"Boiling Point": Who's to Blame for Global Warming?

August 15, 2004

THE blend of passionate advocacy and lucid analysis that
Ross Gelbspan brings to this, his second book about global
warming, is extremely readable because the author's voice
is so authentic. When Gelbspan first encountered the issue
as a reporter nine years ago, he writes, he had no inkling
of how it would change his life. But as he put together the
evidence of the global climate crisis he describes in this
book, he found himself pulled inexorably to do more than
simply write about it. So he now feels called to a kind of
mission: to describe what is happening, to single out the
specific failures and misdeeds of politicians, energy
companies, environmental activists and journalists who
share responsibility for our predicament, and then propose
bold solutions that -- unlike more timid blueprints already
on the public agenda -- would in his view actually solve
the problem. 

For a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the top of his
game, this is a career detour requiring courage I greatly
admire. Moreover, he candidly describes how, as he opened
himself to the implications of what he was learning in his
dogged pursuit of this story, he has undergone something of
a personal transformation. He writes that it has become
''an excruciating experience to watch the planet fall apart
piece by piece in the face of persistent and pathological
denial.'' He describes how mountain glaciers around the
world are melting, most of them rapidly. And he cites early
examples of environmental refugees like those created in
recent weeks in Bangladesh, vulnerable to catastrophic
flooding as sea levels rise. 

In the course of this transformation, Gelbspan has become a
different kind of reporter, one who recalls the great
reforming journalists of the first decade of the 20th
century -- Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens
and others -- who not only reported on political corruption
and corporate excesses but connected them to larger
destructive patterns that had developed in the economy and
politics of their time. They agitated for policy reforms,
many of which were enacted into statutes when they became
part of the progressive movement's agenda: antitrust laws,
the Food and Drug Administration, railroad regulation, wage
and hour laws, workmen's compensation and child labor laws,
to name a few. 

It is in that spirit that Gelbspan pursues solutions for
climate change that can ''also begin to reverse some very
discouraging and destructive political and economic
dynamics as well.'' 

Part of what makes this book important is its indictment of
the American news media's coverage of global warming for
the past two decades. Indeed, when the author investigates
why the United States is virtually the only advanced nation
in the world that fails to recognize the severity of this
growing crisis, he concludes that the news coverage is ''a
large reason for that failure.'' 

At a time when prominent journalists are writing mea culpas
for allowing themselves to be too easily misled in their
coverage of the case for war in Iraq, Gelbspan presents a
devastating analysis of how the media have been duped and
intimidated by an aggressive and persistent campaign
organized and financed by coal and oil companies. He
recounts, for example, a conversation with a top television
network editor who was reluctant to run stories about
global warming because a previous story had ''triggered a
barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition''
-- a fossil fuel industry lobbying group -- ''to our top
executives at the network.'' 

He also describes the structural changes in the news media,
like increased conglomerate ownership, that have made
editors and reporters more vulnerable to this kind of
intimidation -- and much less aggressive in pursuing
inconvenient truths. 

Gelbspan's first book, ''The Heat Is On'' (1997), remains
the best, and virtually only, study of how the coal and oil
industry has provided financing to a small group of
contrarian scientists who began to make themselves
available for mass media interviews as so-called skeptics
on the subject of global warming. In fact, these scientists
played a key role in Gelbspan's personal journey on this
issue. When he got letters disputing the facts in his very
first article, he was at first chastened -- until he
realized the letters were merely citing the industry-funded
scientists. He accuses this group of ''stealing our

In this new book, Gelbspan focuses his toughest language by
far on the coal and oil industries. After documenting the
largely successful efforts of companies like ExxonMobil to
paralyze the policy process, confuse the American people
and cynically '' 'reposition global warming as theory
rather than fact,' '' as one strategy paper put it, he
concludes that ''what began as a normal business response
by the fossil fuel lobby -- denial and delay -- has now
attained the status of a crime against humanity.'' 

I wouldn't have said it quite that way, but I'm glad he
does, and his exposition of the facts certainly seems to
support his charge. 

Gelbspan also criticizes the current administration,
documenting its efforts to ''demolish the diplomatic
foundations'' of the international agreement known as the
Kyoto Protocol, and describing its approach to energy and
environmental policy as ''corruption disguised as
conservatism.'' Again, he backs up his charge with
impressive research. Moreover, his critique is far from
partisan. He takes on environmental groups for doing way
too little and for focusing on their own institutional
agendas rather than the central challenges. 

When Gelbspan addresses the subject of solutions, he first
gives a detailed analysis of all the significant plans that
have been offered, and then endorses a maximalist approach
called the World Energy Modernization Plan, developed six
years ago by an ad hoc group that met at the Harvard
Medical School. His basic argument is that it is far too
late in the game to waste time on strategies that might be
more politically feasible but don't actually do enough to
begin to solve the problem. 

He may be right, but the plan's authors, though
distinguished, remind me of Sam Rayburn's remark that he'd
feel a lot better ''if just one of them had ever run for

THE fact is, many who have worked on this problem believe
it may be essential to begin with a binding agreement among
nations and then, after governments and industries shift
direction, toughen the goals. That is the formula used
successfully in the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to begin
reducing the emissions that cause destruction of
stratospheric ozone. Three years later, the standards were
dramatically tightened in the London Amendments, and by
then most resistance had dissipated. 

The Kyoto Protocol (which may soon become legally effective
if Russia ratifies it, even though the United States has
not) has been criticized by many, including Gelbspan, for
not going nearly far enough to reduce the emissions that
cause global warming. But it has simultaneously been
condemned from the opposite side for going too far. If
Kyoto does take effect, we may find that after industries
and countries begin to comply, it will be easier to expand
the limits of what is politically possible. 

But Gelbspan's point is a powerful one and is well argued.
And he has, in any case, performed a great service by
writing an informative book on a difficult but crucial

Al Gore, formerly vice president of the United States, is
the author of ''Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human