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Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming

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As the peak of hurricane season approaches, we speak with leading science journalist Chris Mooney about how global warming relates to the frequency and ferocity of hurricanes. We also ask him about White House interference in climate science and Al Gore’s recent campaign to address global warming. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The peak of the hurricane season is almost upon us. Just a few years ago, the science behind predicting these storms used to be a specialized branch of meteorology. Today, in the post-Katrina world, it’s at the center of fiercely politicized debates about global warming and disaster prevention.

How exactly does global warming relate to the frequency and ferocity of hurricanes? Not only do leading scientists tend to disagree over the details, but the debate is sharpened by the Bush administration-imposed controls on what scientists are allowed to say.

Chris Mooney joins us now, a leading science journalist, just wrote a book tackling this very question. It’s called Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming. Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and the author of The New York Times best-seller The Republican War on Science. He joins us in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

CHRIS MOONEY: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Does global warming cause hurricanes?

CHRIS MOONEY: It doesn’t cause them. We would have them anyway. But clearly, global warming is going to change hurricanes. You’re thinking about an atmospheric phenomenon that essentially runs upon heat and moisture, and global warming is going to change the heat content of the oceans. It’s going to change a lot of other things. Hurricanes are going to change as a result. Precisely how? Debated. Likely, they’ll become more intense, among other things.

AMY GOODMAN: How is this debate playing out? I mean, this whole discussion about an issue that for years now has been vacuumed off government websites, those two words together, “global warming.”

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, the Bush administration has really a terrible history in terms of its treatment of scientific information on global warming. They are constantly trying to downplay the science, misrepresenting what we know, trying to keep the issue off the agenda, often by controlling what government scientists, whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers, are able to say to the media. With the hurricane global warming issue, in particular, the same phenomena has occurred. So, for example, Tom Knutson, a climate modeler employed by the government working at a lab in Princeton, New Jersey, was actually prevented from doing major media interviews about the relationship between hurricanes and global warming during the dramatic 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further.

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, he was asked to be on a number of programs. One of them, I believe was CNBC. I relate the details in my book. This is a government-paid scientist who is a climate modeler and studies hurricanes in complex computer programs, essentially, and how they may change as a result of global warming and has predicted, based on those studies, that they would intensify, on average, would dump more rainfall, both effects that would cause more destruction if they hit land. But we now know, we’ve seen the paper trail from Freedom of Information Act documents, that there was an attempt to sort of divert media requests to other scientists.

AMY GOODMAN: Who did it?

CHRIS MOONEY: The Bush administration. More specifically, the Department of Commerce, which is over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is the agency that this scientist Tom Knutson works for.

AMY GOODMAN: At a congressional hearing in March this year, NASA climate scientist James Hansen said political appointees of President Bush had blocked reports that link rising temperatures or melting sea ice with global warming. This is an excerpt where Hansen accuses the Bush administration of preventing scientists from freely speaking to the media about global warming.

JAMES HANSEN: Scientists were being asked to not speak to reporters, to report before — to tell reporters, like, “I can’t speak to you. I have to get permission, and I have to get someone on the phone with me to listen in on the conversation.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s scientist James Hansen. Explain what happened to him.

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, James Hansen is perhaps the nation’s most famous climate scientist. They call him the “father of global warming.” And over the years he’s become increasingly outspoken about his concern that we really might be reaching a tipping point beyond which there is essentially no return. If we warm the climate system too much, we could lose the ice sheets. So, apparently, a NASA aide was instructed to interfere with Hansen’s ability to do press interviews. Actually, this completely backfired, because Hansen is not someone to be told to be quiet. And so, he just went to the media anyway, and it ended up exploding. And this is sort of the weird thing about the Bush administration, interfering with its own scientists, is if they would just leave them alone, they would probably get less attention than if they’re sort of muzzled in a sense.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how has this changed, this breaking of the silence? How has it changed the science done by these government scientists?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, I think that the scientists have gradually learned over time, in relation to global warming and the hurricane issue, that they have to be more outspoken. Scientists like to retreat and just talk about data and be very technical in the way they discuss issues, but what they’re finding is that they’ve pulled into a political debate, there’s no way to avoid it, and there’s political people trying to interfere with what they say, there’s media fights constantly over the content of the information on which they’re experts, and that they really have to be outspoken, because if they’re not getting their message out, then it’s just going to be skewed, misrepresented and distorted. And that’s what we’ve seen on the global warming issue over the past, essentially, six years of the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Mooney, why have hurricanes become the hot-button issue for global warming?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, I think, without a doubt, it was the 2004 and 2005 dramatic hurricane seasons in the Atlantic. 2004, four hurricanes crisscrossed Florida in the space of essentially a month, causing incredible destruction. In 2005, we know, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, each one sort of beating the other’s intensity record for that season. So we had this incredible weather, and even as the weather started to act up in this shocking and really alarming way, not one, but two, scientific papers came out saying that hurricanes had measurably intensified and implying or stating that global warming was the cause. So the weather and the science hit at about the same time. As a result, the issue kind of exploded. I think it’s epitomized by the cover poster for Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, which shows a hurricane being belched out of a smokestack, making — translating hurricanes into a new symbol of global warming.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Al Gore, how do you think this all is going to play out in the 2008 election? And what about what the candidates have raised and your assessment of their positions?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, you know, in the 2004 election the top science issue was clearly embryonic stem cell research, and I’m willing to predict that in the 2008 election the top science issue will be global warming. And because Bush has been essentially dragging his feet throughout the entire administration, usually getting the science wrong, but never really wanting to take decisive action on global warming, it’s going to be something that the next president has to address in terms of putting in place global caps on greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s going to become a bigger and bigger issue until that happens. So the candidates are going to have to be talking about it constantly, I expect.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see candidates picking this up?

CHRIS MOONEY: Yeah, absolutely, more than before. I mean, everyone’s picking it up. This issue is actually, I think, finally at its tipping point. It’s taken way too long. It would have been easier to deal with a decade ago, before the emissions and the concentrations had gotten as high as they are in the atmosphere now. But, finally, for a large number of reasons — part of it is Katrina, drew a lot of attention to global warming, a lot of it is Al Gore becoming the leading public intellectual probably in the country and especially on this issue. All of these things are sort of swirling together, and if you look at the media attention to global warming in general, it’s gone on this dramatic curve upward in the last couple years. Something’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what’s happening at the National Hurricane Center in Miami? What has happened with the center’s director, Bill Proenza, who was sent away on “leave” Monday, after, what, six months on the job?

CHRIS MOONEY: And he hasn’t been through a hurricane season yet, either. My book about hurricanes and global warming was sort of the first fight within the hurricane community. This is the second one. It’s like episode two of the hurricane wars. Proenza came in being extremely outspoken about essentially lack of funding for his center and for hurricane research. It turns out that a lot of the senior hurricane specialists, real heroes who have been working at this agency for many years — and they’re the people that forecasted pretty much perfectly where Katrina was going to go, among other things — they disagreed with some of the messages he was putting out. They thought that he was undermining faith in their ability to forecast. So we can get into the technical details about that. So what essentially happened was a kind of staff insurrection, and they all went to the media. The Miami Herald broke a lot of the news. And they said, “You know what? We don’t have confidence in him as a director. We felt like we had to speak out.” And more and more members of the staff started signing on, and it pretty much undermined his ability to remain in that position, in my assessment, and so he stepped down.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chris Mooney. His new book is Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming. We’ll come back to him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chris Mooney, whose book is Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming. We had you on a couple years ago, Chris, when you had done a very interesting piece for Mother Jones magazine called “Some Like It Hot.” And it was about this investigation into ExxonMobil and the millions of dollars it was spending on think tanks to cloud the issue around global warming. Talk about that.

CHRIS MOONEY: Absolutely. Well, there’s no doubt that there’s been a concerted and strategic attempt on the part of special interests, and essentially the talking points have been articulated by Republican political leaders, as well, to sow doubt about the scientific information on global warming, very much analogous to what the tobacco industry tried to do in terms of sowing doubt about the relationship between smoking and various types of illnesses.

And the way it’s played out on the global warming issue, a lot of the sowing of doubt was done by think tanks based in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, largely conservative-leaning, ranging from the American Enterprise Institute to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a lot of these organizations were receiving funding from ExxonMobil.

My perception is that since about 2005, when I wrote that article, myself and a lot of others have been drawing attention to the funding levels for these think tanks and how the think tanks were going out and misrepresenting scientific information, distorting what we know about the human causation of global warming. And I think it’s tapered off a bit. I don’t think it’s over, but some of the think tanks have actually not received as much funding or stopped receiving funding. And this is indicative of how the global warming issue has finally sort of shifted. And now the terrain that people like to fight on is the economics more than the science, although there’s still some sort of denial of the basic science by a lot of conservatives and some attached to industry.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the White House?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, the White House has been, you know, reading from the same cheat sheet, essentially, and often, you know, pretending that the science is more uncertain than it is. Bush made his major speech, and he said that the — actually, this was a letter he wrote to Congress, I believe, saying that the science is incomplete. You know, science is always incomplete, but we also know a lot and we know enough to justify action. We did back in 2001. So the Bush administration was, I think, trying to distort the science, as well, and playing into this misinformation campaign, which was an emphasis on doubt and uncertainty to the detriment of what scientists have pretty well established: this is human-caused; it’s happening now; if we don’t do something, it’s not going to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Nine cities around the world played host to Live Earth on Saturday. Former Vice President Al Gore spearheaded the event to raise awareness about global warming. Concerts were held in London, New York, Washington, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hamburg. At the New York show that was held at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, Gore asked audience members to agree to a seven-point pledge on saving the Earth.

AL GORE: I pledge to demand that my country join an international treaty within the next two years that cuts global warming pollution by 90 percent in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy Earth. I pledge to take personal action to help solve the climate crisis by reducing my own CO2 pollution and offsetting the rest to become carbon-neutral. I pledge to fight for a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without safely trapping and storing the CO2.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond, Chris Mooney, to this pledge?

CHRIS MOONEY: I think it’s a great idea. We’ve got to take action. We’ve got to take action now. We can’t wait. Every day that we delay, we’re continuing to emit, and because the residence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is long, there’s a time lag before we even experience all of the effects of the emissions that we’ve already put up there. So as a result, you don’t act quickly, the problem keeps getting worse and worse and worse. So there’s a huge urgency to this issue, and I completely support what Al Gore is saying. We need a global cap on greenhouse gas emissions. We need to consider in this country all sorts of different policy measures, from carbon fuel taxes and all sorts of things like that, to figure out how we’re going to realign our economy so that we are not creating this incredible environmental catastrophe.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the politics of carbon credits and carbon counting for companies, for industry?

CHRIS MOONEY: It’s a new thing. And, you know, there’s a lot of questions that have been raised about carbon offsets and, you know, what are they actually paying for and is this really offsetting emissions?

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what they are.

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, I use, for example, carbon offsets from a company called TerraPass, so it offsets my emissions when I do air travel. And there’s a variety of different sort of programs. When Al Gore says we should do something in our personal life, this is the kind of thing that he’s talking about. And it’s kind of a new economy, and there’s a lot of uncertainties, I think, about many aspects of it. But what it’s doing is it’s showing that carbon dioxide emissions have an economic implication and that they shouldn’t be ignored. When you’re engaging in some kind of economic activity that burns fossil fuel, you need to be taking that into account. It has consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it allow companies to burn more fossil fuel and do tradeoffs?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, you know, I mean, I think that when we ultimately regulate greenhouse gases, there’s probably going to have to be some sort of economic incentive set up for companies to either cut or to buy these kind of credits, and as long as the total emissions are going down, I mean, that’s what really matters. Whether one company is just buying credits to take care of it, I think that as long as the total number is going down — and whenever we implement the greenhouse gas treaty, which we’re going to have to do, we’re going to have to monitor it very closely to make sure that it’s having a desired effect and that emissions are declining, but we’re not even at that point yet. We’ve got to get the global treaty first.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the key global treaties?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, there’s Kyoto, but Kyoto is now pretty much — it’s not even really relevant anymore, because Kyoto’s period was supposed to end, I believe, 2010, 2012, and the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that Kyoto would have capped is not enough. It was supposed to be a first step. We couldn’t even get on board with the first step in this country, unfortunately, and we couldn’t lead the world in taking this first step, so as a result we have to do something much more drastic now. And there’s a wide range of different policy measures proposed, but I don’t think the Bush administration is seriously, candidly engaging in this international process yet. So I’m not even going to be able to predict for you what the ultimate policy solution is going to be. I just know that we need one, and we need a leader who’s going to bring the world together to get one.

AMY GOODMAN: I know they gave out cards on carbon counting at the concerts, like at the Meadowlands, tens of thousands of them, and they assessed companies, they evaluated them. Unfortunately, they didn’t write those companies on the cards, what their grades were, like Pepsi-Cola, one of the sponsors of the event, I don’t think did very well. But that whole approach.

CHRIS MOONEY: I think that we’re going to have to increasingly figure out how companies are accountable, what they’re emitting, and so forth. I think a lot of companies are realizing that they have to realign what they’re doing economically, as well. So, for example, one of the reasons I think the global warming issue has tipped is because the corporate business side has started to turn in favor of doing something about global warming. A lot of companies are realizing that there are economic opportunities here if they realign their investment strategies and their business strategies to be more sensitive to the fact of the public cares about the environment and that if they’re well-positioned for the world that will ultimately ensue in which we regulate greenhouse gases, they’re going to be economic winners. And so, global warming is not necessarily damaging to the economy to address. It’s actually an opportunity for many businesses. And once that realization becomes more widespread — and I think it’s becoming widespread — then we’ll really be able to bring along a lot of conservatives who really care about industry, and then we’ll have much more of a consensus on taking action.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Mooney, you grew up in New Orleans?

CHRIS MOONEY: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to your home during Hurricane Katrina?

CHRIS MOONEY: I didn’t have a home in the city, but my mother, my brother and my father all had homes. My mother’s house was destroyed, 10 feet of water essentially making it unrecoverable. It’s now a vacant lot, and she has a FEMA trailer. My brother’s house was fine. It really just depended on the geography of the city and where you lived. My father’s house was fine. So my mother really experienced the devastation of Katrina.

And it was definitely that experience — although I have been paying attention to hurricanes for far longer, because I had watched my family have to evacuate many times over the previous years from storms that didn’t ultimately end up hitting, or at least not with their full force. So I was aware of the issue, but it was really the personal side, watching my mother lose her home, that really got me on this issue of hurricanes and global warming and wanting to investigate what the relationship was.

AMY GOODMAN: The book you wrote before Storm World, The Republican War on Science, explain what you see that war as.

CHRIS MOONEY: Sure. Well, I think that the way the Republican Party today is constituted makes it kind of a science-abusing machine, in a sense. And the reason is that to remain in power, to get in power, to get Republicans elected, there is a need to appeal to two key constituencies: religious conservatives, the religious right, on the one hand, and economic interests, big business, on the other.

And these interests have certain scientific issues that they care a lot about, where they tend to be outside of the mainstream. So the religious conservatives, they deny evolution. They’re opposed to embryonic stem cell research. They’re opposed to various forms of contraception, and so forth. So they constantly attack the science on these issues. Corporate America, it’s much more sort of the environmental regulatory issues: global warming, mercury pollution. You know, it used to be tobacco.

And so, as a result, if you put in power a Republican government like the Bush administration, which caters repeatedly to these special interests, both the religious conservatives and the economic interests, what you get is a government that repeatedly misuses and abuses scientific information, and it becomes systematic. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen in the Bush administration, is constant distortion, misrepresentation and suppression of science on these hot-button issues that the conservative base cares about.

AMY GOODMAN: The Republican presidential candidates were asked whether they believed in evolution. Three of them raised their hands saying no.

CHRIS MOONEY: And this is exactly the way that it works. It goes back to Ronald Reagan, actually. I think Reagan is the Republican that turned the party in this more conservative direction, dependent upon the vote of the religious right, what we now call the religious right. It used to be a more moderate party. And as a result, Reagan kowtowed to the anti-evolutionists.

And since then, Republican presidents have pretty much had to mouth, at least in some way, a doubt about evolution or the idea that we should teach the other side in school, too, which is what George W. Bush had to say about intelligent design. Of course, this is way outside of the scientific mainstream.

The consensus on evolution is much firmer even than it is on global warming, although global warming, we’re really pretty clear about right now. But Republican candidates have to do it. And this just shows how beholden they are to religious conservative interests and how that compels them to misrepresent science.

AMY GOODMAN: At universities, professors apply for grants. More and more has come out on bureaucrats, government bureaucrats, being in the room at the National Institutes of Health, as they’re deciding on government grants to give to scientists, and the pressure that these people in the room feel, having the politicians, basically, or the politicians’ messengers, behind them. Explain what’s going on there.

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, this is — again, this is the religious right interfering with science. I suspect that’s what you’re talking about. Some conservatives have drawn up sort of hit lists of government-funded research that they object to for some particular reason. It usually has something to do with sex. Usually it’s studies of, you know, HIV or contraception or something like that. And there are certain catch phrases that they’ll target, and then they’ll attack the research allocations.

Of course, this is peer-reviewed science, very meritorious work. We want our government funding this kind of research to enhance public health, but conservatives have various sorts of objections. They have this moral abstinence-only-until-marriage point of view, and they’re using that in myriad ways to interfere both with scientific research and also the way science is represented to the public by the agencies of the government.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of global warming, what do you think individuals can do?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, I think that we all need to look at our own lives and what kind of energy emissions — you know, how we’re using energy and what kinds of emissions are resulting from that. Ultimately, I mean, there’s a limit to how much individuals can do.

We also need to be politically active, because what we need is a governmental solution. There’s a limit to what we can do in our own lives. The problem is so big, it’s literally global. And the United States is, you know, a very bad polluter, but even our country itself, globally, you know, we have to take care of everyone’s emissions. So we really have to have an international treaty in the long term. So while looking at what we’re doing in our own lives and trying to adjust for that, I think we really have to lobby our leaders to get them more active to change this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the rest of the world? Talk about global warming, greenhouse gases in other countries.

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, you know, there’s no doubt that India and China and many other countries are large emitters. I mean, I think I’ve heard — I’m not positive about this — that China may be surpassing the United States soon in terms of its total volume of emissions. We have for a long time been the number one contributor to global warming. And that’s why if we’re going to really deal with this problem, if we’re really going to turn down the emissions level before we reach the tipping point that scientists like James Hansen are worried about, we’ve got to have a global agreement. We can’t just do it in a couple of countries.

Europe is ready to do it. They’re doing it already. But that’s not enough. We have to do it everywhere. We have to make sure that developing countries do not contribute the same kind of emissions that we contributed when we developed. So, you know, it’s going to be an incredibly knotty issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the push to nuclear power now, a new movement toward nuclear power? You start to hear President Bush, now he’s using the word “global warming,” but he’s also talking about nuclear power plants.

CHRIS MOONEY: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean, we definitely, in this country, we get a lot of energy from nuclear power. I think that what we need to do to deal with — to replace a lot of the fossil fuel burning that we’re doing now is we need to increase energy efficiency generally. We clearly can’t go off nuclear power. I mean, we’re very dependent upon it. Whether we ramp up, I think, is problematic, and that’s another issue. We need to bring online a lot of renewable energy sources that will help us deal with the problem. There’s not going to be any one fix. It’s going to be a portfolio of ways of getting energy.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the structure in government, the tax abatements for wind energy, for solar, something that has been so lacking, almost nothing in this country?

CHRIS MOONEY: Yeah. I mean, we’ve got to invest a great deal in new research and development to try to bring online some new energy technologies that are going to — there’s no doubt that the fix for global warming is going to be part mitigation, so capping greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s going to be part adaptation, because some of the effects we’re already seeing, perhaps with intense hurricanes, although that’s debated. There’s no doubt that sea level is rising, and there’s no doubt that we’re losing ice. So we’re going to have to adapt to some things that we’ve already unleashed.

And then, finally, innovation, which is what you’re talking about, it’s going to be the last part of this story. We’re going to have to find new ways and better ways of getting energy. And one of the best ways to do that is to ramp up government funding of innovative scientific research that will help us find some new solutions.

AMY GOODMAN: And how is that happening? Or is it happening? And then, who is it favoring? Is it favoring large companies? Is it favoring smaller companies, more decentralized approaches?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, you know, I mean, there’s no doubt that this government funds a lot of energy research. I mean, you could argue that they should fund more. And there’s no doubt that large companies are going to have to be part of the solution. But what you want is you want competitive peer-reviewed grants going out to scientists who are going to do experimental research to try to find new energy solutions. And that shouldn’t be slanted towards big companies/small companies. It should be slanted towards the best scientific research.

AMY GOODMAN: In that Republican presidential debate, when they asked the candidates to raise their hand, who doesn’t believe in evolution, I think it was Mike Huckabee, Tom Tancredo and Senator Sam Brownback, who raised their hands. What is the significance of this on the national political scene?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, I mean, these are the most conservative of the candidates. And, you know, Sam Brownback, for example, has been involved in, I think, a lot of scientific issues, where I would definitely disagree with how he’s misrepresented the information, you know, for example, the embryonic stem cell research issue. Sam Brownback has been part of the front line of a Republican campaign, which has been very misleading, to pretend that adult stem cells are an alternative to embryonic ones, and therefore we don’t have to fund embryonic research, we don’t have to invest in that. The scientists don’t agree with that. So, again and again, it’s being beholden to a religious conservative base and trying to walk their line on the abortion issue, on evolution, and all the rest.

AMY GOODMAN: I think the Live Earth Concert, originally Gore wanted to hold it at the Mall in Washington, D.C., but Senator Inhofe objected, saying this would be partisan, this would be a political campaign, the issue of global warming.

CHRIS MOONEY: Inhofe is sort of the worst Republican on the global warming issue. There’s just no other way to say it. He has actually literally suggested that the whole notion of human-caused global warming might be a hoax and this essentially implicates an international conspiracy of all the governments in the world and all their scientists all getting together to pretend, to mislead the public. And it’s just incredible that he would suggest something like this, but he’s been fighting the science for years.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Mooney, I want to thank you for being with us. His new book is called Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming.

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