Straddling Solutions and Survivalism

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 that’s 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 it’s a question of fact, it’s 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, found that not one questioned the consensus agreement about human-induced warming. By contrast, much of the press coverage in the U.S. continues to cast the issue as an issue of debate among scientists.

And that is exactly what the public relations strategists of the carbon lobby want. They don’t care who wins the debate, as long as the public perceives it to be a debate. That way, people can shrug and say, “Come back and tell us what you know when you know what you’re talking about.” To keep the issue framed as a debate allows the public to avoid confronting what can be a frightening and, potentially, emotionally overwhelming threat. The U.S. press today is in what I call “stage-two” denial of the climate crisis. The media acknowledge its existence – and minimize its urgency and scope. You can see this from the pattern of coverage that provides occasional feature stories about the decimation of the forests in Alaska – but which continues to ignore the central diplomatic, political and economic conflicts around the issue. For example, many editors view climate change as a kind of proxy issue for political liberals. That is not the case. The earliest, very forceful advocate was Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. William F. Buckley, Jr., has published serious warnings about global warming. Jim Woolsey, former CIA director, and Republican Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana wrote an extensive piece in Foreign Affairs about the need to address climate change. President Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, has likened the coming impacts of climate change to a nuclear holocaust. And the senator taking the lead in trying to regulate carbon emissions is conservative Senator John McCain. It would be really useful if journalists were to spend a bit more time examining the real — rather than the assumed — politics of climate change. It would also help if they would connect a few very obvious dots between this Administration’s climate and energy policies and its sources of institutional and financial support.

Five years ago, the President reneged on his campaign promise to cap emissions from coal-powered plants.

The Administration then announced the first draft of its energy plan – calling for up to 1,900 new power plants — which is basically a fast track to climate hell.

In a truly Orwellian stroke, the White House removed all references to the dangers of climate change from the EPA’s website.

More recently, one of the country’s most prominent climate scientists, NASA’s Jim Hansen, learned he was being censored when the agency ordered him to get prior approval for any papers, lectures or media interviews.

Shortly thereafter, it was disclosed that researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could not take part in any press interviews without an agency “minder” present to decide what the researchers are allowed to say.

(This is very ominous — especially to a journalist. The reason I was able to write my two books as hard as I did was because of what scientists said to me off the record. On the record, scientists use very conservative scientific language; they speak in terms of estimates and trends and probabilities. Off the record, they told me, “This stuff is scary as hell.” It gave me a context and perspective for my own understanding that I would never have gotten with a government “minder” sitting at my elbow.)

And, of course, the president withdrew the US from the Kyoto talks.

At the time, he pledged the U.S. withdrawal would not affect the efforts of other countries.

Nevertheless, two years ago, the Bush Administration used its diplomatic leverage under the Framework Convention to emasculate the next round of climate talks. When the parties to Kyoto met in Bonn the following May to discuss the next commitment period, they were prohibited from coming out with any action plan at all. As one veteran climate negotiator said, the U.S. left the climate talks “hanging on to a rock face by their fingernails.” (The results out of Nairobi this week seem not substantially different).

This is not political conservatism. This is corruption disguised as conservatism.

In the early 1990s, with the science still uncertain, this deception could be excused as predictable, business-as-usual response.

But since the science has become so robust and the impacts so visible, I have truly come to regard it as a crime against humanity.

To me as a journalist, this whole campaign goes way beyond the traditional reach of public relations spin. To me, this effort basically amounts to the privatization of truth.

Because of the success of this deeply dishonest campaign of information control, we find ourselves today in a truly schizophrenic predicament. We are torn between the promise of solutions and the impulse toward survivalism. The situation is that dire.

Last year, Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, declared, we have a 10 year window to begin to make “very deep cuts” in our carbon fuel use if “humanity is to survive.” That is remarkably strong language from a UN diplomat. That warning was echoed in December by NASA’s James Hansen.

The British ecologist, James Lovelock, was even more pessimistic. Earlier this year, he declared that we may have already passed the point of no return in our ability to stave off climate chaos.

You can even see the panic even in such accomplished scientists as Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and NCAR’s Tom Wigley just who proposed pumping long-lived aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting earth. Both scientists acknowledge this is an expression of pure desperation.

I think one antidote to the generalized psychological denial that provides such fertile ground for the industry-created campaigns lies in an understanding that a switch to renewable energy does not imply a major decline in our living standards and that, to the contrary, it represents a pathway to a far more wealthy, equitable and secure world.

What the US must do is to join the rest of the world in a common global project to rewire the world with clean energy. The centerpiece of the last chapter of my book, Boiling Point outlines three global strategies that could accomplish a global transition to clean energy. While we are not at all dogmatic about the details, we believe it represents a model of the scope and scale of what we need to accomplish.

The strategies include

  • a change in energy subsidy policies in industrial countries,
  • the creation of a large fund to transfer clean energy to poor countries, and
  • a binding regulatory mechanism that requires every country to increase its fossil fuel efficiency by five percent a year.

Just a few words about each of these policies:

  • The US spends about $25 billion a year subsidizing coal and oil. That figure is $200 billion a year in the entire industrial world. If those subsidies were removed from fossil fuels and put behind renewables, the oil companies would follow the money and become aggressive developers of fuel cells, solar panels and windmills. That subsidy shift would also bring out of the woodwork an army of energy engineers and entrepreneurs — with successively more efficient generations of solar film and turbines and tidal devices — in an explosion of creativity that would rival the revolution of the 1990s.
  • The creation of a large fund, that has been calculated at about $300 billion a year for about a decade, to jumpstart renewable energy infrastructures in poor countries. This could be funded by carbon taxes in the north. It could come from a tax on international airline travel. A mechanism we like involves a tax on international currency transactions. Today the commerce in those currency transactions exceeds $1.5 trillion a day. A small tax of a quarter of a penny on a dollar would net out to about $300 billion a year for wind farms in India, fuel-cell factories in South Africa, solar assemblies in El Salvador, and vast, solar-powered hydrogen farms on the deserts of the Middle East; and,
  • the adoption within the Kyoto framework of a binding, Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard that rises by 5 percent per year. This is a mechanism that would make it all work.

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 was attained. That means a country would produce the same amount as the previous year with five percent less carbon fuel. Or it would produce five percent more goods with the same carbon fuel use as the previous year.

Since no economy grows at five percent for long, emissions reductions would outpace long-term economic growth. It could actually happen much more quickly than that.

For the first few years of this progressive efficiency standard, most countries would meet their goals by implementing low-cost — even profitable — efficiencies – getting the waste out of 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.

I believe a plan of this magnitude — regardless of the details — would create millions of jobs, especially in developing countries. It would turn impoverished and dependent countries into trading partners. It would raise living standards abroad without compromising ours. It would undermine the economic desperation that gives rise to so much anti-US sentiment. And in a very short time, it would jump the renewable energy industry into a central, driving engine of growth of the global economy.

Finally, at the risk of being overly visionary, I do believe, because energy is so central to our existence, that a common global project to rewire the world with clean energy could be the first step on a path to peace — even in today’s profoundly fractured world: Peace among people and peace between people and nature.

Stepping back for a moment to a wider-angle vantage point, this kind of initiative could also be the beginning of the end of an outdated and increasingly toxic nationalism which we have long ago outgrown.

The economy is becoming truly globalized.

The globalization of communications now makes it possible for any person to communicate with anyone else around the world.

And since it is no respecter of national boundaries, the global climate makes us one.

We hear many complaints about the costliness of addressing the climate crisis. But the real economic issue in rewiring the world with clean energy is not cost. The real economic issue is whether the world has a large enough labor force to accomplish this task in time to meet nature’s deadline.

But therein lies the catch — nature’s deadline. A growing number of the world’s leading climate scientists agree that we are already too far along a catastrophic trajectory to avoid significant disruptions. So my enthusiasm for the healing potential — on many different levels — of something like these solutions is tempered by an increasingly loud and persisting question: how are people of good will and social conscience supposed to respond in the face of a coming age of collapse?

There is no body of expertise — no authoritative answers — for this one. We are standing at the threshold of uncharted territory. And since there is no precedent to guide us, we are left with only our own hearts to consult, the intellectual integrity to look reality in the eye, whatever courage we can muster and our uncompromising dedication to a human future that reflects the combined aspirations of every single person in this room.