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Sierra Magazine
Priorities

The Uncertainty Principle | Domestic Plague | Eco-Thugs

The Uncertainty Principle:
Finding reasons to fiddle while the world burns.

by Paul Rauber

Remember the last time you went to a demonstration? Hundreds, maybe thousands of people gather to call for the factory to stop polluting or for the clearcutting to end. In one little corner, half a dozen loggers or millworkers hold a counter-demonstration on company time. That night on the evening news, both sides get equal coverage.

In the pursuit of "impartiality," the U.S. news media reflexively seek out the Two Sides to Every Question. They do so even when there are more than two sides, and even when there is not really a question at all. It happens more so when the topic is the least bit technical; most reporters don't know much about science, and are unable to distinguish legitimate scientific dispute from bogus posturing.

Which is why there is still a "debate" about global warming. On the one hand, the vast majority of the world's climatologists warn that we face a potentially calamitous increase in the earth's temperature, with consequences ranging from severe storms, droughts, and heat waves, the flooding of coastal areas, and the spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate zones. On the other hand, fewer than a dozen scientists, many of them on the payroll of coal and energy companies, say not to worry. On the evening news, both sides get equal time.

Given the enormous stakes, in 1988 the nations of the world established an independent scientific body to advise them on what was happening to the global climate. In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global warming was going to happen. Now, after reviewing the work of hundreds of the world's top climatologists, the IPCC says that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate." Global warming has already begun.

Even before the final version of the report was published, a handful of skeptics had grabbed the headlines, attempting to throw the IPCC's conclusions--indeed, its whole process--into question. On June 12, Frederick Seitz, chair of the conservative George C. Marshall Institute, wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal charging "A Major Deception on 'Global Warming.'" Seitz, a past president of the National Academy of Sciences, charged that the final version of the report was "not the version that was approved by the contributing scientists," and that it was edited "to remove hints of skepticism. . . . I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process," Seitz wrote.

(Curiously, the very same charges had been made three weeks earlier by the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group funded by the fossil-fuel industry, which spends a million dollars a year to pour cold water on the threat of global warming. Back in 1987, Seitz himself launched a similar broadside on another august scientific body, attacking the American Physical Society for pooh-poohing Star Wars technology.)

Seitz, who is not a climatologist and, in fact, had no involvement in the IPCC process, was flatly wrong. The changes he objected to were part of the normal peer-review process. Yet his surprise assault put the IPCC on the defensive; Bert Bolin himself, IPCC chair and perhaps the world's leading expert on global warming, had to vouch for the integrity of the report. So did Benjamin Santer, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist who authored the most heavily criticized chapter. "There has been no dishonesty, no corruption of the peer-review process and no bias--political, environmental, or otherwise," Santer wrote in a letter to the Journal. "Not only does [Seitz] demonstrate ignorance of both the topic and the IPCC process, but his actions reflect an apparent attempt to divert attention away from the scientific evidence of a human effect on global climate by attacking the scientists concerned with investigating the issue."

No matter how thoroughly their charges were debunked, however, the skeptics and the fossil-fuel industry got what they were after: a shadow of doubt far larger than the facts warrant, and a ready-made excuse for timid legislators to stick with the status quo.

"The news is why we fall for this crap," says Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University. "It's the Tobacco Institute strategy all over again: grab any straw or procedural irregularity, real or imagined, and take it to the court of public opinion." Even though global-warming skeptics represent a tiny minority of scientific opinion, Schneider says, they use this strategy "to get equal status at the bargaining table with the mainstream [of scientific opinion]. They're counting on the fact that the public can't figure out who's right."

Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of waiting for scientific unanimity. The time for debate over the question "Is global warming real?" is long over. The question now is, "What are we going to do about it?"

For help in responding to global warming skeptics, call Ann Mesnikoff, associate representative on the Sierra Club's global warming team, at (202) 675-7902, or e-mail her at ann.mesnikoff@sierraclub.org.

Paul Rauber is one of Sierra's senior editors.


Eco-Thugs in the Senate

by Paul Rauber

Jesse Helms
Capitol Hill staffers surveyed by Washingtonian magazine voted the senior Republican from North Carolina as the Meanest Man in the Senate, just ahead of Bob Dole. The famous right-winger is as mean to the environment as he is personally, scoring a perfect zero from the League of Conservation Voters last term. Par for Helms' course was his vote to slash the EPA's budget and cripple its ability to enforce clean water regulations. In his own state, which has suffered liquefied hog manure spills three times the volume of the Exxon Valdez disaster, this bill would have allowed more chemicals and microbes in lakes, streams, and drinking water. If Helms had his way, even safe drinking water rules would be subject to lengthy cost/benefit analyses.

Endangered species don't fare much better than anti-smokers with the Senator from R.J. Reynolds, who tried to kill a recovery program for the endangered red wolf, which he falsely claimed was a threat to people. Helms has also consistently opposed international family-planning efforts, most recently attempting to restrict U.S. funding for United Nations programs in desperately overpopulated China.

Strom Thurmond
Across the state line in South Carolina, Senator Helms' colleague Strom Thurmond, 93, is seeking his eighth term. The oldest person ever to serve in the Senate is set in his ways, with a current 0 percent environmental voting record, down from a 2 percent average for the last three sessions. Back in the 101st Congress, some observers detected signs of possible progress when Thurmond supported a bill that would have removed liability caps for those accountable for oil spills. But it turned out to be a fluke: this year he voted to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil development and to bar the designation of new endangered species.

Thurmond is opposed by businessman Elliott Close, a longtime member of the Sierra Club running with the Club's endorsement. Anti-environmental political-action committees have contributed over $150,000 in an effort to prop Thurmond up, but he now faces his most difficult contest in years.

Larry Pressler
In the same poll that named Helms the Meanest Senator, South Dakota Republican Senator Larry Pressler won the "No Rocket Scientist" category. "I agree that we must work to pass legislation to protect and improve the environment," says the candidate with yet another 0 percent LCV rating. Pressler's idea of environmental legislation included cutting funds available to the Interior Department to manage national parks and opening Utah wildlands to development. The would-be environmental senator's vote to restrict the EPA would have crippled water quality in his own state, where 83 percent of the rivers and 19 percent of the lakes are already unfishable and unswimmable. He bragged of his role in weakening "swampbuster" regulations in the 1996 farm bill (to protect those "who inadvertently drain a wetland"), sought to deny "environmental extremists" the opportunity to challenge federal timber sales in the court of their choice, and co-sponsored legislation to speed construction of a nuclear-waste dumpsite in California.

Pressler recently claimed that listing the pallid sturgeon as an endangered species would "wreak havoc with being able to generate power or being able to use [the Missouri River] for fishing in the way that we do." Actually, the sturgeon has been listed since 1990, with no such dire effects.

Jimmy Hayes
Louisiana Congressman Hayes isn't a Senate Eco-Thug yet, although he hopes to be. Hayes is part of the crowded field (including former Klansman David Duke) seeking the Senate seat of J. Bennett Johnston (D), who is retiring after four terms. Hayes started out the 104th Congress as a Democrat, but after enthusiastically supporting the Contract With America and the worst of the 104th's legislation (and earning himself a zero LCV rating along the way), he converted to the GOP.

Hayes' specialty is "property rights," which he has taken to be antithetical to wetlands protection. Although otherwise a "fiscal conservative," Hayes sponsored a bill that would have forced the taxpayers to pay wetlands owners millions of dollars for not developing their property. When the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that certified the scientific soundness of current wetlands regulations, Hayes reacted angrily: "Anybody in academia who wishes to defend the litany of nonsense that has occurred under the Clean Water Act is either unfamiliar with that nonsense or should have his academic credentials questioned." Come November, the voters get to question Jimmy Hayes' credentials.


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