. And French President Chirac recently announced that France will cut her emissions by 75 percent in 45 years. In other words, much of the industrial world is already committing itself to a rapid switch away from fossil fuels to solar, hydrogen and wind power.

At one level, this switch is economically beneficial, if only because the construction and deployment of many of those technologies is much more labor intensive than coal and oil extraction – which is highly automated. We would see the creation of thousands of new jobs for people. Ultimately, I believe a worldwide crash program to rewire the world with clean energy would yield far more than a fuel switch. I think it would lead, almost inevitably, to closed-loop industrial processes, “smart-growth” planning, the adoption of “environmental accounting” in calculating national GDPs, and, ultimately, a whole new ethic of sustainability that would transform our institutions and practices and dynamics in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Even more important, perhaps, this kind of project would require us to put democratically-determined regulations around multi-national corporations, limiting the most destructive aspects of their operations while still maintaining the vitality and creativity of competition within socially mandated limits. In my book Boiling Point, I spell out a set of three inter-related strategies that provides one model of the kind of solution that is needed. It may not be right in all its details – but it does offer a plan whose scope and magnitude matches the scale and urgency of the crisis.

The World Energy Modernization Plan involves three elements:

  • A change of energy subsidy policies in industrial countries, redirecting the $25 billion that the US government spends and the $200 billion that industrial nations overall spend on subsidizing fossil fuels, and putting those subsidies behind renewable technologies.
  • The creation of a large fund, of about $300 billion a year for several years, to jumpstart renewable-energy infrastructures in developing countries; this could well be accomplished within the framework of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.
  • The adoption within the Kyoto framework of a binding, progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard that rises by 5 percent per year.

Under this plan, every country would start at its current baseline to increase its fossil fuel energy efficiency by 5 percent every year, until the global 70 percent reduction is attained. That means a country would produce the same amount of goods as the previous year with five percent less carbon fuel. Alternatively, it would produce five percent more goods with the same carbon fuel use as the previous year. Since no economy can grow at five percent for long, emissions reductions would outpace long-term economic growth. For the first few years of this progressive efficiency standard, most countries would meet their goals by implementing low-cost or even profitable efficiencies – the “low-hanging fruit”- in their current energy systems. After a few years, as those efficiencies became more expensive to capture, countries would meet the 5 percent goal by drawing more and more energy from renewable sources, most of which are 100 percent efficient by a Fossil Fuel standard. And that would create the mass markets and economies of scale for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them competitive with coal and oil.

At the very least, this kind of effort would make this world much more habitable, much less threatening, and much more prosperous. It might be the beginning of the end of the stale nationalism that has divided humanity for so many war-torn and tragic generations. If nothing else, it might provide a new sense of purpose and a rediscovery of community for a very alienating and discouraging period of history. Most wildly, it just might augur a new era of peace – peace among people and peace between people and nature.

Kelpie Wilson: That is a truly visionary future, Ross. But I wonder if we have what it takes to get there. Amanda Griscom-Little commented in Grist that the big green groups were conspicuously absent from the news last week on the occasion of the implementation of the Kyoto agreement. Why do you think this was?

Ross Gelbspan: The big green groups have taken the position that Kyoto is a flawed treaty, that it does not resonate with the US public and that, given the current political climate, the most productive focus for climate-oriented environmental groups lies in actions at the state and municipal levels. From my point of view, that position is counterproductive. Everyone – including the countries that have ratified the Protocol – knows the treaty is flawed. The near-universal desire of delegates is to dramatically increase the treaty’s carbon reduction goals and shorten its timetable. The German government, for one example, recently called for a four-fold increase in the Protocol’s goals. One very destructive, if unintended, consequence of the posture of the big green groups is that in abandoning Kyoto, they are implicitly endorsing and ratifying the Bush administration’s efforts to destroy the Kyoto Process. When the President withdrew the US from the Kyoto talks in 2001, he said the US withdrawal would not affect any actions that other countries wanted to pursue. But in December, 2004, using its leverage under the Framework Convention, the Bush administration emasculated the next round of talks. Consequently, when the delegates meet in Bonn in May, they will be prohibited from developing any action plan whatsoever. The next talks will be limited to “informational seminars.”

For the big green groups to be silent about Bush’s assault on the Protocol seems wrong to me, both tactically and substantively. I would have much preferred to see them keep up a loud drumbeat of opposition to the President’s withdrawal of the US from the talks – and put their energies into mobilizing all their supporters and donors against the Bush administration’s efforts to destroy what the nations of the world have spent nearly 10 years trying to build. From a different angle, I think the environmental establishment is inherently incapable of truly addressing the climate challenge in all its magnitude because we cannot achieve a rapid, world-wide transition to clean energy within our current market-based economic structure. If one honestly acknowledges the scale and urgency of the problem, it becomes clear that it cannot be effectively addressed without major structural changes to global economic dynamics. And, from what I’ve seen, the major environmental groups – and especially their funders – are not prepared to address that reality.

Kelpie Wilson: The latest scientific reports are overwhelmingly conclusive that global warming is caused by humans and that it is proceeding much faster than earlier predictions. In the face of this evidence, is it important to keep spending time and energy on answering the so-called skeptics?

Ross Gelbspan: The latest reports also indicate that it may already be too late to avert very severe climate disruptions. Most tellingly, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC, said recently that we have a window of 10 years to make “very deep cuts” in our use of coal and oil if humanity is to “survive.” These are very strong words from a scientist. Given the extraordinary speed with which the climate is changing, I do believe it is a waste of energy to continue to debate the skeptics. Public debates with skeptics only serve to legitimize them – and to convey the message that there are two sides to this question when, in fact, there is no dispute within the mainstream scientific community about the larger trends of what’s happening to the climate.

I think climate advocates should be focusing their energy on pushing really large-scale solutions, and to trying to break through the mind-boggling lack of coverage of this issue in the mainstream press. The reason I wrote my last book, Boiling Point, was to get out into the pubic arena a set of “solutions strategies” that form the centerpiece of the last chapter. I think if people are confronted with an overwhelming threat with no apparent solution, their most understandable human reaction is denial. So I think it’s extremely important to put forth intellectually honest solutions which, in turn, I think would result in people letting themselves acknowledge the bad news.

Given this situation, I think protracted skirmishes with the skeptics are a diversionary sideshow. I think it would be much more productive to cast this moment as an extraordinary moment in human history – and to point out not only the very frightening negative potentials of climate change, but the historically unprecedented opportunity to use this challenge to bring all the nations of the world together around a common global project that could redress historical inequities, even as it expanded the overall wealth of the global economy. We have the opportunity, if we were to do the right thing, to begin to move up the ladder of social evolution to become a much more peaceful, productive and cooperative species, using the climate crisis as a springboard issue to begin the process.

Kelpie Wilson: You have said that not all oil companies are disputing the reality of climate change and that some are ready to make the transition to post-fossil fuel energy. Can those companies help to reign in rogue corporations like Exxon-Mobil that fund skeptics?

Ross Gelbspan: I think that is asking more than even the most conscientious energy companies can accomplish. Last year Sir John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in which he pointed out that companies like his can make as many solar panels as we can use, but corporations alone can not bring about the kind of political change that is prerequisite to transforming the world’s energy infrastructure. In my travels, I have had private conversations with the CEOs and top executives of five or six oil companies. Off the record, most of the executives (with the exception of ExxonMobil) say they need the governments of the world to regulate them into this transition. Otherwise, if companies like BP and Shell were unilaterally to funnel too many of their resources into renewable technologies, they would be undercut by companies like ExxonMobil with their cheaper coal and oil.

What is really needed is a kind of international regulation (presumably through the Kyoto framework) that would allow all the oil companies to make this energy transition in lockstep without losing any market share to competitors. Absent that kind of binding, mandatory regulatory regime, I think it’s unfair and unrealistic to think that even the most climate-conscious oil companies can do very much on their own. In the case of countering the disinformation put out by ExxonMobil, some of the more progressive companies are putting out competing and contradictory messages. But, given ExxonMobil’s domination of the industry, I think they would suffer significant retaliation were they to aggressively take on ExxonMobil directly. After all, these companies are in the business of making money – not of fostering political change. Not long ago, the chairman of Shell, Ron Oxburgh, told the press that given the buildup of CO2, he is “really very worried for the planet.” I think statements like those are about as much as one can expect of more enlightened oil company chiefs.

Kelpie Wilson: With big business, government, and the media all resisting action on global warming, it would seem that grassroots people power is the only place left to turn. What needs to happen to unleash this people power and make the People’s Kyoto Ratification campaign a success?

Ross Gelbspan: Given my own professional background of 30 years in journalism, I see press coverage as key to large-scale change. When the press reports on an issue thoroughly and consistently, the pubic responds. The People’s Ratification of the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty is an attempt to gather enough signatures to impress on the mainstream news outlets how serious and urgent an issue this is to a lot of people. The hope behind the petition is that the Climate Crisis Coalition, which is coordinating the effort, is able to gather enough signatures to make a very visible statement, combined with a dramatic action, later this year. If the petition drive is successful, it could also catalyze a number of actions by a whole range of groups – perhaps a very visible march on Washington, for example, or a series of coordinated actions around the country.

I think what is distinctive about this effort is that it draws on a much wider range of activists than just environmentalists. The petition casts the climate issue in terms of equity, in terms of global citizenship, economic democratization and the need to put democratically-determined boundaries around the operations of multi-national corporations (in this case, big coal and big oil). For that reason, the petition drive has attracted support from a wide range of constituencies, including indigenous rights groups, African-American church congregations, groups concerned with re-training and job creation for coal miners and oil workers, campus-based climate activists, and groups working with partner organizations in developing countries. Were it to gain real traction, I think the diversity of supporting organizations and individuals would not only command press attention, but it would have the longer-term value of broadening the coverage of climate change beyond its current slot as a sub-beat of environmental reporters. That, in turn, would hopefully promote the message to the larger public that climate change is not an environmental problem. It is a threat to civilization. And that would put this issue where it belongs – as the central focus of a presidential election.

Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon.