Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Slate that was critical of the Food Movement and some of its leading lights, such as Michael Pollan. Like my previous GMO-related essay for Slate, this one struck a nerve. Shortly after it appeared–and after a proposal to label GMO foods was rejected by California voters–Pollan gave a lecture at Berkley where he is a journalism professor.
In his talk, Pollan briefly mentions “this guy Keith Kloor” at the outset–he handed out my piece to his class before the lecture–and indirectly addresses the criticisms I made. He also discusses at length why (he thinks) the GMO labeling initiative (Proposition 37) failed.
Pollan says a bunch of notable things. For example, on the scare-mongering by GMO opponents, who often assert GM foods are a threat to public health, Pollan admits that the science doesn’t support such claims. “I don’t think you win this case on scientific merit,” he says, adding: “Fear is not a basis to rally people against GMOs.”
But Pollan wants to have it both ways, because in the next breath, he also says that not enough science has been done. Additionally, he suggests, incredibly, that the mainstream press “unfairly” dumped on the French researcher of that notorious GMO/rat cancer study that has just been eviscerated once again–this time by the French Society of Toxicologic Pathology. Pollan’s comment on this is odd, since, if anything, it was the many scientists who were harshly critical of the study–not journalists, who were just reporting the reaction to it.
Pollan and his fellow foodies are in a tough spot. In the California GMO labeling initiative, they saw a chance to galvanize support for a wide-ranging food politics agenda. Pollan had essentially said that Proposition 37 was a defining moment for the upstart Food Movement. Obviously, he bet on the wrong horse and now it seems he doesn’t want to stay with that horse (especially the way it’s being rode).
It’s probably too late, if the old adage about the horse leaving the barn holds true.
Do you remember BP’s Beyond Petroleum ad campaign in the 2000s? As a writer at Adweek noted in 2010 (in the wake of BP’s disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill), the campaign “has always been borderline ludicrous, positioning the oil company as essentially anti-oil (or post-oil).”
Well, if that was ludicrous, what do we call the idea of clean coal, which the coal lobby has successfully propagated in recent years?
Over at Slate, I have a new piece that argues, “Clean coal is no joke.”
I’m not sure which is more terrifying: Going on TV for the first time or watching yourself on TV for the first time.
Both are new experiences for me. I’m a writer, not a talking head. But at the urging of my wife, I recently accepted the opportunity to appear on David Ushery’s WNBC weekly show, The Debrief. Each Sunday, Ushery explores a newsy issue relevant to New Yorkers, or as he puts it, “the story behind the story.” After Hurricane Sandy, climate change became a topic of national conversation, due in no small part to statements made by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. I have written about that and the larger public dialogue playing out in the past few weeks, which Ushery and his producer read. Hence the invite to appear on the show.
three of the four taped segments posted online. For some reason, they’re missing the introductory segment. (I think there’s a technical glitch.) When they put it up, I’ll make sure to paste it in. (All fixed–the show can be watched in full below.)
I’m the telegenic natural (not!) sitting in the middle, between NBC meteorologist Chris Cimino and David Biello, an editor at Scientific American. Both of these guys were terrific and more polished than me. To my surprise, however, I didn’t melt into a hyperventilating puddle and even managed to hold my own. Beyond an initial jitter, I didn’t really feel nervous. I have no idea why this is so. (I think the easy-going, conversational format was a big part.)
What’s more impressive is that a substantive discussion on climate change took place on local network television–for 30 minutes. How often does that happen? So kudos to David Ushery, Chris Cimino and David Biello for elevating the dialogue on one of the most important and contentious issues of our time. I’m sure people will quibble with some of the things said by myself and the other two guests, and in retrospect, I wish my brain and tongue were more in sync. But overall, I’m pleased with how the show turned out. I look forward to hearing your feedback.
Are we at a crossroads in the climate debate? Will the renewed attention being paid to global warming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy be a lasting “teachable moment,” or more of a Groundhog Day-like moment?
What do I mean? Let’s recall the wave of media (and science) coverage that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It served as a preview of the climate change/severe weather meme that has now become an effective frame for climate communicators. Additionally, in 2006, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth helped to widely publicize the perils of climate change. That same year, Time magazine warned us:
Yes, there were a lot of teachable moments during the mid-2000s. And people seemed to be paying attention. I bet many thought a corner had been turned.
Alas, public opinion on global warming swings easily (and superficially) between concern and indifference, like “waves in a shallow pan, with a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth,” Andy Revkin has observed. Thus it was no surprise when the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 pushed the looming climate crisis off the public radar. In the next few years, the bleak economy and political forces in the United States (such as the rise of the Tea Party and the GOP’s dismissal of climate science) combined to make climate change an increasingly partisan issue that President Obama was eager to avoid during the 2012 election.
Enter Hurricane Sandy. The massive, destructive storm has thrust global warming back into the national conversation these past few weeks. Michael Bloomberg’s 11th-hour endorsement of Obama for reelection made big news in large part because of the Mayor’s emphasis on climate change as a reason. Thought leaders, scientists, and pundits have similarly talked up climate change in a Sandy context. The media has done its part to stoke the conversation.
Most of these efforts, as I discussed here, have sought to reinforce the message that “Frankenstorm” Sandy is a manifestation of greenhouse gas-fueled climate change and symbolic of the “new normal.” However, there are some (who care deeply about communicating the climate threat) that have argued this may not be a wise strategy. Read, for example, George Marshall’s essay at Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. Marshall, if you aren’t familiar with him, heads up the UK-based Climate Outreach and Information Network. Nobody can accuse him of being a crypto climate denialist or Big Oil stooge. His work is singularly focused on getting people engaged with climate change. Here’s an excerpt of his recent essay:
In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change.
This is based on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern ““ and this would seem logical considering that climate change suffers as an issue from distance and a consequent lack of salience.
However this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions ““ especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognize that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.
I encourage people to read the whole piece to grasp his argument. I kinda doubt that President Obama, in the aftermath of his victory, had time to read it. But he seems to understand the complicated cultural dynamics that Marshall discusses. In his recent press conference, the President said this:
So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make a short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary — a discussion, a conversation across the country about what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.
Initially, I scoffed at this as an empty gesture. But I wonder if my critical judgement was too hasty. Maybe the way to build long-term, sustainable engagement with climate change is through an educational “listening tour,” the likes of which Revkin and Mathew Nisbet have previously proposed. I realize that such an approach sounds modest compared to Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour and the groundswell of support for climate action he is currently trying to build. But the two goals need not be mutually exclusive.
That said, the headlines continue to paint a narrative that works against the deliberative, consensus-building efforts that President Obama favors. This week, the World Bank issued a report (more a clarion call) that has been picked up widely in the media and accompanied by an op-ed by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim titled, “The Latest Predictions on Climate Change Should Shock Us Into Action.”
This latest alarming bulletin and the sense of urgency expressed by the World Bank feeds into a dominant narrative that, for many people, was epitomized by Hurricane Sandy. What will be interesting to see is if this Wake Up World! narrative diverts attention away from another important conversation that we should be having in a post-Sandy world that needs to be re-engineered with climate change in mind.
Can we have more than one climate conversation at the same time?
A year ago, I noted that “much reportage and analysis on climate change” was beginning to emphasize the connection between global warming and weather related catastrophes. This emphasis gave rise to a new meme, which Newsweek summarized in the sub-headline of a cover story:
In a world of climate change, freak storms are the new normal.
To understand just how widely this meme has since been embraced, google “new normal and climate change.”
But I’m jumping ahead. Before we get to how the “new normal” frame has shaped the dialogue on Hurricane Sandy, let’s recall what Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent climate activists and environmental writers, had to say about the hurricane that grazed New York last year:
Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s Global Warming.
By 2012, the climate change/severe weather connection had become a main talking point. As University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass observed in April:
It is happening frequently lately. A major weather event occurs—perhaps a hurricane, heat wave, tornado outbreak, drought or snowstorm– and a chorus of activist groups or media folks either imply or explicitly suggest that the event is the result of human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming.
“Is it now possible to blame extreme weather on global warming?
The reporter, Leo Hickman, asked a number of climate scientists if “specific extreme weather events are caused, or at least exacerbated, by global warming?” Many journalists at this time were asking the same question as Hickman. One answer that seemed to resonate widely was provided by oft quoted NCAR climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, who said this to PBS on July 2:
look out the window and you see climate change in action.
Climate Change: U.S. Heat Waves, Wildfires, and Flooding Are ‘What Global Warming Look Like.”
And here’s the subhead to Hickman’s July 3 Guardian piece:
Wildfires, heatwaves and storms witnessed in the US are ‘what global warming looks like’, say climate scientists
Fortuitously, a much publicized paper came out a week later, which the NYT characterized as thus in its headline:
Global warming makes heat waves more likely, study finds.
The cluster of severe weather events and disasters led Elizabeth Kolbert to write in a July 23 New Yorker commentary:
The summer of 2012 offers Americans the best chance yet to get their minds around the [climate] problem.
The teaching extended into early August, when NASA climate scientist James Hansen published his widely-publicized Washington Post op-ed and study. Although there were dissenters, Hansen’s pronouncement (that some recent heat waves and drought episodes were caused by global warming) sounded to many like the closing argument in a case that had already amassed solid, damning evidence.
Several journalists challenged the simplistic, cause-and-effect proclamations. On Twitter and in his NYT Dot Earth blog, Andy Revkin sought to remain grounded in science, which led some green pundits to chastise him as “scold” who was trying to “tamp down” discussion of the link between global warming and Hurricane Sandy. The best rebuttal to this charge came from CJR‘s Curtis Brainard, who wrote that folks like Revkin were “trying to steer” the discussion “toward facts, and away from exaggerations.”
Powerful memes, however, can be impervious to facts. Consider how discussion on Hurricane Sandy has played out. For instance, a Reuters story from last week starts:
Extreme weather sparked by climate change is “the new normal” and Superstorm Sandy that ravaged the U.S. Northeast is a lesson the world must pursue more environmentally friendly policies, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday.
Another example: New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo recently wrote in an op-ed:
Extreme weather is the new normal.
Green advocacy pundits worried about science-based journalists “tamping down” discussion on the climate change/severe weather connection need not worry. We should expect every major storm to now be discussed in the context of global warming. That is the new rhetorical normal, correct or not. I just laid out how we got to this point. There’s probably no going back.
This is the new normal in the climate debate, and pleas for a more nuanced conversation don’t stand a chance.
Pretty much anything you can think of is being worsened by global warming. We know this because there are studies about such things that get well reported in the media. That’s how I know that climate change is affecting football, chocolate, wine, allergies, food prices, summer, wildfires, storms, and drought. (Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list.) That last one–drought–has received a lot of press, and as regular readers know, is a long-time interest of mine.
So it’s no surprise that I find this new study in Nature fascinating. As reported in Science News, the researchers seem to have discovered that “the standard method of assessing drought has exaggerated drying trends over the past 60 years.” What is a surprise (to me, anyway) is that mainstream media has thus far ignored this major study. That’s perplexing, especially since there is a global warming context (see RPJ’s post). As science journalist John Fleck tweeted:
I wonder how much news coverage we’d see of a paper saying global drought trends were *worse* than we thought: http://bit.ly/UpVfte
Indeed, other than a few other science outlets, such as the websites of Science magazine and New Scientist, there’s hardly any coverage–and none by the wire services, which is really surprising. Perhaps they and others will catch up. Meanwhile, I think Fleck has it right at his blog:
Some Good News Today on Climate Change: Less Drought than we thought
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why no environmental reporters have picked up on the story.
In his first post-election press conference, President Obama received a question on climate change. What he said was likely reassuring, encouraging, and infuriating–all at once–to the climate concerned community. To understand why, read this post by Will Oremus at Slate. He helpfully translates and boils down Obama’s 601 word response to four short sentences:
1) Climate change is real. 2) We have an obligation to future generations to do something about it. 3) Doing something about it will require tough political choices. 4) I’m not willing to make those tough political choices.
Others walked away with a sunnier view. For example, because the President promised to advance a long-term climate agenda (that mostly includes building bipartisan support for action), the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg is encouraged. The headline of her article:
Obama vows to take personal charge of climate change in second term
Yes, that’s a bit odd-sounding, but I think you get the point. Meanwhile, Stephen Stromberg in the Washington Post wasn’t as impressed as Goldenberg. What Obama offered up, Stromberg wrote, “hardly signals an ambition in proportion to the size of the [climate] problem.”
Indeed, for those that trumpet the urgency of climate change, I suspect that Politico’s Glenn Thrush captured their sentiment in this tweet:
Very candid answer on climate change that will anger left: Obama says carbon regulation last in line behind taxes, jobs and immigration.
Here’s an excerpt of Obama’s comments, which I think reflects his mindset on the climate issue:
I don’t know what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because this is one of those issues that’s not just a partisan issue; I also think there are regional differences. There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices. And understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.
If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.
Every president since Richard Nixon has sought the holy grail of energy independence. The last eight presidents have all promised to get us there, as Jon Stewart pointed out in 2010. We all laughed along.
Well, guess what? It now looks like it might actually happen. But here’s the first bit of shocking news on this front, as reported in the NYT:
Holy Peak Oil! How did that happen?
That increased oil production, combined with new American policies to improve energy efficiency, means that the United States will become “all but self-sufficient” in meeting its energy needs in about two decades “” a “dramatic reversal of the trend” in most developed countries, a new report released by the agency says.
The report also predicted that global energy demand would grow between 35 and 46 percent from 2010 to 2035, depending on whether policies that have been proposed are put in place. Most of that growth will come from China, India and the Middle East, where the consuming class is growing rapidly. The consequences are “potentially far-reaching” for global energy markets and trade, the report said.
Yes, I can see the thought bubble forming over your head: The consequences for the world’s climate are also far reaching.
I agree. The Guardian has the depressing quotes from IEA economist Fatih Birol, including this:
I don’t see much reason to be hopeful that we will see reductions in carbon dioxide.
So now what? You gonna try and get China, India et al to put the brakes on their economic growth? Good luck with that. So what’s the plan that addresses climate change while allowing the aforementioned countries to continue to develop?
Last week, I wondered what lessons the food movement would learn from the defeat of California’s GMO labeling measure. I also asked (since pro-labeling efforts are moving ahead in other states) if leading foodies
believe that a campaign based on junk science and fear-mongering is the best way to achieve a political goal?
It’s still too early to tell how the food movement, as a whole, will respond, but one of their biggest champions, Mark Bittman has signaled that a change in tactics is necessary. In a weekend NYT column, he wrote:
Labeling is important not so much because G.M.O.’s are “bad” “” they have not introduced harmful ingredients into the food chain, and those who argue that they have are taking a position that is difficult to defend “” but because once we know what’s in food we can better influence how it is produced.
Sensibly or not, many consumers are predisposed against G.M.O.’s; but G.M.O.’s are not exactly evil. A better choice might be a broader discussion about animal welfare. After all, Americans are also predisposed to treat animals fairly, and it could be that a struggle for transparency in livestock production would be more successful: mistreatment of animals is easy to prove, as are the many, many downsides of industrial livestock production.
Anyone who has been following Bittman’s writing on the GMO issue knows this is a significant departure for him. A year ago he was suggesting that GM foods posed “real dangers” to human health. Just last month, Bittman wrote:
G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea “” far from it “” nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.
The evidence he cites takes you to this article by a website called Organic Authority. It is a ridiculous piece of GMO-fear-mongering propaganda that has no place in intelligent debate on GM crops.
So Bittman’s sudden change of tone on GMOs (which translates to, never mind about everything I said before) is as notable as Sean Hannity’s newly “evolved” position on illegal immigration. Will other influential pundits follow suit and have a change of heart on these respective issues? Time will tell.