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The Two Faces of Climate Change on the ‘Washington Post’ Op-Ed Page | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The Two Faces of Climate Change on the ‘Washington Post’ Op-Ed Page

The Runge reservoir in Chile

The Runge reservoir in Chile has suffered severe droughts in recent years. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

Last week I responded to Michael Walzer’s attempt to articulate a “left” foreign policy position on the Dissent website; you can read our exchange here. And my new Nation column, “Obama’s Pundit Problem: Critics like Maureen Down of the Times live in an Oz-like dream world,” is no longer behind a paywall. 

Alter-reviews

David Johansen/Buster Poindexter at the Cafe Carlyle

I somehow missed the fact that Johansen had been invited to bring “Buster” to the Carlye last Halloween. He did an interview with Vanity Fair about it at the time, which you can read here. I have been seeing variations of Johansen for nearly forty years now. It’s a weird thing to say but he is a lot more talented than he lets on. I say this because if all you heard was his scratchy voice and greatest hits, you’d think he was pretty good and that would be that. But the man is so versatile, it’s uncanny. First came The New York Dolls, about whose legend much has been written. They were not much on their instruments, but they oozed fun and charisma and a certain kind of decadence/chanciness that was crucial to the music reinventing itself  in the early seventies. The first “David Johansen” album, which followed, is still pretty great, as is the much-later released Live at the Bottom Line, which I remember listening to the night it was broadcast on WNEW-FM and wishing I could be there (but I was too young, alas). Since then, David has acted a bunch (his performance in “Scrooged” is the highlight), toured playing folk songs with The Harry Smiths, and stood in for Muddy Waters (sort-of) in the late Hubert Sumlin’s band, where it was uncanny how much this skinny white guy sound like the 300 pound plus Howlin’ Wolf. Throw in Buster—the audacious creation of a cheaply tuxedoed lounge act not unlike the persona Tom Waits adopts on Night Hawks at the Diner—but with an emphasis on fun obscure jump blues and corny jokes and the man looks more and more like a kind of wonder. And though he has many devoted fans, the numbers are not anywhere where they should be. (He is kind of like Randy Newman, or before his death, Warren Zevon in this regard.)

Anyway, Johansen is at bottom a performance artist, and as Buster he has all the room he needs. Before an appropriately fancy crowd on Friday night—I saw Gay Talese and Nick Pileggi at one table, the great Danny Goldberg at another—Buster put on a typically virtuoso show at the Carlyle. He has found a line where the shtick complements, rather than overwhelms the music. (It helps that the band is really tight.) And as with the Carlyle’s biggest stars, it’s the kind of show that works if you’re sixteen (as my daughter, who went with me, happens to be) or ninety-six. Here’s hoping he gets a long stay there soon, as the man deserves to make a decent living and with the death of Lou Reed—to say nothing of Bobby Short—the title of Mr. New York is open and ready to be claimed.

The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series

My deepest gratitude to my friends at Shout! Factory for its release of the nineteen DVD box set, The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series. My top-ten list of favorite shows of all time fluctuates a bit but this show, which aired from 1972 to 1978, is almost always on it. The deadpan humor, the marvelously realized characters and the empathy for life’s goofballs makes almost every episode a feel-good experience, to say nothing of the wonderfulness of Suzanne Pleshette, all complementing the deadpan humor of Newhart. It’s nearly impossible to stay in a bad mood when you’re watching these. I can’t wait to take the box out to the beach this summer and binge. This solid package includes interviews with Newhart, Jack Riley, Bill Daily, Peter Bonerz and Michael Zinberg, as well The Bob Newhart Show 19th Anniversary from 1991, the original unaired pilot, audio commentaries, a gag reel and a handsome forty-page booklet. It won’t be out until later this month but you can preorder it in lots of places and my guess is that it will show up early. Do yourselves a favor…

Dave’s Picks Volume Ten 

The Dead’s Dave’s Picks Volume Ten is taken from the final night of a three-night run at a little club in LA called "Thelma" on Sunset Strip in December, 1969. They had just released Live/Dead and were getting ready to put out Workingman's Dead and there sure was a lot of Pigpen. "I'm A King Bee," "Hard To Handle," "Good Lovin'" and a thirty minute plus version of "Turn On Your Lovelight." Mastered in HDCD from the original soundboard recordings produced by Owsley Stanley, featuring the once lost, now found, first reel. People who love this period of the Dead will not want to be without, though, given how quickly theDave’s Picks series sells out, many will be if they don’t already subscribe to the this handsomely packaged series.

More Box Sets You Might Want

Here’s a bunch of CD box sets and re-releases that might excite you more than they excite me. I won’t judge you harshly if that’s the case.

First is the eight-CD Black Sabbath: The Complete Studio Albums (1970-1978). It’s in a clamshell box and the set contains all of the studio albums Black Sabbath recorded for Warner Bros. Records during the nineteen-seventies, all of which sold rather well, so I guess a lot of people liked them. Apparently they are still around, too, as they began a North American tour on March 31 with a show at Barclays Center.

Another new box is The Alan Parsons Project—The Complete Albums Collection, which is eleven CDs and includes The Sicilian Defence, the notorious never-released fifth APP album. (It was, says my press kit, “an aggressive musical response to stalled contract negotiations. Composed and recorded over an intense three-day marathon session at Super Bear Studios in France (during the same period Eve was made), The Sicilian Defence is a complex and challenging work, full of atonality and dissonance. Delivered to Arista in March 1981, the masters were locked away and the controversial recordings unheard for three decades. While an edited version of one of the album's tracks, "Elsie's Theme," was included as a bonus track on an expanded edition of Eve, The Sicilian Defence is being released for the first time in its entirety for this collection.”

The box itself is based on masters overseen by Alan Parsons and each of the albums is presented, in facsimile vinyl replica wallet sleeves released between 1976 and 1987 with original album track-listings intact, along with rare photos, many previously unpublished. (Parsons had worked as assistant engineer on the Beatles' Abbey Road and Let It Be and engineered Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, so the “project” movies in an interesting direction.  The Scottish rock band Pilot—“Ho, ho, ho, it’s magic. You know. Never believe it’s not so”—provided the core group of musicians for the Alan Parsons Project with Ian Bairnson (guitar) playing on every APP album, David Paton (bass and vocals) appearing on all albums except Gaudi, and Stuart Tosh (drums) playing drums on Tales of Mystery and Imagination and I Robot before joining 10cc and being replaced by Stuart Elliott (Cockney Rebel drummer). My favorite is the classic, Tales of Mystery and Imagination from 1976.

Now here’s Reed:

The Two Faces of Climate Change on the Washington Post Op-Ed Page
by Reed Richardson

In case you missed it, the sobering reality of climate change presented us with a “holy shit moment” this week. The vast West Antarctic Ice Sheet, two scientific studies revealed, is now past the point of no return; its six glaciers doomed to break apart thanks to a massive surge of warm water being pulled southward by greenhouse gas-fueled winds. The amount of water unlocked by the melting of these glaciers has the potential to raise sea levels by as much as four feet in just a few centuries, sooner if global warming continues to accelerate. That news comes on the heels of another dire United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that warned that sea levels are already rising right now and could increase by as much as three feet by the year 2100 when glacial melting from Greenland is factored in.

Sadly, the political willpower in Washington to take action in the face of this ongoing, man-made crisis is missing. The Obama administration must partly take the blame for this inaction. For too long it has let addressing climate change slip to the bottom of its to-do list. (Although, to be fair, it has showed a lot more willingness to tackle the issue of late.) And while a few Democratic Senators have also worked to ensure legislative apathy, there’s no doubt that the near lockstep intransigence of Congressional Republicans is the number one reason our nation has been unable to craft solutions substantial enough to address this growing threat.

Making the GOP’s climate change-denying job easier: a diffident, often dismissive press corps. Indeed, when not ignoring the issue altogether, the establishment media—and the Beltway punditocracy in particular—has played a key role in aiding and abetting the right wing’s denialism through stilted, he-said-she-said story framing. Widespread journalistic negligence of this breadth and depth should frustrate all of us. But no single news organization’s take on climate change rises to the level of inexplicable duplicitousness quite like Washington Post op-ed page.

Case in point, on Monday, the Post’s editorial board unabashedly hammered Republican Sen. Marco Rubio for his shameless perpetuation of climate change skepticism. Rubio’s comments, which marked a clear step backward away from the scientific consensus, coincidentally came last Friday during an interview where the senator not-so-humbly said he was “ready to be president." The Post, not mincing words, rightly called out Rubio’s misrepresentations and said his embrace of such falsehoods made him unfit for the Presidency:

“It is one thing to invite a debate about the best policy to address rising global temperatures, a problem no country can tackle on its own. It is another to dismiss the evidence that ‘these scientists’ have compiled—‘a handful of decades of research,’ Mr. Rubio derisively called it—to show that humans are driving much of that warming.”

This rhetorical courage on the part of the Post’s editorial staff isn’t unusual. To their credit, they’ve long used the paper’s highly influential platform to champion the fight against global warming. All of which makes the Post’s willingness to host a number of climate change ditherers and outright deniers on its op-ed pages that much more puzzling.

Of those, George Will sticks out as a climate change denier of the highest order, someone much more visible and voluble on spreading misinformation than Sen. Rubio or almost any other “hoax”-hyping Republican in Washington. Indeed, Will’s dissembling on climate change got so bad at one point in 2009, you may recall, that it prompted fellow Post columnist Eugene Robinson, the Post’s weather blog, and two reporters in the news pages to all call him and his lies out—by name.

He’s by no means moved on or wised up since then. Back in February, there he was, throwing out more disingenuous talking points like “the climate is always changing,” which I would note is almost the exact same phrase that Sen. Rubio used—“our climate is always changing”—last week when the Post lambasted him. But notably missing from those series of rebukes to Will four years ago or from his column three months ago was a direct rebuttal from Fred Hiatt’s own editorial page.

Unfortunately, Will is not alone. In his Washington Post column this week, conservative Charles Krauthammer scoffed at the notion that climate change is “settled science,” without bothering to note the actual, overwhelming truth as reported by the Post. Instead, he boldly reiterated his stance as a so-called climate change agnostic: “I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier.” But while one can reasonably claim to be uncertain about matters of pure faith, like, say, the existence of God or a serious House Republican plan to replace Obamacare, one cannot by definition be neither a believer nor a denier of a fact.

Moreover, for someone who claims not to have chosen a side on climate change, Krauthammer’s mind sounds fairly settled, since he allows no acknowledgement of the broad scientific consensus and instead cherry-picks data where the only perceivable goal is to feed climate skepticism. For example, he drolly points out that, in all of 2012, only one hurricane made US landfall and that 2013 saw the fewest Atlantic hurricanes in the past thirty years. Take that, climate Cassandras! While both of these facts are accurate, they’re also arbitrary and completely lacking in context. What he conveniently leaves out are the broader, global trends at work, like the unquestionably dramatic rise in ocean heating and the correspondingly fast disappearance of Arctic sea ice. And said post compels the Post to run an almost column-length letter-to-the-editor debunking Krauthammer, one wonders what is the point of giving his shoddy thinking the imprimatur of the paper in the first place?

Alas, these climate change know-nothings on the Post op-ed page has recently been complemented by climate change do-nothing and do-littles. On Monday, for instance, so-called liberal columnist Robert Samuelson melodramatically dropped on the climate change discussion what he purported to be a big ol’ truth bomb: We have no solution.” But, as Media Matters notes, his fatalistic language, while not only false, only further serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that is a) helplessly reductive and b) only gives comfort to those skeptics who don’t believe climate change merits action anyway. Bizarrely, Samuelson actually does offer up an important framework toward a solution—a carbon tax—at the end of his column.

Setting aside Samuelson’s self-refuting argument, it’s notable that one month ago the Post’s editorial page was singing the exact opposite tune, calling for immediate, unequivocal action on climate change:

“The experts leave little doubt about the right response: Cut pollution to head off the worst possible consequences and prepare for the risks the world is unlikely to avoid, given its inability to slash emissions quickly. Delaying action, they note, reduces the world’s options and affords vulnerable people less time to cope.”

Even those conservative columnists at the Post who aren’t ideologically opposed to the science of climate change can have an undermining effect on the debate of what to do about it. For example, Michael Gerson’s forthright column aimed at debunking the climate conspiracy theorists in his party nonetheless engages in subtle innuendo and false choices. In it, he poses a lot of “questions” about climate change that have been already answered and characterizes the necessarily hard-to-swallow medicine of science-based solutions to global warming as naïve or unrealistic.

“Some scientists have displayed an artificial certainty on some matters that seems to cross into advocacy. Others assume that the only way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions is a strict, global regulatory regime — an economic and political judgment that has nothing to do with their actual expertise."

Expert scientific advocacy for a worldwide solution, heaven forfend! Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like exactly the sort of idea we should be considering in the face of a global climate crisis. After all, following the wait-and-see, take-it-slow approach Gerson advocates is exactly what got us into this dire situation, and what the Post’s own editorial page forcefully rejects. 

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But thanks to this continued editorial indulgence, the Post op-ed page effectively cancels itself out time and again when it comes to addressing the ominous risks we’re facing from climate change. Now, I get the paper’s desire to provide a broad range of viewpoints from across the political spectrum. Both conservatives and liberals should, of course, always be free to write or say whatever they want in a free society. But this doesn’t mean that any one side or ideology should be free from the consequences of what they write in the marketplace, especially if they willfully distort scientific fact or traffic in lies. 

Recently, other esteemed newspapers have begun to draw some individual limits around what they’re willing to publish regarding climate change, in order to protect the intellectual honesty of what goes out under their paper’s name. This is as it should be, as the press's role shouldn't be to unnecessarily provoke a debate based on false claims. It’s time for Fred Hiatt and the rest of his editorial page staff to critically reassess the depth of their commitment to telling the truth as well. If the Post really wants to make a difference in addressing our man-made climate change crisis, the best place to start might be in its own op-ed pages.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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