Memo to WashPost, George Will: Cassandra was right

George Will and the editorial page editors at the Washington Post proved a long time ago they don’t know science (see “The Post, abandoning any journalistic standards, lets George Will publish a third time global warming lies debunked on its own pages“).  And they don’t do any fact-checking (see WashPost op-ed page remains the home of un-fact-checked disinformation about clean energy and global warming).

But as a letter to the editor pointed out, they don’t know mythology either.  I was so focused on critiquing the substance of the original post (here and here), I missed the unintentional inanity of the headline, “Cooling Down the Cassandras,” and Will’s final line:

Environmental Cassandras must be careful with their predictions lest they commit what climate alarmists consider the unpardonable faux pas of denying that the world is coming to an end.

Other than not knowing the science or doing basic fact-checking, the faux pas is pretending to be an intellectual while not even knowing you’ve used a mythological metaphor containing a hidden army that destroys your whole damn message.   Cassandra famously had the gift of prophecy but the curse of not being believed, with archetypally tragic results:

While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since they did not believe her.

So yes, climate scientists have become Cassandras — and Will and WashPost‘s Fred Hiatt are the ones blind to the obvious dangers, the ones trying to drown out the warmings of those who are trying to warn about impending catastrophe.

Here’s the letter, by Jim Mcelfish, Senior Attorney, Environmental Law Institute  Washington:

George F. Will used his Oct. 1 column to deride government officials and scientists warning of the consequences of global warming, and he suggested that these climate-change “Cassandras” slow down and not cater to “alarmists.”  Mr. Will has perhaps forgotten his classics. Cassandra, prophetess of Troy, was always right when she sounded the alarm but was never believed by those with power to avert disaster.

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17 Responses to Memo to WashPost, George Will: Cassandra was right

  1. Brewster says:

    I know I sometimes feel like Cassandra…

  2. Oh, c’mon now Joe! You don’t actually expect someone as important as George Will to actually read now, do you? I mean, geez, where are your priorities?

    (This has probably been posted here already, but it merits being reposted: a handsomely done YouTube smackdown of Will and the “they predicted cooling in the ’70’s” meme: )

  3. mike roddy says:

    Will himself reminds me of Alcibiades, the Athenian aristocrat whose vanity kept getting him into trouble. He is associated with failed military campaigns and arrogant underestimation of the enemy. This was especially true in Sicily (where his main motivation appeared to be plunder), and later in the final days of the war with Sparta.

    In public, he was arrogant and self righteous, in private, dissolute and selfish.

    If you are a military leader, these human weaknesses have a way of catching up. Alcibiades’ failures finally led to his being stripped of his power. For journalists, no problem: Will’s tenure at the Post is secure. Apparently the editors at that once respected paper have found a kindred spirit.

  4. Richard Brenne says:

    Arcane political procedures, the balk rule in baseball (the subject, I believe, of six of Will’s books) and bow-ties are the areas where I defer to Will’s expertise, especially when the three are somehow combined. About sentence structure or science he knows not of what he speaks.

  5. George may want to hear of the tale of the Boy Who Denied Wolf. (Apologies to Aesop’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf)

    “Sometimes when we deny, but eventually realize the truth, we learn it too late to say. We will deny once, deny twice — but then perish when we deny our own plight.”

  6. Giove says:

    Nice story :)

    Here is another one i like:

    One day, getting out of a foreign airport, you catch a taxy (1) to go to an important meeting.. and you are late. The taxi driver, a guy with a big smile that says he can get you there in no time, gets your luggage in the trunk and then shoots out in the traffic. You immediately realize that the guy does not know how to drive .. he makes a couple of false starts, then shoots out full speed. He says (2):”Time is money you know? got no time to lose .. and you are late too”.
    He starts driving crazily fast in the traffic, and you ask him to slow down (3). He says:”Why? I am not going fast at all!” .. while he hits 100 miles an hour (4).
    Meanwhile you look at the guy closely .. and you notice he is squeezing his eyes as if he is short sighted, while the guy narrowly avoids a couple cars.
    You also smell alcohol in his breath (5). You say:”Please slow down, I want to get there alive, it does not matter if I am late” (6). He says:”Don’t worry, I will get you there in time” (7). He starts driving 150 miles an hour, turning in narrow streets at full speed to avoid traffic. At this point, I don’t know you, but I would panic.

    Now, about climate, these are the analogies i find:
    1) we are on a vehicle (the earth) .. and we cannot get out.
    2) someone (the deniers, I suspect) are polluting it far more than it is safe (sustainable). They say that they do it in your own interest.
    3) climate-conscious people (scientists, environmentalists, several government organizations and now quite a few countries) are asking to slow down and switch to a sustainable economy.
    4) deniers.. none is more deaf than who does not want to listen and discuss openly (because of vested interests i suspect).
    5) addiction to big money .. works the same.
    6) most people would accept some sacrifices to achieve a sustainable economy
    7) typical behaviour of who pretends to be doing something for your own good.

  7. Michael says:

    And in an ideal world one would get off the plane and have someone drive a rickshaw (carbon dioxide neutral) and get late to the meeting.

    Hold on, of course nobody would be flying anymore. Because it will be so expensive only rich people like Al Gore will be able to afford it. And so he will keep jetting around the globe warning about the aviation industry’s carbon dioxide output.

  8. Giove says:

    Everyone is a environmental pillager if he uses more of the resources that he fairly should. What is the fair carbon/pollution budget I can consume every year without overusing my share of the planet? I don’t know, but I think that is something that everyone should be very conscious of.

    You are absolutely right that we cannot give up our lifestyle .. but the issue I am trying to address above is that, in my opinion, we need to start managing climate, to the best of our knowledge, to conserve our lifestyle. If we don’t we are exactly like the reckless driver of the story.

    We are short sighted at the moment .. science cannot say at the moment exactly how close we are to catastrophic climatic tipping points. We are still trying to understand what happens when Arctic ice melts.. and meanwhile we are driving co2 at full speed. So we need to improve out knowledge, and our models. We are pumping oil like never before .. oh, yes we might be next to the maximum extraction capacity. And we are doing the desperate move of getting it from tar sands while destroying forest.. man thats going too fast!

    Meanwhile, a climatic bomb of methane is about to go off in the north while we struggle to get oil. An enormous amount of methane could pop out of frozen grounds and the ocean, and in some places it seems to be doing it. This methane is likely to tip our climate in a catastrophic direction, as it seemingly happened in the past: it is, I read, a much more powerful than co2 as a greenhouse gas.

    Wait a minute, why are we struggling to pull out oil while another form of fossil energy is about to blow in our face?

    Is it possible to use methane instead of oil? And synthesize oil refined products out of methane? It sounds like a better plan to defuse a (small part of a) climatic bomb while getting energy .. at the same time, and buying some time to change the economy to a sustainable one. Using methane instead of oil would buy us some time, while doing science on climate prediction and learning to manage the planet better. I fear we don’t know how to drive it at the moment. Due to the co2 raise there would probably be a number of catastrophes happening, but if i understand well the worse comes when methane pops up from the Arctic in enormous quantities.

    Well you people know certainly better.

  9. Dennis says:

    The Washington Post probably got hundreds letters about Will’s piece, many of them correcting his portrayal of the science. And they choose to print only one letter — about classical mythology. It shows the level of editorial clout Will exercises at the paper.

  10. Giove, “harvesting” the methane in the arctic and permafrost areas is likely an intractable problem because it is not generally concentrated in pools that can be drilled into and pumped out, but distributed in bubbles that are only a little ways beneath the surface and that had previously been frozen in the ice. As the ice melts, these bubbles just percolate up. There may be some tappable concentrations, but identifying and tapping them before they simply boil to the surface is, again, likely to be difficult at best.

    Per your question of synthesizing oil refined products out of methane: methane is a very small molecule, a single carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms, whereas petroleum products are long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Assembling such a petroleum-like chain from methane atoms — assuming this is even possible, which I do not know — would involve an unthinkable amount of energy, energy that would be much better used directly substituting for those petroleum products.

    There are coal-fired electrical generating plants that are being retrofitted to also use natural gas (which is another name for methane), as this produces less pollution than coal by itself. So burning natural gas directly rather than using coal or oil has various advantages that are currently being used and expanded upon. It still has a GHG footprint, but not as severe as coal or oil.

  11. Leland Palmer says:

    Here’s a link to a news story about a study recently published in Nature, showing rapid and continuing acceleration of key glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, as shown by NASA’s ICESat satellite:

    What this study shows is that key glaciers, long ago known to be vulnerable to global warming, are accelerating, in a scenario fully consistent with rapid worldwide global warming. The whole cycle of glacial formation and destruction seems to have sped up- and destruction seems to be occurring more rapidly than creation.

    It’s real, it’s really happening, and it’s happening very, very rapidly. We are witnessing huge changes, in a very short period of time. The changes are not only in the direction of warming or melting – there are areas of increased glacial generation, too. But huge changes are occurring, very, very rapidly, apparently linked to global warming, and potentially capable of rapidly destabilizing both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

    We may already have passed the tipping point, on an accelerating and irreversible path toward a methane catastrophe, similar to those that caused the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, and the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction.

    The Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction killed 95 percent or so of marine species and 80 percent or so of terrestrial species, and this apparent runaway greenhouse event was apparently tied in with destabilization of trillions of tons of methane hydrate deposits, on the continental shelves.

    This could happen to us, too, and in fact recent polar sea water acidification measurements suggest that large releases of methane from the hydrates may be already under way.

    We really are living in a glass house, and we really are throwing stones at it.

    Our glass house appears to be cracking, even as we speak, regardless of what George Will or our controlled mainstream media admit or deny.

  12. Giove says:

    95% of marine species and 80% of terrestrial species extinct translates to a likelihood of

    0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% of a human managing to stay alive through such an event right? Or maybe add some more zeros :)

  13. Dorothy says:

    It must be said that George Will is the only writer at the Washington Post. On September 25 the WP published an article by their staff writer Judith Eilperin, “New Analysis Brings Dire Forecast Of 6.3-Degree Temperature Increase” (

    Eilperin is a writer who certainly takes climate change seriously, as should we all. But while we many of us complain of government inaction and failure address the problem of runaway global warming, few of us are emotionally capable of facing up to this impending calamity ourselves.

    If we, the people, were really taking climate change seriously, we’d immediately stop driving any faster than 55 MPH and demand that our government constrain air travel, either by rationing or using a permit system. But that’s just not happening. Instead, unconsciously hypocrital folks tell you they understand global warming is real, and then hop on a jet for a fun vacation. It would be funny if it weren’t so very sad.

  14. Leland Palmer says:

    About humanity’s chances for survival-

    It seems possible that a small elite could survive most methane catastrophes, holed up in Antarctic and far northern latitudes, perhaps in domed cities, with air cleaned of hydrogen sulfide, sitting on gene banks of the earth’s former biodiversity.

    Wikipedia- Svalbard Global Seed Vault

    But humanity could not survive all methane catastrophes, IMO.

    Due to the rapidity and one way nature of the changes we have initiated, and our continued one way forcing of the climate, it seems possible that our climate could sail right through Lovelock’s second stable state of the climate system, and end up in totally unknown territory. If the stabilizing influence of life is removed completely, this could end up resembling the surface of Venus, which is thermodynamic equilibrium for the earth’s surface, in the absence of life.

    Needless to say, global warming of any sort, especially runaway global warming and a methane catastrophe, seem catastrophic for the vast majority of humanity, although a small elite could profit via disaster capitalism.

    Chances are, if civilization breaks down due to global warming, the chaos will swallow victims and profiteers alike – no matter how rich they are.

  15. Giove says:

    someone said that to win a battle the critical factor is to progressively reduce the options of the enemy .. until he has no other options left but losing ..
    now an elite sitting in a small dome in an hostile atmosphere on top of a mountain of seeds .. has not many options left ..

  16. Wes Rolley says:

    The problem with all of this discussion is that George Will, Sen. Inhofe, Congressman Rohrabacher all make such good targets for scorn and derision that we are willing to accept a slow death as the alternative.

    The more I read and learn, the more that I am convinced about two things: James Hansen is correct about the need for civil disobedience to combat King Coal and (2) that the Democratic Party of Jay Rockefeller, Robert Byrd, Dick Durbin, et. al. will never be willing to do anything other than promise us that clean coal is the future rather than the oxymoron we know it to be.

    I have little hope that any climate bill we see this year will have anything close to the controls needed to solve this and, lacking the ability to change things at the ballot boxes, we will need to do it by following Hansen to the as of yet un-removed mountain tops.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Gary Herstein (10) — Can you provide a link to a story of converting from coal to natrual gas? Thanks.