Two takes on climate change
Earth Day Weekend Pieces Illustrate
Times, Wall Street Journal Differences
By Bud WardNews in Review
It's not big news to note that the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and the pages of The New York Times, editorial and otherwise, do not exactly see eye to eye on many things.
The differences were stark on the April 22-23 Earth Day weekend, with the Journal lobbing a "Breathe Easier: The world is getting cleaner, Al Gore notwithstanding" editorial and Times science writer Andrew C. Revkin the next day trying to "shed a little light in all the heat" on the climate change story.
First the Journal editorial. It was, like so many Journal editorials and like so many outstanding editorials, unequivocal and dispositive. Take-no-prisoners.
Leaning on figures from the conservative Pacific Research Institute and published each year by the American Enterprise Institute, the Journal points to air quality success stories since passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act as "an instructive antidote for the doom and gloom that normally pervades environmental coverage, especially of late." It practically chortles in describing a Vanity Fair "Earth issue" featuring "a breathless essay by U.S. environmental conscience-in-chief Al Gore."
Gore's message, the Journal summarizes: "We are headed for an environmental catastrophe of the first order, and only drastic changes to the way we live can possibly prevent it." Too bad arguments aren't won on the basis of use of italics, the editorial teased: "Mr. Gore would prevail in a knock-out."
Global warming, the editorial continues, "has come at a fortuitous moment for clean-air warriors looking for alarms to ring." Saying the issue provides "endless opportunities for government intrusion into the economy," the editorial calls the issue "the green equivalent of manna from heaven," except that previous enviro scare stories over the past three decades "never came to pass."
The paper editorializes that Gore borrowed from Winston Churchill's characterizations of the Nazis in the 1930s in describing global warming as "the first sip of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us over and over again until we act on the truth we have wished would go away."
"The comparison between global-warming skeptics and the Nazis or their sympathizers is not an idle one, as full-scale demonization of anyone who questions the global warming orthodoxy is now under way." It points to a recent Journal op-ed by MIT scientist and climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen as showing how such "intimidation is stifling scientific debate."
The editorial refers back to the Vanity Fair issue as comparing "anyone who doubts that the apocalypse is nigh (including us)" with tobacco industry shills: "Both are the products of the same bought-and-paid-for industry flacks," the paper says.
"Next time someone tells you that climate change is more dangerous than terrorism, bear in mind something else Churchill once said," the editorial concludes. "'A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.'"
The Times' take on the "known" and "what is debated" points of global warming came the next day in a more nuanced Revkin-bylined piece headlined "Meltdown: Yelling 'Fire' on a Hot Planet." Not surprisingly, his piece was far more reportorial than editorial.
The lede sentence: "Global warming has the feel of breaking news these days."
Revkin points to drowning polar bears, crumbling ice sheets, Time's recent cover story, and a recent rush of other related news stories and coverage in concluding, "There is enough static in the air to simultaneously confuse, alarm, and paralyze the public. Is global warming now a reality? What do scientists know for sure and when are they just guessing?"
Revkin writes that the "prevailing scientific view" lies "between the poles of real-time catastrophe and nonevent." But he adds that "without big changes in emissions rates, global warming from the buildup of greenhouse gases is likely to lead to substantial, and largely irreversible, transformations of climate, ecosystems, and coastlines later this century." Skeptics, including the Journal editorial page, likely will find that conclusion far closer to one pole than Revkin acknowledged.
Still writing under the "What We Know" subhead, Revkin reports that "few scientists agree with the idea that the recent spate of potent hurricanes, European heat waves, African drought and other weather extremes are, in essence, our fault." He points to "more than enough natural variability in nature to mask a direct connection" and says that "even recent sightings of drowned polar bears cannot be firmly ascribed to human influence on climate."
Switching to his "What is Debated" mode, Revkin writes that unresolved questions deal with the pace and extent of future warming, impacts on wildlife, agriculture, disease, local weather and sea level rise – "in other words, all of the things that matter to people."
Revkin writes of estimates of "a probable warming of somewhere around 5 degrees" if the 280-parts-per-million carbon dioxide concentration is doubled. He characterizes those estimates as "far lower than some of the apocalyptic projections in recent years, but also far higher than the mild warming rates focused on by skeptics and industry lobbyists."
About the end of this century, Revkin writes, sea levels "could be several feet higher than they are now." That "new normal" would involve "retreating shorelines as Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets relentlessly erode."
"Grand plans to restore New Orleans and the Everglades would be rendered meaningless as seawater advances. Manhattan would become New Orleans – a semi-submerged city surrounded by levees."
Expect "huge uncertainties for a long time to come" when it comes to predicting drought patterns, floods, and heat and cold in specific regions, he writes.
By time scales important to most folks, "it's happening in slow motion. If the bad stuff doesn't happen for 100 years or so, it's hard to persuade governments or voters to take action," Revkin writes. It's the kind of problem most difficult for democracies to deal with: "a long-term threat that can only be limited by acting promptly, before the harm is clear." He points to research suggesting that stressing the urgency of the problem may be counterproductive because urgency is likely to be dismissed as "unreasoned alarmism or even passion." He points to Yale University scientists referring to global warming as "the perfect problem" – with qualities making it hard or impossible to solve, impacts clouded by scientific uncertainty, and effects to be felt over generations.
Chances are that Revkin's piece will not satisfy proponents "fer and agin" a more aggressive government approach to climate change and carbon dioxide emissions. The Journal's editorial, to the contrary, no doubt plays well to its conservative editorial page advocates.
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