Mark Hertsgaard | The Nation

Mark Hertsgaard

Author Bios

Mark Hertsgaard

Environment Correspondent

Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including HOT:  Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.


News and Features

In the 1960s John F. Kennedy inspired America with his pledge to put a man on the moon in ten years. Now, John F.

Ronald Reagan lived a charmed life in many respects, none more so than in his relationship with the news media.

Every December for the past nineteen years, marchers in Bhopal, India,
have paraded an effigy of Warren Anderson through town and burned it.
Anderson is despised because he was the CEO of Union

On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the second plane hit the World Trade Center and it was clear that the nation was under attack, US authorities issued an emergency alert, grounding air

George W. Bush may not know it, but one influential part of his government is finally taking global climate change seriously.

"The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general--and President Bush in particular--are most vulnerable." So asserted Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster, last

Kyoto was just a start for Bush.

Who says the good guys never win? California's new global warming law is
a bona fide big deal. Signed into law by Governor Gray Davis on July 22,
the global warming bill requires that the greenhouse gas emissions of
all passenger vehicles sold in the state be reduced to the "maximum"
economically feasible extent starting in model year 2009. It doesn't ban
sport utility vehicles, but it does the next best thing: It forces
automakers to design them as efficiently as possible. Hybrids and
hydrogen, here we come!

If the bill survives a promised legal challenge from the auto industry,
it will rank as the most significant official action against global
warming yet taken in the United States. It also ranks as the biggest
environmental victory of any sort scored during George W. Bush's
presidency. What's more, the behind-the-scenes story of the bill offers
valuable lessons for how environmentalists and progressives in general
can win more such victories in the future.

§ Lesson 1: Pick a target that matters. "Once the election
was decided and Bush and [Chief of Staff] Andrew Card were in the White
House, it was clear Washington was a dead end for progress on auto fuel
efficiency or global warming," says Russell Long, executive director of
the Bluewater Network, which initiated the California bill. "But
California is the fifth-biggest economy in the world." California is
also the single most important automotive market. It not only accounts
for 10 percent of all US new-auto sales, it has historically led the
nation in auto regulation. Unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters,
hybrid cars--all appeared first in the Golden State.

How so? In 1967 California's air quality was so noxious it was granted
the right to set its own air standards; other states have had the option
to choose California's (tougher) standards or the federal government's.
In short, change the law in California and you can tip the entire
national market. "You can't make one car for California and another car
for Washington, DC," explains Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Since transportation accounts for
33 percent of America's greenhouse gas emissions, the ultimate impact of
California's example could be huge.

§ Lesson 2: Embrace radical ends but flexible means.
Corporate lobbyists love to portray all environmental regulations as a
"command and control" form of economic dictatorship, as in the old
Soviet Union. That's a canard, of course, but the authors of the
California bill defanged that argument by omitting any specific
directions for how automakers are to achieve these unprecedented
greenhouse gas reductions. The bill empowers the California Air
Resources Board to decide what is feasible (by 2005, subject to the
legislature's review), but it explicitly prohibits such political
nonstarters as banning SUVs or raising gas or vehicle taxes. How to get
there from here will be left to the auto industry's engineers.

§ Lesson 3: Unite grassroots pressure with insider muscle and
celebrity clout.
This part was tricky. Early backers of the bill
included the Bluewater Network and the Coalition for Clean Air, but
support from the larger national environmental groups only came later.
"They saw this bill as too extreme for their agenda, and they had other
things on their plate," said one legislative aide in Sacramento who
insisted on anonymity. "But once they saw it had traction, they got on
board and helped a lot." That traction came from dogged lobbying by the
bill's sponsor, freshman Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. A Democrat and
longtime activist from the Los Angeles area, Pavley apparently didn't
care that the bill was a long shot. Her aide Anne Baker says, "I've
worked in Sacramento a long time. If we hadn't had an outside group and
a freshman member, this [bill] probably wouldn't have been tried in the
first place."

What the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council
eventually brought to the fight was lobbying experience, vast membership
rolls and contacts with luminaries like Robert Redford and John McCain,
who telephoned wavering legislators at crucial moments. "The Latino
caucus also was a strong supporter," recalls NRDC lobbyist Ann Notthoff.
"We have cooperated with them on toxics and air pollution issues before,
and that gave us credibility on this issue."

§ Lesson 4: Remember, the bad guys make mistakes too. In the
end, the bill passed the Assembly without a single vote to spare, and
only because the industry overplayed its hand with a wildly misleading
million-dollar-plus advertising blitz. "They didn't think they could
lose," explains V. John White, a consultant who lobbies for the Sierra
Club. "We ended up splitting the business caucus, largely because the
auto industry was so shrill and arrogant. They wouldn't negotiate,
wouldn't compromise--they were just against the bill. So that left
members with a simple choice between the industry and us." Since polls
showed that 81 percent of Californians favored the bill, even
traditionally probusiness members felt safe bucking the auto industry.
It also didn't hurt that the bill was backed by a wide range of groups,
from city governments and water agencies to church leaders and Silicon
Valley entrepreneurs.

What's next? The automakers will sue, claiming that federal
fuel-efficiency law pre-empts the California measure. But that's the
lawyers. In their design and marketing departments most companies are
already accelerating their pursuit of green technologies. Thanks to
California, the writing is on the wall.

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
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.

It's time for the United States to show as much commitment in the battle against global warming as it does in the "war on terror."


President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will meet within hours in Copenhagen to try to break the deadlock.
The Alliance of Small Island Nations roils summit with call for huge emissions reductions as activists prepare for global day of action...
How Obama could save or scuttle a deal in Copenhagen, and why he needs civil society to push him.