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Noted journalist sounds climate wake-up call

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September 17, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — After a brief introduction by Ripton author Bill McKibben last Wednesday, Ross Gelbspan looked out at the crowd packed into Middlebury College’s new Hillcrest Environmental Center and told them they should probably leave now. He was about to talk about the American stalemate on climate change and it would only go downhill from here.

“Middlebury has changed much more, given these incredibly beautiful new digs, than the political battle over global warming in the last two decades,” he said.

Gelbspan should know. The veteran reporter and editor, formerly with The Washington Post and Boston Globe, has been working to uncover the connections between climate change deniers and the oil and coal industries for more than a decade. His book, “The Heat is On,” was published in 1996, bringing unprecedented national attention to the issue of global warming.

But as the college’s first ever Reporter-in-Residence, he spent last week at the Bread Loaf campus in Ripton offering guidance to the 10 young journalists chosen as Middlebury’s first environmental journalism fellows. 

His speech also marked the official opening of the Hillcrest Environmental Center, a building designed to be environmentally sustainable and to house the environmental studies department.

Gelbspan doesn’t blame the nation’s political inaction concerning climate change on deniers alone. The press has been part of the game as well, he said.

“Huge coal and oil companies have blocked meaningful action on the environment in the U.S. for the last 15 years,” he said. But they’ve gotten away with it because of a “negligent and largely indifferent U.S. press.”

Climate change is not an issue of beliefs, he stressed. It is a proven fact, and it should be treated as such by the press. Journalists should not waste their time giving equal coverage to differing opinions about the cause of global warming, as they would with issues of abortion or the death penalty, he said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found a “discernable human influence” on the global climate back in 1995 based on the findings of scientists from more than 100 countries who took part in “what is the most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history,” Gelbspan said.

And yet many in the U.S. are still looking at global warming as a matter of opinion.

“Several months ago Vice President Cheney declared, ‘We need a big debate to determine the real cause of climate change,’ as though it had not been settled by more than 2,000 scientists more than a decade ago,” Gelbspan said.

From the perspective of an investigative reporter, Gelbspan said the central drama underlying the issue is clear.

“It basically pits the ability of this planet to support our civilization versus the survival of one of the largest commercial enterprises in history: the oil and coal industries,” he said.

Gelbspan shared some examples of the “manufactured denial” he uncovered in his tenure as a reporter, beginning with ExxonMobil, a company that he says has played an especially active role in the stifling of climate change science.

In 2001, Gelbspan noted, the head of the IPCC, Robert Watson, suggested the U.S. might be doing a little less than it could to act on the climate issue.

“ExxonMobil then sent a letter to President Bush telling him to get rid of Dr. Watson, and in short order, Watson was out of a job,” he said.

Early in his administration, Bush appointed an attorney from the American Petroleum Institute, an industry advocate, to head up the White House climate office.

“When that appointee, Phil Kuny, was found to have personally altered a major scientific document … he was forced to resign from the White House,” Gelbspan said. “Four days later he was hired by ExxonMobil.”

Recently one of the country’s most prominent scientists, NASA’s Jim Hansen, discovered he was being censored when the government ordered him to get prior approval for any media interviews about lectures he’d given or papers he’d published, Gelbspan said. And staff at the government’s main climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, have been ordered not to take part in any press interviews without an agency minder present.

“This is extremely ominous to a journalist,” he said. “This campaign goes way beyond the normal reach of public relations spin. To me, this basically amounts to an attempt to privatize truth.”

The only reason he was able to write two books on climate change, Gelbspan said, was because of what scientists said to him off the record.  

“On the record, scientists speak in very conservative language,” he said. “They talk in terms of trends and estimates and probabilities. Off the record, they said to me, ‘This stuff is scary as hell.’”

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