mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Climate, the Absent Issue

Every once in a while there is good news in this troubled world, and
the choice of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai as this year’s
Nobel Peace Prizewinner is one such moment. The timing could not be
more apt. The choice of Maathai was announced near the end of a US
presidential campaign that has resolutely ignored the greatest danger
facing humanity, global climate change. Her selection thus stands as
an implicit rebuke to the environmental backwardness of America’s
political and media classes. It also represents an explicit assertion
that, as the Nobel committee put it, Peace on Earth depends on our
ability to secure our living environment.


The Bush Administration remains in denial about climate change even
though its closest overseas ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair,
said in September that climate change is the single biggest long-term
problem his nation faces. Blair’s top scientific adviser, David King,
has gone further, declaring that climate change is the biggest threat
civilization has ever faced—bigger even than the global terrorism
that dominates headlines and obsesses George W. Bush. King warned in
July that there is now enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to melt
all the ice on earth, which would put most of the world’s biggest
cities under water, starting with low-lying metropolises like New
York, London and New Orleans. I am sure that climate change is the
biggest problem that civilization has had to face in 5,000 years,
King said. Even Shell Oil chairman Ron Oxburgh admitted in June that
he is really very worried for the planet.

Climate change is to the twenty-first century what the nuclear arms
race was to the twentieth: the overriding threat to humanity’s
continued existence on this planet. And it is already killing people.
In the summer of 2003, some 15,000 people died in France from an
unprecedented heat wave. No single weather event can be definitively
attributed to climate change, but such heat waves are exactly what
scientists expect as warming intensifies. If climate change is not
moderated, more will die in years to come—either directly, through
more destructive storms and droughts, or indirectly, through declines
in food production and the spread of infectious disease.

Yet except for two brief references to the Kyoto Protocol during the
Bush-Kerry debates, climate change has been absent from the
presidential campaign. Kerry criticized Bush for walking away from
Kyoto without mentioning that he himself also opposes the protocol
(though Kerry pledges that, as President, he would re-open
negotiations and fix what he considers its flaws). Bush sounded almost
proud of having rejected Kyoto, which he claimed, incorrectly, would
hurt the US economy.

Although parts of the media have woken up to the danger—Business Week
and National Geographic ran cover stories on it this past summer—most
US journalists still don’t get it. At best, they see climate change as
just one of many environmental issues. At worst, they are still fooled
by industry propaganda casting doubt on the science behind claims of
climate change. Television networks approach the issue with a
particular conflict of interest. As Robert Kennedy Jr. has observed,
cars are the leading source of US greenhouse gas emissions, but car
ads are the leading revenue source for US television networks.

Thus climate change remains marginal to the political debate in the
United States. Public awareness and policy-making lag years behind the
rest of the world, as the impending implementation of the Kyoto
accord, without US participation, illustrates. (Now that Russia
supports Kyoto, the United States and Australia are the only major
industrial countries outside the protocol.) Some state and local
governments are reacting; California recently required that automakers
increase fuel efficiency 30 percent by 2009. But progress is
incremental when it needs to come at hyper-speed.

Which is where the example of Wangari Maathai offers hope. The
64-year-old biologist is Kenya’s assistant minister for environment
and natural resources, but she has spent most of her life as a
grassroots activist and critic of the former US-supported dictatorship
of Daniel Arap Moi. Maathai’s great innovation was to create the Green
Belt Movement. This radical but practical program pays poor women to
plant tree seedlings in their communities; 30 million trees have
reportedly been planted since the program began in the late 1970s.

The selection of Maathai for the peace prize generated controversy in
Norway from critics who said that honoring an environmentalist diluted
the meaning of peace work. But that criticism was contradicted by a
United Nations report issued a week earlier, showing how deforestation
and water scarcity—which are exacerbated by global warming—have
repeatedly led to armed conflict in Africa.

Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is based on a holistic analysis of the
intertwined problems of war, poverty, environmental degradation and
lower status for women. (Kenya had one of the highest birth rates in
the world when Green Belt was founded in 1977, in part because women
thought their only option in life was to bear children.) Green Belt
puts money in women’s pockets, boosting their independence and the
educational prospects for their children. Meanwhile, the planting of
trees replenishes the forests that are the foundation of Kenya’s
agricultural productivity and the primary fuel source for its poor.
And thanks to photosynthesis, the new trees also fight global warming
by absorbing carbon dioxide.

Like the best political ideas, Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt program is
specific yet universal, grounded in intellect but insistent upon
action. Its underlying principles are the very ones needed to build a
sustainable, and therefore peaceful, future: restoration of ravaged
ecosystems, expansion of economic opportunity for the poor, a
guarantee of equal justice for all and strengthening of democracy. The
Nobel committee lauded Maathai for work that has transformed the lives
of countless Kenyans. But her achievements also suggest how the rest
of the world, including the vastly richer United States, can combat
climate change, if only it wakes up and tries.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.