By Mike Lemonick
Back when I was a staff writer at Time magazine, I dreaded presidential-election season. The reason: every time a major primary rolled around, to say nothing of the general election, some editor would get it into his or her head that we should find “the science angle” or “the environment angle.” What are the candidates’ positions on the important science issues of the day?
It made my brain hurt, because their official positions, especially on environmental issues, often had nothing to do with what they actually ended up doing in office — either because those positions were just window dressing to get votes, or because of the political realities they faced once they were in office. Case in point: Al Gore spent eight years as Vice President, but Bill Clinton never bothered to bring the greenhouse-gas-limiting Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification, because it was doomed to defeat.
Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich at a Republican presidential debate in January .Credit: AP
So now we’ve just gone through Super Tuesday for the GOP, with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and even Newt Gingrich claiming victory one way or another, and even though I’m now at Climate Central, my editor wants to know . . . what’s the climate angle? Geoff, you’re a good guy and a fine editor, but please! There is no climate angle!
By Mike Lemonick
Remember the “Smoking Might Cause Lung Cancer” campaigns of the 1970’s and 1980’s? Of course you don’t, because nobody ever used the word “might,” either in a public-health campaign or in a news headline (Tobacco executives said, more or less, “don’t,” but that’s another story altogether.)
Yet the whole truth is that smoking doesn’t necessarily cause lung cancer. Many people who smoke don’t get lung cancer. Some people who get lung cancer have never smoked in their lives. And in a case where someone does smoke and does get lung cancer, you can’t actually prove that the smoking caused the cancer. It might have happened anyway. But nobody even considered the possibility of headlining the whole truth about smoking, because that could have muddied the essential, and utterly valid message: smoking is really dangerous, and you’re crazy to do it.
Thanks largely to the constant repetition of that message, smoking rates have dropped in the developed world, and not even the tobacco execs are foolish enough nowadays to say that’s a bad thing.
So that brings me to climate change. The essential and utterly valid message, based on the best available science, is that the Earth is warming; it’s largely due to us; it’s going to keep warming unless we do something, and there’s a significant chance that the consequences will be disastrous.
But is that the whole truth in every detail? No. Some of the details are yet to be set...
By Mike Lemonick
Remember how ethanol was going to save us? It was the perfect solution to not one, but two different problems. The first was energy security: since it’s a type of alcohol distilled from home-grown corn, ethanol would replace the gasoline made from oil imported from Bad People in places like Iran. The second was climate change. Ethanol emits heat-trapping CO2 like gasoline does, but the corn sucks in CO2 while it’s growing, so it’s mostly a wash.
That was the sales pitch, anyway, and for a while, lots of people bought it. The Federal government subsidized ethanol production, and an EPA regulation requiring the use of renewable fuels boosted ethanol’s stock still further. Then scientists began calculating the actual climate impact of corn ethanol, and discovered it wasn’t much better than gas — and might actually be worse.
Engineers maneuver a motor and drill bit on a natural gas drilling platform in Fort Worth, Texas. Credit: Robery Nickelsberg/Getty Images.
You’d think we’d have learned something from this cautionary tale. Evidently not, though: we have a new savior called natural gas. It’s the perfect solution, because it’s plentiful and home-drilled, (thank you, fracking), and it emits only half the CO2 that coal does. If we could replace our current coal-fired power plants with gas plants, it wouldn’t solve the problem of climate change, but it would buy us time to shift over to true renewables like wind and solar.
You know what’s coming next, right? I’m afraid so. Just as happened with ethanol, scientists and engineers are starting to take...
By Andrew Freedman
This may come as a shock to you, but global warming is a controversial subject in the United States these days. (No, really, it is.)
The very existence of man-made global warming, not to mention the array of policy choices for responding to it, are such flash points in American politics that it’s nearly impossible to raise the subject in social settings without sparking an awkward conversation. Worse, those discussions are nearly always set spiraling downward by the most annoying question ever posed to a climate scientist or journalist: “So, do you believe in global warming?”
I’ve been in too many uncomfortable global warming-related conversations with strangers to count at this point, and it’s tiring. It’s one thing if I’m speaking at a public event or a scientific conference, where I’m trying to foster greater understanding of the climate challenge. In other settings, I really don’t want to get into a debate with people, like the time I was seated next to a coal industry lobbyist at my cousin’s bar mitzvah. (He really, really wanted to talk about “Climategate.”)
As much as I hate to admit, sometimes it’s simply easier to dodge a question about what I do for a living -- or flat out lie -- than to endure another heated argument.
I’m sure my wariness is shared by many fellow climate researchers and communicators. We share a bond with others whose work is controversial or unpopular -- like personal injury...
“It’s so cold outside!” a woman in the elevator said to me the other day. But it really wasn’t. It was in the 20s, and in Princeton, N.J., that may be below average for February, but it isn’t at all unusual. We often have stretches of a week or more when the temperature never gets above the low 20s, and it’s not rare to see a reading in the teens for a few days in a row. So that particular day wasn’t terribly cold, and the cold snap, such as it was, had lasted 48 hours at most.
A glimpse of the 2010 winter in Princeton, NJ. This year, temperatures are starkly different reaching the high 50's, low 60's at times. Credit: The University Press Club
The rest of the winter, aside from a few short blips of not-so-frigid weather, has been ridiculously warm, with daytime highs usually in the 40s, 50s and even occasionally in the low 60s. And as I left the office yesterday, with the temperature hovering just below 50, I said to myself, “This is great! I wouldn’t mind if winters stayed like this from now on!”
That won’t happen right away. Even with global warming, this unusually warm winter has more to do with short-term fluctuations in local climate. Europe is having an unusually cold winter, and next year both places may return to more familiar conditions. But in the long term, balmy winters are likely to become more common here. The idea of climate change doesn’t seem so bad, suddenly.
But what was I thinking? I’ve been writing about the enormous risks posed by climate change for more than 20 years. I know about the rising seas that threaten hundreds of millions of people, in some...