By chance, two bits of writing on the Antarctic ice shelf recently crossed my desk on the same day. One was a galley of The Heat Is On, a new book by veteran journalist Ross Gelbspan. It begins by asserting that the vast astral ice field may soon topple into the ocean, raising sea levels in “one of the most spectacular and nightmarish manifestations yet” of global warming effects that may soon render the world “a storm-battered, insect-infested breeding ground of infectious disease, of temperature extremes, of intensive draught and desperate heat.” Gelbspan goes on to say that there is no longer any controversy among mainstream scientists that artificial greenhouse warming is already happening and already poised to cause ghastly effects such as ice shelf collapse.

The other item to cross my desk was an article by a research specialist from the Geophysical and Polar Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, appearing in the technical journal Science and titled, “Rapid Sea Level Rise Soon from West Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse?” This work concluded that the chance is one in 1,000 that the West Antarctic ice shelf could collapse during the next two centuries; and that if it did the cause would have to be natural, because “induced” climate effects such as global warming are not capable of cracking a body of ice that has changed little for four million years.

Hmm. If all mainstream scientists are in total consensus on this one, how come the world’s preeminent scientific journal says otherwise?

My recent experience with environmental disputes has taught me that everyone claims to have “sound science” on his or her side. But invariably, what constitutes “sound science” is whatever supports what you want to believe anyway. In turn, everyone claims the other side is using distortion, junk science, PR, and so on the definition of bad science, of course, being whatever you disagree with. In that sense, environmental arguments have all gone Washington.

Pretending that the global warming issue can be divided up into righteous, noble truth and sinister, crooked distortions, is the primary flaw of The Heat is On. In the main, the book is a valuable work, doing a good job of showing that scientific thinking increasingly inclines in favor of taking the greenhouse effect seriously, as is unquestionably the case.

Gelbspan also makes an important contribution to understanding how the greenhouse debate has interacted with Washington cultural anthropology. The Heat Is On shows that conservatives in Congress have responded with lather to that portion of the business community which denies any global warming threat (mainly, the coal industry), while ignoring the sector of big business that is willing to undertake reform. Conservatives are delighted whenever industry trots to the Hill with cries of unfair treatment by liberal opinion, yet turn away when industry tells Congress it will support a liberal reform. As Gelbspan ably demonstrates, a surprisingly significant portion of the business community, including big transnationals such as Dow, DuPont, and General Electric, backs market efforts at greenhouse reform: in part because such firms now realize that (moderate) reductions in greenhouse emissions could be achieved at little cost through energy conservation. Hill Republicans pretend not to hear that. So too, apparently, does the White House, whose recently released greenhouse treaty proposal falls considerably to the right of what “leader” companies advocate. Like Hill conservatives, Clinton and Gore seem to have spent a lot of time listening to the lowest common denominator of the business community, and not much time listening to the forward-thinkers. It might be interesting to investigate if campaign contributions have anything to do with the difference.

The virtues of The Heat Is On are diminished by its one-dimensional alarmist point of view. Gelbspan takes the bleakest analysis of every angle, and often presents as scientific fact what are actually highly speculative claims. He writes, for instance, that greenhouse impacts mean “U.S. wheatfields could be deserts in a decade,” a view that borders on goofy; or that even a mild future temperature rise could cause India’s wheat crop to decline, a puzzling contention since Indian wheat production has improved 445 percent during this century’s mild temperature rise. Gelbspan sees conspiracies everywhere: “In the United States, the truth underlying the increasingly apparent changes in global climate has largely been kept out of public view!’ How many times has global warming been on the cover of Time and Newsweek? Or: “The financial resources available to the oil and coal lobbies are almost without limit. They can buy Congress. They can buy…access to editorial boards, TV producers and every relevant reporter in the country…the captains of industry jockey for ways to suppress news!’ So if they’ve all been bought, how come reporters keep churning out worst-case stories on global warming? Or: “Almost every week international news wires carry stories about extreme, disruptive, and often recordbreaking weather events. Unfortunately these stories normally get buried away, and powerful forces are at work to see that they remain obscure and their significance unrecognized!” Can you think of any non0J. story of the past few years that’s gotten more page-one play than unusual weather?

Gelbspan’s handling of unusual weather is important, because it reflects the environmentalorthodoxy approach of taking a genuine concern and inflating it into a threat to life as we know it. Most researchers now think that if there were artificial warming, changes in climate patterns would manifest themselves before any damaging buildup of heat. Two important new studies of the last two years, one showing a statistically significant increase in delugetype rains in North America, the other demonstrating that spring now comes almost a week sooner than it did at the turn of the century, increase the weight of evidence in favor of “induced” climate effects. The Heat Is On properly lends significance to these studies, but then goes overboard by filling many pages with stories of unusual weather. Gelbspan declares that “the most striking aspect of the recent severe weather events is that virtually all of them set a new record?”

But there’s always a weather record being set somewhere. Somebody’s always got an all-time high or low or downpour or drought, and this was true long before greenhouse gases. New York City’s worst ever heat wave was in 1948. Washington, D.C.’s, worst ever hot spell was in 1872. Perhaps the most basic mistake a global warming analyst can make is to confuse weather, which is “weak” statistically—short-term and subject to chance—with climate, which is statistically “strong?’ For thousands of years, people have been trying to wrest augury out of the weather, and they’ve always been wrong. There are much better arguments for greenhouse reform than incidents of weird meteorology.

The Heat Is On does a thorough job of documenting how the coal industry has attempted to create the impression that there exists a huge scientific controversy over the premise of the greenhouse effect. There does not: Consensus is now close to unanimous that human activity must be having some effect on climate. That was the position recently taken by the United Nations’s authoritative science panel, the IPCC. But there is genuine scientific controversy regarding whether climate change will be severe, and whether emergency steps are justified. The IPCC recently concluded that global temperatures have risen one degree Fahrenheit in the past century—perhaps a warning signal, but not itself worrisome—yet found it impossible to determine what portion of the increase can be attributed to human action. That is to say, there remains plenty of room for honest debate.

Not according to Gelbspan. To him, all greenhouse believers are noble crusaders, all skeptics are evil conspirators. Gelbspan spends quite a bit of line length denouncing a few academic greenhouse dissenters as political conservatives—MIT’s Richard Lindzen is “one of the most ideologically extreme individuals I have ever interviewed,” though no persuasive example of the extremity is given—yet never mentions that nearly all the greenhouse believers he quotes favorably are political liberals. If it’s suspicious that skeptics have political views, how come it’s fine that advocates do?

Gelbspan excoriates the mainstream press for continuing to quote greenhouse skeptics S. Fred Singer and Patrick Michaels, both of whom are credentialed but have also accepted industry funding. He does not, in turn, note that most greenhouse believers work in federally funded labs, or at federally backed research-center universities, where continued grant money is contingent in part on greenhouse alarm. Every time James Hansen, director of a federal greenhouse study institute, testifies before Congress, he is in effect asking for money, some of which will end up in his own billfold. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if funding controls opinion, how come Hansen’s funding interest isn’t mentioned in The Heat Is On?

Gelbspan takes publications such as The New York Times to task for often quoting Michaels as an objective expert, though Michaels publishes an anti-greenhouse newsletter funded by the coal lobby. But The New York Times also often quotes Michael Oppenheimer as an objective expert, though Oppenheimer is a full-time employee of the Environmental Defense Fund, a lobbying organization that benefits from greenhouse scares. The Heat Is On quotes Oppenheimer neutrally too, though his pay comes entirely from an organization with a financial interest in the controversy; unlike Michaels, whose main source of income is a professorship at the University of Virginia. Again, how come dissenters can’t have self-interest, but advocates can? (The fair solution is that neither Michaels nor Oppenheimer, nor others with direct checking-account stakes in the outcome, should be quoted unless their financial interest is noted.) Though Gelbspan understands Washington lobbying, he betrays something falling between naivete and willful embroidery when it comes to Hill politics. In an overheated chapter entitled “A Congressional Book Burning,” he quotes in outraged detail a subcommittee hearing at which Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, an arch conservative, displayed contempt for greenhouse concerns, then rammed through a resolution canceling funds for study of climate issues. Gelbspan ends the story there, as if a subcommittee action were final, and the funding were gone. But subcommittee votes are the essence of Washington make-believe, rarely related to genuine decisions: the federal budget still has about $1.7 billion for climate change research, the pre-Rohrabacher figure. Gelbspan then huffs that “in July 1996, responding to lobbyists’ urgings, Rohrabacher wrote a letter to Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, urging her to withdraw Energy Department funding” from a lab that employs a prominent greenhouse believer. Again the impression is given that this happened. Gelbspan doesn’t add that the lab remains funded.

Yet though discerning readers may take issue with portions of The Heat Is On, most should be comfortable with its conclusion, that greenhouse reforms are justified and will not harm the economy. Scientific uncertainty about climate trends remains substantial, but there is no doubt that the first reform—reducing fossil fuel use through improved energy efficiency— is in society’s interest whether the thermometer is rising, falling, or doing nothing at all. And energy efficiency pays for itself in the value of fuel saved, while cutting other forms of pollution, such as smog, as a bonus. Arguments like these make greenhouse action amply justified as an insurance policy.

As with so many environmental issues, the understated case may have more power of suasion than the overstated case. Kansas could become a desert in a decade? Yes, that might happen, and Boston might be hit by a comet that would prevent The Heat Is On from being distributed. The core issue isn’t what might happen but what is likely. The sort of worst-case global warming scenarios beloved by greenhouse alarmists are exceptionally implausible. But the median prospect of moderate warming, causing climate shifts that disrupt agriculture and energy use, is plausible and plenty fearsome in itself. Greenhouse reforms are more likely to win the support of voters if premised on credible warnings.

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Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.