Climate news you can’t use: NYT Magazine’s “The Low-Carbon Catalog”

One of my most tedious jobs here at Climate Progress is to read all the crap major articles published on global warming, and sort the wheat from the chaff. That was once the job of real journalists at places like, say, the New York Times. Simply providing, say, a long list of things that could conceivably reduce carbon emissions, without actually discriminating the ponies from the crap lemons, is, in fact, one of the MSM’s main critique of the Internet. [Cue laugh-track.]

Given that this is Earth-day week, where newspaper editors around the country say to their best writers (who, of course typically know very little about energy or the environment), “Give me 800 words on that global warming thing — oh, and try to find a new spin, something not so … Al Gore.” End result, lots and lots of drivel.

Case in point, “The Green Issue” of the New York Times Magazine today, titled, appropriately enough in the print edition, “The low-carbon catalog.” You can skip the whole thing (and I’m not going to provide any more links for it, since I don’t want to encourage you to waste your time). I mean, really, catalogs don’t tell you what the good stuff is — they just throw everything at you. Kind of like this issue.

For instance, on the same page is the pebble-bed nuclear reactor, which could conceivably deliver hundreds of gigawatts of zero carbon power, and Blackle Search engine, which probably accomplishes nothing whatsoever, especially if you own a flat-panel monitor like, uhh, most people who read the NYT.

As an aside, in the online edition, the subhead reads, “Some Bold Steps to Make Your Carbon Footprint Smaller,” and in the print edition, the subhead reads “any number of ways to reduce your footprint. PLUS: A defense of small, individual eco-actions.” So you probably think, given the NYT’s reputation for clarity, that this issue is going to focus on measures you yourself can take to reduce your carbon footprint, possibly small, possibly bold.

Now I knew the readership of the NYT mag was upscale, but a pebble-bed nuke is not even Tiger Woods territory. We’re talking Gates or Buffet.

And then we have a discussion of the idea by Paul Crutzen (and others) to cool the earth by injecting millions of tons of sulfur into the atmosphere. Who knew that was an individual eco-action? I guess everybody could go out and buy some sulfur and get a model rocket and shoot it off into the atmosphere. Gee, I’m going to have to write that down for my daughter’s science project when she gets a little older. Like most catalogs (though unlike most real news stories), the NYT mag does not bother to discuss the many, many well-known problems with this particular idea (see “Geo-Engineering is NOT the Answer.”

Interestingly, on the same page as the sulfur idea is a discussion of the decision by Whole Foods to ban plastic bags, which, interestingly enough, the NYT mag does discuss both sides of the issue, and, in fact, explains why the decision probably doesn’t reduce greenhouse gas emission.

The article actually does have one or two nuggets of gold for the general reader (like the paper vs. plastic bag discussion), but they are impossible to find amidst the megatons of iron pyrite. Worse, much of the print issue is in small, annoying type, which seems really inane to me given that the readers of the print edition skew old. I would normally advise readers to go online, where they can make the print as big as they want with the touch of a button. But the magazine does not warrant reading at all.

Instead, read the U.S. News and World Report article on energy efficiency (here), or the Time magazine cover story (here), and, if you want the best of the green web, rather than the worst of the MSM, Time has 15 good websites to start with (here).

16 Responses to Climate news you can’t use: NYT Magazine’s “The Low-Carbon Catalog”

  1. Ken Levenson says:

    I enjoyed Michael Pollan’s article. The rest is a disgrace: The apotheosis fetishistic commodification – a real public service, not.

  2. Earl Killian says:

    The only thing that is really going to make a difference is electing the right people. In the US the foremost issue is the Senate, where 60 or 67 sensible politicians are required, and that is a tall order.

  3. Paul K says:

    Climate voters should vote carefully. Foe example, had progressives been successful at defeating the Senate’s climate leader, Joe Lieberman, there probably would not be a passable climate bill moving through the legislative process. My senator, Barack Obama wants to double the capital gains tax. Bye bye venture capital for major deployment projects.

  4. Paul K says:

    Oops, that’s for example not foe although some might take it as a Freudian slip.

  5. Earl Killian says:

    Paul K, Lieberman is not the only Senator with a climate bill. There are Sanders-Boxer-Waxman and Kerry-Snowe, both of which are probably stronger than McCain-Lieberman.

  6. Lloyd Alter says:

    I just added this to my favorable review of the New York Times green magazine:

    UPDATE: I admire Joe Romm at Climate Progress, but he has to get over his reviewer shtick where he says “One of my most tedius [sic] jobs here at Climate Progress is to read all the crap major articles published on global warming, and sort the wheat from the chaff.” Then give it up, Joe. He told people to stay away from Monbiot’s wonderful Heat without reading the book; now he dumps on the Times for including a few things he doesn’t like in its catalog, with the admonition “You can skip the whole thing”, boldface Joe’s. His blanket denunciations of anything that has a line in its index that he doesn’t like are not helpful; there is a lot in that Times magazine that will open a lot of eyes.

  7. Joe says:

    Sorry, Lloyd — I can’t imagine that many people who don’t already know the NYT mag stuff cold will finish it. Plus over half of it is downright irrelevant. Plus the subheads pitched it as if were actions individuals could take, when it isn’t that at all. I saw very little I could recommend to my readers. Maybe your (far greater number of) readers are different — if so, Vive Le Difference!

    And yes it is my job to read everything and save the time of my readers. Movie and theater and restaurant and book reviewers do the same thing — and sometimes when they come across a real lemon, they pretty much make the same complaint.

    And you took my opening line out of context — I was trying to make a humorous point about the role reversal between the MSM and the blogosphere.

    And I can’t recommend Monbiot’s book to my readers. There are now a zillion global warming books — far too many for 99.99% of people to possibly read them all, and readers should know it isn’t in the top 10.

    Oh and as for repeating my original typo and putting a (sic) after it — tsk, tsk — everybody makes typos while blogging. I count four mistakes in your post (here). But I wouldn’t reprint them on my blog with the word (sic) after them to try to make you look foolish.

  8. Lloyd Alter says:

    LA: touché on the [sic] ; I have removed it.

  9. Hal Levin says:

    Joe — could you please list the “top 10” “global warming books” from among the “zillion” that are out there. Thanks.

  10. Seems to me that most media attention to energy and climate changes is just a marketing opportunity. I’m going to illustrate this by bringing the NYT magazine to class to day. There are errors in the comments about pebble bed reactors. To learn more go to

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Hal Levin — I’ll try to list some.

    The science: David Archer’s “Global Warming: Understanding the forecast” (rigorous)
    Easier is W.F. Ruddiman’s “Earth’s Climate: Past and Future”

    The potential future effects: Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees”

    A solution: Joesph Romm’s “Hell and High Water”

  12. Joe,

    I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…. great post!

    I found myself depressed after reading it. Here we are facing an uncertain future of rising energy prices, faster-than-expected coal-burning in China, food shortages related to biofuels expansion, and important questions to debate (as we’ve been doing) related to energy policy and instead we get Michael Pollan suggesting that planting a garden is some kind of transformational political act and catalogue of uninteresting ideas and technologies. I’d say if the economy tanks then next Earth Day we’ll look back on all of this as a rather unsustainable green hype bubble.


  13. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Hey Joe!

    I’ll take all those “megatons of pyrite” you can ship FOB via CNR to me in Burnaby, BC. The price of sulfur has just gone thru the roof, and now is over $600 US per ton. A few years ago the price was as low as $20 US per ton.

    Using dirt-cheap BC hydro power (ca. 5 cent per kwh) i’ll roast the ore in electric ovens to give iron oxide and SO2, which I’ll convert ot sulfuric acid acid

  14. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    ARRRGH! Hit the “Submit Button” by mistake!

    … which I’ll convert to sulfuric acid. I’ll then load the iron oxide and sulfuric acid into bulk carriers, ship these off to resource-hungry China, and get filthy rich. Hopefully, some of the pyrite will contain enough gold to pay for the cost of the electrIcity.

  15. @Ken,

    Agreed on Michael Pollan’s piece. As someone who writes about the environment for a living, I was overjoyed to see Pollan tackle the angle that’s so difficult for readers, and thus, for writers as well: Bridging the gap between what people think and what those people do. You wonder how many times you can write that people can make a difference by changing a light bulb. To me, Pollan’s 1,500 or so words were more helpful than the rest of the magazine because it addressed the underlying issue upon which all the various options we’re given rely — the desire to actually get up and do it.

  16. Susan Wolfe says:

    Hi Joe,
    My reaction to the Times magazine was the exact opposite of yours!

    I thought, finally, a mainstream magazine issue that reflects the the enormity, the scale, and the degree/diversity of change required in how we live our lives, and the infrastuctures that support that.
    I am certain this volume got many who may think that loosing the throw-away bags, screwing in a cfl or buying a hybrid are all they can do, to begin to understand that the solutions are much more complex, and that every bit of it matters. It’s also beginning to build recognition that sustainability is not only about climate change and co2 emissions.

    There are hundred of tip sites and books and people out there giving how-to advice to the consumer, but its the Times’ job to inspire bigger thinking and spur innovation. I think this issue did just that.

    As far as the subhead promise, I didn’t read it as bold Steps I could take to make to make my carbon footprint smaller, but bold steps that we, humanity, are taking to make our carbon footprints smaller.

    On the format . . . while I agree that some of the type was difficult (too light) to read, I think the layout design makes it perfect to read over the course of the week, which is how many NY’ers tend to read the Sunday mag.

    Bravo to the NYTimes for its successful first all-sustainability Sunday mag.