Ross Gelbspan
EV World first webcast our interview with author and journalist Ross Gelbspan in the Fall of 1998, just after his book came out.

Global Warming: Now The Heat Is On!

Interview with Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On

By Bill Moore

Citing a recent study in the journal Nature, Ross Gelbspan is unequivocal in his belief that the planet is heating up. "Not only is the 20th century the warmest century in the last six or seven hundred years, but the warmest years in the 20th century have been 1990, 1995 and 1997. So, there is really no question that the earth is heating up."

Ross Gelbspan is a retired journalist with 30 years experience. His resume includes stints as a reporter and editor at The Boston Globe, The Village Voice, the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post. He took an interest in the subject of global warming after a physician on the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contacted him.

"I was approached by a member of this IPCC, a doctor whose speciality is relating climate change to the spread of disease. He brought me a series of articles he had written which had appeared in the British medical journal, The Lancet. I was very taken by these articles, so I agreed to collaborate on a piece for the popular press. This was a piece that ran in the Sunday Outlet section of The Washington Post."

But if Gelbspan thought his assignment was finished, he was mistaken.

"After this piece appeared in The Washington Post, I received a number of letters and a couple of phone calls saying, 'Gee, this is all very interesting, but we don't believe it is really happening.' I asked why, and they basically, a lot of people who wrote letters referred me to the writings of a small band of scientists known as 'Greenhouse Skeptics.'"

"So, what I did next was I read all their work. I read Dr. Balling's book called, 'The Heated Debate.' I read work by Dr. Michaels and Dr. Singer, and that work persuaded me there was no story here. I said to my wife, 'Gee this whole subject is stuck in the limbo of scientific uncertainty. It's not proven.' And to tell you the truth, I felt a great sense of relief inside."

However, Gelbspan said he had already arranged interviews with a handful of other scientists and he felt an obligation to talk to them. When he did, he learned that the "greenhouse skeptics" had, in his words, "distorted... what the mainstream opinion of science was and they had distorted some data and some findings and so forth."

"What that did for me," Gelbspan said, "was that it really made me quite angry because my reaction was, Gee whiz, these folks were taking our reality away from us. In a democracy, I believe very strongly that we need honest information to make our decisions and our choices. When that information is not available to us, we are not able to exercise our rights in a democracy. We are not able to respond to threats. We are not able to deal with policy questions. So, what really got me much more upset than anything else was the usurpation of our reality by disinformation. It was that much more than any green feeling... that motivated me to write the book."

Angered by what he perceived as a deliberate attempt to distort the truth, Gelbspan found himself digging deeper into the science of global warming.

EV World asked him to respond to the arguments Robert Balling had made in an earlier interview, including the alleged discrepancy between ground based thermometer records and those of weather satellites which measure the upper atmosphere. He pointed to yet another recent science report in Nature which indicated that the satellite readings may, in fact, mirror ground-based records because of an error in the satellite data which did not account for degrading orbital patterns.

Of even more critical importance to Gelbspan are several "finger print" studies which indicate that the planet is warming because of our burning of fossil fuels.

"There was a very, very important study that was published in the July, 1996 issue of the journal Nature," Gelbspan explained. "This was done by Dr. Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, and twelve other researchers and basically what they discovered was this. They looked at the warming that is taking place and at what levels of the (atmosphere) it was taking place and that changes over land and over water and so forth. It yields a very specific kind of pattern, and that pattern is graphically and distinctively different from the natural warming of the climate. It is very specifically a pattern of greenhouse warming."

Gelbspan also pointed to a 1995 study by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), an agency of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration . "In late 1995 the researchers at NCDC documented a much more unstable climate... an alteration in our rain fall and drought patterns, an increase in severe storms and weather extremes. The fact (is) that we're getting much more of our rain and snow in very intense and severe downpours. The reason for that is simple. As the atmosphere warms, it accelerates the evaporation of surface waters. It also expands the air to hold more water, so that when the normal turbulence comes through the atmosphere, we're getting much more of our rain and snow in these severe, intense dumps..."

"What's very important is that pattern is the result of analyzing all the weather in the United States... since the beginning of instrumentation. There was enough data to fill half a million 1995 vintage PCs. This increased instability is exactly what computer models predict is the early stages of global warming."

As a final nail in the coffin of greenhouse skepticism, Gelbspan also pointed to yet another NCDC study that found that as the earth's atmosphere heats up, the nighttime low temperatures are rising twice as fast as daytime temperatures, which is a clear "finger print" of global warming. "That is a specific signature of greenhouse gas warming. If it were natural warming of the planet, the highs and lows would rise and fall in parallel."

"Those three studies, which are really sort of keystone studies, about the fact that this is greenhouse gas warming, contradicts the fact that this is merely some rebound from a 'Little Ice Age.' It contradicts information that the weather is not more extreme. It contradicts what was used before as the satellite findings," Gelbspan asserts.

Gelbspan finally observed that the 1996 Santer study published in Nature clearly demonstrated that prior to the 20th century, global temperature swings could be accounted for by variances in solar output, volcanic dust and greenhouse gases. "Since the 20th century, greenhouse gases and particularly carbon dioxide from fossil fuels have dominated all these other influences. So today, scientists say that the sun's influence is maybe 10 to 15 percent of the influences on our climate, but greenhouse gases are really about 80 percent. That proportion has changed dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century."


"The mainstream, consensus science is very clear on this," Ross Gelbspan asserts," that to restore our atmosphere to a hospitable, stable state requires that we cut our emissions of oil and coal and eventually natural gas by seventy percent... And that essentially means the end of the fossil fuel industry as we know it. It means the end of coal and a dramatic decrease in oil and eventually the phasing out of natural gas. These findings threaten the survival of what is probably the largest commercial enterprise in our history... the oil, coal and natural gas business."

Provocative words from a retired journalist and editor who has worked in his thirty year career for The Boston Globe, The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Washington Post. But as Gelbspan states in Part One of this interview, it was his discovery that certain scientists known collectively as "Greenhouse Skeptics" were being funded, in part, by the very interests who stood the most to lose in the debate over man's role in climate change. According to Gelbspan, who lives in Boston, the oil, coal and natural gas industries generate some $2 trillion in revenue a year.

The oil and coal industry has been, in Gelbspan's words, "extremely aware of the findings (on global warming) and extremely aware of the implications for their industry."

"When I began to research this issue, I found, in fact, a great deal of confusion being sown deliberately by the fossil fuel industry."

Gelbspan explained that during the course of his investigations he discovered that a number of not-for-profit organizations critical of the findings of mainstream science on the global warming issue were spending huge amounts of money on publicity and media relations. Gelbspan obtained the tax returns of these organizations through the Freedom of Information Act.

Skeptics Forced To Reveal Funding Sources

What he discovered in the case of the Global Climate Coalition, whom he characterizes as a public relations firm for the fossil fuels and automotive industries, is that just one member of this then-54 member organization -- the American Petroleum Institute -- spent in one year more money on the global climate issue than the five biggest environmental organizations put together spent on the issue.

"More specifically, a lot of the disinformation that's been sown by this industry has basically involved the use of three or four... so-called greenhouse skeptics like Dr. Balling. These are people who are contrarian, who take a different position from the more than two-thousand scientists reporting to the United Nations, and they have been given all kinds of access to the media by the money being spent by the fossil fuel industry. And that's because basically they have been promoting the message the fossil fuel industry wants out there."

Gelbspan discovered the funding sources for several of the more prominent skeptics while attending a hearing in Minnesota at which the scientists were testifying under oath. It was then he learned that a number of the coal and oil industry interests in the US, Britain, Germany, and Middle East were providing hundreds of thousands of dollars to these scientists.

"Dr Balling, in a five year period received more than three hundred thousand dollars from fossil fuel interests, and this includes Western Fuels Coal Association. It included, I think, the British Coal Corporation. It included OPEC. His book was underwritten, in part, by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research."

"Dr. Michaels, another prominent greenhouse skeptic, had received at that time up to two hundred thousand dollars from German coal, from US coal and British coal interests. Dr. Fred Singer, who is probably the third most visible of these skeptics has received funding from Exxon and Unical, Arco and Shell Oil..."

"This does not mean that industry funded research is tainted," Gelbspan stated. "What it does mean is the lack of disclosure of the industry funding is very, very important. If any of these men, lets say, were medical researchers and their work was being funded by a pharmaceutical company, they would have to declare that funding as a condition of publication in the literature. But none of these gentlemen had declared this funding publicly and therefore when, for instance, the public read an Op Ed piece by Dr. Balling in the Wall Street Journal, saying there is no problem with global warming, it probably made them feel pretty good about it. It probably put some concerns to rest, because he was simply identified as a climatologist at Arizona State University. I think had the tag line on that Op Ed piece in the newspaper said, 'Dr Balling's work is partially funded by British and German coal and by OPEC, I think the same readers might have had a whole different take on his opinion."

More Examples of Climate Spin-Doctoring

According to Gelbspan, one of the earliest underwriters of these disinformation campaigns is the $400 million coal consortium called Western Fuels which, in its 1991 annual report, candidly stated it intended to debunk mainstream science with the aid of leading greenhouse skeptics.

"That same year Western Fuels and a number of coal utilities started a public relations campaign which called for these three scientists (Balling, Michaels and Singer) to go to various markets and have interviews with local radio and TV and newspaper reporters and I was lucky enough to get a copy of the strategy papers for that campaign. And the papers said very clearly the campaign is designed to, quote 'reposition global warming as theory rather than fact' and more specifically that it is designed to target, and I am quoting again, 'older, less educated men and young, low-income women in districts that get their electricity from coal and preferably have a member on the house energy committee.' This is not subtle stuff."

After this campaign, the consortium spent $250,000 on a propaganda video which said, in essence, global warming was good for us because increased CO2 levels will promote plant growth in the higher latitudes and thus help us feed the world. The video was, according to Gelbspan, shown often around the Bush White House, the capitals of OPEC and elsewhere.

The trouble with this rosy scenario, said Gelbspan, is that it ignores two fundamental issues: warmer temperatures will result in an explosion of crop-ravaging, disease-spreading insects and less favorable growing conditions in the tropical latitudes where the majority of the world's poor and hungry populations live.

"A half a degree increase (in global temperature) will cause a huge drop-off in rice production in Southeast Asia. It will cause a 20% decline in wheat yields in India and this is in a country where you have three hundred million people living in extreme poverty." Gelbspan believes this is "unconscionable."

As late as April of this year, Gelbspan says the American Petroleum Institute was circulating a memo which subsequently appeared in the Wall Street Journal and indicated they were planning to spend another five million dollars in their campaign to sway people's opinions on global warming.

The Alliance Starts To Crumble.

In an interview with Gelbspan, the head of the US reinsurance industry association stated that unless something is done to stabilize the climate, the consequences of global warming could bankrupt the property insurance industry.

As Gelbspan pointed out, the insurance industry, particularly in Europe, is very concerned about the global warming issue. He stated that over 100 insurance companies have allied themselves with the United Nations, as well as a coalition of island nations from Jamaica to the Philippines for whom rising ocean levels and more severe tropical storms pose serious threats, in calling for reductions in fossil fuel consumption 20% below 1990 levels.

Gelbspan also notes that not all oil companies support the tactics of organizations like the Global Climate Coalition. Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum, have not only withdrawn from the coalition, but they have spoken candidly about the threat of global warming and have publicly announced plans to look for ways to reduce CO2 emissions and find ways to produce energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

"You've seen some major, major splits in the fossil fuel industry," Gelbspan observed, "especially in the last year. I know that the president of Sunoco made a pretty eloquent statement about the dangers of climate change. The president of Texaco, I know is moving in that direction. So, you're seeing a couple of companies like Exxon and Chevron, in conjunction with some of the coal companies, being increasingly isolated as more and more other oil companies and auto makers... begin to move away from that traditional industry position."


EV World's interview with journalist Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On came at an opportune time. He said he had just spent the summer working with "a group of fairly high-powered experts, including a number of energy company presidents," developing a plan to prevent the twin specters of environmental catastrophe and global poverty.

"We have come out with a document on solutions that I think will become public in the next couple of months."

In the last of our three-part interview, he shared with EV World the three key points of their innovative plan to begin helping the world make a gradual shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy resources which he believes not only must happen soon but can happen without plunging the world into an economic and sociological dark ages.

"(Dr. Robert) Balling is right to this extent," Ross Gelbspan acquiesces, "this is a global problem, and he's right to the extent that the next big surge in greenhouse gases will not be coming from the US, Western Europe and Japan. It will becoming from... East Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. He is wrong when he says these countries don't want to change. They very much would like to move to... energy infrastructures based on hydrogen and solar and wind and biomass... The problem is they simply can't afford it."

"Most of these countries are only barely able to feed and educate their own poverty-stressed populations. They simply cannot afford what is essentially a global energy transition. It's not that they don't want to. They are more vulnerable than we are to the ravages of climate change."

According to Gelbspan, in order to restabilize the climate, we need to reduce fossil fuel burning by 70% of its present levels. This will require a transition to what he calls "super-efficient" gas technologies, renewable energies and conservation. "It means a transition away from coal and oil and eventually natural gas," he said.

"That task breaks down into two parts," he continued. "The first is de-carbonizing the energy supplies of our big energy companies... in the north(ern hemisphere). And it means transferring these renewable and highly efficient technologies to the countries of the south."

Three-Pronged Plan Attacks Global Warming Economically

The task force with whom Gelbspan has been working this past summer has identified three key elements that need to be implemented to begin moving the world towards a sustainable energy system and economy.

"The first (element of the plan) involves subsidies, government subsidies. Today, the US spends about $25 billion subsidizing fossil fuels. The global figure is $300 billion. The first arm of our strategy is to remove all the subsidies from fossil fuels and put them behind the renewable energy industry. That does basically two things. One, by removing subsidies from fossil fuels, you send higher price signals to consumers. They won't be artificially deflated because of the subsidies and that will discourage excess consumption. More importantly, perhaps, is that these subsidies, if they're put behind the renewable energy industry, will create big incentives for the oil companies to enter into all kinds of joint ventures with developers of solar and hydrogen and fuel cells and wind and so forth. It will create both the carrot and the stick for the oil companies to diversify their energy supplies into non-carbon-based (sources)."

"The second element that we like very much, really flies in the face of a mechanism being looked at internationally. The world is looking at a program of emissions trading as a way of stabilizing emissions. We don't like that for several reasons. First of all, we don't think it is monitor-able, nor enforceable. There is also a fundamental question of equity as the basis of a trading program." Gelbspan said that while the countries of the north want a system based on their 1990 emission levels, the countries of the south want one based on per capita. While there is both moral and economic justification for both points of view," if every person in India were allowed the same amount of emissions as every person in the US, we would become very rapidly impoverished overnight. It just couldn't happen."

What Gelbspan's group is proposing instead of a complement to emissions trading that sets a fossil fuel efficiency standard which becomes more stringent every year. While coal-fired electric generators are rated at 30-35% efficient, super-efficient, gas-fired co-generation plants are in the 75-90% range. By their very nature, Gelbspan asserts, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are considered, for purposes of the plan, 100% efficient. By requiring countries to improve their overall energy efficiency over time, Gelbspan believes we'd create a worldwide market demand for cleaner renewable energy technologies.

The third component of the plan is, in Gelbspan's words, the "toughest", and that is how to finance it.

"A lot of people have called for a carbon tax. We think a carbon tax is politically suicidal in the United States. It would polarize us into total paralysis on this issue. I think you would unfairly hit on US consumers and on the oil and coal companies."

Instead what Gelbspan's group is proposing is minuscule tax on international currency transactions which amounts to some $1.5 trillion dollars a day. He believes that a quarter of a penny tax would generate between $200-300 billion in revenue a year, "to make windmill factories in India, solar assemblies in El Salvador, and fuel cell factories in South Africa and co-gen plants in Cleveland."

Increasing Global Wealth

Gelbspan is convinced that if all three elements of group's plan were implemented it would not only help reduce CO2 emissions on a global basis, but would lead to "huge" increases in wealth worldwide.

The group is confident they can get a hearing on their plan among the 160 nations participating in the Kyoto Accords, the agreement signed last year to begin slowing the growth of CO2 being added to the environment. He also believes that the world press has a vital role to play in moving this issue forward, stating that if the media focused as much attention on the problems and solutions to global warming as they do on presidential scandals, celebrity trials and royal funerals, world opinion would be mobilized to action in a few months.

Gelbspan asserts the disinformation being spread by the fossil fuel lobby on global warming issue has caused the leadership in the US Congress to believe we are caught between environmental catastrophe on one hand and global poverty on the other.

"I strongly believe this, and a lot of others also believe that this is absolutely the opposite of what is real. If we engaged in the kind of global public works effort I mentioned earlier, it would create millions and millions of jobs, and expand the amount of wealth in the global economy. It would let all the poor countries develop their economies much as they wanted without regard to the limits of the atmosphere and without us having to accept a lower standard of living. In very short order you would see the renewable energy industry, which itself is rather labor intensive, eclipse high tech as the central driving engine of growth of the global economy. You'd see a vast increase in wealth."

Gelbspan likens the group's proposal to the Marshal Plan after World War Two which helped get the devastated nations of Europe and Japan back on their feet to become our strongest trading partners. "If this message were gotten across, people would be a lot less defensive about this, and they would not see it as a choice between ecological catastrophe and permanent poverty. They'd see that the seeds of this climate crisis actually contain the ways to both pacify the climate and to heal the human economic environment at the same time."

The Illusion of Status Quo Security

Critics of the Kyoto Accord in the US argue that abiding by the terms of the accord, which calls for the US to slow its CO2 emissions to 1990 levels, will jeopardize US military preparedness, as well as US jobs. Gelbspan, in turn argues, that the opposite it is true. Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels makes us even more vulnerable militarily since so much of the world's oil comes from politically volatile regions of the globe. The more reliant we are on decentralized power sources such as small scale fuel cells, community-based wind farms and solar parks, the less vulnerable we are to terrorist attacks.

If Gelbspan were the "king of the world" he would want to get the press editors of the world to focus on this issue with the same vigor they do presidential scandals. "What it takes to get changes," he said " is a big uprising of public opinion. I've heard this from members of Congress." Rather than being 'king of the world,' I'd rather be editor of the world. Using the democratic process to inform people both of the challenges, and the dangers and perils, and also of the potentials and opportunities (is the key). I think a democracy does it right once they have right information in front of them."

Times Article Viewed: 8427
Published: 16-Feb-2002


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