BOOKS/Danila Oder

Climate Change At the Boiling Point

Though the heart of newspapers, straight news -- objective, fact-based reporting -- is usually unengaging. That's why editors mix in features: human interest stories, which personalize the news for the reader. A news story on a conference where insurers discuss the consequences of global warming-induced weather is immensely more effective if accompanied by a feature about people who have lost their homes in floods or hurricanes.

Ross Gelbspan, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, forgets this yin-yang of the news business in this tightly written, passionate, but rarely moving book, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis -- And What We Can Do To Avert Disaster [Basic Books, 2004].

Gelbspan knows his subject. In 1997, his book, The Heat Is On, detailed the financing of climate-change skeptics by the coal and oil companies. He's been following the story ever since, and Boiling Point is a useful overview of the state of climate-change science, politics and activism.

Notably, Gelbspan lays blame for inaction at the feet of the media and environmental activists, as well as big coal and big oil (and their puppets in Washington). He says the media has for too long gave skeptics equal time in the mistaken belief that climate change was a matter of opinion rather than the weight of scientific evidence. He also says that climate change should be in the news three times a week, integrated into stories about energy, terrorism, extreme weather, etc. (When was the last time you encountered any mainstream media mentioning climate change or global warming, outside of the environment beat?)

Mainstream environmental activists, he asserts, don't think big enough and fail to play hardball with the bad guys. Also, because global warming affects all of life, activists must work with labor unions, public health professionals, campaign finance reform activists, etc., to change the system that is producing climate change.

The most valuable section of the book is Gelbspan's assessment of three extant big-picture policy proposals for combating global warming, and his support for a fourth. Contraction and Convergence (C&C), which relies on emissions trading, "lacks the economic incentives and binding regulatory mechanisms to force the kind of transition that is needed." As Gelbspan says elsewhere, "we cannot finesse nature with accounting tricks." The Sky Trust, where each American "owns" a piece of the sky and can sell emissions-trading permits, is exclusively domestic and does not address carbon emitters abroad. It also lacks a plan to reduce fossil-fuel usage at an adequate rate. The Apollo Project, a broad-based effort toward energy independence by creating one million new jobs in renewable energy fields, has three major flaws: it is only domestic, it fails to address instability in oil-producing nations who lose their markets, and it promotes coal burning and burying CO2 underground.

Instead, Gelbspan advocates for the World Energy Modernization Plan (WEMP). This has three necessary parts: a change of energy subsidy policies in industrialized countries to transition to renewables; the creation of a large fund to transfer renewable energy technologies to developing countries; and using the Kyoto framework to institute an international Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard, which would rise by 5% per year.

The WEMP is a breathtakingly ambitious proposal. Because the stakes are so high, it deserves every citizen's immediate and thoughtful consideration. To stabilize the climate requires far-reaching populist social reforms, and those of us who are comfortable with social change must lead the way in normalizing it for others. Essentially, the choice is between renouncing global empire, and death. Are you ready to participate?

Tragically, Boiling Point rarely touches the heart. While Gelbspan's desperation to communicate comes through, he believes too much in the persuasive power of facts. He refuses to make his passion part of the story. Too, the "Snapshots of the Warming" sections lack the narrative touches that should horrify us into action. So read Boiling Point to get the facts. And use it to make the art that will move people to act.

Danila Oder is a writer in Los Angeles.

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