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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tom Henry: Politics, money blur climate change picture

Politics, money blur climate change picture

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain vow to tighten emission standards for coal-fi red power plants.

Achieving meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases that cause global warming could result in higher taxes and electric bills while also driving up costs for everything from food to electronics.

By how much?

That's one of the great unknowns, though many of the world's top climate scientists believe that failing to act is a foolhardy risk that could irreversibly harm the planet and cost more in the long run.

This year's presidential election is historic beyond Barack Obama becoming the first African-American presidential nominee for either major party and Sarah Palin becoming the first Alaskan and the first woman on the Republican ticket.

It is the first time both major parties are fielding a presidential candidate who vows to tighten rules on coal-fired power plants specifically to cut back on heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other emissions warming the Earth's climate.

Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center discusses opportunities in the future for Ohio

John McCain co-authored such legislation with Democrat-turned-Independent U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2007, though — like other proposals — it never made it out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Mr. Obama and his former rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, were among that bill's co-sponsors.

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of man-made greenhouse gases that cause global warming, responsible for almost 40% of the carbon dioxide that humans generate.

Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain both favor a cap-and-trade program over a carbon tax, the latter which is a straight tax on emissions that utilities likely would pass along to consumers.

VIEW: Greenland Day 2 photos
VIEW: Greenland Day 1 photos

VIDEO: Ellen Mosley - Thompson (Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center) big picture global warming discussion

VIDEO: Lonnie Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson of Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center

VIDEO: Frozen Library, Byrd Polar Research Center

VIDEO: Frozen Library, Byrd Polar Research Center

MULTIMEDIA: Land of Ice and Snow
MULTIMEDIA: Land of Ice and Snow

ALSO: Summit looks to update Kyoto treaty
ALSO: Midwest has lots at stake in 'clean coal'

ALSO: Climate change called certain and most predictions are bad
ALSO: Warming likely to affect fishing, shipping industries

ALSO: Global warming grips Greenland, leaves lasting mark
ALSO: Scientist defies danger, goes deep for answers on receding ice sheet
ALSO: Ohio State facility holds eons of atmospheric history
HENRY COLUMN: Happenings in Greenland offer lessons for everyone

The Edison Electric Institute said it cannot quantify how much a carbon tax would drive up electric bills but said the cost would be 'substantial.' Under a cap-and-trade program, the government would place a limit on emissions and force utilities to barter for credits.

Many utility officials prefer the cap-and-trade concept because it is a market-based approach and rewards ingenuity.

Utilities that operate efficiently can sell leftover credits to utilities that don't.

Such a program has been used nationally since 1990 to cut back on emissions of sulfur dioxide that form acid rain in the atmosphere. Acidic precipitation damages forests, lakes, and streams.

While both candidates still are fine-tuning their programs, Mr. Obama said he envisions one aggressive enough to curb greenhouse gases 80% by 2050.

Mr. McCain said he is looking at one that achieves a 60% reduction by that same year.

Just last week, U.S. Reps. John Dingell (D., Mich.) and Rick Boucher (D., Va.) released a discussion draft of legislation that aims to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 through a cap-and-trade program.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, called it 'a very good sign of the commitment in the House to tackle global warming legislation in the next Congress.'

Politics and money
If the science behind climate change is such a slam dunk, why aren't more people embracing it?

Two words: politics and money.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 27% of Republicans believe man has influenced the Earth's climate. Among Democrats, the figure is 58%. Independents are split 50-50.

'The science is bullet-proof right now. The uncertainty is in the predictions [of climate change],' said Jason Box, of Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center.

Global warming was the sixth biggest story of 2007, according to an Associated Press poll of U.S. editors and news directors.

But from conservative talk-show hosts to oil lobbyists, enough doubts have been raised about it to make people uneasy about calls for costly regulations.

Some compare it to the disinformation campaign that tobacco lobbyists waged on the public for years. We don't call them skeptics, because any good scientist is a skeptic. We call them ‘confusionists.' They're trying to confuse the public like the tobacco lobby did,' said Don Wuebbles, a University of Illinois atmospheric sciences professor.

'The science debate is over,' he said. 'There is no debate.'

‘Fog of doubt'
Don't say that to the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, publishers of the tabloid-format Environment & Climate News, which claims on its banner to be 'The Monthly Newspaper for Common Sense Environmentalists.'

Each issue is chock full of stories about those who debunk climate change as a myth, as well as those who challenge the wisdom of wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy.

The lead story in its December issue last year was one about the controversy over whether former Vice President Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, was too partisan to be shown in England's secondary schools.

A British High Court ruled the film was a 'powerful, dramatically presented, and highly professionally produced film,' yet agreed with the father of a child who had challenged that it is a 'political film.' The court allowed schools to show the movie but agreed with the parent there should at least be a disclaimer for teachers to explain it in a greater context.

Don't say the debate is over to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, either.

That institute, which calls itself a free-market think tank, is believed to be the largest of several recipients of ExxonMobil money to downplay or deny the global warming issue.

ExxonMobil announced in 2006 that it had stopped funding such groups, but the
Washington Post reported last year that the giant oil company had funneled about $2 million over seven years to that institute alone for its campaign.

A cover story in Newsweek last year examined the history of global warming naysayers, claiming that one group funded by ExxonMobil had offered scientists $10,000 to write articles undercutting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Nobel-winning report in 2007.

'Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change,' the article stated.

Opposing views
Is this effort a disinformation campaign or an effort to bring balance to the debate?

Both sides have accused each other of trying to mislead the public with half-truths, exaggerations, and outright lies.

Both have their rising stars.

This month's edition of Esquire lists Al Gore and Bjorn Lomborg as two of the 21st Century's most influential people, the latest of several such accolades the
men have received from major publications.

Most people are aware Mr. Gore was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for warnings about climate change that began while he was still in Congress and culminated with his Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

The public at large is not as familiar with Mr. Lomborg. But the Danish political scientist and business professor has become a hero to legions of people who believe global warming has been blown out of proportion, if it exists at all.

He has been wildly popular among naysayers for books such as The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (originally published in Demark in 1998 and translated into English in 2001) and last year's Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Climate Change.

His first book, though — the one that brought him celebrity — was lambasted first in the scientific journal, Nature, and then in a 2002 Scientific American article by four experts who claimed it was fraught with errors, intentional oversights, and misleading statements. The controversy didn't stop there: The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty condemned the book in January 2003. The committees' 27 allegations were dismissed by the Danish government that December.

Mr. Lomborg acknowledges that climate change exists but questions the causes of it. He suggests people take a more pragmatic view of what's happening to the Earth, rather than spending billions of dollars searching for a fix that might only have a marginal effect, at best.

His biggest fans include bestselling American fiction writer Michael Crichton, who described Mr. Lomborg on as 'the best-informed and most humane advocate for environmental change in the world today.'

'In contrast to other figures that promote a single issue while ignoring others, Lomborg views the globe as a whole, studies all the problems we face, ranks them, and determines how best, and in what order, we should address them,' wrote Mr. Crichton, who created a buzz himself with his 2004 thriller, State of Fear, a novel that plays off the global warming debate.

Although the book is fiction, many people have cited footnotes in it as proof that global warming is a hoax.

Among them is University of Michigan football play-by-play announcer Frank Beckmann, who hosts a conservative talk show on WJR-AM (760) in Detroit and writes a political column for the Detroit News.

WJR is an 86-year-old AM radio station with a signal strong enough to be heard throughout much of the Great Lakes region and parts of Canada.

Mr. Beckmann has a page on WJR's Web site dedicated to his views about climate change.

'I always direct newcomers in the global warming arena to begin by reading Michael Crichton's book, State of Fear, not so much for the story but for all the research included in its pages,' Mr. Beckmann said in the opening line of that Web page.

Mr. Beckmann, a conservative, includes a 1948 quote in which Norman Thomas, a six-time Socialist Party of America candidate, claimed Americans will never knowingly adopt socialism but will inadvertently become a socialist nation under the guise of liberal programs.

Acknowledging the issue
Though many people continue to question how much human activity is affecting the climate or whether global warming exists at all, a number of public officials beyond Mr. Gore have recognized it as a legitimate issue.

'Global climate change is the most important environmental challenge facing not only our nation, but the entire world.'

Those were the words Mr. McCain used to begin his June 5 press release in support of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008, a bill that resembled legislation he had proposed with Mr. Lieberman last year. The bill made it out of committee but could not pass the full Senate this summer.

That same day, two retired military officers, Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan and Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, called global warming a national security threat at a press conference in support of the Lieberman-Warner bill. In addition to Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Warner, the officers were joined by Senator Boxer and Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.).

General Sullivan, admitting he was once a skeptic about global warming, cited reduced access to fresh water, impaired food production, land loss, and the displacement of major populations of people as the security issues magnified by climate change. He said the projected changes act 'as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.'

The military never has 100% certainty on a battleground — and policymakers shouldn't prolong the debate on climate change, given the risks, he said.

'National security involves much more than just military strength. National security is affected by political, military, cultural, and economic elements. And climate change has an impact on each of them,' Admiral Lopez said. 'The instabilities that exist will create a fertile ground for extremism — and these instabilities are likely to be exacerbated by global climate change.'

Both sides of the debate differ over the Bush Administration's treatment of NASA's James Hansen, who has been pushing Congress to address climate change since the 1980s.

Mr. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adjunct professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, is the subject of a book released this year, Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming.

In it, author Mark Bowen details how The New York Times and others uncovered evidence of the administration selectively editing his work.

But even President Bush, scorned by environmentalists for failing to act on climate change, did something his father never did in the White House.

He agreed during his first year in office in 2001 that scientific evidence appeared to link man-made pollution to climate change.

Mr. Bush has said for the last seven years he believes governments need to take action but has said he did not want to take measures that would hurt the U.S. economy or fail to be matched by China and India. China last year surpassed the U.S. for total greenhouse gas emissions.

Things have come a long way since the 1992 presidential campaign, when Mr. Bush's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, mocked Al Gore on the campaign trail with these words:

'Ozone Man! Ozone! He's crazy, way out, far out, man.'

Even in Ohio, there has been a big change since Gov. Ted Strickland became the state's first Democratic governor in years.

Environmentalists accused former state Environmental Protection Agency directors Don Schregardus, Chris Jones, and Joe Koncelik of being soft on utilities. Current state EPA Director Chris Korleski said in Ottawa County last spring that uniform, federal rules need to be adopted for cracking down on greenhouse gases to address 'what is truly becoming the environmental issue of our time.'

High costs
The verdict is far from being unanimous among world leaders.

Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, told the United Nations on Sept. 24, 2007, that it is premature to call climate change a crisis. He questioned if any government action to curb greenhouse gases is necessary, given the costs and the uncertainty of the payback.

On a DVD of his speech that has been widely circulated by the Heartland Institute, Mr. Klaus said developed countries such as the United States do not have the right to tell developing countries such as China and India they should not follow the same path toward modernization.

He said the consequences of acknowledging the symptoms of climate change 'as a real, big, imminent, and man-made threat would be so enormous that we are obliged to think twice before making decisions.'

'To prematurely declare the victory of one group over another would be a tragic mistake and I'm afraid we are making it,' Mr. Klaus said.

High stakes
Those frustrated by the public's mule-like response to the issue include Lonnie Thompson and his wife, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, who 32 years ago co-founded the internationally famous ice core paleoclimatology unit at Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center.

Both have traveled the world pulling ice core samples from glaciers and ice sheets in search of clues that will help advance the world's understanding of climate change.

Mr. Thompson, featured in Mr. Gore's book and movie, agreed with the comparisons between naysayers and tobacco lobbyists.

'The thing about science is it's about what is, not what we hope for,' he said.

Ms. Mosley-Thompson said she is dumbfounded by what she sees as a movement to deceive the public.

'It's very frustrating. It's very demoralizing. It's amazing how many intelligent, very skilled people believe the rubbish, and I mean the rubbish that the Heartland Institute and Fox News put out,' she said.

The message is complicated by sound bites and short-range vision, according to Konrad 'Koni' Steffen, a University of Colorado researcher who has been doing research in the Arctic since 1975 and has been on the Greenland ice sheet annually since 1990.

Earth's climate would be different in 2100, even if mankind wasn't generating so much carbon dioxide.

'This is the difficult part to talk about with politicians: We're in for warming no matter what we do. But life doesn't stop at 2100,' he said.

Mr. Box wonders if climate change gets a cool reaction from a segment of the population because of a politically driven callousness that some people have about nature, naively and arrogantly thinking the human race is above it.

'There's obviously a strong political resistance to environmental destruction. I mean, it goes beyond climate warming. We're chopping down the forests, we're killing the oceans, we're killing the air. Raising the temperature of the climate is just one other way that humans are managing to destroy the environment,' he said. 'I think [to some people] it's just another ‘Save the Whales.' '

Except that the stakes are global if we're wrong.

'Humans have really gotta get their act together if they want to take this one on,' Mr. Box said.

Contact Tom Henry at:

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Unknown said...

This political climate change has huge implications not only for political parties, but also for the bureaucracy, corporate leaders, urban residents, academics, NGOs and the media.
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Anonymous said...

Well, Olivia, I sure can't disagree with you there.

This is going to affect each and every one of us in ways that we cannot foresee.

One thing for sure is that most of us will be going through a massive change in attitude.