In August 1993, Billy Joel released what would turn out to be his final album of new material, the Grammy-nominated “River of Dreams.” The second track on the album is entitled “The Great Wall of China,” and it’s become one of my favorite songs. It’s about a former manager of Joel’s who reportedly swindled millions of dollars from the Piano Man. Joel was very close to the ex-manager, and when he discovered the theft, he realized that honesty was indeed such a lonely word.
“It cost too much and takes too long to find out too late /
Some words are not heard ’til after they’re spoken,” Joel sang.
“Your role was protective, [but] your soul was too defective /
[And] Some people just don’t have a heart to be broken.”
The song provided me with great comfort a few years ago, after I was, as I like to say, stabbed in the front by so-called friends who were outraged over the fact that I had come to the conclusion that global warming was not a hoax, but a legitimate issue of policy concern.
I will never forget–nor will I ever forgive–the onslaught of insults I received from these now-former friends for writing about the climate crisis: being called a “warmist” and “intellectually deficient” is not something one shakes off easily. I can say that those bitter experiences did inspire some of the best pieces I have ever written about climate, a series of pieces for Peter Sinclair’s ClimateCrocks.com website in the fall of 2011.
Every now and then, I’m asked about those former friends, and whether I was too harsh in deciding never to speak to them again. I’ve always given the same answer: No.
Growing up, I learned that if somebody doesn’t want you to be their friend anymore, the wisest thing to do is to honor their wishes. If someone tells you to get lost, well, get lost. The former friends who scorned me when I started writing about climate made it quite clear that they no longer respected me or even liked me. The message was as clear as an old Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song: “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
It was a heartbreaking experience, but I’d like to think I’ve recovered. I’m listening to happier songs these days! However, as a result of my experiences, I find myself puzzled by articles about how to change the minds of climate-change deniers. We’ve all seen them: these pieces all make the bizarre contention that if we can just connect with people’s underlying values and principles, we can somehow, someway, someday get them to come along.
It was Bill Maher who once observed that you cannot change the mind of somebody who doesn’t have one. That’s a lesson I was forced to learn–and having learned it, I can say that Maher’s remark is an undisputed fact, as undisputed as climate science itself.
I’ve contended in the past, and still contend today, that climate-change denialism is an indicator of other extreme views held by the person who declares war on science. As I look back on the folks who scorned me, I realize that they held other unpleasant views that I was more than happy to get away from. The fellow who called me “intellectually deficient,” and who also believed Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel “State of Fear” debunked climate science? He was also a fan of the extremist political commentator Phyllis Schlafly, and also believed that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor actually hated white people! The fellow who called me a “warmist”? He regarded labor unions as the source of all the economic problems in the country, and harbored a visceral loathing for the great Boston Phoenix reporter David Bernstein, who’s now with Boston Magazine, blaming Bernstein’s reporting for electoral outcomes he deemed unfavorable. Then there’s the ex-friend who considered climate-denying Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby a “realist” on the issue of global warming–and who also referred to opponents of the Iraq War as “domestic insurgents.” Then there’s the ex-friend who was a fan of the far-right political commentator Cliff Kincaid. Then there’s the ex-friend who was a fan of Sen. James Inhofe. And the ex-friend who said that he used to be a fan of the actress Anne Hathaway until he learned that Hathaway played a supporting role in the 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain”! And did I mention the ex-friend who, after I started writing about climate change, started posting articles by climate-change denier James Delingpole on his Facebook page?
You get the idea. And you wonder why I had to wash those men and women right out of my hair.
It’s been a few years since I severed ties with “…a few false friends of whom I am well rid,” to quote President Warren Harding. I imagine that as the evidence of human-caused climate change accumulates, and as cultural and political circumstances bring an effective end to big-time climate-change denial, those false friends will find themselves a little, shall we say, upset.
Frankly, this is why I’m hoping that there’s an overflow turnout for the People’s Climate March on September 21st in New York City. If two to three million people show up in the Big Apple to protest the fossil fuel industry’s 30-year effort to worm its way into American politics and culture, I imagine my ex-friends will be horrified. Good!
If you have ex-friends that looked down upon you because you dared to say that Al Gore was right, I have to ask: do you ever wonder what they’ll cling to as the storms set in? Can’t you see them rifling through old George Will columns, looking in vain for something, anything, to justify their investment in ignorance?
Speaking of George Will, you may have heard that at the end of August, the Washington Post (which, of course, distributes Will’s columns to newspapers nationwide) ran a series of editorials urging strong action to combat carbon pollution. In the first editorial, the Post declared:
“As the U.S. debate has deteriorated, scientists’ warnings have become more dire. According to the authoritative Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , every region of the world faces serious risks , including sea-level rise or worsening heat waves, floods and wildfires — and those are consequences scientists can predict. Though poor nations along the equator may be hit hardest, U.S. analysts are beginning to quantify a variety of direct and negative effects climate change could have in our own country.
“These factors help explain a [certain] reason for hope: Despite ups and downs in the polling, a solid majority of Americans favors action to curb greenhouse [gas] emissions. As with the recent national shift on gay marriage, feelings on climate change will eventually move more decisively — we hope in time to spare the world unnecessary expense and suffering.
“And the United States is reaching a put-up-or-shut-up moment. As Congress dithered, Mr. Obama filled the policy void with executive actions designed to cut greenhouse [gas] emissions under authorities Congress entrusted to the Environmental Protection Agency decades ago in the Clean Air Act.”
In the second editorial, the Post declared:
“For more than a century, scientists have understood the basic physics of the greenhouse effect. For decades, they’ve realized humans can affect the climate by burning coal, oil and gas. But the country’s leaders remain divided on the need to curb greenhouse [gas] emissions, let alone how to do it.
“Among mainstream scientists, this paralysis is mind-boggling.
“There is now no doubt that the world is warming. In 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deemed this conclusion ‘unequivocal,’ pointing to multiple, independent lines of evidence, including decades of direct temperature readings. In 2011, Richard Muller, a University of California at Berkeley scientist and former climate-change skeptic, verified this conclusion after a two-year review of the data. The complaint that scientists did not predict a slowdown in warming lately does not contradict this finding: Climate change is a long-term phenomenon; the line will go up and down here and there, but the general direction will be up. As the most authoritative source on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explained in its Fifth Assessment Report last year, ‘Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.’
“Further, the panel found, ‘It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.’ Among many pieces of evidence is the breakneck rate of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere, coinciding with measured temperature rise. Other human ‘fingerprints’ are becoming visible: Scientists, for example, are seeing a pattern of warming in the troposphere and cooling in the stratosphere that suggests greenhouse gases — not, say, variations in solar activity — are the cause.
“Waiting to deal with carbon emissions until the effects are clearer or technology improves is not a wise strategy. The emissions humans put into the atmosphere now will affect the climate in the middle of the century and onward. Technological change, meanwhile, could make a future transition away from fossil fuels cheap — or it might not, leaving the world with a terrible choice between sharply reducing emissions at huge cost or suffering through the effects of unabated warming.
“Businesses that do not hedge against the threat of uncertain outcomes fail. The world cannot afford such recklessness on climate change.”
In the third editorial, the Post observed:
“The EPA recognizes that command-and-control regulation is not ideal. It is offering as much flexibility as it can [in its Clean Power Plan], including regional emissions-cutting pacts, which would allow the required effort to be averaged across states and reduce the total cost by 17 percent. Yet only Congress can launch a more ambitious but flexible program giving power to U.S. companies and consumers.
“The EPA is starting the country down a carbon-reduction path, an important signal to Americans and foreigners seeking confidence that the United States will cut its carbon use. But the regulations’ greatest contribution will come if they prod Congress to enact a plan that’s both more comprehensive and more efficient.”
In the fourth editorial, the Post asserted:
“A prominent member of Congress has proposed a comprehensive national climate-change plan. It’s only 28 pages long, it’s market-based, and it would put money into the pockets of most Americans.
“This is not the first time that Rep. Chris Van Hollen…has made the point that the best climate-change policy is not complicated. He introduced a similar plan in 2009. The underlying logic is older still: Since the beginning of the climate debate, mainstream economists, left and right, have argued that the best way to cut greenhouse gases is to use simple market economics, putting a price on emissions that reflects the environmental damage they cause.
“As economists see it, the nation is giving a massive implicit subsidy to the users of fossil fuels, who fill the air with [excess] carbon dioxide, imposing real costs on society, without paying for the privilege. Make users pay for the carbon dioxide they emit and they will waste less energy, while investment will flow into low-carbon technologies. The nation would obtain emissions cuts at a minimum cost to the economy…
“The country is reaching a moment of decision on global warming. Scientists’ warnings are sharpening, and President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is acting in the absence of a policy from Congress. The EPA rules can’t be as clean and efficient as market-based plans such as Mr. Van Hollen’s….Conservatives who truly favor free markets over central planning should come to the table. If they cannot muster the intellectual courage, Rep. John Delaney has a smart second-best idea: Let states escape the EPA’s centralized regulation if they enact their own carbon taxes instead.”
And in the fifth and final editorial, the Post proclaimed:
“…The United States must be a driver [of climate action]; no country has pumped more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, and no global effort will succeed without U.S. buy-in and leadership
“In trade agreements, other environmental accords and arms-reduction pacts, countries have shown they can overcome mutual suspicion when cooperation offers clear, long-term benefits. A U.S. commitment would offer other countries confidence that the United States will jump with them — and allow U.S. diplomats to isolate laggards. Congress can help: Putting a price on U.S. carbon emissions, and applying a charge on imports from countries without a strong anti-emissions policy, would give China and others an incentive to implement plans of their own
“The world will not give up fossil fuels tomorrow — or many years from tomorrow. The transition scientists recommend will be slow, and the world may have to adapt to risks it did not have enough sense to avoid. But pointing out the difficulty of the problem is not a strategy. It is an excuse to shrink from one of history’s greatest challenges.
The series was interesting, to say the least, but profoundly hypocritical. As the progressive media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted on August 26:
“The Post explains what exactly is clear–the planet is indeed warming, and the climate crisis is caused by human activity–and says that ‘most reasonable climate skeptics accept these findings.’
“Except for some of the people the Post pays to write columns.
“Some of the most high-profile media climate deniers–George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Robert Samuelson–are all Post columnists who have done their part to contribute to the ‘shape of the climate debate.’ Krauthammer [has] mocked the idea that the science of climate change was ‘settled,’ and wrote that scientists who warn of the disastrous effects of climate change are ‘white-coated propagandists.’ Krauthammer went on TV this year to mock climate change science as ‘superstition.’
“Will has a long record of distorting climate science; in 2009 he wrote that warming was ‘allegedly occurring.’…
“Samuelson used to pooh-pooh climate change: ‘It’s politically incorrect to question whether this is a serious problem that serious people ought to take seriously,’ he wrote in the 1990s, and he praised George W. Bush for rejecting the Kyoto [Protocol]…
“In 2009 the paper’s op-ed page rather famously turned to noted climate expert Sarah Palin for a piece about how ‘we can’t say with assurance that man’s activities cause’ climate change.
“So if this series is a sign that the Washington Post has truly shifted on climate change, that’s a good thing. But if we’re to take them seriously about ‘the shape of the climate debate,’ perhaps they would like to offer some thoughts about what their paper’s columnists have done to warp that discussion. Whatever the case, the Post isn’t going to stop running anti-science op-eds. As editorial page editor Fred Hiatt told Joe Strupp of Media Matters, ‘I’m more inclined to take op-eds that challenge our editorials than just kind of join the chorus.’”
Joseph Romm of Climate Progress was even more blunt in an August 27 post:
“Ideally, the Washington Post should simply stop publishing climate science deniers, people who spread misinformation and disinformation on the existential threat that is climate change. Of course, that would include major columnists of theirs, including George Will…
“Does the paper publish more op-eds from people claiming cigarette smoking isn’t harmful to your health simply because the editors accept that fact? Of course not. Yet the scientific community’s certainty about human-caused climate change is as great as that of the medical community’s certainty that cigarette smoking is bad for your health…
“[In addition,] The Washington Post has a long history of giving equal or disproportionate time to the misinformation of climate science deniers.
“But now that they have acknowledged that ‘the science is real,’ there is no longer any justification for their reporters to quote people who are simply spreading misinformation or disinformation. The paper moved beyond quoting the tobacco industry on the supposed harmlessness of their product years ago.
“Two years ago NPR released an ethics handbook for reporters that asserted ‘our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.’ In particular, the handbook noted, ‘if the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.
“Where is that clearer than in the climate discussion, where we know upwards of 97 percent of climate scientists share the understanding that human activity is driving recent global warming?
“In July, BBC’s governing body released a report on its new policy to avoid false balance. It said, ‘science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.’ As a result, BBC reporters are to sharply reduce the air time given to climate science deniers — and others with anti-science viewpoints — [to] make their coverage more fair and accurate.
“Is the Washington Post really going to leave it to a fake news show, John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight,’ on HBO, to be the only U.S. ‘media’ outlet to hold a ‘statistically representative climate change debate’?
Apparently, since that’s the sort of stuff my former friends dig. They like lies and can’t tolerate truth. They hate Al Gore more than they love their kids and grandkids. They consider the Koch Brothers role models. They will scorn tomorrow for satisfaction today.
And they call *me* “intellectually deficient”?
Thank you for listening.