RISING OCEANS, DEAD FORESTS, DAY AFTER day of 100 F plus temperatures, a succession of “super hurricanes,” catastrophic floods, and relentless droughts — could this be the world of the future?
Someone at The Pew Charitable Trusts certainly thinks so. In May, Pew announced a $5.25 million grant to support “an initiative aimed at encouraging decisive action by the United States to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that are contributing to warming the earth’s climate.” The grant went to the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation, to establish the Washington, D.C.-based “Pew Center on Global Climate Change.” (The Energy Foundation is chaired by the Bullitt Foundation’s Denis Hayes, and was created in 1991 by Pew, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundations.)
Pew’s grant is only the latest foundation entrant into an increasingly crowded field [see box]. Global climate change also has the distinction of being a close runner up to animal rights as the cause on which Hollywood likes to shower its philanthropic dollars, witness Barbra Streisand’s early support of groups like the Environmental Defense Fund. In 1989, Streisand’s eponymous foundation awarded $250,000 to the Environmental Defense Fund to endow the improbably named “Barbra Streisand Global Atmospheric Change Chair” on global warming. Another $500,000, raised from Streisand’s 1994 concert tour proceeds, was donated to fund EDF’s research leading up to the 1997 Kyoto global warming conference. Then, a week before the Kyoto talks began last December, the Streisand Foundation gave $26,200 more for EDF’s climate change program.
Such largesse has not, of course, gone unappreciated. EDF scientist Michael Oppenheimer, a ubiquitous presence at the Kyoto talks, describes Streisand’s support as “a model of how a foundation can help further public policy in crucial fields.” Streisand Foundation director Margery Tabankin agrees: “It is very rare in philanthropy that a foundation is able to start with something from the beginning stages and get to see it accomplished,” she told City News Service. “How rewarding to see this go from scientific theory to a concern of every government of the world.”
Perhaps. But, curiously for a debate on a scientific topic, the global warming juggernaut has been characterized by an astonishing willingness to ignore critics and dismiss contrary evidence. Private philanthropy, meanwhile, has provided so much financial support for one side of the discussion that acknowledged experts in the field are beginning to wonder aloud whether public perception of the debate hasn’t jumped way ahead of what has been scientifically demonstrated.
One such critic, University of Virginia climatologist Dr. Patrick Michaels, laments that while climatologists have split into any number of different camps, funding for global warming research is about as diverse as the faculty politics of an Ivy League sociology department: “There are basically two funding providers to scientists on global warming, the federal government and philanthropic foundations. And they both share the same viewpoint.” While “liberal foundations . . . have their point of view,” added Michaels, there are no “equal counterweights on the other side.”
M.I.T. meteorology professor Dr. Richard Lindzen agrees that for some scientists “it’s easier to go along” with the global warming tide than argue against it. Lindzen is also concerned that certain politicians and global warming advocates have selectively pulled statements from scientific reports and declared the debate settled. “It’s a terribly effective propaganda tool,” says Lindzen, but does “horrible damage” to the reputation of science as seeking out the truth.
Scientists face economic pressures as well. Last year Frederick Seitz, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, said to The Washington Times “many [skeptics of human-induced global warming] are afraid to speak up, because they are afraid of losing their federal grants.” UVA’s Michaels agrees, saying there’s “no doubt” that too many scientists “behave in a way to maintain” their grants.
Here’s the scientific debate in a nutshell. The earth’s atmosphere acts like a greenhouse by ensuring there is adequate water vapor, natural carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to trap enough solar heat for human survival. Natural changes in the atmospheric concentrations of these gases occur regularly, and have produced (sometimes vastly) warmer and colder periods in the planet’s climate for billions of years. Ocean currents, wind, cloud and precipitation patterns, solar activity, the effect of aerosols, plant growth, and many other natural variables affect these concentration levels, and thus the earth’s temperature at a given time. The principal scientific debate is over whether man-made carbon dioxide emissions have contributed to the warming the earth beyond its natural temperature variation. And, if so, what are the consequences?
Global warming theorists received an initial boost in 1988 when Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified before then-Senator Al Gore’s subcommittee on science, space and technology. Using computer-generated climate forecasts, known as general circulation models, Hansen stated his belief that there is, indeed, a correlation between human activity and global warming. His words touched off an intense and enduring controversy within the scientific community.
But a legitimate debate on the merits hasn’t been enough for many.
A few years ago, in an uncharacteristic burst of candor, Stanford University global warming expert Dr. Stephen Schneider gave up the game, telling Discover magazine that “. . . we need to get some broad-based support to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting lots of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have . . . each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”
As Schneider suggested, different people have chosen to set that balance according to their own principles. At the White House global warming conference last October, for instance, Vice President Gore likened resistance to Kyoto to the legendary recalcitrance of the tobacco industry, thus dismissing in a single sentence the views of global warming skeptics who include a former president of the National Academy of Sciences and the former head of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service: “Having gone through these long debates with the tobacco industry, which remind me almost exactly of this debate, I think that it is totally fair and totally legitimate to say we’re going through the same kind of experience again.”
The Road From Kyoto
Negotiated last December, the Protocol calls for a cut of the world’s carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases by 2012 to levels 5.2 percent below what they were in 1990. This means the United States would have to cut a hefty 7 percent below its 1990 emissions level — which will translate into a real emissions reduction of nearly 40 percent given the projected growth of the American economy.
President Clinton likely will sign the Protocol by 1999. But the U.S. Senate is in no hurry to ratify or even debate ratification, having already voted, 95 to 0, that China, India, and Mexico must also sign the Protocol before it will even be considered on the Senate floor. So, as it stands, a vote on ratification won’t likely happen until after the next presidential election. In the interim, a coalition of environment groups and foundations, in coordination with the UN, has begun a communications offensive to generate public support for Kyoto in the United States.
The long-term strategy to gain Senate ratification of Kyoto is one of attrition — wearing down opposition to the treaty with a steady drumbeat of bad news; linking naturally occurring severe weather events to the emissions of industrial smokestacks; conjuring vivid images of a submerged Manhattan Island, an epidemic malaria outbreak, and other bleak scenarios; focusing on the economic costs of crop destruction, snowless ski slopes, and tourist-free vacation spots; and relying on media hype to spread this message, often with little, if any, scientific context.
Also contributing to this effort is the Climate Action Network (CAN) — an international network of nongovernmental organizations working “to avert the threat of global warming.” US CAN is one of eight regional groups scattered around the world. Its members include the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund (all of which receive either significant foundation or government support).
These groups know the huge task that awaits them in overcoming industry resistance and winning ratification of the Protocol. They also know the economic arguments against Kyoto are politically powerful — workers losing jobs, higher prices for everything from food to fuel — but are betting that citizens in cities hovering just above sea level or farmers not wanting to move their farms to Canada will become allies once targeted. “We need to raise the potential cost of doing nothing,” commented EDF legislative director Steve Cochran, whether it’s “Florida and a rising sea level,” the “impact of global warming on a shortened ski season in New Hampshire,” or “shifting crops from Nebraska.”
So don’t be surprised the first really hot week in July when you see foundation-supported climate experts taking to the airwaves to tell you that in the future it’s going to be like this all the time. Oh, and there are the rising oceans, ensuing floods, and dead forests to think about. Of course, all this doom and gloom has the makings of a great Hollywood disaster film — perhaps starring Barbra Streisand.
Daniel McKivergan is associate editor of Philanthropy.