Confronting the Climate Cranks

Confronting the Climate Cranks

It’s time to take on those who are sabotaging our response to the climate crisis—face to face.


This article is adapted from Mark Hertsgaard’s HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, published in January by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my daughter was born at a momentous turning point in history. She arrived on a sunny San Francisco afternoon in April 2005. All the nurses kept remarking on how alert this baby was, so her mother and I decided to name her Chiara, which means "clear and bright" in Italian.

I had been covering the climate story for fifteen years by then, and when Chiara was almost six months old, I went to London to interview Sir David King, then the British government’s chief science adviser. The interview changed my life. King, who had done as much as anyone except Al Gore to awaken the world to the dangers of climate change, helped me understand that the climate problem had undergone a profound, largely unexpected paradigm shift that carried the gravest of implications for little Chiara and all the world’s children. No longer was climate change a preventable future threat; it was now a punishing current reality, one that was guaranteed to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it got better.

My interview with King led me to write HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, which has just been published. My hope was to find a way for my daughter and her peers around the world to cope with all that lies in store for them. After four years of investigation that took me across the United States and around the world, I’m heartened to report that there are many practical steps we all can take—as individuals, as communities, as countries—to protect our societies and our young people from the changes in our climate that are unavoidable over the coming decades.

Still, I am saddened and angry that we find ourselves in this position in the first place. After all, humanity’s failure to take action in time against global warming was a conscious decision, a result of countless official debates where the case for reducing greenhouse gas emissions was exhaustively considered and deliberately rejected. Much of the blame for this unfortunate outcome belongs to people I have come to refer to as climate cranks—the corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues who for twenty years have done all in their power to keep this country, especially the government, from seriously addressing the problem.

In my journalism I have frequently pointed out the nefarious role the climate cranks have played in our national politics, but I confess I have often wondered how much good this did. I revere the profession of journalism and have long believed that it is best kept separate from activism; each of these callings has its own role to play in the endless struggle to make a better world. But I am not only a journalist. I am also a father. And as a father who during all of my now 5-year-old daughter’s life has been watching governments, especially my own, do next to nothing about the climate catastrophe hurtling toward us, I have come to feel obligated to reach beyond the tools of journalism, vital as they are. Like my colleagues Bill McKibben and Mike Tidwell, two journalists and fathers who have also come to embrace climate activism, I now feel compelled to take more direct action. If Chiara and her peers around the world are to have a decent chance of inheriting a livable planet, the status quo cannot stand. We need transformative change, above all in Washington, and we need it quickly.

* * *

Which is why I will go to Washington the week of January 31 to confront the climate cranks—in Congress, in the media and in the corporate sector—and try to stop them from further sabotaging our response to the climate crisis. My partners in this effort will include the group Kids vs Global Warming, whose iMatter march aims to put a million kids in the streets on Mother’s Day to demand that our leaders address climate change as if our children’s future matters; Grist, America’s leading environmental news website; The Nation; and other organizations still to be determined.

On the ground in Washington I will be joined by local young people—activist members of Generation Hot. Our plan is to confront the climate cranks face to face, on camera, and call them to account for the dangers they have set in motion. We will highlight the ludicrousness of their antiscientific views, which alone should discredit them from further influence over US climate policies. And we will show how our nation could still change course—for example, if the federal government were to use its vast purchasing power to kick-start a green energy revolution that would create jobs and prosperity across the land. We welcome your help and constructive suggestions for how to achieve these goals and invite you to join us. (You can find out more and get involved by visiting the Generation Hot Facebook page.)

But now let me turn to the question of why such direct action has become necessary. From the time global warming emerged on the public agenda in the late 1980s, it was regarded as a grave but distant future threat and, crucially, one that could be neutralized if humanity acted quickly enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I shared these assumptions until my October 2005 interview with David King shattered them. The science adviser told me that in fact global warming had already triggered outright climate change, and had done so a hundred years sooner than even the most concerned scientists had expected. One early manifestation, according to three British scientists writing in Nature, was the record heat wave that brutalized Europe in the summer of 2003. King cited government statistics indicating that the heat had killed 31,000 people, making it "the deadliest disaster in modern European history." Yet this turned out to be an underestimate. An epidemiological study conducted in 2008 for the European Union—reported here for the first time—concluded that the 2003 heat wave had caused at least 71,449 excess deaths, a toll considerably higher than the United States suffered during the Vietnam War.

As a new father, most alarming to me was King’s next point: this newly triggered climate change is bound to intensify for the rest of my daughter’s life. The inertia of the climate system—that is, the laws of physics and chemistry—guarantee that average global temperatures will keep rising for decades to come, no matter how fervently humanity might embrace solar energy, electric vehicles and other options for reducing emissions. And as temperatures rise, this global warming will unleash still more climate change: deeper droughts, stronger storms, wilder wildfires and so on, as well as faster sea level rise.

"No, no, it’s not too late," King hurried to reply when I asked if this paradigm shift means all is lost. But the early arrival of climate change does transform the nature of the problem, as paradigm shifts tend to do. To wit, humanity now faces a double imperative. The traditional goal of climate policy—to reduce global warming—has now become more urgent than ever, for if global temperature rise isn’t halted soon, it could gain too much momentum ever to reverse. Yet at the same time, humanity has no choice but "to adapt to the impacts that are in the pipeline" over the coming decades, said King. In short, we have to live through global warming even as we try to reverse it.

* * *

All of this makes my daughter an involuntary member of what I call Generation Hot. In fact, every child on earth born after June 23, 1988, belongs to Generation Hot, roughly 2 billion young people in total. I choose that date because it was the day humanity was put on notice that human activities were unwittingly raising temperatures on this planet. The warning was in NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony to the Senate, boosted by the decision of the New York Times to publish the story on Page 1, thus making "global warming" a common phrase in newsrooms, government offices and households the world over. But Hansen’s and countless subsequent warnings have gone unheeded, largely because of stiff resistance from the carbon lobby, to borrow author Jeremy Leggett’s term—the energy and auto companies that profit from carbon dioxide emissions, the politicians and propagandists these companies sponsor and the right-wing ideologues who share their antigovernment sympathies.

My daughter and the rest of Generation Hot are fated to pay the price for this foot-dragging. One of the most unpleasant facts about climate change is that, once triggered, it cannot be turned off anytime soon. Even if humanity somehow stopped emitting carbon dioxide overnight, King told me, "temperatures will keep rising and all the impacts will keep changing for about twenty-five years." Since it is likely to take us at least a quarter-century to leave fossil fuels behind, the reality is that we’re locked in to at least fifty more years of rising temperatures and the harsher climate impacts they bring. Thus the young people of Generation Hot are condemned to spend the rest of their lives coping with a climate that will be hotter and more volatile than ever before in our civilization’s history.

You want specifics? By the time she is my age, Chiara may well not have enough water to drink here in California, because much of the Sierra Nevada snowpack will have melted. Children in today’s Washington, DC, are likely to witness in the course of their lifetimes sea level rise combine with stronger storm surges to regularly ring the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials with moats and submerge half of the National Mall. By 2050 the record heat that made the summer of 2010 so wicked will become the new normal in New York City and much of the East Coast. Overseas, the impacts will be punishing as well, especially for the poor. In Bangladesh, sea level rise is already making the soil and water in southern coastal regions too salty to produce decent yields of rice, the staple crop for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the inexorability of sea level rise ensures that many such low-lying areas worldwide will have to be evacuated, unleashing vast streams of climate change refugees. Military experts warn that this will pose not only humanitarian challenges but recurring threats to peace if the refugees attempt to cross national borders.

Precisely how much blame the carbon lobby and climate cranks deserve for the fate of Generation Hot cannot yet be scientifically determined. In theory, it’s possible that global warming would have prematurely given rise to outright climate change even if the United States and other countries had scaled back their emissions beginning in the late 1980s. After all, it is the historic accumulation of greenhouse gases, not the annual emissions, that drives global warming. Scientists are still debating exactly when global warming sparked climate change, as well as the related question of how much responsibility global warming bears for any particular climate impact. (In their Nature study of the 2003 heat wave, for example, the three British scientists estimated that global warming was responsible for about 75 percent of the excessive heat Europe experienced that summer.)

But these are scientific nuances. As a practical matter, there is no denying that the large amount of greenhouse gases emitted since June 23, 1988—about 40 percent of humanity’s total emissions since the Industrial Revolution—made global warming worse. That, in turn, increased the likelihood of unleashing climate change. Viewed in this context, the obstructionism of the carbon lobby and climate cranks played a decisive role.

Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, the climate cranks blocked our government from taking serious action against emissions. By doing so, they also stalled international action (since other countries were understandably reluctant to reduce their emissions when the world’s biggest polluter was unwilling to do so). Thus limits on global warming were avoided at the very time they would have mattered most. "Had some individual countries, especially the US, begun to act in the early to mid-1990s, we might have [avoided dangerous climate change]," Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences at Princeton who ranks among the world’s most eminent climate scientists, told me. "But we didn’t, and now the impacts are here."

"This was a crime," Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Germany’s former chief government adviser on climate told me. But the wrong people are being punished. My daughter and the rest of Generation Hot have been given a life sentence for a crime they didn’t commit. Meanwhile, the perpetrators are reaping record profits, enjoying prominent media coverage (and not only on Fox) and even gaining control of the House of Representatives, where they plan to launch an inquisition against climate scientists who don’t share their loony ideas.

* * *

It is outrageous that these climate cranks have the upper hand in Washington. The plain truth is that they have no more scientific credibility than the Flat Earth Society, and that should discredit them from exercising any influence over our climate policy, much less holding it hostage to their ideological and economic agendas. But someone has to stand up and point out that the emperor has no clothes.

Don’t rely on our media to rise to the occasion. The protocol of mainstream news coverage leads Washington journalists to refer to these people as climate skeptics. They’re not skeptics. They’re cranks. True skepticism is invaluable to the scientific method, but an honest skeptic can be persuaded by facts, if they are sound. The cranks are impervious to facts, at least facts that contradict their wacky worldview. When virtually every national science academy in the developed world, including our own, and every major scientific organization (e.g., the American Geophysical Union, the American Physics Society) has affirmed that climate change is real and extremely dangerous, only a crank continues to insist that it’s all a left-wing plot.

One crank recently took me to task for supposedly having no respect for science. In my reply, I assured him I respected science as much as anyone who lives in the modern world, where we take for granted air travel, Wi-Fi Internet, modern medicine and a host of other blessings. Then I asked, "If you respect science so much, how do you explain the fact that virtually every major scientific body on earth disagrees with you about climate science? Are they all in on the conspiracy?" He never replied, but of course that is the logical implication of his camp’s insistence that they do too have science on their side. The scientists who say otherwise are all part of a conspiracy to—well, take your pick: to keep the research dollars flowing, to expand government control of the economy, to dismantle modern society and return us to hunter-gatherer primitivism. As I said, these are the ravings of cranks.

You can hear much the same from Congressional Republicans, starting with Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the vice chair of the House Science Committee, who will be leading the charge to debunk mainstream climate science. "I personally believe that the solar flares are more responsible for climatic cycles than anything human beings do," Sensenbrenner has opined, repeating a talking point favored by many climate cranks but definitively refuted by many peer-reviewed scientific studies. For his part, the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, is so scientifically illiterate that he apparently thinks the environmental complaint about carbon dioxide is that it’s a carcinogen. Uh, no, Mr. Speaker, that’s actually the rap against those cigarettes you like smoking (and whose manufacturers you’ve defended all these years).

Newly emboldened by the midterm elections, the Republicans are gearing up to put environmentalists and climate scientists on the defensive and block progress against global warming for the rest of Obama’s presidency. It’s time to turn the tables on them. The first step is to connect the cranks to the terrible consequences they have set in motion, and thereby discredit them from further influence over the nation’s climate policies.

How? Our initiative, Confront the Climate Cranks, will do just that: confront the cranks on camera and accompanied by some of the children they have put in danger. We will video all of our confrontations and then quickly make them available to the public—by posting them on YouTube and sharing them with mainstream and alternative media and the social networks of our partner organizations. (In the run-up to these confrontations, we will invite the participation of the members or readers of The Nation, Grist, Kids vs Global Warming and the other partnering organizations, polling them on which cranks to target, what questions to ask and so on. Thus we hope to build momentum before arriving in Washington, as well as generate continuing attention and activism after the confrontations.)

By no means is our initiative alone sufficient to turn the tide in the climate fight, but we believe it can make a valuable contribution, especially if others lend a hand. By naming and shaming the climate cranks, we hope to shift the political terrain of the climate fight. By highlighting the specific climate impacts that have already begun and will intensify in the coming years, we aim to shift the debate away from abstract ideology toward the actual consequences the cranks have wrought for Generation Hot. And by conveying our message through children and parents, we can reach the ordinary Americans whose support is essential to overcoming the power of money and insider status in Washington. We hope you’ll join us.

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