mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


While Washington Slept

The Queen of England is afraid. International C.E.O.’s are nervous.
And the scientific establishment is loud and clear. If global warming
isn’t halted, rising sea levels could submerge coastal cities by 2100.
So how did this virtual certainty get labeled a “liberal hoax”?

<!–more–>

Ten months before Hurricane Katrina left much of New Orleans
underwater, Queen Elizabeth II had a private conversation with Prime
Minister Tony Blair about George W. Bush. The Queen’s tradition of
meeting once a week with Britain’s elected head of government to
discuss matters of state—usually on Tuesday evenings in Buckingham
Palace and always alone, to ensure maximum confidentiality—goes back
to 1952, the year she ascended the throne. In all that time, the
contents of those chats rarely if ever leaked.

So it was extraordinary when London’s Observer reported, on October
31, 2004, that the Queen had “made a rare intervention in world
politics” by telling Blair of “her grave concerns over the White
House’s stance on global warming.” The Observer did not name its
sources, but one of them subsequently spoke to Vanity Fair.

“The Queen first of all made it clear that Buckingham Palace would be
happy to help raise awareness about the climate problem,” says the
source, a high-level environmental expert who was briefed about the
conversation. “[She was] definitely concerned about the American
position and hoped the prime minister could help change [it].”

Press aides for both the Queen and the prime minister declined to
comment on the meeting, as is their habit. But days after the Observer
story appeared, the Queen indeed raised awareness by presiding over
the opening of a British-German conference on climate change, in
Berlin. “I might just point out, that’s a pretty unusual thing for her
to do,” says Sir David King, Britain’s chief scientific adviser. “She
doesn’t take part in anything that would be overtly political.” King,
who has briefed the Queen on climate change, would not comment on the
Observer report except to say, “If it were true, it wouldn’t surprise
me.”

With spring arriving in England three weeks earlier than it did 50
years ago, the Queen could now see signs of climate change with her
own eyes. Sandringham, her country estate north of London, overlooks
Britain’s premier bird-watching spot: the vast North Sea wetlands
known as the Wash. A lifelong outdoorswoman, the Queen had doubtless
observed the V-shaped flocks of pink-footed geese that descend on the
Wash every winter. But in recent years, says Mark Avery, conservation
director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, she also
would have seen a species new to the area: little egrets. These shiny
white birds are native to Southern Europe, Avery says, “but in the
last 5 to 10 years they have spread very rapidly to Northern Europe.
We can’t prove this is because of rising temperatures, but it sure
looks like it.”

Temperatures are rising, the Queen learned from King and other
scientists, because greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the
atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of such gases, is
released whenever fossil fuels are burned or forests catch fire.
Global warming, the scientists explained, threatens to raise sea
levels as much as three feet by the end of the 21st century, thanks to
melting glaciers and swollen oceans. (Water expands when heated.)

This would leave much of eastern England, including areas near
Sandringham, underwater. Global warming would also bring more heat
waves like the one in the summer of 2003 that killed 31,000 people
across Europe. It might even shut down the Gulf Stream, the flow of
warm water from the Gulf of Mexico that gives Europe its mild climate.
If the Gulf Stream were to halt—and it has already slowed 30 percent
since 1992—Europe’s temperatures would plunge, agriculture would
collapse, London would no longer feel like New York but like
Anchorage.

The Queen, says King, “got it” on climate change, and she wasn’t
alone. “Everyone in this country, from the political parties to the
scientific establishment, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, to our oil
companies and the larger business community, has come to a popular
consensus about climate change—a sense of alarm and a conviction that
action is needed now, not in the future,” says Tony Juniper, executive
director of the British arm of the environmental group Friends of the
Earth.

At the time of his meeting with the Queen, Blair was being attacked on
climate change from all ideological sides, with even the Conservatives
charging that he was not doing enough. Yet Blair’s statements on the
issue went far beyond those of most world leaders. He had called the
Kyoto Protocol, which has been ratified by 162 countries and requires
industrial nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 5 percent below
1990 levels, “not radical enough.” The world’s climate scientists,
Blair pointed out, had estimated that 60 percent cuts in emissions
were needed, and he committed Britain to reaching that goal by 2050.

But it wouldn’t matter how much Britain cut its greenhouse-gas
emissions if other nations didn’t do the same. The U.S. was key, not
only because it was the world’s largest emitter but because its
refusal to reduce emissions led China, India, Brazil, and other large
developing countries to ask why they should do so. All this Blair had
also said publicly. In 2001 he criticized the Bush administration for
withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. In 2004 he said it was essential
to bring the U.S. into the global effort against climate change,
despite its opposition to Kyoto.

It was no secret that Bush opposed mandatory emissions limits, but
Blair, who had risked his political future to back the deeply
unpopular war in Iraq, was uniquely positioned to lobby the president.
Bush owed him one. At the same time, Blair needed to show his domestic
audience that he could stand up to Bush, that he wasn’t the
presidential “poodle” his critics claimed.

To compel Bush to engage the issue, Blair made climate change a lead
agenda item at the July 2005 meeting of the Group of 8, the alliance
of the world’s eight richest nations. A month before the meeting,
which was held at Gleneagles, in Scotland, Blair flew to Washington to
see Bush face-to-face. That same day, the national academies of
science of all the G-8 nations, as well as those of China, India, and
Brazil, released a joint statement declaring that climate change was a
grave problem that required immediate action.

On the morning of July 7, the summit was interrupted by the shocking
news that four suicide bombers had set off explosions in London,
killing 56 people. Blair rushed to the scene, but he returned that
night, still determined to secure an agreement.

In the end, however, Bush held firm. Washington vetoed all references
to mandatory emissions cuts or timelines, and the climate-change issue
was overshadowed by African debt relief, which had been publicized by
Bob Geldof’s Live 8 concerts.

“There were no tough targets at Gleneagles because we would not have
got all signatures on the document,” says King, who adds, “We might
well have” gotten seven—that is, every nation but the U.S. The
farthest the G-8 leaders went—and even this required a battle, says
King—was to include a sentence that read, in part, “While
uncertainties remain in our understanding of climate science, we know
enough to act now.”

But seven weeks later, nature acted first, and it was the United
States she hit.

No one can say for sure whether global warming caused Hurricane
Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. But it
certainly fit the pattern. The scientific rule of thumb is that one
can never blame any one weather event on any single cause. The earth’s
weather system is too complex for that. Most scientists agree,
however, that global warming makes extra-strong hurricanes such as
Katrina more likely because it encourages hot oceans, a precondition
of hurricane formation.

“It’s a bit like saying, ‘My grandmother died of lung cancer, and she
smoked for the last 20 years of her life—smoking killed her,'”
explains Kerry Emanuel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology who has studied hurricanes for 20 years. “Well, the problem
is, there are an awful lot of people who die of lung cancer who never
smoked. There are a lot of people who smoked all their lives and die
of something else. So all you can say, even [though] the evidence
statistically is clear connecting lung cancer to smoking, is that [the
grandmother] upped her probability.”

Just weeks before Katrina struck, Emanuel published a paper in the
scientific journal Nature demonstrating that hurricanes had grown more
powerful as global temperatures rose in the 20th century. Now, he
says, by adding more greenhouse gases to the earth’s atmosphere,
humans are “loading the climatic dice in favor of more powerful
hurricanes in the future.”

But most Americans heard nothing about Hurricane Katrina’s association
with global warming. Media coverage instead reflected the views of the
Bush administration—specifically, the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, which declared that the hurricane was the
result of natural factors. An outcry from N.O.A.A.’s scientists led
the agency to backtrack from that statement in February 2006, but by
then conventional wisdom was set in place. Post-Katrina New Orleans
may eventually be remembered as the first major U.S. casualty of
global warming, yet most Americans still don’t know what hit us.

Sad to say, Katrina was the perfect preview of what global warming
might look like in the 21st century. First, Katrina struck a city that
was already below sea level—which is where rising waters could put
many coastal dwellers in the years ahead. In 2001, the U.N.-sponsored
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), a peer-reviewed,
international collaboration among thousands of scientists that is the
world’s leading authority on climate change, predicted that sea levels
could rise as much as three feet by 2100. By coincidence, three feet
is about how much New Orleans sank during the 20th century. That was
because levees built to keep the Mississippi River from flooding also
kept the river from depositing silt that would have replenished the
underlying land mass, explains Mike Tidwell, the author of Bayou
Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast.
“You could say that in New Orleans we brought the ocean to the
people,” Tidwell adds, “which is pretty much what global warming will
do to other cities in the future.”

What’s more, Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest there
is. Such extreme weather events will likely become more frequent as
global warming intensifies, says the I.P.C.C. Yes, Katrina’s winds had
slowed to high-Category 3 levels by the time it made landfall, but it
was the hurricane’s storm surge that killed people—a surge that
formed in the Gulf of Mexico when the storm was still Category 5.
Thus, Katrina unleashed 10 to 15 feet of water on a city that was
already significantly below sea level.

To envision global warming’s future impacts, the illustrations
accompanying this article reflect this and other scenarios. [For
illustrations, see the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. The three
large-scale illustrations are an artist’s interpretations of
projections generated for Vanity Fair by Applied Science Associates
Inc. (appsci.com), a marine-science consulting firm based in Rhode
Island. The projections do not account for small-scale features such
as coastal-protection structures.

The effects of a three-foot sea-level rise compounded by a storm surge
from a Category 3 hurricane are shown in the image of the Hamptons,
which would suffer severe flooding. The image of Washington, D.C.,
shows the effects of a 20-foot sea-level rise, which is what
scientists expect if the entire Greenland ice sheet melts. The ice
sheet has shrunk 50 cubic miles in the past year alone, and is now
melting twice as fast as previously believed.

Finally, the image of New York City shows the effects of an 80-foot
rise in sea levels. That’s what would happen if not only the Greenland
ice sheet but its counterpart in the Antarctic were to melt, says
James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space
Studies. Hansen, who put climate change on the media map in 1988 by
saying that man-made global warming had already begun, made headlines
again earlier this year when he complained that White House political
appointees were trying to block him from speaking freely about the
need for rapid reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Hansen warns
that, if global emissions continue on their current trajectory, the
ice sheets will not survive, because global temperatures will increase
by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. “The last time
the earth was that warm, sea levels were 80 feet higher than today,”
he says. It will likely take hundreds of years for sea levels to rise
the full 80 feet, but the process would be irreversible, and the rises
would not be gradual. “You’re going to be continually faced with a
changing coastline, which will force coastal dwellers to constantly
relocate,” he says.

This article’s smaller, aerial-view illustrations are based on
simulations by the National Environmental Trust, a nonprofit group in
Washington, D.C. N.E.T. relied on data from the I.P.C.C., the U.S.
Geological Survey, and the N.O.A.A. Additional N.E.T. simulations are
available at net.org. Philip Clapp, N.E.T.’s president, says, “The
U.S. government has never released its own simulations. The Bush
administration doesn’t want these pictures in front of the American
people because they show that a three-foot sea-level rise plus storm
flooding would have catastrophic consequences.”

In New York, it would leave much of Lower Manhattan, including the
Ground Zero memorial and the entire financial district, underwater. La
Guardia and John F. Kennedy airports would meet the same fate. In
Washington, D.C., the Potomac River would swell dramatically,
stretching all the way to the Capitol lawn and to within two blocks of
the White House.

Since roughly half the world’s 6.5 billion people live near
coastlines, a three-foot sea-level rise would be even more punishing
overseas. Amsterdam, Venice, Cairo, Shanghai, Manila, and Calcutta are
some of the cities most threatened. In many places the people and
governments are too poor to erect adequate barriers—think of
low-lying Bangladesh, where an estimated 18 million people are at
risk—so experts fear that they will migrate to neighboring lands,
raising the prospect of armed conflict. A Pentagon-commissioned study
warned in 2003 that climate change could bring mega-droughts, mass
starvation, and even nuclear war as countries such as China, India,
and Pakistan battle over scarce food and water.

These are just some of the reasons why David King wrote in Science in
2004, “Climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing
today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism.” King’s comment
raised hackles in Washington and led a top press aide to Tony Blair to
try to muzzle him. But the science adviser tells me he “absolutely”
stands by his statement. By no means does King underestimate
terrorism; advising the British government on that threat, he says,
“is a very important part of my job.” But the hazards presented by
climate change are so severe and far-reaching that, in his view, they
overshadow not only every other environmental threat but every other
threat, period.

“Take India,” King says. “Their monsoon is a fact of life that they
have developed their agricultural economy around. If the monsoon is
down by 10 percent one year, they have massive losses of crops. If
it’s 10 percent over, they have massive flood problems. [If climate
change ends up] switching off the monsoon in India, or even changing
it outside those limits, it would lead to massive global economic
de-stabilization. The kind of situation we need to avoid creating is
one where populations are so de-stabilized—Bangladesh being flooded,
India no food—that they’re all seeking alternative habitats. These,
in our globalized economy, would be very difficult for all of us to
manage.”

The worst scenarios of global warming might still be avoided,
scientists say, if humanity reduces its greenhouse-gas emissions
dramatically, and very soon. The I.P.C.C. has estimated that emissions
must fall to 60 percent below 1990 levels before 2050, over a period
when global population is expected to increase by 37 percent and
per-capita energy consumption will surely rise as billions of people
in Asia, Africa, and South America strive to ascend from poverty.

Yet even if such a reduction were achieved, a significant rise in sea
levels may be unavoidable. “It’s getting harder and harder to say
we’ll avoid a three-foot sea-level rise, though it won’t necessarily
happen in this century,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of
geosciences and international affairs at Princeton. Oppenheimer’s
pessimism is rooted in the lag effects of the climate system: oceans
store heat for a century or longer before releasing it; carbon dioxide
remains in the atmosphere for decades or longer before dissipating.

According to King, even if humanity were to stop emitting carbon
dioxide today, “temperatures will keep rising and all the impacts will
keep changing for about 25 years.”

The upshot is that it has become too late to prevent climate change;
we can only adapt to it. This unhappy fact is not well understood by
the general public; advocates downplay it, perhaps for fear of
fostering a paralyzing despair. But there is no getting around it:
because humanity waited so long to take decisive action, we are now
stuck with a certain amount of global warming and the climate changes
it will bring—rising seas, fiercer heat, deeper droughts, stronger
storms. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is
already helping to kill 150,000 people a year, mainly in Africa and
Asia. That number is bound to rise as global warming intensifies in
the years ahead.

The inevitability of global warming does not mean we should not act,
King emphasizes: “The first message to our political leaders is,
action is required. Whether or not we get global agreement to reduce
emissions, we all need to adapt to the impacts that are in the
pipeline.” That means doing all the things that were not done in New
Orleans: building sound levees and seawalls, restoring coastal
wetlands (which act like speed bumps to weaken hurricanes’ storm
surges), strengthening emergency-preparedness networks and health-care
systems, and much more.

Beyond this crucial first step—which most governments worldwide have
yet to consider—humanity can cushion the severity of future global
warming by limiting greenhouse-gas emissions. Hansen says we must
stabilize emissions—which currently are rising 2 percent a year—by
2015, and then reduce them. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, a book
based on a scientific conference convened by Tony Blair before the G-8
summit, estimates that we may have until 2025 to peak and reduce.

The goal is to stop global warming before it crosses tipping points
and attains unstoppable momentum from “positive feedbacks.” For
example, should the Greenland ice sheet melt, white ice—which
reflects sunlight back into space—would be replaced by dark water,
which absorbs sunlight and drives further warming.

Positive feedbacks can trigger the kind of abrupt, irreversible
climate changes that scientists call “nonlinear.” Once again,
Hurricane Katrina provides a sobering preview of what that means.
“Hurricanes are the mother of all nonlinear events, because small
changes in initial conditions can lead to enormous changes in
outcomes,” says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam
Institute for Climate Impact Research and the former chief
environmental adviser to the German government. “A few percent
increase in a hurricane’s wind speed can double its destructiveness
under certain circumstances.”

Although scientists apply the neutral term “climate change” to all of
these phenomena, “climate chaos” better conveys the abrupt,
interconnected, wide-ranging consequences that lie in store. “It’s a
very appropriate term for the layperson,” says Schellnhuber, a
physicist who specializes in chaos theory. “I keep telling politicians
that I’m not so concerned about a gradual climate change that may
force farmers in Great Britain to plant different crops. I’m worried
about triggering positive feedbacks that, in the worst case, could
kick off some type of runaway greenhouse dynamics.”

Among the reasons climate change is a bigger problem than
terrorism, David King tells me, is that the problem is rooted in
humanity’s burning of oil, coal, and natural gas, “and people don’t
want to let that go.” Which is understandable. These carbon-based
fuels have powered civilization since the dawn of the industrial era,
delivering enormous wealth, convenience, and well-being even as they
overheated the atmosphere. Luckily, the idea that reducing
greenhouse-gas emissions will wreck our economy, as President Bush
said in 2005 when defending his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, is
disproved by experience. “In Britain,” King told the environmental Web
site Grist, “our economy since 1990 has grown by about 40 percent, and
our emissions have decreased by 14 percent.”

Ultimately, society must shift onto a new energy foundation based on
alternative fuels, not only because of global warming but also because
oil “will get harder and costlier to find” in the years ahead, says
Ronald Oxburgh, the former chairman of the British arm of Royal Dutch
Shell oil. “The group around President Bush have been saying that,
even if climate change is real, it would be terribly costly to shift
away from carbon-based fuels,” Oxburgh continues. “Of course it would,
if you try to make the change overnight. But that’s not how you do it.
If governments make the decision to shift our society to a new energy
foundation, and they make it clear to everyone this is what we’re
doing by laying out clear requirements and incentives, corporations
will respond and get the job done.”

The opening move in this transition is to invest massively in energy
efficiency. Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute,
a think tank that consults for corporations and governments around the
world, has demonstrated that measures such as insulating buildings and
driving more fuel-efficient vehicles could reduce humanity’s
consumption of energy and natural resources by a factor of four. And
efficiency investments have a demonstrated record of creating jobs and
boosting profits, suggesting that emissions can be reduced without
crippling economies.

One of the first moves Angela Merkel announced as the new chancellor
of Germany last fall was the extension of a Green Party initiative to
upgrade energy efficiency in the nation’s pre-1978 housing stock. Most
of that housing is in the former East Germany, where unemployment
approaches 20 percent. Replacing old furnaces and installing efficient
windows and lights will produce thousands of well-paying laborers’
jobs that by their nature cannot be outsourced.

Corporations, too, have discovered that energy efficiency can be
profitable. Over a three-year period beginning in 1999, BP invested
$20 million to reduce the emissions from its internal operations and
saved $650 million—32 times the original investment.

Individuals can cash in as well. Although buying a super-efficient car
or refrigerator may cost more up front, over time it saves the
consumer money through lower energy bills.

Efficiency is no silver bullet, nor can it forever neutralize the
effects of billions of people consuming more and more all the time. It
can, however, buy humanity time to further develop and deploy
alternative-energy technologies. Solar and wind power have made
enormous strides in recent years, but the technology to watch is
carbon sequestration, a method of capturing and then safely storing
the carbon dioxide produced by the combustion of fossil fuels. In
theory, sequestration would allow nations to continue burning
coal—the most abundant fuel in the world, and the foundation of the
Chinese and Indian economies—without worsening the climate problem.
“If carbon capture is not feasible, our choices are much less good,
and the cost of climate change is going to be much higher,” says
Jeffrey D. Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia
University and a special adviser to the United Nations.

No one pretends that phasing out carbon-based fuels will be easy. The
momentum of the climate system means that “a certain amount of pain is
inevitable,” says Michael Oppenheimer. “But we still have a choice
between pain and disaster.”

Unfortunately, we are getting a late start, which is something of a
puzzle. The threat of global warming has been recognized at the
highest levels of government for more than 25 years. Former president
Jimmy Carter highlighted it in 1980, and Al Gore championed it in
Congress throughout the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher, the
arch-conservative prime minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990,
delivered some of the hardest-hitting speeches ever given on climate
change. But progress stalled in the 1990s, even as Gore was elected
vice president and the scientific case grew definitive. It turned out
there were powerful pockets of resistance to tackling this problem,
and they put up a hell of a fight.

Call him the $45 million man. That’s how much money Dr.
Frederick Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of
Sciences, helped R. J. Reynolds Industries, Inc., give away to fund
medical research in the 1970s and 1980s. The research avoided the
central health issue facing Reynolds—”They didn’t want us looking at
the health effects of cigarette smoking,” says Seitz, who is now
94—but it nevertheless served the tobacco industry’s purposes.
Throughout those years, the industry frequently ran ads in newspapers
and magazines citing its multi-million-dollar research program as
proof of its commitment to science—and arguing that the evidence on
the health effects of smoking was mixed.

In the 1990s, Seitz began arguing that the science behind global
warming was likewise inconclusive and certainly didn’t warrant
imposing mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. He made his
case vocally, trashing the integrity of a 1995 I.P.C.C. report on the
op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal, signing a letter to the Clinton
administration accusing it of misrepresenting the science, and
authoring a paper which said that global warming and ozone depletion
were exaggerated threats devised by environmentalists and unscrupulous
scientists pushing a political agenda. In that same paper, Seitz
asserted that secondhand smoke posed no real health risks, an opinion
he repeats in our interview. “I just can’t believe it’s that bad,” he
says.

Al Gore and others have said, but generally without offering evidence,
that the people who deny the dangers of climate change are like the
tobacco executives who denied the dangers of smoking. The example of
Frederick Seitz, described here in full for the first time, shows that
the two camps overlap in ways that are quite literal—and lucrative.
Seitz earned approximately $585,000 for his consulting work for R. J.
Reynolds, according to company documents unearthed by researchers for
the Greenpeace Web site ExxonSecrets.org and confirmed by Seitz.
Meanwhile, during the years he consulted for Reynolds, Seitz continued
to draw a salary as president emeritus at Rockefeller University, an
institution founded in 1901 and subsidized with profits from Standard
Oil, the predecessor corporation of ExxonMobil.

Seitz was the highest-ranking scientist among a band of doubters who,
beginning in the early 1990s, resolutely disputed suggestions that
climate change was a real and present danger. As a former president of
the National Academy of Sciences (from 1962 to 1969) and a winner of
the National Medal of Science, Seitz gave such objections instant
credibility. Richard Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at M.I.T.,
was another high-profile scientist who consistently denigrated the
case for global warming. But most of the public argument was carried
by lesser scientists and, above all, by lobbyists and paid spokesmen
for the Global Climate Coalition. Created and funded by the energy and
auto industries, the Coalition spent millions of dollars spreading the
message that global warming was an uncertain threat. Journalist Ross
Gelbspan exposed the corporate campaign in his 1997 book, The Heat Is
On
, which quoted a 1991 strategy memo: the goal was to “reposition
global warming as theory rather than fact.”

“Not trivial” is how Seitz reckons the influence he and fellow
skeptics have had, and their critics agree. The effect on media
coverage was striking, according to Bill McKibben, who in 1989
published the first major popular book on global warming, The End of
Nature
. Introducing the 10th-anniversary edition, in 1999, McKibben
noted that virtually every week over the past decade studies had
appeared in scientific publications painting an ever more alarming
picture of the global-warming threat. Most news reports, on the other
hand, “seem to be coming from some other planet.”

The deniers’ arguments were frequently cited in Washington
policy debates. Their most important legislative victory was the
Senate’s 95-to-0 vote in 1997 to oppose U.S. participation in any
international agreement—i.e., the Kyoto Protocol—that imposed
mandatory greenhouse-gas reductions on the U.S.

The ferocity of this resistance helps explain why the Clinton
administration achieved so little on climate change, says Tim Wirth,
the first under-secretary of state for global affairs, who served as
President Clinton’s chief climate negotiator. “The opponents were so
strongly organized that the administration got spooked and backed off
of things it should have done,” says Wirth. “The Kyoto negotiations
got watered down and watered down, and after we signed it the
administration didn’t try to get it ratified. They didn’t even send
people up to the Hill to talk to senators about ratifying it.”

“I wanted to push for ratification,” responds Gore. “A decision was
made not to. If our congressional people had said there was even a
remote chance of ratifying, I could have convinced Clinton to do
it—his heart was in the right place…. But I remember a meeting in
the White House with some environmental groups where I asked them for
the names of 10 senators who would vote to ratify. They came up with
one, Paul Wellstone. If your most optimistic supporters can’t identify
10 likely gettables, then people in the administration start to ask,
‘Are you a fanatic, Al? Is this a suicide mission?'” (Clinton did not
respond to e-mailed questions.)

James Hansen, without singling out any individual, accuses
global-warming deniers of “acting like lawyers, not scientists,
because no matter what new evidence comes in, their conclusion is
already decided.” Richard Lindzen responds that Hansen has been wrong
time and time again and operates “one of the worst climate models
around.” Lindzen agrees that both global temperature and atmospheric
concentration of carbon dioxide have increased over the last century.
But temperatures won’t rise much further, he says, because humans
aren’t the main driving force in the climate system. The reason most
scientists disagree with him, Lindzen explains, is simple careerism.
“Once President Bush the elder began spending $2 billion a year on
climate science, scientists developed a self-interest in maintaining
this is an urgent problem,” he says, adding that the scientific
community’s fixation on climate change will be remembered as an
episode of “mass insanity.”

Among many rebuttals to the deniers’ arguments, perhaps the most
authoritative collection is found on the Web site of Britain’s
national academy of science, the Royal Society. But such rebuttals
have little impact on true believers, says Robert May, the Society’s
former president. “[Nobel Prize-winning physicist] Max Planck used to
say that people don’t change their minds [because of evidence],” he
adds. “The science simply moves on and those people eventually die
off.”

But if the deniers appear to have lost the scientific argument, they
prolonged the policy battle, delaying actions to reduce emissions when
such cuts mattered most. “For 25 years, people have been warning that
we had a window of opportunity to take action, and if we waited until
the effects were obvious it would be too late to avoid major
consequences,” says Oppenheimer. “Had some individual countries,
especially the United States, begun to act in the early to mid-1990s,
we might have made it. But we didn’t, and now the impacts are here.”

“The goal of the disinformation campaign wasn’t to win the debate,”
says Gelbspan. “The goal was simply to keep the debate going. When the
public hears the media report that some scientists believe warming is
real but others don’t, its reaction is ‘Come back and tell us when
you’re really sure.’ So no political action is taken.”

Representative Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who chaired the
1994 hearings where tobacco executives unanimously declared under oath
that cigarettes were not addictive, watches today’s global-warming
deniers with a sense of déjà vu. It all reminds him of the
confidential slogan a top tobacco flack coined when arguing that the
science on smoking remained unsettled: “Doubt is our product.” Now,
Waxman says, “not only are we seeing the same tactics the tobacco
industry used, we’re seeing some of the same groups. For example, the
Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was created [in 1993] to debunk
the dangers of secondhand smoking before it moved on to global
warming.”

The scientific work Frederick Seitz oversaw for R. J. Reynolds from
1978 to 1987 was “perfectly fine research, but off the point,” says
Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of
California, San Francisco, and a lead author of The Cigarette Papers
(1996), which exposed the inner workings of the Brown & Williamson
Tobacco Corporation. “Looking at stress, at genetics, at lifestyle
issues let Reynolds claim it was funding real research. But then it
could cloud the issue by saying, ‘Well, what about this other possible
causal factor?’ It’s like coming up with 57 other reasons for
Hurricane Katrina rather than global warming.”

For his part, Seitz says he was comfortable taking tobacco money, “as
long as it was green. I’m not quite clear about this moralistic issue.
We had absolutely free rein to decide how the money was spent.” Did
the research give the tobacco industry political cover? “I’ll leave
that to the philosophers and priests,” he replies.

Seitz is equally nonplussed by the extraordinary disavowal the
National Academy of Sciences issued following his most visible
intervention in the global-warming debate. In 1998 he urged fellow
scientists to sign an Oregon group’s petition saying that global
warming was much ado about little. The petition attracted more than
17,000 signatories and received widespread media attention. But posted
along with the petition was a paper by four global-warming deniers
that was presented in virtually the same layout and typeface used by
the National Academy of Sciences in its scholarly journal. The
formatting, combined with Seitz’s signature, gave the clear impression
that the academy endorsed the petition. The academy quickly released a
statement disclaiming any connection with the petition or its
suggestion that global warming was not real. Scientific American later
determined that only 1,400 of the petition’s signatories claimed to
hold a Ph.D. in a climate-related science, and of these, some either
were not even aware of the petition or later changed their minds.

Today, Seitz admits that “it was stupid” for the Oregon activists to
copy the academy’s format. Still, he doesn’t understand why the
academy felt compelled to disavow the petition, which he continues to
cite as proof that it is “not true” there is a scientific consensus on
global warming.

The accumulation of scientific evidence eventually led British
Petroleum to resign from the Global Climate Coalition in 1996. Shell,
Ford, and other corporations soon left as well, and in 2002 the
coalition closed down. But Gelbspan, whose Web site tracks the
deniers’ activities, notes that key coalition personnel have since
taken up positions in the Bush administration, including Harlan
Watson, the State Department’s chief climate negotiator. (Watson
declined to be interviewed.)

ExxonMobil—long the most recalcitrant corporation on global
warming—is still spending millions of dollars a year funding an array
of organizations that downplay the problem, including the George C.
Marshall Institute, where Seitz is chairman emeritus. John
Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA, calls the denial
campaign “one of the great crimes of our era.” Passacantando is “quite
confident” that class-action lawsuits will eventually be filed against
corporations who denied global warming’s dangers. Five years ago, he
told executives from one company, “You’re going to wish you were the
tobacco companies once this stuff hits and people realize you were the
ones who blocked [action].”

The public discussion about climate change in the U.S. is years
behind that in Britain and the rest of Europe, and the deniers are a
big reason why. “In the United States, the Chamber of Commerce and
National Association of Manufacturers are deeply skeptical of
climate-change science and the need to reduce greenhouse-gas
emissions,” says Fiona Harvey, the environment correspondent for the
Financial Times. “In Britain, the equivalent body, the Confederation
of British Industry, is absolutely behind the science and agrees on
the need to cut emissions. The only differences are over how to do
that.”

America’s media coverage is also well behind the curve, says Harvey.
“In the United States you have lots of news stories that, in the name
of balance, give equal credence to the skeptics. We don’t do that
here—not because we’re not balanced but because we think it’s
unbalanced to give equal validity to a fringe few with no science
behind them.”

Prominent right-wing media outlets in the U.S., especially the
editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, continue to parrot the
claims of climate-change deniers. (Paul A. Gigot, the page’s editor,
declined to be interviewed.) Few beat reporters are still taken in,
but their bosses—the editors and producers who decide which stories
run, and how prominently—are another matter. Charles Alexander, the
former environmental editor at Time, complains that, while coverage
has improved recently, media executives continue to regard climate
change as just another environmental issue, rather than as the
overriding challenge of the 21st century.

“Americans are hearing more about reducing greenhouse emissions from
BP ads than from news stories in Time, The New York Times, or any
other U.S. media outlet,” Alexander says. “This will go down as the
greatest act of mass denial in history.”

In 2002, Alexander went to see Andrew Heyward, then the president of
CBS News, after running into him at a Harvard reunion. “I talked to
him about climate change and other global environmental threats, and
made the case that they were more dangerous than terrorism and CBS
should be doing much more coverage of them,” Alexander recalls. “He
didn’t dispute any of my factual points, but he did say the reason CBS
didn’t do more of that coverage was that ‘people don’t want to hear
all that gloom and doom’—in other words, the environment wasn’t a
ratings winner. He seemed to think CBS News’s job was to tell people
what they wanted to hear, not what they need to know, and I think that
attitude is increasingly true for the news business in general.”

“That’s bullshit,” responds Heyward, who left CBS in 2005. “I’ve never
been one of those guys who thinks news has to be light and bright. And
in talking to Charles, I wasn’t stating the policy of CBS News. I was
just trying to explain to an old college classmate why there isn’t
more coverage of the environment on TV. Charles is an advocate, and
advocates are never happy with the amount of coverage their cause
gets.”

American television did, however, give prime-time coverage to the
latest, and most famous, global-warming denier: novelist Michael
Crichton. ABC’s 20/20 broadcast a very friendly interview with
Crichton when he published State of Fear, a novel arguing that anyone
who bought into the phony scientific consensus on global warming was a
modern equivalent of the early-20th-century eugenicists who cited
scientific “proof” for the superiority of the white race.

When Crichton was invited to testify before the Environment and Public
Works Committee, observers in Britain were floored. “This is
fairyland,” exclaims Michael Meacher, the member of Parliament who
served as Tony Blair’s environment minister from 1997 to 2003. “You
have a science-fiction writer testifying before the United States
Senate on global-warming policy? I mean, you can almost see the little
boy off to the side, like in the story of the emperor’s clothes,
saying, ‘But he’s a science-fiction writer, isn’t he?’ It’s just
ludicrous.”

The man who invited Crichton, committee chairman James M. Inhofe, a
Republican from oil-rich Oklahoma, had already said on the floor of
the Senate that global warming was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated
on the American people.” In an e-mail interview, Inhofe defended
Crichton’s appearance, noting that the writer holds a medical degree
from Harvard. (Crichton is also a post-doctoral fellow at the Salk
Institute for Biological Studies.) The senator added that he stood by
his hoax statement as well.

David King responded that Britain’s climate-science research is
headquartered within the Ministry of Defense, “and you wouldn’t find a
group of people less likely to perpetrate a hoax than the people in
the Ministry of Defense.”

King has “extremist views,” Inhofe replied. If the I.P.C.C. and the
world’s leading academies of science echo King’s views, he argued, it
is because they actively silence dissidents: “Scientists who believe
warming trends are naturally occurring, or benign, are almost always
excluded from climate-change conferences and meetings because their
conclusions do not support the political agendas of the others who
host the conferences.” (The I.P.C.C. denies this accusation.) The
truth, Inhofe continued, is that “there is no consensus on the science
of global warming.” As proof, he cited—what else?—Frederick Seitz’s
Oregon petition.

Paul H. O’Neill, who served nearly two years as George W. Bush’s
secretary of the Treasury, does not buy the common notion that Bush
and Vice President Dick Cheney resist taking action on global warming
because they are oilmen. “I don’t think either one of them is an
oilman,” insists O’Neill. “You have to have success to be an oilman.
It’s like saying you’re a ballplayer, but you never got on the field.”

In 1998, while running the aluminum giant Alcoa, O’Neill was among the
first U.S. business leaders to recognize the enormity of climate
change. He says Bush asked him, early in the first term, to put
together a plan of action, but it was ignored. Like Bush, O’Neill
opposed Kyoto, so he proposed other ways to move forward. But instead,
he says, the administration “cherry-picked” the science on climate
change to justify taking no action, “just like it cherry-picked the
intelligence on weapons of mass destruction” to justify the invasion
of Iraq.

“The United States is the only entity on this planet turning its back
on this problem,” says Massachusetts senator John Kerry. “Even as he
talks about protecting the security of the nation, the president is
willfully choosing not to tackle this problem. History will record it
as one of the greatest derelictions of duty ever.”

Bush-administration officials counter that they are doing more to
fight global warming than anyone else—just with different tools than
those favored by supporters of the Kyoto Protocol. James L.
Connaughton, the head of the White House Council on Environmental
Quality, starts by pointing out that Bush has raised federal mileage
standards for S.U.V.’s and light trucks. When I point out that the
increase is tiny (a mere 0.3 miles per gallon, says Dan Becker of the
Sierra Club), Connaughton maintains that over time further increases
will result in substantial energy savings, especially when paired with
the administration’s new tax credits for efficient vehicles. It’s also
important, he says, to “keep personal income taxes in check” to
encourage people to buy these new cars. What’s more, the
administration recently provided $10 billion in incentives for
alternative-energy development and $40 billion over 10 years to
encourage farmers to plant trees and preserve grassland that can soak
up carbon dioxide.

The administration opposes the Kyoto Protocol, Connaughton claims,
because its mandatory emissions cuts would punish the American
economy, costing as many as five million jobs. It would also dry up
the capital needed to fund the technological research that will
ultimately solve global warming.

“It’s important not to get distracted by chasing short-term reductions
in greenhouse emissions. The real payoff is in long-term technological
breakthroughs,” says John H. Marburger III, the president’s science
adviser. Besides, “there is no question that mitigating the impact of
climate change as it takes place will be much less [expensive] than
the costs of reducing oil and coal use in the short term.”

“The world is now on a trajectory to slow the growth in greenhouse-gas
emissions,” concludes Connaughton, who as a lawyer represented mining
and chemical interests before joining the administration. “I’m highly
confident we will stabilize [those emissions].” He says that’s exactly
what happened over the last 80 years with air pollution. He seems to
take pleasure in observing that, under Bush, the U.S. has actually
reduced its annual emissions, which, he says, is more than some of its
harshest critics overseas have done.

It’s a cheerful story, but virtually no one else believes it.
Waiting 80 years to eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions would guarantee
runaway global warming, says James Hansen. In January, six former
chiefs of the Environmental Protection Agency, including five who
served Republican presidents, said Bush needed to do much more to
fight climate change. In Britain, Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative
Party’s shadow secretary of state for the environment, says his party
is “saddened” by the Bush administration’s approach. “We would have
preferred the Bush administration to take a leadership position on
this problem … instead of allowing itself to be seen as
foot-dragging.”

Outsiders doubt President Bush’s desire to confront the issue,
pointing out that his right-wing political base agrees with Inhofe
that global warming is a liberal hoax. Critics also question the
administration’s faith in volunteerism. They argue that imposing
mandatory timelines and emissions limits would put a price tag on
carbon and push corporations and individuals to use less of it.
“Long-term research is fine, but to offer that as a substitute for the
stark necessity of near-term cuts in emissions is a kind of magical
thinking—trusting that something will happen to make everything all
right,” says Donald Kennedy, the editor in chief of Science. In fact,
despite Bush’s call to end our “addiction” to oil, his 2007 budget
actually reduced funding for alternative energy and efficiency.

Nor has the Bush administration cut short-term emissions, says a
European diplomat who requested anonymity because he has to work with
Bush officials. Citing data from the Energy Information
Administration, the diplomat says Connaughton is correct to say that
U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions declined, but only in the single year
following the 2001 terrorist attacks, owing to the ensuing economic
recession. U.S. emissions increased in every other year of Bush’s
presidency, making it “complete hokum” to claim that Bush’s policies
are cutting emissions, the diplomat says, adding of Connaughton, “I’m
afraid Jim has drunk the Kool-Aid.”

As for John Marburger’s assertion that it will be cheaper to adapt to
climate change than to try to head it off, Michael Oppenheimer says,
“It’s a sad day when the president is being told by his science
adviser that climate change isn’t worth avoiding. It may be possible
for rich nations and people to adapt, but 90 percent of humanity
doesn’t have the resources to deal with climate change. It’s unethical
to condemn them just because the people in power don’t want to act.”

“I think it is a slam dunk that we are on a path of dangerous
anthropogenic interference with the climate, and it is also absolutely
clear that what this administration has proposed so far will not get
us off that path,” says Jeffrey Sachs. “The administration says
several things I agree with: technology is extremely important, global
warming is a long-term issue, and we can’t do it without China and
India [because their greenhouse-gas emissions will soon outstrip our
own]. But none of this adds up to taking no action. The fact that
China and other developing economies have to be involved doesn’t mean
the United States refuses to commit to specific actions; it means the
U.S. should commit itself, in part to help bring the others in.

“I’ve had discussions with leaders in China and India,” adds Sachs.
“They are very concerned about climate change because they see the
effects it could have on them. We should help to set up prototype
carbon-capture-and-sequestration power plants in China and India, and
the rich countries should help to finance them. It’s hard to ask poor
countries to bear the full financial burden of these technologies,
especially when it is the rich countries’ past burning of carbon fuels
that has created most of the problem. But the U.S. takes every
opportunity to do virtually nothing to engage in practical steps with
the developing countries.”

Ask Al Gore how to avoid dangerous climate change and, despite
his wonkish reputation, he doesn’t begin by talking about hybrid cars
or carbon sequestration. No, says Gore, the first imperative is to
“punch through the massive denial and resistance” that still exist in
the United States.

But the rest of the world is no longer waiting for the Bush
administration. At the international climate conference held in
Montreal last year, European nations called the administration’s bluff
when it refused to commit even to the breathtakingly modest step of
someday discussing what framework might follow the Kyoto Protocol,
which expires in 2012. At past summits, the administration’s
stubbornness led other nations to back down in hopes of keeping
America involved in the process. At Montreal, the world quit waiting
for Godot and recognized, as Elliot Morley, Tony Blair’s minister of
the environment, says, “there are a lot of voices in the United States
in addition to the Bush administration, and we will work with all of
them to address this problem.”

The same thing is happening inside the U.S. “It is very clear that
Congress will put mandatory greenhouse-gas-emission reductions in
place, immediately after George W. Bush leaves office,” says Philip
Clapp of N.E.T. “Even the Fortune 500 is positioning itself for the
inevitable. There isn’t one credible 2008 Republican presidential
candidate who hasn’t abandoned the president’s do-nothing approach.
They have all adopted the approach the rest of the world took at the
Montreal talks—we’re moving forward, you’re a lame duck, and we have
to deal with it.”

Regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., state and local
governments across America are aggressively confronting the problem.
Two hundred and eight mayors have committed their cities to meet or
exceed the emissions reductions mandated by the Kyoto Protocol, and
some have gone further. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has committed
California to 30 percent cuts by 2020.

California officials have also held talks with their counterparts in
Oregon and Washington about launching a so-called carbon-trading
system like the one currently in force in Europe. Such a system allows
efficient users to profit while wasteful users must pay for burning
more fuel. A similar mechanism worked in the 1990s to dramatically
reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide—the cause of acid rain—at far
less cost than industrialists or environmentalists anticipated.

New York and seven other northeastern states, which together with
California amount to the third-biggest economy in the world, are also
considering a carbon-trading system. Their collective
actions—investing in energy efficiency, installing wind turbines,
sequestering carbon—could boost production runs and lower costs to
the point where the green technologies needed to fight global warming
become affordable for everyone.

At the same time, investors and others worried about global warming
are pressuring corporations and Wall Street to take the problem
seriously. The Investor Network on Climate Risk, a coalition of
pension-fund managers and institutional investors representing $3
trillion in assets, has put corporations on notice that its members
will reconsider investing in companies that don’t pay enough attention
to climate change. In 2005, investment-banking giant Goldman Sachs
pledged to embrace carbon trading and invest $1 billion in renewable
energy.

“To use a term coined by George W. Bush in the context of the Iraq
war, I think this coalition of the willing might be much more
successful than the Kyoto process,” says Hans Schellnhuber. “I’ve been
to a lot of these international conferences, and it’s a pretty
frustrating experience that usually produces little more than cheap
talk. Whereas a true coalition of the willing can bring together
regional governments, enterprises, and individuals and show that it is
technologically and economically possible to take meaningful action.”

No matter what happens, the global warming that past human activity
has already unleashed will make this a different planet in the years
ahead. But it could still be a livable, even hospitable, planet, if
enough of us get smart in time. If we don’t, three feet of water could
be just the beginning.


Mark Hertsgaard is the environmental correspondent for The Nation. His
article on American nuclear-weapons sites, Nuclear
Insecurity
,
appeared in Vanity Fair‘s November 2003 issue.

Share

Tags:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Book

HOT

By now, almost everyone knows what Edward Snowden did: leak top secret documents revealing that the US government was spying on hundreds of millions of people around the world. But if you want to know why Snowden did it, the way he did it, you need to know the stories of two other men.


The first is Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on the very same surveillance ten years before Snowden did and got crushed. The other is The Third Man, a former senior Pentagon official who comes forward in this book for the first time to describe how his superiors repeatedly broke the law to punish Drakeā€”and unwittingly taught Snowden how to evade their clutches.


Pick up your copy at:
Amazon.com | Barnes & Noble

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.

Search

Archives