Scepticism, Disinformation and Obstruction in U.S. Climate Circles

Talk by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ross Gelbspan

At the Tipping Point Conference, Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University, September 2006

Before I introduce the issue of scepticism, disinformation and obstruction in U.S. climate circles, let me take a moment to introduce myself.

I'm a journalist, not an environmentalist. I didn't get into this issue because I love the trees. I tolerate the trees. Nor am I a scientist. In my work, of course, I've talked with a number of leading climate researchers. And, I can tell you that their methodologies are rigorous. Their experiments are meticulous. And the range of their approaches to understanding our complex climate is truly elegant. We journalists, by contrast, have been trained from birth to distort, sensationalise and oversimplify. Today, however, I promise I'll try to keep it truthful.

I actually got into this issue because I learned the coal industry was paying a couple of scientists under the table to say climate change isn't happening. And I said to myself, ‘If there's this cover-up going on, what are they covering up?’ And there went the next 10 years of my life.

So the impulse that propelled me into this work has nothing to do with a love of nature. It came from a deeply-held belief, on which I based a 30-year career, that in a democracy we need honest information on which to base our decisions. In this case, some very powerful interests were stealing our reality. And I know in my bones – and from all my experience – that bodes very badly for the democracy. It also, as it turns out, bodes very badly for the planet as well.

I won't rehearse all the climate impacts and scientific findings that are appearing almost on a weekly basis in the literature. But I would like to frame this talk with a couple of large-gauge observations about global climate change.

The first is its speed. We have all been absolutely blindsided by global warming. Global warming didn't even surface as an issue in the public arena until 1988. That was the year the UN first began to put in place the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That same year, 1988, was the year that N.A.S.A. Scientist Jim Hansen went before Congress to testify that ‘global warming is at hand’.

Today, a mere 18 years later, scientists are telling us that we are approaching – or are already at – a point of no return in terms of staving off climate chaos. That is an incredibly short period of time – a blink of an eye historically speaking – for such enormous changes in these massive planetary systems. As Harvard's Dr. Paul Epstein said, ‘We are seeing impacts now that we didn't expect to see until 2085’.

The second point – which presents one of the most difficult aspects of the challenge – has to do with lagtimes and feedbacks. Carbon dioxide stays up in the atmosphere for about 100 years. So many of the impacts we are already seeing are probably the result of emissions we put up in the 1970s and 1980s – just as China and India were beginning to accelerate their surge of coal-fired industrialisation. This makes it virtually inevitable that we will see many more events of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina and the European heat wave of 2003.

The issue is further compounded, as most of you know, by the existence of feedbacks in which small changes in planetary systems trigger much larger changes in other systems.

For one example: The tundra in Siberia and Alaska for thousands of years has absorbed methane and carbon dioxide, locking them into the frozen terrain. Now, however, those areas are beginning to thaw and release those gases back into the atmosphere – which could well trigger a new spike of heating.

The final point involves the extreme sensitivity of the Earth's systems to just a tiny bit of warming. As you all know, the glaciers are melting, the deep oceans are heating, violent weather is increasing, the timing of the seasons is changing and all over the world plants, birds, insects, fish and animals are migrating toward the poles in search of stable temperatures. And all that has resulted from one degree of warming. And for context we are looking forward to a century of four to 10 degrees more heat.

What is needed is a rapid worldwide switch to non-carbon energy – wind, solar, tidal and wave power, biofuels and, ultimately, hydrogen fuels.

That does not mean we will all have to sit in the dark and ride bicycles. Those sources can give us all the energy we need in a way that could make the human enterprise far more compatible with the natural requirements of a stable species home.

The fossil fuel lobby knows this perhaps better than anyone else. And their response has been to protect their industry at the expense of the rest of us in general – and, more specifically, at the expense of the lifeblood of any democratic system – honest information.

For more than a decade, the fossil fuel lobby has mounted an extremely effective campaign of deception and disinformation, almost exclusively in the U.S.A., to persuade the public and policy-makers that the issue of atmospheric warming is still stuck in the limbo of scientific uncertainty.

That campaign for the longest time targeted the science. And in so doing, it marginalised the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the U.N. in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. It then misrepresented the economics of an energy transition. And most recently, with its new champion in the White House, it has attempted to demolish the diplomatic foundations of the climate convention. And it has been extraordinarily successful in maintaining a relentless drumbeat of doubt in the public mind.

From the perspective of an investigative reporter, the central drama underlying this issue is crystal clear. It pits the ability of this planet to sustain civilisation versus the survival of the largest commercial enterprise in human history. The oil and coal industries together generate more than a trillion dollars a year in revenues. They support the economies of more than a dozen countries. In this battle, their resources are virtually without limit.

More than a decade ago, Western Fuels, a $400-million coal consortium, declared in its annual report it was mounting a direct attack on mainstream science and enlisting several scientists who are sceptical about climate change. It turned out just three of these sceptics received about a million dollars in a three-year period from coal and oil interests that was never publicly disclosed until we published it.

Western Fuels and several coal utilities then launched an extensive public relations campaign to ‘reposition global warming as theory rather than fact’. The campaign was designed to target ‘older, less-educated men ... [and] young, low-income women’ in districts which receive their electricity from coal and, preferably, have a representative on the House Energy Committee.

The industry followed this effort with a $250,000 video that claimed that global warming is good for us. The industry argued that as we get more warming in the far north, we can grow more food to help feed an expanding population. Unfortunately, the video ignores the fact that, as the planet warms, it will trigger an explosion of crop-destroying, disease-spreading insects. Moreover, while enhanced carbon dioxide may temporarily increase yields in the northern latitudes, it will decimate food crop growth in the tropical regions where the majority of the world’s poorest and hungriest people live.

Do understand that these people are extremely persistent.

We obtained a new memo last month from a group of coal companies about the launch of yet another covert campaign of disinformation – producing a major movie to counter Al Gore's film, increasing the carbon industry's support for Republican Sen. James Inhofe, from Oklahoma, who has repeatedly called global warming ‘the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people’ and raising hundreds of thousands more dollars to finance and publicise more sceptics.

This manufactured denial is by far the biggest obstacle facing all of us at work on this issue. Launched a decade ago by the coal industry, it has been carried forward more recently by the oil industry which spent more than $15 million between 1998 and 2004 to bankroll these sceptics and their institutions – organisations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Frontiers of Freedom, and the ultra-conservative George C. Marshall Institute, among others.

(We had some fun with the most visible of these ‘greenhouse sceptics’, Fred Singer. A couple of years ago, Singer declared in The Washington Post that he had not received any money from the oil industry for 20 years. Shortly thereafter, we published the fact that he had received thousands of dollars from ExxonMobil in 1998. Lest you think this was an ingenious feat of investigative reporting, the information was on the ExxonMobil website. Of course they took down that page shortly after the article was published.)

ExxonMobil, coincidentally, has been an especially active player in this game. In 2001, Dr. Robert Watson, then head of the IPCC, suggested the US was doing less than it might to address global warming. In response, ExxonMobil sent a memo to President Bush telling him to get rid of Watson. In short order, Watson was out of a job.

Just days after the Bush Administration took office in 2001, Lee Raymond, who was then C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, had a private meeting with Vice President Cheney to discuss the goals of his energy task force. That is the same task force whose attendees were made public – and which included representatives from virtually all the major coal and oil companies –­ and not one member of the environmental community.

ExxonMobil also made clear in a series of advertisements on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, that it was vehemently opposed to US involvement with the Kyoto Protocol.

According to another memo to the White House, the oil industry engineered the appointment of an oil-friendly Congressional staffer to be the Administration's chief climate negotiator. Shortly after his appointment, the negotiator, Harlan Watson, announced that the US would not join the Kyoto process for at least another 10 years – if at all.

And when President Bush formally did withdraw the U.S.A. from Kyoto in mid-2001, the White House sent several notes thanking ExxonMobil for its ‘active involvement’ in helping determine the administration's climate policies.

But this campaign of disinformation and obstruction has, regrettably, been extremely successful. It has succeeded in casting the issue of climate change as a matter of debate in the public mind in the U.S.A. – when, in fact, there is no debate whatsoever in the community of mainstream climate scientists about the larger trends of what is happening to the planet. And it has set the U.S.A. against Europe, where countries have vowed to cut their emissions from 50 to 80 percent over the next 45 years. (I understand these promises are still little more than rhetoric. But nevertheless, from a diplomatic point of view, even these declarations of commitment are extremely important.)

The oil industry's influence on the Administration's climate and energy policies surfaced again last year. Early in his Administration, President Bush appointed an official of the American Petroleum Institute, to head up the White House climate office. Last year, that official, Phil Cooney, was found to have personally altered a major scientific report on coming climate impacts in the U.S.A., deleting and softening references to the dangers of climate change. When his hand-altered document was provided to the press, a public outcry forced Cooney to resign from the White House. Four days later, he was hired by ExxonMobil.

As recently as last month, the company took another step to further distort public policy. In February, a group of 86 Evangelical ministers urged strong action on global warming to help preserve God's creation – and to protect the world's poorest residents from the ravages of climate change.

That was followed, in July, by a statement by a smaller group of Evangelical organisations downplaying the severity of climate change. Six of the fundamentalist Christian groups that formed the core of this new coalition received nearly $2.5 million in funding from ExxonMobil.

In short, the White House has become the East Coast branch office of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal – and climate change has become the preeminent case study of the contamination of our political process with money.

Clearly the most pernicious influence of this disinformation campaign has been on media coverage of climate change within the U.S.A. Because the mainstream press has done an absolutely dismal job in covering climate change, the U.S. public is at least 10 years behind the rest of the world in its understanding of the magnitude and urgency of the issue.

There are a number of reasons for this – none of them, given the magnitude of the story, justifiable.

One reason, I think, is that many environmental stories involve conflicts over money. Good environmental journalists are quick studies when it comes to the science of ecological interactions and systems. But few are adequately trained in the kind of financial investigative reporting that allows them to follow the money.

On another level, the career path to the top at news outlets normally lies in following the track of political reporting. Top editors tend to see all issues through a political lens.

For instance, while climate change has been the focus of a number of feature stories (and small, buried reports of scientific findings), the only times it gained real news prominence in the U.S.A. is when it played a role in the country’s politics. I think of the 1992 elections when the first President Bush slapped the label of ‘ozone man’ on Al Gore because of his book, Earth in the Balance. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gore ran away from the climate issue during the 2000 Presidential campaign.)

The issue again received prominent coverage in 1997 when the Senate voted overwhelmingly not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol – not because of the substance but because it signaled a political setback for the Clinton White House at the hands of a rebellious Senate.

More recently, the issue surfaced when President Bush withdrew the U.S.A. from the Kyoto process. That coverage focused not on the impacts of climate change, but on resulting diplomatic tensions between the U.S.A. and the E.U.

Prior to his withdrawal from Kyoto, President Bush declared he would not accept the findings of the I.P.C.C. – because they represented ‘foreign science’ (even though about half of the 2,000 scientists who contribute to the I.P.C.C. are American.) Instead, Bush called for a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that would provide ‘American science’.

What I found astounding was this. Even as the Washington press corps reported this story, not one reporter bothered to check the position of the N.A.S. Had they done so, they would have found that as early as 1992, three years before the I.P.C.C. determined that humans are changing the climate, the N.A.S. was pushing for strong measures to minimise the impacts of global warming.

So that’s just a quick nod to the culture of journalism – which is, basically, a political culture which is not particularly hospitable – in fact, I think it's institutionally arrogant – toward non-political areas of coverage.

The next reason has to do with this campaign of disinformation launched by the coal industry and most recently carried forward by ExxonMobil, which is now the major funder of the greenhouse sceptics. As I mentioned, the fossil fuel lobby paid a tiny handful of scientists – virtually all of whom had no standing in the mainstream scientific community – to dismiss the reality of climate change.

As primitive as it appears to many of us, this disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel lobby was extremely effective. Newsweek Magazine conducted two polls – in 1991 and in 1996. In 1991, while the science was still unsettled, 35 percent of people surveyed by Newsweek said they thought global warming was a very serious problem. By 1996, even though the science had become far more robust and the I.P.C.C. declared it had found the human influence on the climate, that 35 percent had shrunk to 22 percent – because of the effectiveness of this public relations campaign. (Obviously, that has changed in the last couple of years.)

But the campaign also had a profound effect on journalists.

For the longest time, the press accorded the same weight to the ‘sceptics’ as it did to mainstream scientists. This was done in the name of journalistic balance. To me, it represented journalistic laziness.

The ethic of journalistic balance comes into play when there is a story involving opinion: Should society recognise gay marriage? Should abortion be legal? Should we withdraw our troops from Iraq? When a story involves opinion, a journalist is ethically obligated to give each major competing view its most articulate presentation – and roughly equal space.

But when it’s a question of fact, it’s up to a reporter to get off her or his butt and find out what the facts are. The issue of balance is not relevant when the focus of a story is factual.

In the case of global warming, what we know about the climate, as I mentioned, comes from the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. This is as close to truth as we can get. As one co-chair of the I.P.C.C. told me: ‘There is no debate among any statured scientists working on this issue about the larger trends of what is happening to the climate.’ That is something you would never know from U.S. press coverage. (Parenthetically, a disproportionately large number of my website postings on scientific findings and impacts have come from British and other non-U.S. news outlets.)

A recent study in the journal Science found that in a survey of 928 peer-reviewed research articles, not one questioned the fundamental premise of human-induced warming. By contrast, probably half the press coverage in the U.S.A. continues to cast the issue as an issue of debate among scientists.

And that is exactly what the public relations strategists of the carbon lobby want. They don't care who wins the debate, as long as the public perceives it to be a debate. That way, the public can avert its eyes, shrug and say, ‘Come back and tell us what you know when you really know what you're talking about.’ To keep the issue framed as a debate provides a measure of consolation for what is otherwise can be a frightening and emotionally overwhelming threat.

Granted there have been a few credentialed scientists – although only Dick Lindzen comes to mind – who have published in the peer-reviewed literature, who minimise climate change as relatively inconsequential.

In that case, if a journalist wants her or his coverage to be balanced, the story should reflect the weight of opinion in the scientific community – and that means that the mainstream climate scientists would get 90 percent of the story and the dissenters would get a couple of paragraphs at the end.

Today, that is finally beginning to happen – although very belatedly.

Let me touch on another aspect. One of the first impacts of climatic instability is an increase in weather extremes – longer droughts, more heat waves, more severe storms and the fact that we get much more of our rain and snow in intense, severe downpours.

These extreme events also constitute a much larger portion of news budgets than they did 20 years ago.

Given the dramatic increase of extreme weather events – you would think that journalists in covering these stories might include the line: ‘Scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming.’ They don’t.

A few years ago I asked an editor at a major news network why, given the increasing incidence of natural disasters, they did not make this connection. He told me: ‘We did that. Once.’ I think it was a major flood in 2000 in Mozambique. I said, ‘What do you mean, once?’ The editor explained that after a broadcast suggested a possible link to global warming, several auto and gasoline industry representatives threatened to withdraw their advertising from the network if it persisted in making that connection.

What we're dealing with in the climate issue is, after all, a titanic clash of interests. It is not helped by a superficial and, in many cases, irresponsible press that prefers denial to truth.

By now most reporters and editors have heard enough from environmentalists to know that global warming could, at least, have potentially catastrophic consequences. Simply to treat the story like any other by dropping in counterposing quotes – without taking the time to reach an informed judgment about its potential gravity – is a profound violation of the trust of readers and viewers who assume a background of informed interpretation on the part of their news providers.

The U.S. press today is in what I call ‘stage-two’ denial of the climate crisis. The media acknowledge its existence – and minimise its urgency and scope. You can see this from the pattern of coverage that provides occasional feature stories about the decimation of the forests in Alaska – but which continues to ignore the central diplomatic, political and economic conflicts around the issue.

For example, many editors view climate change as a kind of proxy for issue for political liberals. That is not the case.

The earliest and most forceful advocate, as you know, was your own Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A godfather of the Conservative movement in the U.S.A., William F. Buckley, Jr., has written: ‘This is not an “Al Gore” issue. We really are producing too many greenhouse gases for the planet to accommodate.’ Several years ago, Jim Woolsey, former C.I.A. director, and Republican Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana wrote an extensive piece in Foreign Affairs about the need to address climate change. President Bush's first Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, has likened the coming impacts of climate change to a nuclear holocaust. And the senator taking the lead in trying to regulate carbon emissions is conservative Senator John McCain.

It would be really useful if journalists were to spend a bit more time examining the real – rather than the assumed – politics of climate change.

It would also help if they would connect a few very obvious dots between this Administration's climate and energy policies and its sources of financial and political support.

Five years ago, the President reneged on his campaign promise to cap emissions from coal-powered plants.

The Administration then announced the first draft of its energy plan – calling for up to 1,900 new power plants – which is basically a fast track to climate hell.

In a truly Orwellian stroke, the White House removed all references to the dangers of climate change from the E.P.A.'s website.

More recently, one of the country's most prominent climate scientists, N.A.S.A.'s Jim Hansen, learned he was being censored when the agency ordered him to get prior approval for any papers, lectures or media interviews.

(One of Hansen's censors, parenthetically, was a White House appointee who had to resign when it was revealed he had committed resumé fraud, claiming to have gotten a degree from a university when, in fact, he was unable to graduate.)

Shortly thereafter, it was disclosed that researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could not take part in any press interviews without an agency ‘minder’ present to decide what the researchers are allowed to say.

(This is very ominous – especially to a journalist. The reason I was able to write my two books as hard as I did was because of what scientists said to me off the record. On the record, they use very conservative scientific language; they speak in terms of estimates and trends and probabilities. Off the record, they told me this stuff is scary as hell. It gave me a context and perspective for my own understanding that I would never have gotten with a ‘minder’ sitting in on the conversations).

And, of course, the president withdrew the U.S.A. from the Kyoto talks.

At the time, he pledged that U.S. withdrawal would not affect the efforts of other countries.

Nevertheless, a year and a half ago, the Bush Administration used its diplomatic leverage under the Framework Convention to emasculate the next round of climate talks. When the parties to Kyoto met in Bonn the following May to discuss the next commitment period, they were prohibited from coming out with any action plan at all. As one veteran climate negotiator said, the U.S.A. left the climate talks ‘hanging on to a rock face by their fingernails.’

This is not political conservatism. This is corruption disguised as conservatism.

In the early 1990s, with the science still uncertain, this deception could be excused as predictable, business-as-usual response.

But since the science has become so robust and the impacts so visible, I have come to regard it as a crime against humanity.

To me as a journalist, this whole campaign goes way beyond traditional public relations spin. To me, this effort basically amounts to the privatisation of truth.

And since our news media mirror their audiences, I think it is fair to say that what we are seeing in the U.S.A. – in both the press and the public – is an immense failure of courage.

The industry-sponsored ‘sceptics’ are fond of pointing out uncertainties in the science. They have made a living off of scientific uncertainty. But they have used it in a very selective and misleading way.

Here is what I think is the truth about uncertainty. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 100 years. If we could magically stop all our coal and oil burning tomorrow, we would still be subject to a long spell of costly and traumatic weather extremes. Moreover new research indicates that prehistoric climate changes have happened as abrupt shifts rather than gradual transitions, and that very small changes in a very delicately balanced atmosphere have produced very large outcomes. Not only are we gambling with our future. We are gambling with our eyes blindfolded. We can’t really read the cards we’ve been dealt.

When President Bush withdrew the U.S.A. from the Kyoto process, he said it was unfair to the U.S.A. since it exempts the developing countries from 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 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.

The real truth is that if we in the north don't get this right, we will suffer severe economic and environmental damage whether or not we impose energy restrictions on developing countries.’

As one Argentine climate negotiator said: ‘We are all in the same boat and there's no way half the boat is going to sink.’

Personally, my own best hope is that change in the U.S.A. will come from pressure from abroad.

About a year before Kyoto took effect, I had a discussion with officials from the French, Swiss and Canadian governments. At the time, they told me they were planning to bring the U.S.A. to court under the World Trade Organisation. Their argument was that the W.T.O. prohibits governments from subsidising their products. And since their countries would be drawing down their emissions according to the Kyoto schedule, they were going to charge the U.S. with ‘carbon subsidising’ its products – and sue for stiff taxes on U.S. exports.

Unfortunately, the attacks of September 11, 2001, intervened and the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ eclipsed that initiative.

I had also hoped that a combined effort, involving a number of developing countries, might also materialise. As all of you know, climate change hits poor countries hardest – not because nature discriminates against the poor, but because most developing countries can't afford to strengthen their infrastructures to buffer climate impacts. As a result of U.S. indifference, many of the poorer nations are seeing their crops destroyed by weather extremes, their homelands going under from rising sea levels and their borders overrun by environmental refugees.

Surely there is an opportunity here for European activists to work with N.G.O.s in developing countries – many of whom provide very significant input to their governmental leaders – to put serious diplomatic and economic pressure on the United States to begin taking meaningful action on the climate.

A final observation: I think an antidote to the generalised psychological denial that provides such fertile ground for the manufactured campaigns lies in an understanding that a switch to renewable energy does not imply a major decline in our living standards and that, to the contrary, it represents a pathway to a far more wealthy, equitable and secure world.

What the U.S.A. must do is to join the rest of the world in a common global project to rewire the world with clean energy. In the last chapter of my book, Boiling Point, I outline three global strategies that could jump-start this global transition to clean energy. While it aims for the same results as ‘Contraction and Convergence’, it features different mechanisms.

They include:

  • a change in energy subsidy policies,
  • the creation of a large fund to transfer clean energy to poor countries, and
  • a binding regulatory mechanism that requires every country to increase its fossil fuel efficiency by five percent a year.

Just a few words about each of these policies:

  • The U.S.A. spends about $25 billion a year subsidising coal and oil. That figure is $200 billion a year in the entire industrial world. If those subsidies were removed from fossil fuels and put behind renewables, the oil companies would follow the money and become aggressive developers of fuel cells, solar panels and windmills. That subsidy shift would also bring out of the woodwork an army of energy engineers and entrepreneurs – with successively more efficient generations of solar film and turbines and tidal devices – in an explosion of creativity that would rival the revolution of the 1990s.
  • The creation of a large fund, that has been calculated at about $300 billion a year for about a decade, to jumpstart renewable energy infrastructures in poor countries. This could be funded by carbon taxes in the north. A British cabinet minister has proposed a tax on international airline travel. A mechanism we like involves a tax on international currency transactions. Today the commerce in those currency transactions exceeds $1.5 trillion a day. A small tax of a quarter of a penny on a dollar would net out to about $300 billion a year for wind farms in India, fuel-cell factories in South Africa, solar assemblies in El Salvador, and vast, solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle East; and,
  • the adoption within the Kyoto framework of a binding, Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard that rises by 5 percent per year. This is a mechanism that would make it all work.

Under this plan, every country would start at its current baseline to increase its Fossil Fuel energy efficiency by 5 percent every year until the global 70 percent reduction was attained. That means a country would produce the same amount as the previous year with five percent less carbon fuel. Or it would produce five percent more goods with the same carbon fuel use as the previous year.

Since no economy grows at five percent for long, emissions reductions would outpace long-term economic growth.

For the first few years of this progressive efficiency standard, most countries would meet their goals by implementing low-cost – even profitable – efficiencies – getting the waste out of their current energy systems. After a few years, as those efficiencies became more expensive to capture, countries would meet the 5 percent goal by drawing more and more energy from renewable sources – most of which are 100 percent efficient by a Fossil Fuel standard.

And that would create the mass markets and economies of scale for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them competitive with coal and oil.

I believe a plan of this magnitude – regardless of the details – would create millions of jobs, especially in developing countries. It would turn impoverished and dependent countries into trading partners. It would raise living standards abroad without compromising ours. It would undermine the economic desperation that gives rise to so much anti-U.S. sentiment. And in a very short time, it would jump the renewable energy industry into a central, driving engine of growth of the global economy.

The real economic issue in rewiring the world is not cost. The real economic issue is whether the world has a large enough labor force to accomplish this task in time to meet nature's deadline.

Finally, at the risk of being overly visionary, I do believe, because energy is so central to our existence, that a common global project to rewire the world with clean energy could be the first step on a path to peace.

Stepping back for a moment to a wider-angle vantage point, it could also be the beginning of the end of an outdated and increasingly toxic nationalism.

The economy is becoming truly globalised.

The globalisation of communications now makes it possible for anyone to communicate with anyone else around the world.

And since it is no respecter of national boundaries, the global climate makes us one.

I think it is just possible that a common global project to rewire the world could provide a pilot programme – a model – to bring us all to where I think we want to go. And that is toward that optimal calibration of competition and cooperation that would maximise our energy and creativity and productivity – while, at the same time, dramatically extending the baseline conditions for peace – peace among people and peace between people and nature.

Ross Gelbspan, September 2006

Ross Gelbspam is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of The Heat is On and Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis. Read more from Ross Gelbspan at