Given the hype in recent years, we thought we were sticking our neck out last time by speculating that the media was beginning to see environmental issues as a bit passe. As it turns out, we were dead on.
On October 20, E-wire coverage of a conference of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists in Budapest led with this: "Journalists from around the world are preparing for the moment when environmental news will again be a 'hot topic'....Many editors now think of environmental news as old news, says Jim Detjen, an award-winning U.S. reporter and current IFEJ president. According to Detjen, recent studies have found that the national evening television newscasts in the United States are only running half as many environmental stories as they did five years ago. Similar trends are reported in other parts of the world."
There are reasons for this, of course--as Gregg Easterbrook, then at Newsweek, and Keith Schneider, then at the New York Times, pointed out at a SEPP/George Mason University conference in Washington in 1993. Easterbrook noted that conventional wisdom on environmental issues was changing and spoke of a "coming paradigm shift" in the way environmental issues were reported. Reporters, he said, were now asking questions about motive, tactics, small risks, big costs, "bad science," and the political agenda on all sides. Keith Schneider added that environmental issues had become so complex that reporters had "no firm place to stand." It used to be a simple "victim-oriented" beat, he said. Now it involves science, politics, finance.
That reporters have become more and more confused by the complexity of the global warming issue was evident in the coverage (or lack of coverage) it received over the last few months. Unable to grasp the science, reporters like Bill Stevens at the New York Times, John Fialka at the Wall Street Journal, Joby Warrick at the Washington Post, and even Willis Witter at the Washington Times, repeatedly sought comfort in the phrase "mainstream scientists agree," despite the fact that just WHO those mainstream scientists are remains largely a mystery.
Katie McGinty, former Al Gore chief of staff and now chair of the White House Council of Environmental Quality, frequently turns up on television defending Bill and Al's global warming stance. But her understanding of the issue puts her more in the jetstream, or the gulfstream, or--well, ask Katie. In July, at a Western States Coalition Summit in Spokane, Washington, McGinty was asked about the weather satellite data and whether the federal government agreed that it showed a slight cooling trend.
Here's McGinty's response: "Yes, and it's a cooling of the stratosphere, as opposed to the issue of climate change. It isn't the stratosphere, it's the troposphere. It's the air that surrounds the planet, that we walk on and live and breathe on. And the cooling of the stratosphere, by the way, is the result of ozone--stratospheric ozone depletion--the hole in the ozone. So, yes, we agree, and that wouldn't have anything to do with it."
We had hoped Bill and Al were getting better advice than that. Here at SEPP, the staff could only come up with five scientists regularly quoted promoting the global warming scare--less than half of the number that are quoted expressing skepticism in recent weeks. Since Fred Singer thoroughly debunked Clinton's "consensus of 2500 scientists" line on the pages of the Wall Street Journal (July 25), just citing big bogus numbers won't do. Eventually those "mainstream" scientists will be accounted for and their credibility as sources assessed.
But last week President Bill Clinton finally announced his Administration's position on mandatory controls. After months of speculation, the United States finally had--A POLICY! Editors thankfully dumped the embarrassing science questions and moved on to tax incentives, emissions trading, pollution permits, the free market (yes, they love it!) and all of those policy angles their reporters are familiar with: who wins (politically), who loses (politically), who caves.
The Clinton Administration contends that the rollback to 1990 emissions levels would be painless and cost-free and fuel-cell technology will save us all. The Washington Post called the Clinton plan "moderate" and a "good first step." A "handful" of Greenpeace activists demonstrated against the plan at the U.S. embassy in Turkey; the ambassador refused to see them. Congratulations and handshakes all around.
Of course, if the plan were cost-free, why is Clinton proposing $5 billion in tax credits, research spending, and other incentives, in addition to the plan for pollution permit credits? Is this just job security for the boys (and girls) at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore? And if new energy conserving technology is so cost-effective, why isn't corporate America making a wholesale shift to such technology right now, without a jump-start from government? What's wrong with those guys!
With U.S. greenhouse gas emissions reportedly on the rise, what Clinton didn't say was that hitting 1990 emissions levels will require a 30 percent cut in emissions by the year 2010, that U.S. automakers don't anticipate getting an electric car with fuel-cell technology into production until 2010, and that internal combustion engines account for only about 25 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions anyway. Here's an inkling of the real cost and who pays:
Consumers: (1) Reversing current energy use trends would require either retrofitting a substantial number of buildings at considerable cost to consumers, or asking consumers to cut back on heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. (2) Trends toward the larger (and safer) cars often necessary for suburban living would have to be reversed. Sport utility vehicles would have to go. (3) Utilities making major capital investments in new energy sources that emit less carbon dioxide (let's not say the N-word here) would pass the cost of those investments on to residential customers, who probably can't move out of the country, and to corporate and industry customers, who probably can.
Workers: With the migration of major energy-consuming industries to countries not bound by strict emissions targets, workers in the steel, auto, chemical, and paper industries, among others, can expect to see their jobs disappear. (The Administration says not to worry--slots are opening up for environmental lawyers and lobbyists.)
What the Clinton Administration and its eco-activist advisers also failed to mention is that, for all the rosy, no-pain projections, there IS a precedent for what international bureaucrats are proposing in Kyoto. That precedent is the Montreal Protocol and the hastily proposed ban on CFC production in developed countries. Signatories had agreed--beginning on January 1, 1989--to freeze consumption of CFCs and halons at 1986 levels and then to reduce consumption by 50 percent within 10 years. Developing countries were given a 10-year grace period for even beginning that phase-out.
Well, the 10 years are just about up and negotiators are still jawing over a phase-out schedule for developing countries and a plan for punishing countries that don't go along with the ban. In the meantime, CFC smuggling (Mexico into the U.S., China into Europe) has become a big business and flouting of the law is commonplace among consumers. In short, it's becoming increasingly clear that forcing compliance of such global environmental agreements requires a vast international police force--and what country will volunteer to pay for such a force or, more important, submit to it? We might also add that since a year-to-year index of the so-called Antarctic ozone hole (how wide, how deep, how many days duration) is still unavailable, the effect of all this regulation on stratospheric ozone (a still controversial topic) is largely unknown. Is Congress prepared to set the United States on this same path with the global warming issue? We'll find out over the next few months.
Elsewhere, common sense was creating a ruckus at another international body. Representatives of the 39-member International Whaling Commission, meeting in Monaco last week, faced serious threats to their travel-to-nice-spots-at-taxpayer-expense existence when heated debate erupted over the IWC's desire (supported by the U.S. delegation) to maintain its 11-year moratorium on commercial whaling. The two main whale-hunting countries, of course, are Japan, which takes some 300 non-endangered minke whales each year for "scientific" purposes, and Norway, which just thumbs its nose at the IWC and tosses 500 minkes a year right on the Bar-by. Media reports had it that failure to modify the whaling ban (some ban) could force a break-up of the IWC. We suspect that the 900,000 minkes worldwide are probably gobbling up food needed by the truly endangered grays, blues, and humpbacks anyway, so we're not too worried over the IWC's failed policy and this challenge to mindless environmental authority. We do sympathize with members' potential loss of frequent-flyer miles, however.
In Uganda, Health Minister Crispus Kiyonga told delegates at a National Sanitation Forum that the spread of malaria and diseases related to poor sanitation was due to Ugandans' "sheer laziness." (spoken like a true agency appointee). Kiyonga did admit that there was only one latrine for every 600 school children.
In Michigan, natural resources officials burned off a 1,000 acre forest in an attempt to "turn back the clock" and create prairie. Professor Bob Grese of the University of Michigan said it was none too soon. Southern Michigan's prairie has dwindled (probably all that CO2) to one-tenth of its original (depends on when you start counting) size of 600,000 acres. Natural resource officials assured the public that the trees--which they apparently did not allow loggers to salvage--were "non-native" species introduced by European settlers (does that make them "old growth"?). No word on the fate of the little woodland creatures.
Two excellent articles recently in Forbes magazine: Bonner Cohen's October 20th cover story on Carol Browner's power plays at EPA, and Ron Bailey's November 3rd piece, "Bill and Al's Global Warming Circus," with an excellent sidebar by Christine Hill. Absolute twaddle turning up on the pages of Nature lately (insiders tell us it's the influence of the John Houghton crowd).
Anticipating interesting developments this coming week on the global warming front--more backlash from TV weathercasters. Fred Singer has a new report--"Mitigation of Climate Change: A Scientific Appraisal"--just published through the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Singer's policy report "Hot Talk, Cold Science," published by the Independent Institute is also out. For information on obtaining copies, contact CEI, the Independent Institute, or SEPP. Until next time.