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Ross Gelbspan | The Nation

Ross Gelbspan

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Ross Gelbspan

Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription (Perseus) and the just-published Boiling Point (Basic) maintains the website www.heatisonline.org.

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Nature doesn't compromise on global climate change; activists must not either.

Four days after the press reported that
he was about to cut climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions from
power plants, George W. Bush caved in to the Neanderthal wing of the
fossil fuel lobby--the coal industry and ExxonMobil--and reversed
himself. In reneging on his campaign pledge, Bush thumbed his nose at
Holland, Germany and Britain, which are planning to cut carbon
emissions by 50 to 80 percent over the next fifty years, as well as
EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who had voiced support for
carbon regulation.

By calling the science "still
incomplete," Bush also lent new credibility to the tiny handful of
industry-sponsored "greenhouse skeptics" who have been thoroughly
discredited by the mainstream community of climate
researchers--including the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC), the National Academy of Sciences and other blue-ribbon
scientific groups that deem global warming to be real, immediate and
ominous.

For most of the 1990s, Western Fuels, a $400
million coal industry propaganda outlet, funded the most visible of
the greenhouse skeptics. Now ExxonMobil--the only major oil company
to deny the reality of climate change--has joined the coal industry
to finance the skeptics, confuse the public and undermine the work of
2,000 scientists from 100 countries on the IPCC.

The most
widely quoted skeptic, S. Fred Singer, denied receiving oil industry
money in a February letter to the Washington Post. But in 1998
ExxonMobil gave $10,000 to Singer's institute, the Science and
Environmental Policy Project, and $65,000 to the Atlas Economic
Research Foundation, which shared building space with SEPP. Says
Atlas's website, "For those who believe public policy should be based
on sound science, Dr. Singer offers a wealth of information,
credibility and encouragement."

Singer's denial of oil
funding is only the most recent of his many fabrications. In 1997 he
declared that Dr. Bert Bolin, then chairman of the IPCC, had changed
his position on climate change and denied a connection between global
warming and extreme weather, accusations that Bolin called
"inaccurate and misleading." While he touts himself as an
accomplished scientist, Singer has been unable to publish in the
peer-reviewed literature for at least fifteen years, other than one
technical comment, according to Congressional
testimony.

ExxonMobil states candidly that it "provides
support to selected organizations that assess public policy
alternatives on issues with direct bearing on the company's business
operations and interests." Many of the ExxonMobil grants are
relatively small. But given the company's size and reputation, they
are useful in leveraging other grants. For example, the company
supports the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global
Change, staffed by Sherwood Idso, a longtime coal-sponsored global
warming skeptic, and two relatives, Keith and Craig Idso. In 1998
ExxonMobil gave $15,000 to the Cato Institute's Environment and
Natural Resources program, which boasts coal-sponsored skeptic
Patrick Michaels as its senior fellow. Michaels's "statements on
[climate models] are a catalog of misrepresentation and
misinterpretation," says Dr. Tom Wigley, a leading climate modeler at
the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And ExxonMobil
bankrolls the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, which
published The Heated Debate, a book by greenhouse skeptic Dr.
Robert Balling.

ExxonMobil has isolated itself from the
community of major oil companies in the area of climate. British
Petroleum is now the world's largest producer of solar energy
systems, Shell created a $500 million renewable energy company and
Texaco has invested substantial resources in hydrogen-powered fuel
cells.

Around the world, glaciers are melting, oceans are
heating up and infectious diseases are migrating. The buildup of our
coal and oil emissions has triggered a wave of violent and chaotic
weather. All this has resulted from one degree of warming. During
this century, the temperature will rise by up to 10 degrees,
according to the IPCC. It's time for journalists to stop quoting
Singer and the other global warming skeptics. They might as well go
straight to the ExxonMobil public information office for
comment.

After three years of diplomatic fatigue, the United States put delegates from 170 countries out of their misery at the latest round of climate talks at The Hague in November by scuttling the negotiations and, in the process, thumbing its nose at nature as well as at the rest of the world. The good news is that the collapse of the global warming talks may set the stage for a truly transformative initiative to pacify the inflamed climate and, at the same time, dramatically expand the global economy.

The world's glaciers are melting, the oceans are heating up, tropical diseases are migrating north and the weather is becoming increasingly destructive. All that is the result of a l-degree increase in temperature over the past century. By contrast, the world will warm by up to 11 degrees this century, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The United States killed the Hague negotiations by insisting on meeting its Kyoto goal (reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily coal and oil, to 7 percent below 1990 levels) simply by planting trees and buying cheap emissions credits from poor countries. But the escalating pace of climate change makes it clear that a reliance on carbon-trading and tree-planting is nothing more than an expression of institutional denial of the magnitude of the problem. The EU, frustrated by US foot-dragging, refused to cave, demanding that Washington meet at least half its obligation through real domestic reductions in oil and coal burning. The result was a diplomatic meltdown.

Abandoning the minimalist goals of the Kyoto Protocol, many European nations are now taking their cues from science: The climate crisis requires 70 percent cuts in a very short time if civilization is to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. Britain, which in November suffered its worst flooding in centuries, will cut emissions 60 percent in the next fifty years. Holland, faced with a devastating sea-level rise, will cut emissions 80 percent over the next forty years. Germany is contemplating 50 percent cuts.

The US obstructionism also ignores a recent sea change in attitudes among Congressional Republicans, corporate leaders and multinational oil companies. Three years ago, Nebraska's Senator Chuck Hagel co-sponsored a resolution not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Today Hagel concedes the science of global warming. Last year, Indiana's Richard Lugar and James Woolsey, former head of the CIA, called for the United States to begin reducing coal and oil use by substituting energy from agricultural wastes.

Oil companies, with the exception of ExxonMobil, are similarly moving to confront the crisis. Shell has created a new, $500 million core company for renewable energy. Its director was recently appointed to head a new G-8 task force on clean energy. Texaco is putting serious resources into renewables. British Petroleum, with major solar investments, now advertises that BP stands for "Beyond Petroleum." In the auto industry, William Clay Ford recently declared an end to "the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine." That declaration follows Ford's participation in a $1 billion joint venture with Daimler-Chrysler and Mazda to bring fuel-cell-powered cars to market in three years. (These initiatives are partly "greenwashing," aimed at pacifying environmentalists, but they also reflect preparations by oil and auto companies to maintain their role as prominent players in a new energy economy.) Most striking, at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January, the CEOs of the 1,000 largest corporations voted climate change the most urgent issue facing humanity today.

What growing numbers of corporate leaders understand is that a global transition to clean energy would create millions of jobs, especially in poor countries. It would transform dependent, impoverished countries into robust trade partners, substantially expanding global markets. It would make the renewable industry a central engine of economic growth.

Ironically, the corporate powers behind the Bush administration may prove more alert to the wealth-creation potential of an energy transition than Gore. While Christie Whitman, expected to be the new EPA administrator, didn't know the difference between ozone depletion and global warming (and questioned the science behind both), Paul O'Neill, the new Treasury Secretary, has expressed serious concerns about the climate--and even, at one point, pushed for a carbon tax on oil to reduce emissions.

In May, when the parties to the climate talks reconvene, they should consider three interactive strategies:

§ Subsidy switches. The United States currently spends around $20 billion a year in direct subsidies of fossil fuels. If that money were put into renewable technologies (as well as into retraining displaced coal miners) it would provide incentives for the big oil companies to aggressively develop and market fuel cells, wind farms and solar systems.

§ A progressive fossil fuel efficiency standard. The parties should scrap international "emissions trading" and instead adopt a standard under which every country would begin at its current baseline to improve its fossil fuel efficiency by a specified amount every year until the 70 percent reduction is attained. By drawing progressively more of their energy from noncarbon sources, countries would create mass markets that would make these sources as cheap as coal and oil.

§ Creation of a large technology-transfer fund. The nations of the world should consider a tax on international currency transactions to fund the transfer of clean energy to developing countries. A tax of a quarter-penny per dollar on those transactions--which total $1.5 trillion per day--would help stabilize capital flows as well as net about $300 billion a year for wind farms in India, fuel-cell factories in South Africa and solar assemblies in El Salvador.

These measures would be far easier to negotiate, monitor and enforce. More important, they would represent a scale of response appropriate to the magnitude of the climate crisis that threatens the continuity of our organized civilization.