As The World Burns

Hot and Bothered: An Interview with Ross Gelbspan

Taking on the climate change deniers and their media enablers.

| Mon Apr. 18, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

For nearly a decade, Ross Gelbspan has watched global warming deniers generate a lot of heat, and little light. “First time around, they said global warming is not happening,” he says. “Then after the science became pretty powerful, they said, ‘Well it’s good for us.’ Now they’re saying that the impacts will be pretty negligible. They’re a moving target.” The former Boston Globe editor and veteran journalist first encountered the skeptics when he started writing about climate change in the early 1990s. Their arguments almost convinced him to drop the subject altogether. But he soon came to understand that global warming was not only real, it was perhaps the most important story of the day.

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Since then, Gelbspan taken the deniers down a notch or two. In 1995, he revealed that three prominent deniers were receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the coal industry. In 1997, he wrote The Heat is On, which explored the science of global warming and took apart its detractors’ scientific arguments and ideological ties.

But while Gelbspan laid out the deniers’ questionable ties to the energy industry as well as the growing body of evidence for climate change, most of the American media has either ignored the topic or given skeptics a free ride. In the May/June 2005 issue of Mother Jones, Gelbspan takes his colleagues to task for giving the deniers a platform to question the science and provide intellectual cover for inaction. The failure of the press to adequately cover global warming, he argues, “lies in the indifference or laziness of hundreds of reporters who are betraying their professional obligation to their readers and viewers.”

For Gelbspan, the battle over the existence of global warming is ancient history. He has shifted his focus to what happens next. Much of his most recent book, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis--And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster is concerned with how we can move towards a clean energy future. “We’re at a historically unique moment of opportunity to bring countries together on a common global project that could increase the prosperity and security of our world,” he says. “A real solution to the climate issue contains the seeds of solutions to other problems.”

Gelbspan spoke to Mother Jones from his home outside Boston.

Mother Jones How did you come to realize that climate change was a great story?

Ross Gelbspan: I got into this in a really peculiar way, not because I love the trees but because I spent my whole career following the belief that in a democracy we need honest information. I’m a journalist, not an environmentalist. I learned that the coal industry was paying some scientists under the table to say global warming is not happening. My immediate response was, “Boy, if there’s a cover up going on, what is it that they’re covering up?” That led me to plunge into the subject for the past 10 years.

MJ.com: As you mentioned, you came across some of the deniers’ links to the coal industry. Can you talk more about that story and what you found out?

RG: I had done an article on the impact of climate change on public health in the Washington Post. After that piece ran, I got letters from readers who said, “Well, this is all well and good but we still don’t believe the climate is changing.” These letters referred me to the work of three prominent greenhouse skeptics: Fred Singer, Patrick Michaels, and Richard Lindzen. I read their work and I was persuaded that this issue was stuck in uncertainty, that there may not be a story here at all. But I had set up interviews with several other scientists and as a courtesy I decided to go ahead and keep those interviews. One of the scientists, who is a co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, showed me how these skeptics were being misleading in how they were manipulating data and really presenting a false picture. It really turned my head around. That scientist also said to me, “We’re puzzled because we don’t know where these folks are getting funded from. They’re not getting funded from the traditional public science funding sources.” I learned shortly thereafter that there was going to be a public hearing in Minnesota that was going to review the environmental impacts of coal burning. I found out that the fossil-fuel lobby was flying in four experts to testify. [At the hearing] the assistant attorney general compelled all these witnesses to disclose all their funding sources under oath. At that point, I realized that the coal industry had paid at least three of these greenhouse skeptics about $1 million over a three-year period. That propelled me to dig some more.

MJ.com: It’s interesting that the names of the skeptics you encountered continue to pop up. Do they keep appearing because they’re the only ones out there or because they’re especially good at what they do?

RG: It’s not that their message is getting out there due to its merit. It’s part of a deliberate and concerted public relations campaign by the fossil-fuel lobby. The strategy papers for this campaign said specifically that the purpose of this publicity campaign using greenhouse skeptics was to reposition global warming as theory rather than fact. The piece that’s being missed is how much money is being spent by their sponsors to amplify their voices and to buy them media time.

MJ.com: This PR campaign has had a fair degree of success in swaying public opinion and some politicians. But now that the scientific consensus is out there, do you see public opinion changing?

RG: I think there’s been a real sea change in public opinion in the U.S. during the last year and a half, or two years. I do a lot of traveling and my sense is that people have become really freaked out by the weather. They know something is wrong even if they don’t understand greenhouse gases. They sense something is changing and that makes people instinctively uncomfortable, and that makes them much more receptive to looking at the causes.

MJ.com: In your article in Mother Jones you mention that at least one network news department was urged by advertisers not to cover global warming. I’d like to you to talk about the pressures on journalists to downplay or ignore this story.

RG: There are two parts to that. One is the direct pressure that I alluded to. One way that the press could make this issue much more accessible to the public is to mention the connection between global warming and increasingly extreme weather events. I mentioned this to a news editor at one of the top networks, and this editor told me, “We did that once.” I asked, “What do you mean we did that once?” and he said, “We did that but the fossil fuel lobby was all over our news executives. They made the argument that you can’t attribute any one storm to global warming— just as you can make the case that you can’t attribute any one case of lung cancer to smoking.” He said that essentially they threatened to withdraw all their advertising from the network. It was a strong-arm tactic. That was a case of direct intimidation, but I don’t think that’s the reason for the poor coverage overall. The reason goes back to the original point of the PR campaign by the fossil fuel lobby—to create a sense of doubt in the public mind about this issue. So they masked it as a matter of opinion, as a he said/she said thing. Most reporters were guarded because they felt like there really were two sides to this story. In fact, there are not two sides to this story. On one hand, you have 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the U.N.—in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history—that human-induced global warming is happening. You have a few skeptics, the most prominent of which are funded by the fossil fuel lobby—we’re talking about five or six people here—who say it’s not happening. That false impression that this is really a matter of debate has prevented the press from going after it in a much harder way.

MJ.com: What kind of response has your reporting received from the deniers?

RG: The first response that I had was a web-based campaign to impugn my professional integrity. They basically came out and said that I was a résumé fraud. I had said that I was a co-recipient of a Pulitzer prize and they said, “No, Gelbspan never had a role in a Pulitzer prize.” That was pretty hurtful; I was proud of that prize. I was an editor at the Boston Globe and we did a big series looking at racial discrimination in greater Boston. When the Globe won the Pulitzer for this project, the publisher said to me, “This is your series. You conceived it, you directed it; so we are designating you as recipient on behalf of the Boston Globe.” I didn’t feel like I was distorting it by saying I was a co-recipient. When I stepped back and reflected on it, I felt pretty good about it because I realized there was nothing wrong about the book that they could critique, so as a result they resorted to character assassination instead.

MJ.com: You’ve written about who in the media is doing a good job of covering climate change. Are there any outlets that are doing a particularly bad job?

RG: I don’t watch Fox News a lot, so I can’t really comment on it. But in terms of the general mainstream media, I’m just seeing the story being undercovered or covered grudgingly.

MJ.com: In Boiling Point you spend a lot of time talking about possible solutions to climate change. Now that the science is settled, doesn’t this question create a new avenue for the deniers and skeptics who want to say we don’t need to do anything about it?

RG: That’s right. First time around, [the deniers] said global warming is not happening. Then after the science became pretty powerful, they said, ‘Well it’s good for us.’ Now they’re saying that the impacts will be pretty negligible. They’re a moving target. But the science is very clear—we need to cut our emissions worldwide by 70 percent in a pretty short time. The real debate should be, how do we change our energy systems without wrecking our economy—not whether or not global warming is happening. That’s really what the debate is in European countries, where they’re beginning to look at massive kinds of changes. That’s a debate which I haven’t heard the skeptics weigh into hardly at all.

MJ.com: Why haven’t the skeptics gained traction in Europe? It’s not as if the fossil-fuel industry doesn’t have a lot of influence there.

RG: There have been some skeptics in Europe, but they’ve gotten little response. They certainly haven’t gotten much press. There’s just more respect for proven science in Europe. One colleague of mine who researches the responses of the oil and auto industries to the climate issue conveyed to me an interesting conversation he had with the president of a [European] car maker. My friend asked him, “The science says we have to cut emissions by 70 percent. Do you accept the science?” The president of this auto company looked at him and said, “Are you crazy? I can’t deny the science. If I denied the science I’d be laughed out of the room. My job is to accept the science and then try to cut the best deal for my company within those constraints.” That speaks to a fundamental respect for the integrity of well-done peer-reviewed science that is more a part of European culture than our culture. I don’t know what accounts for that difference.

MJ.com: We like to think that we face more pressing issues than climate change, such as terrorism or the war in Iraq. You write that these issues are can not be separated from global warming. Why is that?

RG: It’s very clear that climate impacts hit poor countries first and hardest because they don’t have the infrastructure to buffer the impacts. There’s no question in my mind that there is a potential for retaliation against the U.S. from people whose homelands are going under from rising sea levels, whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes, and so forth. The U.S.’s continuing indifference to this issue could well prompt more anti-US attacks and more instances of terrorism. Also relatively undercovered was an important study that came out of the Pentagon last year. They did a planning scenario, which they released to Fortune magazine of all places—it really wanted this in front of corporate America, in which they said we are running the risk of a rapid climate change event. Were that were to happen, we’d see mass migration, all kinds of wars, political chaos.

MJ.com: Having spent some time digging through stories on global warming and its effects, I wonder how journalists can move the story forward. You can only read so many melting glacier stories before they begin to sound like a broken record.

RG: There was a CNN documentary last weekend that devoted a lot of time to what’s happening in the Arctic and Tuvalu. While that information is dramatic, it seems pretty remote to American viewers. Journalists should integrate their coverage of climate change into their coverage of other areas. This has huge ramifications diplomatically; it has important economic implications; it has important implications for technology, for science, for weather, for all these areas. There are a lot of kinds of mainstream stories that are not specifically about the climate but in which the issue of climate plays a role. Now, unfortunately, the coverage of climate change is ghettoized as a sub-beat of environmental reporters. But given the range of this subject and the areas it impacts, I think it should be in the newspaper three times a week.