The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth

Eric Pooley

481 pages, Hyperion, 2010

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Business beat correspondent and editor Eric Pooley parlayed his inside-the-tent contacts in Eastern U.S. power establishment circles to be a fly on the wall for many of these Beltway insiders, and he observed and reported on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the climate debate in those circles. That alone gives important insight to the machinations of spin, message control, and dirty politics—as well as the bright side: those working tirelessly for honest messages and policies to right our sinking ecological ship. From that perspective there could hardly be a better reporter than Pooley, and indeed he witnessed a climate war and reported it quite accurately.

Here is what his publisher’s own blurb says to frame his book, which (despite the obvious self-hype) describes his objectives well: “Pooley [deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek], the former managing editor of Fortune and chief political correspondent for Time, spent three years embedded with an extraordinary cast of characters: from the flamboyant head of one of the nation’s largest coal-burning energy companies to the driven environmental leader who made common cause with him; from leading scientists warning of impending catastrophe to professional skeptics disputing almost every aspect of climate science; from radical activists chaining themselves to bulldozers to powerful lobbyists, media gurus, and advisors in Obama’s West Wing. He also gained unprecedented access to former Vice President Al Gore and his Alliance for Climate Protection.

“Pooley captures the quiet determination and even heroism of climate campaigners who have dedicated their lives to an uphill battle that’s still raging today. He asks whether we have what it takes to preserve our planet’s habitability, and shows how America’s climate war sends shock waves from Bali to Copenhagen. … The Climate War is the essential read for anyone who wants to understand the players and politics behind the most important argument in America.”

OK, fair enough description of his objectives, which were in my view accomplished well, despite the over-heroic hype one expects from self-assessments and “inside baseball” reporting.

Now for some true confessions from me—I too have a dog in this show of the climate wars, but it is a 40-year sweeping history, is internationalist in perspective, deals with the poverty and sustainability dimensions that dominate international negotiations, and frankly, sees the last four years of Eastern U.S. establishment machinations as virtually trivial in the scheme of this problem over its half-century history. (My book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate, was released by the National Geographic Society in November 2009.) That Pooley seemed unaware of it was a bit personally disturbing to me, having been in at the creation, so to speak, of this issue; but then there are hundreds of climate books out there by now, so why should any one get particular attention, I suppose.

Not that Pooley is wrong in his insights or that they are not worth knowing, but this problem was so far along when his reportorial fly went on the walls of power places east of Carthage, Tenn.—Al Gore’s abode—that the climate debate train had already left the station back in the 1970s. If you want a balanced history, you could not conceivably find it in the fights of the Eastern U.S. power establishment starting 10 years after the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated! To be fair, given the critical importance of the U.S. position at international negotiations, and that our position does depend on the Eastern inside-the-Beltway establishment, one should read Pooley’s book for that alone. It has very important insights on how the United States will or won’t get meaningful climate policy, policy that will have a major influence on the international negotiations, a process built up haltingly over the past many decades (for that, naturally, I suggest you see my book). Let me briefly give an insight on the sweep of time I discuss in Contact Sport that underlies what Pooley brings us up to date on in The Climate War.

In the 1970s, when I was often in Congress and even the White House on, yes, climate change science and policy issues, the debate was bipartisan, informational, and cordial. Fears of climate change dangers were not omitted in our presentations, but back then it was mostly theoretical inference from science, not yet the directly observed damages we have seen lately, such as unprecedented wildfires in the western United States, polar ice melting well beyond prediction, killer heat waves, air pollution events, and much more. In fact, the biggest factor since our early warnings is that “nature has cooperated with theory,” as I explain in Contact Sport; so now a compelling case for policy hedging is no longer just theoretical, but ethical, economic, and ecological. But, perhaps ironically, the more evidence we get, the louder and more distorted the opposition has become—and most of the time the mainstream media dutifully report with equal credibility all claimants of truth in a false dichotomy misapplication of the political balance doctrine (get the Democrat, then equal time to the Republican)—a pernicious framing for complex science where end-of-the-world and good-for-you extreme positions are the two lowest probability outcomes. See Contact Sport if you want many examples of false balanced reporting without fact-checking.

So where and when did we switch from cordial to ugly, as Pooley and I are compelled to report?

I first saw the ugliness arise in the United States after Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, and I put the blame on that administration. U.S. Rep. Al Gore was also a major player; in fact, the contention began at his congressional hearing in 1981—for which I was a witness.

In brief, the Reagan administration, applying the ideological principle of not supporting behavioral or environmental research, eliminated on those ideological grounds a major interdisciplinary Department of Energy study on the impacts of global warming on nature and society run by Roger Revelle, Gore’s Harvard environmental teacher. (I co-ran the study with Revelle and others, which is why I was at the hearing.) When Gore challenged the cuts, the administration responded that they couldn’t support “alarmism.” That was the opening ugly shot. It got mega-ugly from then until now, especially in the Congress and the media op-ed pages.

What underlay this loss of cordiality and honest information exchange from the earlier decade? The most environmentally oriented presidents of the past century, in my view, were Republicans: Richard Nixon—who created the EPA—and Teddy Roosevelt. After all, what is a more conservative word than “conservation”? But to the Reaganites, the very admission of global warming was an ideological no-no. It represented the collective planetary-scale footprint of personal, corporate, and national decisions to use the atmosphere as a convenient, free sewer to dump our smokestack wastes, tailpipe emissions, and side effects of land-use changes like deforestation. To admit that we were harming the planetary commons was to admit that we needed regulatory solutions, some internationalist—the ultimate no-no to ideologists of American hegemony and economic power. So denial of global warming became de facto government policy, since the ideology of protecting entrepreneurial rights over public amenities was Reaganite doctrine. The Gore hearing was the first public gun battle in the Congress.

So the message, dear reader, is look underneath the hype and spin out there and try to separate out what aspects of the debate are legitimate remaining scientific uncertainties—still plenty of those left to go around—and what fraction is simply an ideological protection of world views in drag as “sound science.” That separating job is a real tax on public understanding of how to first understand, and then deal with, very complex topics that have a high bar of information needed to even enter the debate intelligently. In the last chapter of Contact Sport, I ask a scary question: “Can democracy survive complexity?” My National Geographic Society editors thought that too much of a downer as my final chapter title and substituted “What Keeps Me Awake at Night.” Either way, for a representative democracy to function well, both the public and its representatives have to understand what is at stake: Risk equals what can happen multiplied by the odds it will happen.

Next is the public policy choice part—risk management. This is the public values aspect over what to do about it, given all the calls in society for governmental use of limited resources. That type of complexity is becoming commonplace now as debate over climate policy, health care, education, national defense, etc., are all topics of enormous confusion and spin from special interests and ideologists. The public and its representatives need to put all this hype and spin in context—ergo my sleepless nights.

There are many places where you can get into the set of details that are credible in the case of the climate debate, but Contact Sport is, if you forgive the shameless self-service, a place to start, with its balanced sweep of how we got to where we are in this debate of more than four decades. Good luck if you wish to join us in the bloody, muddy trenches of the climate wars—we need the assistance of all who want to help. But before you go to battle, go to boot camp—read and be informed. It is much easier to fight when you know how to use your weapons.

Restoring a civil public dialogue would, to me, be the most important first step we could take to heal the climate and the public rift over protecting our common heritage. We are already well into this dangerous experiment we are performing on “Laboratory Earth”—with us and all other living things along for the ride.

Stephen H. Schneider died July 19, three days after submitting this review. (The review remains unedited.) Schneider was a Stanford University biology professor and climate scientist who gathered evidence for global warming and advocated policies to combat climate change for four decades. He advised the administration of every president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1992, and was part of a United Nations panel on climate change that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.