A Critique Of The Broken-Record Counterfactual Message of The New York Times On Environmentalists and Scientists

The New York Times keeps running opinion pieces and analyses that misstate the positions of the major environmental groups and even leading scientists.

A classic example is the Dot Earth post from Friday headlined, “A Critique of the Broken-Record Message of ‘Green Traditionalists’.” I will show that this critique is pure bunk. Indeed, this critique isn’t merely untrue, it is the exact opposite of the truth.

Amazingly, we will even see that the critique contains an utterly false attack on “a bunch of scientists” who just published a major report. But people just don’t click on links, I guess.

The New York Times post begins by stating that Keith Kloor “has an essay posted on Discover, titled ‘The Limits to Environmentalism,’ that is well worth reading.” The NY Times then reposts this introduction with a link to the rest:

If you were cryogenically frozen in the early 1970s, like Woody Allen was in Sleeper, and brought back to life today, you would obviously find much changed about the world.

Except environmentalism and its underlying precepts. That would be a familiar and quaint relic. You would wake up from your Rip Van Winkle period and everything around you would be different, except the green movement. It’s still anti-nuclear, anti-technology, anti-industrial civilization. It still talks in mushy metaphors from the Aquarius age, cooing over Mother Earth and the Balance of Nature. And most of all, environmentalists are still acting like Old Testament prophets, warning of a plague of environmental ills about to rain down on humanity.

For example, you may have heard that a bunch of scientists produced a landmark report that concludes the earth is destined for ecological collapse, unless global population and consumption rates are restrained. No, I’m not talking about the UK’s just-published Royal Society report, which, among other things, recommends that developed countries put a brake on economic growth. I’m talking about that other landmark report from 1972, the one that became a totem of the environmental movement. [Read the rest.]

No and no.

This analysis, which would have been relevant 20 years ago, is simply the opposite of the truth today.

Indeed, anyone who follows the history of the environmental movement knows that the most serious complaint offered against it these days is that it has become too corporatist and too focused on the techno-fix. I’m not saying I agree with that critique 100%, but it has far more truth to it than this critique.

If you look at the major environmental groups — the ones with the power and money that this analysis purports to be about — they all work closely with industrial corporations, generally take lots of industry money, and they aggressively supported a climate bill that was absurdly pro-technology and pro-industry, that was business friendly and market oriented.

The climate bill was entirely about pushing any low carbon technology into the marketplace — including nuclear power. The bill had staggeringly generous subsidies for pretty much every industry, including many billions for the coal industry to help it develop technology to save its ass.

And the broken-record New York Times simply seems unable to acknowledge that the tens of millions of dollars spent to promote the climate bill was done by focusing on the pro-technology message and utterly downplaying the threat of climate change. The primary focus of the messaging was on clean energy jobs, along with energy security and the threat of international competition — industrial competition.

While the NY Times is oblivious to this, it did not escape the attention of the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who wrote about it in his 2010 article,Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?

This notion that the environmental movement — or any other major play in the media landscape — is pushing non-stop apocalyptic messages like a broken record is one I debunked in this post “Apocalypse Not: The Oscars, The Media And The Myth of ‘Constant Repetition of Doomsday Messages’ on Climate” (excerpted at the end).

To see what message they are pushing, please visit the front page of the websites of The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council — and of the enviro groups with the really big revenues — the World Wildlife Fund, and National Wildlife Federation, National Audobon Society, the Nature Conservancy. Apocalypse not!

UPDATE: Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, author of two books and some 20 refereed articles on the U.S. environmental movement — whom the NY Times has called “an expert on environmental communications” — emailed me after reading my post:

This opinion piece by Mr. Kloor and Mr. Revkin is, generously speaking, highly problematic. It ignores a vast amount of scholarship on the environmental movement. It seems very difficult to me to understand how Mr. Revkin can maintain his argument that his opinion blog is “science based”and run something like this. There is apparently a double standard in operation, where the physical sciences are taken into account, but the social sciences are not. I would expect more fidelity to the empirical research on this topic from the NY Times. Perhaps a good start on becoming conversant with this material might be the books of two previous NY Times environmental reporters –Mark Dowie’s Losing Ground and Philip Shabecoff’s A Fierce Green Fire.

As an aside, the notion that being anti-nuclear is somehow a litmus test for proving environmental groups are “Green Traditionalists” stuck in the 1970s is particularly absurd. The Economist just published a 14-page report, “Nuclear energy: The dream that failed, A year after Fukushima, the future for nuclear power is not bright — for reasons of cost as much as safety.” Is there a more pro-corporation, pro-technology mainstream global publication than The Economist?

And then we come to the utter misrepresentation of the “just-published Royal Society report,” People and the Planet. Reading the NY Times, you’d get the impression that this is somehow a doom and gloom report about how “the earth is destined for ecological collapse” if we don’t reverse course. And you’d also believe that a “bunch of scientists” have written a jeremiad that “recommends that developed countries put a brake on economic growth.”

Not. And not.

Anyone who knows the Royal Society — the UK’s national academy of science, founded in 1660 — knows that like most big scientific bodies, it tends to be pretty staid and conservative. The Royal Society’s motto is apt: Nullius in verba — Latin for “On the words of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it.” It is “an expression of its enduring commitment to empirical evidence as the basis of knowledge about the natural world.”

So when someone attacks the Royal Society scientists, it’s a pretty good idea not to take their word for it. And in fact the report is pretty darn mild given the dire nature of our situation. More important, it most certainly does not recommend developed countries put a brake on economic growth.

If you go to the link the New York Times provided, here’s what the Royal Society has to say about our situation:

This project was a major study investigating the links between global population and consumption, and the implications for a finite planet.

The final report People and the Planet was published on 26 April 2012.

Rapid and widespread changes in the world’s human population, coupled with unprecedented levels of consumption present profound challenges to human health and wellbeing, and the natural environment.

The combination of these factors is likely to have far reaching and long-lasting consequences for our finite planet and will impact on future generations as well as our own. These impacts raise serious concerns and challenge us to consider the relationship between people and the planet. It is not surprising then, that debates about population have tended to inspire controversy.

This report is offered, not as a definitive statement on these complex topics, but as an overview of the impacts of human population and consumption on the planet. It raises questions about how best to seize the opportunities that changes in population could bring — and how to avoid the most harmful impacts.

This is about as alarmist as a clock radio set to Muzak.

“Profound challenges” and “far reaching and long-lasting consequences.” Yeah, that is stuff right out of Old Testament prophets.

You can go to the overview page, still no Apocalypse. Go to the Executive Summary, still no Apocalypse. Read the full report — but only if you want a relatively straightforward discussion of the demographic challenge we face discussed in non-apocalyptic terms.

But what about the claim the report demands the developed countries stop growth?

Here are the key recommendations:

  1. The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas including economic development, education, family planning and health.
  2. The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels through: dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency, including: reducing waste; investment in sustainable resources, technologies and infrastructures; and systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact.
  3. Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally. This is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet need for contraception is high.
  4. Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues. Demographic changes, and the influences on them, should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning at international meetings, such as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and subsequent meetings.

Yes, the developed countries must stabilize and then reduce material consumption — through investments in technologies that allow us to “systematically decouple economic activity from environmental impact.”

Not exactly a hair shirt.

To be clear, the Royal Society is arguing for policies that allow the economy to keep growing but without environmentally damaging consumption — using a technology-based strategy.

Seriously, who could possibly object to these recommendations — except perhaps someone who doesn’t think we have to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at levels that would avoid, say, 4°C or higher warming? Of course, the New York Times opinion writer steadfastly refuses to explain where he thinks we need to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, but even so, what is the objection to these recommendations?

Ironically, this NYT opinion writer is rather famous for arguing that population ought to be part of the discussion of how we respond to climate change. But now he is praising a critique that dismisses a report that advances a rather sensible, science-based approach to thinking about the issue (not that this report focuses on climate — it does not).

The report itself is quite pro-technology and in the full report it states again as a main finding:

A priority for the most developed and the emerging economies must be to stabilise, and eventually reduce, material consumption and to adopt sustainable technologies.

The entire dichotomy put forward by the New York Times and the critique it cites is simply an oversimplistic conterfactual. The critique puts it this way:

The way I see it, [Gus] Speth is a green traditionalist, the kind who demonizes economic growth based on faulty reasoning and perhaps an ideology that associates growth with environmental plunder. [Robert] Reich is a green modernist (though I’m not sure he’d call himself a green), the kind who recognizes that irresponsible resource extraction “isn’t an indictment of growth itself. Growth doesn’t depend on plunder. Rich nations have the capacity to extract resources responsibly.”

The thing is, the scientific and economic literature says we can avert catastrophic climate change while continuing to grow. Now, not everyone buys that, for sure, and you certainly will find pockets of anti-technology people in the environmental community (and elsewhere). But in its definitive 2007 synthesis report of the scientific and economic literature, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded:

In 2050, global average macro-economic costs for mitigation towards stabilisation between 710 and 445ppm CO2-eq are between a 1% gain and 5.5% decrease of global GDP. This corresponds to slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points.

Not exactly a braking of growth — more like the regenerative braking you experience in a good hybrid vehicle. Overall GDP would continue its steady march year after year.

I myself probably have written as much as anybody on the dangers of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, which would supposedly make me a “green traditionalist” (see An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces). But I have also written as much as anyone on how a technology-based strategy (including nuclear) can avert the worst case (see The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm), which would supposedly make me a “green modernist.”

But that supposes these distinctions have any reality in this world. They don’t.

As but one example, a major source of this phony distinction is, of course, The Breakthrough Institute, which you can tell by reading the links in the original critique. But BTI opposed the climate bill! Why? It supposedly had too many industry-friendly components. So the alleged green traditionalists supported a technology- and industry-friendly bill (without pushing a climate message) while the alleged green modernists opposed it!

Finally, this notion that there is a broken-record message from “green traditionalists” at a national level has become, well, a broken record. It simply isn’t true.

To repeat what I wrote in February on Oscar night, Here are the key points about what repeated messages the American public is exposed to:

  1. The broad American public is exposed to virtually no doomsday messages, let alone constant ones, on climate change in popular culture (TV and the movies and even online). There is not one single TV show on any network devoted to this subject, which is, arguably, more consequential than any other preventable issue we face.
  2. The same goes for the news media, whose coverage of climate change has collapsed (see “Network News Coverage of Climate Change Collapsed in 2011“). When the media do cover climate change in recent years, the overwhelming majority of coverage is devoid of any doomsday messages — and many outlets still feature hard-core deniers. Just imagine what the public’s view of climate would be if it got the same coverage as, say, unemployment, the housing crisis or even the deficit? When was the last time you saw an “employment denier” quoted on TV or in a newspaper?
  3. The public is exposed to constant messages promoting business as usual and indeed idolizing conspicuous consumption. See, for instance, “Breaking: The earth is breaking … but how about that Royal Wedding?
  4. Our political elite and intelligentsia, including MSM pundits and the supposedly “liberal media” like, say, MSNBC, hardly even talk about climate change and when they do, it isn’t doomsday. Indeed, there isn’t even a single national columnist for a major media outlet who writes primarily on climate. Most “liberal” columnists rarely mention it.
  5. At least a quarter of the public chooses media that devote a vast amount of time to the notion that global warming is a hoax and that environmentalists are extremists and that clean energy is a joke. In the MSM, conservative pundits routinely trash climate science and mock clean energy. Just listen to, say, Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s Morning Joe mock clean energy sometime.
  6. The major energy companies bombard the airwaves with millions and millions of dollars of repetitious pro-fossil-fuel ads. The environmentalists spend far, far less money. As noted above, the one time they did run a major campaign to push a climate bill, they and their political allies including the president explicitly did NOT talk much about climate change, particularly doomsday messaging
  7. Environmentalists when they do appear in popular culture, especially TV, are routinely mocked.
  8. There is very little mass communication of doomsday messages online. Check out the most popular websites. General silence on the subject, and again, what coverage there is ain’t doomsday messaging. Go to the front page of the (moderately trafficked) environmental websites. Where is the doomsday?

The New York Times should stop pushing this myth.