mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


The Truth on Warming

The journalist I.F. Stone used to joke that the government issues so
much information every day, it can’t help but let the truth slip out
every once in a while. The Bush Administration’s recent report on
global warming is a classic example. Though far from perfect, it
contains some crucial but awkward truths that neither George W. Bush
nor his environmentalist critics want to confront. Which may explain
why the Administration has sought to bury the report, while critics
have misrepresented its most ominous conclusion.


U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 made headlines because it contradicted
so much of what the Administration has said about global warming. Not
only is global warming real, according to the report, but its
consequences—heat waves, water shortages, rising sea levels, loss of
beaches and marshes, more frequent and violent weather—will be
punishing for Americans. The report’s biggest surprise was its
admission that human activities, especially the burning of oil and
other fossil fuels, are the primary cause of climate change. Of
course, the rest of the world has known since 1995 that human actions
have a discernible impact on the global climate, to quote a landmark
report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change. But the White House has resisted this conclusion. After all,
if burning fossil fuels is to blame for global warming, it makes sense
to burn less of them. To a lifelong oilman like Bush, who continues to
rely on his former industry colleagues for campaign contributions as
well as senior staff, such a view is nothing less than heresy.

No wonder, then, that Bush and his high command have virtually
repudiated the report. Although their staffs helped write it, both EPA
Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Energy Secretary Spencer
Abraham claimed they were unaware of the report until the New York
Times disclosed its existence on June 3. Bush himself dismissed it as
a mere product of the bureaucracy, that oft-vilified bogyman of
right-wing ideology. But he could equally have blamed his own father.
The only reason U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 was compiled in the
first place is that George Bush the First signed a global warming
treaty at the 1992 Earth Summit that obligates the United States to
periodically furnish such reports to the UN (one more reason, it
seems, to despise treaties). But somebody in the Administration must
have seen trouble coming, because the report could not have been
released with less fanfare: It was simply posted on the EPA’s website,
three unguided links in from the homepage. If you weren’t looking for
it, you’d never find it.

The Administration has been hammered for issuing a report that on one
hand admits that global warming threatens catastrophe but on the other
maintains there is no need to reduce consumption of fossil fuels. The
report squares this circle by arguing that global warming has now
become inevitable, so we should focus less on preventing it than on
adapting to it. To deal with water scarcity, for example, the report
advocates building more dams and raising the price of water to
encourage conservation. Critics see such recommendations as proof that
the Administration is doing nothing about global warming.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The worst thing about the new global warming report is that it is
absolutely correct about a fundamental but often unmentioned aspect of
the problem: the lag effect. Most greenhouse gases remain in the
atmosphere for approximately 100 years. The upshot of this undeniable
chemical fact is that no matter what remedial steps are taken today,
humanity is doomed to experience however much global warming the past
100 years of human activities will generate. That does not mean we
should make matters worse by continuing to burn fossil fuels, as Bush
foolishly urges; our children and grandchildren deserve better than
that. It does mean, however, that we as a civilization must not only
shift to green energy sources immediately but also begin planning how
we will adapt to a world that is bound to be a hotter, drier, more
disaster-punctuated place in the twenty-first century.

Many environmentalists know it is too late to prevent global warming;
the best we can do is minimize its scope. They don’t like to admit
this truth, because they fear it will discourage people from making,
and demanding, the personal and institutional changes needed to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions. There is that risk. But a truth does not
disappear simply because it is inconvenient. Besides, a green energy
future would mean more, not less, economic well-being for most
Americans, while also increasing our chances of avoiding the most
extreme global warming scenarios. Sometimes the truth hurts. But
avoiding it will hurt even more.



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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.