By George Black
In case you're tempted to think that the Democrats' loss of their Senate super-majority is the main reason for the sudden change in tone in the debate over climate change and legislation, hold on a second.
Public engagement in the issue and pressure for legislation has consistently tracked the evolving scientific consensus on the severity of climate change and its likely future impacts, and how this was conveyed in the media and the broader popular culture. By 2007 we thought we had the problem licked: the fourth periodic assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had put the scientific debate to rest; the "on-the-one-hand on-the-other hand" format of media coverage was over and the Exxon-funded climate "skeptics" were put out to pasture; and of course there was the Al Gore movie, the Oscar, and the Nobel Prize that Gore shared with Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC. Case closed.
Wrong. It's clear now that we fell into the ever-treacherous trap of complacency. The climate deniers are back full force, and the reason has very little to do with whether the Democrats have 59 or 60 votes in Congress.
Instead it has more to do with the collapse of serious media reporting on climate change. There are many reasons for this. Most obviously, staff resources at major newspapers have been slashed. But more than that, editors find the topic perplexing: it's so technical, it goes on forever, not that much seems to change, it's depressing, there's only one side to the story. What happened to the conflict? Where's the news?
The likes of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page stepped delightedly into the vacuum of real reporting. Well, we said, in another bout of complacency, we can always rely on 20-year climate veteran Andy Revkin at the New York Times. Not any longer, and in fact the rot had set in even before he took the Times buyout in December and limited himself to his still-indispensable blog.
The Climategate e-mail "scandal," which erupted on the eve of the Copenhagen climate talks, was the first symptom of the problem. For frustrated editors, here was something new and different, and it was given prominent and prolonged play in the New York Times. In substantive terms, Climategate changed nothing, as my NRDC colleague Dan Lashof pointed out in an excellent blog. But as they say in the biz, the story had legs, and it clearly clouded the debate in Copenhagen and gave fresh energy to the opponents of climate legislation in Washington.
Now comes a front-page story on February 9 by Revkin's successor, Elizabeth Rosenthal, headlined "Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel."
Others have gone into the failings of this article from the point of view of journalistic integrity, pointing out correctly that it does not include comment from one single climate scientist but instead offers a platform to... well, it would be polite to call them "climate skeptics." Lunatic fringe of climate deniers would be more accurate, such as Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who famously compared NGO demonstrators in Copenhagen to the Hitlerjugend. So I'll do no more than direct you to Joseph Romm's comprehensive critique of Rosenthal's piece on Grist, which among other things suggests that readers write to the Times' public editor, or ombudsman, Clark Hoyt , at email@example.com, to request a serious analysis of the newspaper's recent coverage of climate issues.
Let me focus instead on the actual content of Rosenthal's story—the specific critique of the IPCC's scientific predictions and Pachauri's purported conflicts of interest. Both involve India, and both were topics that I wrote about in my Summer 2009 cover story for OnEarth.
The first concerns the rate of the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers. The 2007 IPCC fourth assessment report included an estimate that "if the present rate [of melting] continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high (IPCC-speak for 90 percent-plus likely) if the earth keeps warming at the current rate." That assessment was based on an interview that India's leading glaciologist, Syad Iqbal Hasnain, had given to Fred Pearce of the New Scientist magazine in 1999.
Rosenthal herself had earlier reported on criticisms of this assertion in the New York Times, in the immediate aftermath of the Copenhagen conference. Within 24 hours the IPCC acknowledged that citing that figure had been a lapse in its customary review standards.
The IPCC is absolutely right to maintain the highest standards in its internal scientific review procedures. But how significant was the error? Over the past decade, Hasnain has introduced some nuances into his predictions of glacier melt. When I interviewed him in New Delhi last March, he told me that, "If the current trends continue, within 30 to 40 years most of the glaciers will melt out." Some of the difficulty in being more precise, he said, has to do with the fact that so much of the affected region in India, Pakistan and Tibet is off-limits to researchers for national security reasons. But the change in his predictions is simply stated: most of the glaciers are very likely to be gone by 2040 to 2050, rather than all the glaciers are very likely to be gone by 2035. If I were one of the 1.5 billion people in Asia whose survival will be threatened by the disappearance of the Himalayan ice, I think I'd characterize the change between those two predictions as a decline from "absolutely catastrophic" to "truly horrendous."
Hasnain, interestingly, is affiliated with the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), of which Rajendra Pachauri is president. And that takes us to the second part of the accusation that the climate deniers have leveled against the head of the IPCC—that he has made improper use of the fees he has received from private sector consultancies with the likes of Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse. The egregious Monckton refers to these consultancies as "very substantial and direct and indirect financial vested interests in the matters covered in the climate panel's report."
Pachauri's consultancy fees, in fact, go straight to TERI projects such as Lighting a Billion Lives. LaBL, as it is known, was highlighted at last year's U.S.-India Energy Partnership Summit at Yale, in which NRDC took part. A large part of my OnEarth story dealt with LaBL, which distributes solar lanterns to villagers in India, and is planned for expansion to other parts of the developing world.
Over the years I've seen a lot of NGO development projects around the world, some good, some bad. So I hesitate to use words like "visionary." But this was one case where I genuinely found it appropriate. The idea behind LaBL is very simple: 400 million Indians lack electricity. For domestic lighting they have to rely on kerosene lanterns, which are a serious safety hazard and domestic air pollutant, making them a major cause of infant mortality. These lanterns also use a fossil fuel that is dirtier than any other, pound for pound, in terms of global warming emissions. So LaBL makes clean, safe solar lanterns available to villagers on an affordable fee-for-service basis that is designed not just for humanitarian purposes but to stimulate local economic activity and entrepreneurship at the village level. The program is backed by the likes of GE and Coca-Cola. Visiting remote villages in Rajasthan that were using the lanterns made it clear to me that they had transformed people's lives.
So there's the essence of the charges that the lunatic fringe have leveled against Pachauri and the IPCC: a minor adjustment in predictions of the still profoundly alarming rate of glacier melt in the Himalayas, and a decision to channel consultancy fees into a project that gives tangible aid to the poorest of the poor, rather than accepting them as personal income.
As I thought more about Rosenthal's story, it occurred to me that there was another intriguing dimension to the charges being leveled against Pachauri. TERI is India's most important and credible NGO on climate and energy issues, and future climate policy is a burning political issue in India. So Pachauri is quite exposed in domestic political terms. Together with the United States and China, India has become one of the most critical players in the international debate about a future climate treaty. In Copenhagen, it made some significant commitments to restraining the growth in its carbon emissions, while resisting any mandatory limits. But as Hasnain told me, India's National Action Plan on Climate Change has some substantial shortcomings, notably its prevarication on the rate of, and reasons for, the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.
The domestic pressures on Pachauri and TERI would make an interesting story for a serious reporter, but instead we get Climategate and now Pachaurigate. In the current collapsing media environment, I guess these are what editors, even at the New York Times, now consider good stories.
So I go back to where I started: it's important to demand better from the newspaper of record—but even more important to remember that we can never be lulled into complacency about the magnitude of the task that is still before us.