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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Get Real

July 29, 2008

By Katherine Ellison

Illustration by Mick Wiggins

Top scientists warn that for the world to have a fighting chance of slowing climate change global emissions will have to be reduced by as much as 70 percent—and the sooner, the better. The longer we wait, the more weather disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and the like will compound. But the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s most advanced response, currently calls for only a 5.5-percent reduction from 1990 levels in global emissions by industrial countries—leaving a huge gap between the best we think we can do and what scientists say we must do.

Jim Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has suggested that within ten years climate change could reach a point of no return. Yet outside of scientific circles, very few public figures have dared to imagine, much less advocate, policies adequate to this challenge. A glaring exception is Ross Gelbspan, a 66-year-old retired newspaper journalist turned lonely missionary, whom former Vice President Al Gore has compared to Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and the other great muckraking reformists of the early twentieth century.

With his two landmark books on climate change, his high-level contacts among scientists and politicians, and his unflagging conviction, Gelbspan has been shuttling around the country and abroad, giving lectures and interviews and writing articles to promote a drastic project called the World Energy Modernization Plan. The plan dwarfs the Kyoto protocol and leaves the most far-reaching U.S. effort, the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2005, in the dust.

At first glance, Gelbspan’s ideas seem romantic, extreme, and certainly unrealistic. Yet the more you learn about climate change, the more you may wonder whether in fact everyone else is being unrealistic in accepting timid measures to cope with such an overwhelming threat.

People can’t take too much reality, as Carl Jung famously observed. Still, where climate change is concerned, have we had a fair chance to try?

Inconvenient Truths

I first met Gelbspan in late 1999 after hearing him address a meeting of college-student climate-change activists in Portland, Oregon. I had just finished reading his 1997 book, The Heat Is On (1), a groundbreaking exposé of the U.S. fossil-fuel lobby’s campaign to muddy climate-change policy debates by financing “contrarians” to challenge mainstream climate scientists. The book was getting national attention: even Bill Clinton had said he was reading it.

Gelbspan’s introduction to the climate-change story changed his life, converting him from a career journalist into an impassioned Cassandra. He had previously worked for more than three decades on newspapers including The Boston Globe, where he won kudos for editing a series about job discrimination against African-Americans. The series won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

Freelancing in 1995, Gelbspan coauthored for The Washington Post a story on the health impacts of climate change, collaborating with Harvard University epidemiologist Paul Epstein. To Gelbspan’s surprise, readers wrote to tell him he’d been misled, that there was no scientific evidence that global warming was taking place.

At the letter writers’ suggestion, Gelbspan looked into the work of climate-change dissenters, who included such prestigiously credentialed scientists as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Lindzen and Pat Michaels, state climatologist of Virginia. Having prided himself on his accuracy throughout his long career, he began to feel alarmed, wondering whether he had in fact been duped. For a few days, he anguished over the possibility that Epstein had gulled him into some kind of fraud. Yet after carefully reviewing the evidence, he concluded that Epstein in fact belonged to the respectable mainstream of climate scientists who, rather than hyping the issue, were actually underplaying it. At that point, Gelbspan’s worry turned to outrage.

When he learned that some of the climate skeptics would be testifying—and be compelled under oath to reveal their funding sources—in St. Paul, Minnesota, where administrative judge Allan Klein was reviewing the environmental costs of coal-burning by the state’s power plants, Gelbspan resolved to use his own savings to fly out to cover the hearings. Their testimony forms some of the most shocking passages in The Heat Is On. “Expert” after “expert” revealed on the stand that their work had been paid for by big oil and coal concerns. Under questioning, many of their assertions about climate change were revealed as eccentric at best.

For instance, Lindzen (who Gelbspan reveals in The Heat Is On, is a paid consultant for U.S. coal giant Western Fuels) testified that the most probable increase in atmospheric warming by the mid-twenty-first century would be 0.3 degrees Celsius—about five times less than the minimum prediction of the more than 2,000 world scientists composing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Lindzen also maintained that the impacts, if any, would be negligible. Michaels, for his part, revealed that he had received more than US$165,000 in industry and private funding over the previous five years, including a US$63,000 grant from Western Fuels.

As he spoke to the student activists in Portland back in 1999, Gelbspan’s outrage seemed fresh, as did his fear for the future. White-haired and wizened, he resembled the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, leaning over the podium as he called the prevailing mild winter weather “gift wrapping on a time bomb.”

Gelbspan’s use of words like “bomb” is characteristic of the way he comes on strong. Yet Cassandra, of the Greek myths, really could divine the future, and there’s abundant support for his view that Earth’s residents are due for surprisingly grave climate shocks. Whether Katrina or Wilma—the most intense hurricane ever recorded in Central America—was a direct result of climate change last year, they were surely part of an increasingly vivid pattern of wild weather. Nine of the ten hottest years on record worldwide have occurred since 1995.

European nations have moved far ahead of the United States in recognizing and reacting to the climate-change threat. Oil and gas interests aren’t as dominant a part of Europe’s economy, and there was no skewed debate there over the science. Instead, aggressive media coverage has helped build consensus for action and even for economic sacrifice. Not only have European nations signed on to Kyoto, but several have already adopted energy or carbon taxes. Still, even Europe’s most ambitious climate change goals, such as the U.K.’s target of cutting emissions by 60 percent over 1990 levels by 2050, aim well below the level of reductions that would actually make a difference, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And of course, Europe’s efforts mean little in the absence of similar dramatic steps in the United States and major developing countries.

Three Simple, Drastic Steps

In 1998, one year after publishing The Heat Is On, Gelbspan joined Harvard’s Epstein and a dozen like-minded economists, activists, and others, including the presidents of two small energy firms, for several hours in a brightly lit conference room at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. This conference was the culmination of several weeks of conversations, including many meetings over Gelbspan’s kitchen table. Its goal was to produce a global plan truly commensurate with the climate change crisis. “Just like today, the feeling was that there was virtually no intersection between what was politically feasible and what science was saying had to happen,” said Sivan Kartha, one of the plan’s authors, who is now a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute.

Yet Gelbspan remembers a great sense of hope and purpose animating the meeting’s participants. The Kyoto treaty was then less than one year old. Climate change was prominently in the news. The Clinton administration seemed willing to confront the crisis. “There was . . . a general feeling that our ideas were really poised to make a difference on the world stage,” Gelbspan said.

In the weeks before the meeting, Gelbspan and colleagues had developed two of the three prongs of what would ultimately become the World Energy Modernization Plan. (Concern over its less-than-vigorous acronym recently led Gelbspan to rename it the Clean Energy Transition.) The first, a subsidy switch, would redirect an estimated US$25 billion in annual U.S. government payments now supporting the fossil fuel industry to a new fund for renewable-energy investments. The second would implement a global tax to create a separate, US$300-billion-dollar clean-energy fund for technology transfers to developing countries.

If these ideas seem over the top in their ambition, Gelbspan argues that it’s because most of us haven’t yet managed to grasp the enormity of our predicament. We’ve been ill prepared by the press and politicians, he says, and we’ve been pacified by the idea that climate change is something that may affect our descendants at some distant time and place. Had we been better informed and better prepared, many more of us might be ready to embrace a plan on the scale of the Marshall Plan—a combination of realpolitik and altruism also unprecedented in its time.

The strategy’s third and most essential prong is a fossil-fuel efficiency standard that would rise by five percent a year, which developing countries presumably could manage with the help of considerable international assistance. Under this mechanism, each country would establish a baseline for fossil-fuel energy efficiency and increase it annually by whatever means, until the 70 percent global reduction goal was met. This approach was used successfully in the Montreal Protocol, under which business firms phased out chemicals found to destroy the ozone layer. Gelbspan contends it would be much easier to enforce than the Kyoto Protocol: compliance could be measured simply by calculating the yearly change in the ratio of fossil fuel use to GDP.

The standard was the brainchild of Tom Casten, then founder and CEO of Trigen Energy Corporation, whom Gelbspan had met at Clinton’s White House Conference on Climate Change in 1997. An entrepreneur in the profitable new industry of “recycling” energy such as waste heat from factories, Casten through the years has remained an outspoken advocate of extreme measures to cope with climate change and takes the same blunt view of it as Gelbspan. “My conviction was not so much about a specific mechanism but to change mindsets to get the job done,” he said of his involvement in the Harvard meeting. “I thought: Hey, if this plan works, that’s fine, but the important thing is, here’s a plan on the order of what’s necessary.”

Economists at the Harvard meeting came up with the idea of supporting the clean-energy fund for developing countries with a “Tobin tax” on international currency transactions. Named after its inventor, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin, the tax could reduce volatility in capital markets while also providing revenue for renewable energy projects with less risk of hurting growth than a simple tax on energy.

A currency transaction tax of just one-fourth of a cent on the dollar could net about US$300 billion per year, Gelbspan estimates, and could be invested in projects such as wind farms in India, fuel-cell factories in South Africa, and solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle East. The fund is “not the usual North-South giveaway,” Gelbspan writes. “Rather, it represents the transfer of resources from the finance sector—in the form of speculative, nonproductive transactions—to the industrial sector, in the form of intensely productive, wealth-generating, job-creating investments.”

For several years after the Harvard meeting, Gelbspan and other authors of the clean-energy plan traveled to United Nations-sponsored conferences in Buenos Aires, Bonn, and Cairo in order to promote it. Gelbspan has also briefed a small group of U.S. congressmembers, a G-8 task force, and oil company managers in the U.S., U.K., and Egypt. In 2004 he published Boiling Point (2) as a means of disseminating not only the plan but also his contention that massive new investments in renewable-energy technology could be a boon for the global economy and a huge source of growth and innovation.

Yet Gelbspan’s mounting frustration was evident in the book’s fierce subtitle: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis—And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster. While his plan has won praise from economists and politicians and endorsements from several nongovernmental organizations in developing countries, it has not moved forward as he’d so dearly hoped. “No one says it wouldn’t work,” he says. “The only thing people say is that it’s unrealistic politically.”

Too Much Reality?

People can’t take too much reality. Most politicians can take even less. In his New York Times book section review of Boiling Point, former Vice President Al Gore, a longtime champion of combating climate change, wrote that Gelbspan “may be right” in arguing that it’s far too late to waste time on politically safe projects that don’t begin to solve the problem. Yet he added that Gelbspan and the other authors of his “maximalist” plan “remind me of former U.S. congressman Sam Rayburn’s remark that he’d feel a lot better “if just one of them had ever run for sheriff.”

Gore neatly expressed the dominant perspective among the mainstream organizations working on climate change. Even major U.S. environmental groups have focused their efforts on raising voter support for the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions merely to 2000 levels by 2010. (The Senate has twice rejected the Act, in 2003 and 2005.) Asked about Gelbspan’s approach, David Yarnold, vice president of Environmental Defense, said it serves little purpose to champion dramatic solutions when even such modest attempts as McCain-Lieberman are running aground. “Why would you want to lobby for something that can’t get done?” Yarnold asked. “You have to live in a real world, and this is the right path to meaningful change.”

Eileen Claussen, another veteran voice on global warming as president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, shares this view. Claussen has met with Gelbspan several times and agrees with him on the urgency of switching the focus of public debate from whether climate change is happening to what should be done about it. Her center released its own 15-point agenda for action in February, heavily emphasizing the need for more research and development in less polluting automotive and utility-plant technology. But Claussen complains that Gelbspan “goes sort of overboard” in calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Her new agenda sets a strikingly modest goal: to stabilize at current levels of greenhouse gas emissions in five to ten years. “We are trying to be practical about what needs to be initiated NOW,” Claussen wrote in an email.

On the other hand, some prominent figures have joined Gelbspan in his conviction that realism about climate change means getting radical, although they remain the exceptions to the complacency rule. John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum (BP), has called for measures to cut carbon emissions by seven gigatons per year. Eliminating just one gigaton—a billion tons of fumes—would require building 700 nuclear stations to replace traditional power plants, or increasing solar power by a factor of 700, Browne says. BP has championed a get-real approach ever since 1997, when the firm became the first major energy company to advocate action to cope with climate change.

California governor Arnold Schwarz-enegger has also joined the climate radicals, although it’s too early to know whether he’ll follow through on his promises. By executive order last June, he set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for his state, the world’s sixth- largest economy, with the ultimate goal of cutting emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. He then ordered his environment secretary to report to him every six months on progress toward that end. “The debate is over,” the Republican governor said. “We know the science. We see the threat. And we know the time for action is now.”

So Who’s Got the Realism?

Addressing the Clinton Conference on Climate Change back in 1997, Harvard environmental scientist John Holdren listed six reasons why people underestimate the threat of climate change. We fail to accept how much our well-being depends on the climate and how far along the crisis has progressed. We don’t recognize how the climate change threat will worsen as our population grows. We’re wrongly lulled by scientific uncertainties about some particulars of the problem, and we don’t comprehend the time lags between cause and effect and effect and remedy. Lastly, we in industrialized countries fail to appreciate our connectedness with the developing world—how we share the same atmosphere, oceans and biodiversity.

Like Holdren, Gelbspan acknowledges that human nature remains a huge problem, if only because we seem hard-wired to avoid contemplating our own destruction—personally or as a species. Yet he blames the popular paralysis most of all on world leaders’ failure to recognize that climate realism means getting radical.

“People are freaked out about the weather,” he argues. “They know something’s going wrong, but the best advice they’re getting from the major players is to buy fluorescent light bulbs and carpool. When people are confronted with an overwhelming problem and don’t have a coherent solution, they feel impotent.”

I’ve kept in touch with Gelbspan ever since I met him, and recurrently he’s told me he’s on the verge of giving up his crusade, due to financial pressures and sheer burnout. But through a turn of good fortune last year, a Canadian software entrepreneur stepped forward to fund Gelbspan “just to be me . . . no strings attached,” he says, for another two years. (The funder wishes to remain anonymous.) So for now, Gelbspan is maintaining his website (www. and has teamed up with a New York-based group called the Climate Crisis Coalition.

“There are many parts of Ross’ plan that are inevitable if we are really going to do something about climate change,” says Kartha, at the Stockholm Environmental Institute. “But it’s an open question whether we are really going to do something about climate change.”

Gelbspan himself has in recent months come to this dour conclusion: even if, in contrast to all apparent trends, the world somehow manages to turn on a dime, slashing greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years, it may already be too late to avoid major disasters: floods, droughts, severe threats to democracy, and millions of environmental refugees. So this spring, he has a third book in mind, one exploring the question of the proper existential response to a period of real collapse.

He acknowledges the irony of writing yet another book—an investment in a civilized future—with the theme of questioning whether there will be a civilized future. Yet the idea is in keeping with his determination to continue being intellectually honest. “I know lots of other people who privately share my perception, but who escape emotionally into unlikely “rosy” scenarios, who find consolation in the positive potential of . . . various schemes which simply will not do the trick,” he says. “I think there are not enough people who have the courage to look reality in the face and not flinch, no matter how horrible the consequences.”

1. Gelbspan, R. 1997. The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle over Earth’s Threatened Climate. Perseus Books, Reading, Massachusetts.

2. Gelbspan, R. 2004. Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster. Basic Books, New York.

About the Author

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and coauthor of The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable (Island Press, 2002)

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