While Washington Slept
Page 3
Image: Living Through the Storm
Mark Hertsgaard

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 dé jà 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.

Originally published on April 5, 2006 in Vanity Fair. Copyright � 2007 by Mark Hertsgaard. Reprinted with permission. Copying or republication of the work is prohibited without the author's expressed, written consent.