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"The Position of the Bush Administration is Truly Criminal" – Environmental Reporter Ross Gelbspan on George Bush, Oil and Coal

StorySeptember 22, 2003
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As reports emerge that the White House undermined its own government scientists’ research into climate change to play down the impact of global warming we play a speech by environmental reporter Ross Gelbspan. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript White House officials have undermined their own government scientists’ research into climate change to play down the impact of global warming. This according to an investigation by the London Observer.

Emails and internal government documents obtained by The Observer show that White House officials sought to edit or remove research warning that global warming is a serious problem.

Officials have also enlisted the help of conservative lobby groups funded by the oil industry to attack government scientists if they produce work that readily accepts pollution as an issue.

The disclosure will anger environment campaigners who claim that efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions are being sabotaged because of the administration’s links to the oil industry.

Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are former oil executives; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was a director of the oil firm Chevron, and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans once headed an oil and gas exploration company.

The central piece of evidence is the discovery of an email sent to chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality by a director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, known a CEI. The CEI is an ultra-conservative lobby group that has received more than $1 million in donations since 1998 from the oil giant Exxon.

The email, dated June 3 2002, reveals how White House officials wanted the CEI’s help to play down the impact of a report last summer by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the report the US admitted for the first time that humans are contributing to global warming. The email also discusses possible tactics for playing down the report and getting rid of EPA officials, including its then head Christine Todd Whitman.

The allegation was denied by White House officials and the CEI.

In June, The New York Times reported that the White House had rewritten the report.

Kert Davies of Greenpeace says, "It all fits together. It shows that there is an effort to undermine good science. It all just smells like the oil industry. They are doing everything to allow the US to remain the world’s biggest polluter."

  • Ross Gelbspan, speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire on September 20, 2003. Ginsburg is the author of The Heat is On. He has written for Harpers Atlantic, The American Prospect, The Nation, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Post. His upcoming book is Prescription For a Planetary Fever. His website is


ROSS GELBSPAN: I want to talk to you for about 15 minutes about the mother of all environmental problems but I’d like you to know it’s not just John and Doris who want campaign finance reform, nature requires campaign finance reform as well. Because there is no way we’re going to move to clean energy without clean elections. It’s sort of hard to get people focused on climate change today because there’s so much competition from other problems. We are under attack from terrorists, our economy is in a period of stagnation with some economists now talking about deflation. We are very anxious about the aftermath of the Iraq war so I think it’s very important to understand that climate change is not just another problem in this complicated world of proliferating problems. Climate change is the problem which unchecked will swamp all other problems. Conversely I very much believe that the solution to climate change contains the seeds to some of the other most major problems threatening us today.

I think a real solution to climate change has the potential to begin to mend profoundly fractured world. Let me take the example of terrorism. The most obvious connection is that a transition to clean energy would reduce our dependence on oil in the Middle East and reduce our exposure to the political volatility there. A second more technical connection is that a renewable energy economy with its stand alone solar systems and basement fuel cells and regional wind farms would make the electricity grid a far less strategic target for terrorists. Much more important I think given the fact that poor countries are much more immediately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change is the fact that our continuing indifference to climate change since we generate a quarter of the world’s emissions with 5% of the people will almost guarantee more anti-U.S. terrorist attacks. The real truth about terrorism that aside from hardening specific targets, airports and nuclear plants there is no way to protect a real complex society against terrorism. In the long run what is really required is 180-degree turn in our posture toward developing countries. It is a fact that energy investments in poor countries create far more wealth and far more jobs than the same money invested in any other sector. And if the U.S. were to spear a wholesale transfer of clean energy to poor countries, that would do more in the long run to undermine the economic desperation that gives rise to anti-U.S. terrorism than anything else. On the economic front it’s very clear that the entire global economy is susceptible to periods of stagnation and I think history shows us that when you have a really floundering economy what works is not interest rate cuts and tax reductions, what really works are public works programs. And what we’re going to be talking about for a minute is a public works program to rewire the globe with clean energy. Without question that would be the most productive investment we could make in our future and within a decade we would see a worldwide and continuing economic lift off.

Finally there is the climate itself. Unintentionally we have set in motion NASA’s systems of this planet with huge amounts of inertia that have kept this earth hospitable for 10,000 years. We have heeded the deep oceans, we have reversed carbon cycle by 400,000 years, we’ve dealt with a wave of violent and chaotic weather, we’ve altered timing of the seasons, we’ve dealt with a wave of violent and chaotic weather, we’re living on increasingly narrow margin of stability and the evidence is all around us. The urgency, and this is spelled out in two recent studies, one from the science side one from the energy side. The main climate laboratory in Britain two years ago found that climate change is happening 50% faster than they originally thought. And that is because they originally calculated the affects of warming on a static biosphere, but when they factored in the warming that’s already happen they found its compounding and they basically said that by the year 2040 most of the world’s forests will begin to die off and release more carbon. That is historically speaking the day after tomorrow. The others saw a study from the energy side basically tells us that if the world is not getting half its energy from non-carbon sources by 2018 we will see an inevitable doubling and possible tripling of atmospheric carbon levels, and that is truly catastrophic. While the world governments have been trying for a number of years to negotiate emissions reductions of six and seven percent a larger reality is being ignored. The science is unambiguous. Humanity needs to cut its use of coal and oil by 70%. I’m not going to go into the science but facts underlying the science of real simple. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps in heat for 10,000 years we had the same amount, 280 parts per billion that is now up to 370 parts per million. That is the level that the planet has not experienced in 400,000 years. That 370 will increase to about 580 by the end of this century and that correlates with an increase in the average temperature of 3 to 10 degrees and to put that in perspective the last ice age was only five to nine degrees colder than our current climate. Each year we’re putting up about seven billion tons of carbon into an atmosphere whose upward limit is about ten miles overhead. As a result, 17 to the 18 hottest years on record have happened since 1980, the five hottest consecutive years are 1991 through 1995. 1998 replaced 1997 as the hottest year on record. 2001 replaced 1997 as number two. 2002 replaced 2001. Scientists determined recently that the decade of the 1990’s was the hottest at least in the last millennium and planet is heating at a rate faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years. The first consequence of the very small warming that we’ve seen is basically forcing the planet’s hydrological cycle. That is expressing itself in longer droughts, more heat waves, more intense storms and the fact that we’re getting much more of our rain and snow in these intense severe, very destructive downpours.

I want to give you a few examples just from last year, 2002. Last spring a thousand people died from heat wave in India. Last summer’s floods in Germany, Russia and the Czech republic were the worst in memory. Wild fires consumed more than five million acres in the western U.S. and northern Canada. Half the U.S. was in drought conditions last summer. Back in India 235 million people were plunged into darkness when drought dried up their hydroelectric water supplies for electricity. A long drought in Central America left one and half million farmers with no crops to cultivate. West Nile virus spread to 42 states and much more troubling, to 230 species. And in South Asia more than 12 million people were displaced by flooding. Let me go through one more quick body of evidence, this has nothing to do with weather, it has nothing to do with computer models, these are physical changes that are happening on the planet as we sit here today.

Heat expands water. Right now officials are relocating 40,000 people from their island homes off of New Guinea. The president of another island nation in the Pacific recently called climate change a form of slow death. Heat changes Ecosystems. Scientists found in the off of Monterey bay in California that there had been a complete turn over of the marine population with cold water fish moving north and warm water fish and sea animals moving into populate the area. As ocean warming is driving fish north, atmospheric warming has propelled whole populations of butterflies from Mexico to Canada. Warming is also accelerating in the deep ocean, is that is doing two things. Increasing the intensity of these El Nino, is that play havoc with weather all over the world. The El Nino that ended in 1995 lasted five years and eight months, that is a one in 2,000 year event. The El Nino that followed it was the most severe on record. The other thing that this deep ocean warming is doing is, it is breaking off big pieces of Antarctic ice shelves, three pieces the size of Connecticut have broken off since 1995. High above the oceans, most of the glaciers on the planet are melting at accelerating rates. 20 years ago the biggest glacier in the Andes mountains was retreating by 14 feet a year. Today it’s retreating by 99 feet a year. The biggest glacier on the planet which is the Greenland ice sheet since 1993 has been losing three cubic miles of ice a year. That is enough to cover the state of Maryland with ice a foot thick. And we’ve actually altered the timing of the seasons because of the build up of CO2 spring now arrives about two weeks earlier in the northern hemisphere than it did 20 years ago. The last of these physical impacts I wanted to talk about has to do with human health. Global warming is not good for us, the most obvious impact comes from heat, we can see in that the deaths in France and Portugal with summer. And the U.N. recently projected a doubling of heat related death in the world cities in the next 20 years.

The other impact involves the spread of infectious disease. Warming accelerates the breeding rates and the biting rates of insects. It allows them to live at higher latitudes and higher altitudes, longer as a result mosquitoes are now spreading Denghi fever and malaria and West Nile to populations that have never before been exposed. Globally malaria has quadrupled in the last five years. In coastal New England we’ve seen a big increase in tick born lime disease because except for the last winter from hell we’ve haven’t had these deep freezes that kill off the insects during the winter. But it’s important to understand that climate change is no longer a scientific issue. It represents a Titanic clash of interests that threatens the survival of the largest commercial enterprise in history. The oil and coal industry together generate about two trillion dollars a year in commerce. The rest of the industrial world is beginning to meet this challenge. Holland just completed plan to cut emissions by 80% in 40 years. Tony Blair just committed Britain to cut her emissions by 60% in 50 years. Germans have committed to 50% cuts in 50 years. By contrast the position of the Bush administration is truly criminal. The White House has become the east coast branch office of ExxonMobil and Peabody coal, climate change has become the preeminent case study of the contamination of our political system by money. Two years ago the president reneged on his campaign promise to cap emissions from power plants, he then released his energy plan which is basically a fast track to climate hell and the last year of course Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto protocol since it exempts the developing countries in the first round of cuts. At some point the president might stumble across the fact that it was his father who approved the exemption of the developing countries and for good reason. We in the north have created the problem, we in the north have the resources to begin to address it. We in the north need to take the lead and the rest of the world will come along with us. This administration justifies its policies on the grounds of political conservatism but this is not conservatism. This is corruption disguised as conservatism. Let me give you a couple of examples. Peabody coal is the biggest coal company in the country. For its 120 year life Peabody was a privately held company. Then Peabody met with Cheney about seven times fashioning his energy plan, Then Cheney released his plan that calls for up to 1900 new power plants. Four days later Peabody issued an I.P.O. and went public. Its stock jump from 24 to 38 overnight. Another example, ExxonMobil was unhappy with the very straight forward statements of Dr. Robert Watson who chairs the U.N. panel of climate scientists so EXXONmobile sent a memo to the White House asking the president to get rid of Dr. Watson in fact the president complied. ExxonMobil hand picked the new chief climate negotiator for the Bush administration who promptly proceeded to announce the U.S. will not engage the Kyoto process for at least ten years and recently in a truly Orwellian stroke the White House excised all references from the dangers of climate change from the report on the EPA’s website. That was paralleled by a secret arrangement in which the White House asked a private right wing group to sue the White House to have this document withdrawn.

As i mentioned there is virtually no debate in any other country in the world about what is happening in the climate. All of the debate in the other countries is on the policy side. How do we change our energy systems without wrecking our economies. Which is where I think the debate should be. And that is because our knowledge of climate comes from more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries who are participating in what is the largest and most rigorously peer reviewed scientific collaboration in history. In the early 1990’s when the science was still uncertain, this deception by the fossil fuel lobby could be sort of excused as business as usual. But since the science has become so robust and impact so visible this behavior constitutes a clear crime against humanity. This industry sponsored public relations effort goes way beyond the normal reach of a public relations spin. To me what this amounts to is the privatization of truth. In the past this same kind of corruption has led to job losses, defective products and looted pension funds. This time it involves the future civilization.

Here is the truth about coal and oil. Our fossil fuels have brought us to a level of prosperity that was unimaginable a century ago today they’re propelling us into disintegration. The irony is that a real solution to the climate crisis, this kind of public works program to rewire the plan with clean energy would create millions of jobs in developing countries, it would turn dependent and impoverished countries into robust trading partners and in a very short time it would jump the renewable energy industry into being a central driving engine of growth of the global economy. I’ve got a model of one plan on my website called the real Kyoto protocol if you are interested in taking a look. It’s fairly simple.

The final promise of the climate crisis is that it requires the nations of the world to begin to regulate some of the largest corporations on the planet. And I think the ultimate hope is that given how central energy is to our lives, a meaningful solution to the climate crisis could be the beginning of a much larger transformation of our economic and political dynamics. I think a solution which is appropriate in scope and magnitude could provide a pilot project to begin to put democratically determined boundaries around many other operations of multinational corporations, in short it could provide a beginning of a way to democratize the global economy. Our modern history has been marked by a dichotomy between the totalitarianism of command and control economies and the opulence and brutality of unregulated capitalism and runaway globalization. I think this issue has the potential to move us toward where we really want to go and that is toward that optimal calibration of competition and cooperation that would maximize our energy and productivity and creativity and at the same time dramatically expand the baseline conditions for peace. Peace among people and peace between people and nature.

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