Book Review – Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan

…it is worth repeating that climate change is not just another issue in this complicated world of proliferating issues. It is the issue that, unchecked, will swamp all the other issues.

Ross Gelbspan
Long time reporter for The Philadelphia Bulletin,
The Washington Post and The Boston Globe
Joint-Winner of the Pulitzer Prize



Gelbspan is the most sensationalistic of the writers and the least careful about the quality of his sources. He cites facts drawn from newspapers side-by-side with facts drawn from peer-reviewed publications. He is a reporter rather than dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist and he is relatively new to the subject. One gets the impression that the facts he pulls together are organized as much to shock his readers as to educate them. He is passionate and, even, angry about his subject. He is honest, however – the facts and the general patterns of information that he writes about are, indeed, the same facts and patterns that appear in the other books. But, unlike the others, he is obsessed with the goal of dealing with global warming and unconcerned with impartially telling both sides or in alienating folks. Whereas the other authors will murmur about the inertia of vested interests in the oil and coal industries, Gelbspan will point-blank call the same thing crimes against humanity. Whereas most of the others want to preserve their ability to work with the administration when necessary, and thus gently coax and chide it, Gelbspan doesn’t care and his recounting of the sequence and events of this and previous administration’s malfeasance on climate issues is brutally candid.
In Gelbspan’s first chapter entitled, “Not Just Another Issue”, he gives a brief synopsis of what each of the upcoming chapters will be about. I’m going to repeat his descriptions here, verbatim, as they will give you an overview of his themes in his words. In some cases, I include a quote from the chapter just after the description. Chapter 2, “The Sum of All Clues,” is a capsule version of the most important responses of the world’s community of climate scientists to the central question underlying the climate crisis: How do we know this upheaval is caused by human beings rather than resulting from the wild natural swings that have marked the prehistoric record of the global climate?

There is only one chance in 100 that the rate of warming will be less than double the warming rate of the last 100 years – and a 99 percent probability that it will exceed or double the past warming rate … The most likely estimate of warming between [now] and 2100 is 5.5 degrees F. This is five times the warming rate experienced over the past 100 years. At the high end, there is a five percent chance that the warming could be more than eight times the warming rate of the past century.
– letter from Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research to Senators Tom Daschle (D-ND) and William Frist (R-TN) in July 2003

Chapter 3, “Criminals Against Humanity,” documents an extraordinary collaboration between the fossil fuel industry and the White House to keep this issue out of public view in the United States – and to keep the debate focused on whether it is happening rather than on what to do about it.

The official line of the new Bush presidency was expressed in a November 2002 memo from political consultant Frank Luntz to the Republican Party. In a section title, “Winning the Global Warming Debate,” Luntz wrote that many voters believe there is a lack of consensus about global warming among scientists. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly,” he wrote. “Therefore you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.”

Chapter 4, “Bad Press,” examines, from another angle, the reason the American public is so ill-informed about climate change compared to the rest of the world. Part of the answer lies in some outdated journalistic conventions that were adopted to ensure objectivity but which, in fact, have generated frequently inaccurate and, in some cases, grossly distorted portraits of the state of our scientific knowledge of what is happening on the planet.

For many years, the press accorded the same weight to the “skeptics” as it did to the mainstream scientists. The issue of balance is not relevant when the focus of a story is factual. In this case, what is known about the climate comes from the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history”

Chapter 5, “Three Fronts of the Climate War,” details divisions in the climate crisis: between the United States and much of the rest of the world, between Washington and much of the rest of the country, and within the oil, auto, and insurance industries.

Chapter 6, “Compromised Activists,” examines the first groping attempts of the world to deal with climate changes – and the extraordinary frustration of thousands of political, religious, and campus-based climate activists who find themselves forced by a steel wall of denial to lower their expectations and pursue only the most minimal of goals.

Regrettably, the environmental movement has proven it can not accomplish large-scale change by itself. Despite occasional spasms of cooperation, the major environmental groups have been unwilling to join together around a unified climate agenda, poll resources, and mobilize a united campaign on the climate. Even as the major funders of climate and energy oriented groups hold summit meetings in search of a common vision, they shy away from the most obvious of imperatives: using their combined influence and outreach to focus attention – and demand action – on the climate crisis. As a major national groups insist on promoting exclusive agendas and protecting carefully defined turf (in the process squandering both talent and donor dollars on internecine fighting), the climate movement is spinning its wheels.

Chapter 7, “Thinking Big: Three Beginnings,” portrays (I hope as honestly and sympathetically as possible) three large-scale proposals that, while flawed in this author’s eye, stand out for their intellectual courage in trying to address the true scope and scale of the challenge.

Regarding Gelbspan’s Three Beginnings, as described in Chapter 7, it is worth noting that none of the other four authors made any mention of the three initiatives he cites. Gelbspan describes these three proposals as good attempts relative to much of what else is going on but, in fact, he has no faith in them either. He says:

None presents the kind of regulatory regime that allows whole industries to move in lockstep toward a clean-energy future. As John Browne, CEO of BP, has pointed out, this change cannot happen through the conscientious efforts of a few individual companies. Real change requires that the governments of the world regulate the transportation and energy industries so that they can make the transition into a new regime in lockstep – without any company sacrificing its competitive standing within its own industry. Anything short of that will not work.

Chapter 8, “Rx for a Planetary Fever,” details my own preferred solution – a set of three interactive global-scale policy strategies, which are designed to address the climate crisis but which could also generate many other positive changes in our social, political, and economic lives.

Summary:

Gelbspan puts a very sharp point on things but his analysis is uneven. He spends little time or thought on the causes of overpopulation (woman’s rights, contraception, woman’s education, etc.). He glosses over the fact that our economies are really bubble economies and that the tools we use to model them by and large do not consider their deep dependence on the natural resources they are overusing. He spends no time on the factors in our economic systems which are accelerating the disparity between rich and poor.

If you know someone who’s more apt to be moved by passion and outrage than measured reason and analysis and you want to fire them up about environmental issues, then this is the book for you.

To the book at Amazon:

 

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