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Boiling Point.

Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis--and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster by Ross Gelbspan (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 254 pp., $22.00 cloth.

hans Blix, the well-known United Nations weapons inspector, has acknowledged, "For me the question of the environment is more ominous than that of peace and war ... I'm more worried about global warming than I am of any military conflict." In Boiling Point, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan--by describing the plethora of disasters induced by climate change which are occurring right now and are certain to get worse--underscores Blix's concern.

Gelbspan's inventory of disasters drives home the full impact of what the world faces. The list includes extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, severe storms, and record numbers of tornados; the geographic spread and increased virulence of epidemic diseases like malaria, dengue, and yellow fever; and a steady decline and increasing shortfall in grain yields. A few years ago the World Meteorological Organization predicted a doubling of heat-related deaths in the world's cities, the group's secretary general warning, "Heat waves are expected to become a major killer." That projection became prophetic in 2003 when the toll of that summer's heat wave in Europe alone came to 35,000 excess fatalities. More generally, it's estimated that about 160,000 people currently die each year from the impacts of global warming. And the World Health Organization calculates that the number will rise into the millions as global climate change continues.

Even more frightening than the extent and the severity of these impacts is the reaction to them--or lack thereof--in the United States. Most Americans, poorly informed by the mainstream media and deliberately misinformed by the powerful fossil fuel lobby, remain docile in a situation that calls for vigorous engagement. With their constituents lulled to sleep, political leaders do nothing to confront the problem. Equally important, by conducting business as usual they allow global climate change, which has now gone far beyond being merely an environmental problem, to grow steadily worse.

In 1997 Gelbspan authored The Heat Is On, a book that described the effects of warming underway at that time and warned of more to come. Now his predictions are coming true--and much faster than expected. As for the warning, the response of the vested interests and the political leadership to so dire a threat could be described as a crime against humanity.

In Boiling Point Gelbspan recounts how in the early 1990s Big Coal and Big Oil mounted a campaign of disinformation designed to persuade policymakers, the press, and the public that the issue of human-induced climate change was mired in scientific uncertainty. Armed with huge resources, the fossil fuel lobby launched an intense public relations operation featuring a small group of industry-funded scientists, the "greenhouse skeptics". Although most of these "skeptics" had little standing among climatologists, they served the purpose of the lobby well by raising doubts about the science in order to preempt public demand for action. The success of this strategy is reflected in two polls conducted by Newsweek magazine: in 1991, 35 percent of the people surveyed thought global warming was a very serious problem; by 1996 that 35 percent had dropped to 22 percent, even though the evidence for global warming and its effects had grown substantially.

The popular media, sometimes innocently and sometimes not, aided the lobby in numerous ways. For example, one reason for the effectiveness of the "skeptics" is because the media, in the name of journalistic balance, accorded them the same weight as mainstream scientists. Equal balance may be fine in a story involving opinion but it's completely misleading in a case like global warming where the evidence comes down so strongly on one side.

Gelbspan devotes a whole chapter of Boiling Point to the "deplorable job" the U.S. press has done, in contrast to the European press, in disseminating information about what's happening to the climate. Many of the failures he reveals are the common ones that deprive the public of important news--pressure by big-budget advertisers to kill or water down stories and failure to provide the context that makes a story meaningful. But global warming brings along another problem: in general, most journalists are as uninformed about science as are most of their readers, and daily deadlines don't give reporters time to digest scientific papers or to get background through conversation with scientists. Gelbspan tells the story of a veteran reporter at a large newspaper who confessed "that he had recently read a scientific paper for the first time, rather than relying on the summaries of others"; he characterized reading the literature firsthand as a "liberating experience."

At the end of 2000 climate activists thought they had scored a major victory when one of the most powerful industry groups opposing action on climate change fell apart as corporation after corporation left. But with the 2000 presidential election, writes Gelbspan, "The fossil fuel lobby won a victory beyond its wildest dreams. What began as an industry campaign of deception and disinformation was adopted as presidential strategy." George W. Bush quickly surrounded himself with cabinet members and staff having close ties to the fossil fuel lobby--not to mention that his election partner was Vice President Dick Cheney of Halliburton.

Results came quickly. Only a few months after Bush's inauguration an official of a coal association that had strongly supported Bush's candidacy boasted to the organization, "You are already seeing in his actions the payback ... for what we did." One part of that payback was the Bush-Cheney energy plan calling for the construction of 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants, most of them fueled by coal which when burned releases especially large amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Another was the reneging of Bush's campaign promise to limit power plants' carbon dioxide emissions. And still another was the administration's withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, provoking the anger of most of the rest of the world's industrial nations. (Gelbspan points out again and again the woeful inadequacy of the Kyoto Protocol and criticizes the national environmental groups for championing it as if it were a solution; this, however, wasn't why Bush withdrew the United States from it.)

With the planet and much of its population endangered, the Bush administration is promoting harmful climate change rather than trying to ameliorate it. Gelbspan characterizes Boiling Point as "a last-gasp attempt to break through the monstrous indifference of Americans to the fact that the planet is caving in around us." The hair-raising catalog of examples that he provides of that cave-in ought to shock any reasonable person out of indifference.

On a more positive note, he does outline a plan to confront climate change forcefully and to do much more. The World Energy Modernization Plan (WEMP) was developed in 1998 by an informal group of energy corporation presidents, economists, and others (including Gelbspan). It has been presented at conferences and climate negotiations and been endorsed by numerous nongovernmental organizations. The plan would reduce emissions by the 70 percent that nature seems to demand, rather than by the insignificant amount set by Kyoto. Beyond reducing climate change as rapidly as possible, it provides an impressive collection of economic and political benefits including creation of millions of jobs, many in developing countries, and even reversing the slide of the United States into a permanent corporate state. It would resuscitate participatory democracy as an operating principle in our civic lives.

The plan rests on three interactive strategies: a change of energy subsidy policies in industrial countries; creation of a fund to transfer renewable energy technologies to developing countries; and application of a progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard that rises by 5 percent each year. Gelbspan describes in detail how these elements, while chiefly targeting global climate change, can produce the other benefits as well.

Advocates of WEMP, although flexible on its particulars and even willing to acknowledge that some of its provisions may need major modifications, are convinced that no other set of strategies adequately addresses the urgency of the problem. Clearly, before a remedy this bold can be implemented, the indifference in the United States toward climate change has to be converted to awareness of its threat and commitment to an all out effort to deal with it. Through his earlier book and now Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan has paved the way for those critical steps.

After more than 35 years of industrial research and university teaching, Albert L. Huebner now writes widely on contemporary issues in science and is a contributing writer for Toward Freedom.
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Title Annotation:Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis--and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster
Author:Huebner, Albert L.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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