Blasting at a mountaintop removal project, West Virginia

For years, coal companies have destroyed Appalachian mountain peaks while government agencies either impotently bickered or looked the other way. The Bush White House did much to weaken an already weak regulatory system and encourage the practice of mountaintop removal. And for a while, it wasn’t clear if the Obama administration’s stated opposition to MTR was merely rhetorical.

Thursday’s announcement that the EPA will crack down on mountaintop removal should put those doubts to rest. The White House is serious about this, and its approach is firmly grounded in science and the law.

The EPA is focusing on one of the most serious problems posed by MTR: valley fills, which are what the name implies – mountain valleys filled up with debris from demolished peaks. (Destroy a mountaintop, and the “footprint” of destruction will be twice as large because you have to dump the debris somewhere else.) Valley fills have many pernicious ecological consequences. By far the worst is the poisoning of mountain streams with various heavy metals and other minerals liberated from all that crushed rock.

In recent years scientists working for the EPA, other agencies, and universities have devoted serious study to the unique, upside-down environments created by MTR and valley fills, and found that the damage is far worse than previously thought. In January, a group of scientists rounded up the evidence and published a paper calling for a moratorium on mountaintop removal permits.

The EPA’s crackdown is a vindication of this effort, and of science-based decision-making in general. I have to admit, I’m surprised. They were getting tougher – but mostly on a case-by-case basis that seemed to lack the broader agenda that requires White House backing. And given the Obama White House’s caution and moderation, I don’t think anyone expected them to follow through – and, effectively, put a stick in the coal industry’s eye.

But it’s pretty straightforward. Mountaintop removal makes a mockery of laws such as the Clean Water Act. By acting now, the EPA has begun to do its job of enforcing that law. This shows that the environmental regulatory system, purposely degraded under Bush, is getting some of its bite back. Of course, this is just the beginning; we’ll see how it plays out.

Like many people on the East Coast, I spent a lot of time last week shoveling snow. When I came inside, I then had to endure a secondary storm of nonsense about how the winter weather disproved global warming, humiliated Al Gore, et al. This was, in turn, much-commented-upon, most incisively by Grist’s Dave Roberts, who concludes that the inability of many journalists to point out the ridiculousness of snowstorm-climate change denialism is a symptom of the profound ills afflicting traditional journalism.

Well, yeah.

But what’s really going on here? It’s not just that the press is stupid, or timid. With the fracturing of the political and media landscape, there are no sources of universally-accepted authority any more in American life (except – Oprah?). This has driven political reporters ever deeper into a cocoon of their own construction, one with no objective reference points, because all of those are disputed by somebody, somewhere. So we end up with traditional journalistic “objectivity” with the actual objective realities edited out. It’s genius, really. Reporters privilege the political process itself over policy, over science, over common sense. Political advantage, or victory, is what matters. Everybody likes a winner, after all.

When climate doubters win, though, the results are objectively disastrous. It’s pretty clear the world is lurching toward environmental disaster, and temporizing over snowstorms isn’t helping. And the doubters won quite a lot over the past few months, as this Washington Post story details, with denials and doubters seizing on the “climategate” emails and lately on mistakes in the supposedly-bulletproof IPCC report.

It ought to be possible for media outlets to separate the genuine scientific issues here from the political ones. It doesn’t take that much effort.

In the case of Snowmageddon, for example: it’s impossible to attribute a single weather event to global warming, or to the supposed lack thereof. But as Bill McKibben notes in this piece, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere has risen 4 percent since 1970, which would tend to produce wetter weather in some areas. That’s useful information, even without a cause-and-effect relationship established.

In the case of the IPCC, how did mistakes and citations from interest groups creep into the IPCC report? Does this signal a broader “bias” problem? Does that appear merely in the shaping of the report and its language, in the way the authors interpret data and studies, or in the data and studies themselves? Is something truly “rotten in the state of the IPCC”? I’d guess not, because if you drill down almost all the evidence holds up. On the other hand, I don’t want my climate consensus document to contain any spin – give it to us straight! – so it’s not enough to say “move along, nothing to see here.”

But many of these questions and distinctions get lost when this moves into the field of politics and media coverage of politics. The Post itself is a living example of what happens when politics, and the protection of political interests by journalists, interferes with climate coverage. George Will has embarrassed the newspaper with his repeated twisting of climate data and his assertion that climate change is a scientific fad, like bell bottoms. This weekend, the Post featured both the McKibben piece and a column by Dana Milbank saying that because Gore and some unnamed environmental groups went overboard in attributing weather events to global warming, they deserved whatever they got from the other side. Never mind that the other side is wrong on the fundamentals.

These mixed messages are confusing. To an average reader, who may not care much about the details, the impression one gets is of science politicized and contested, with no true bottom line. This is corrosive to the debate over what to do about global warming. The Post can certainly entertain different voices on these issues. But in some ways it appears too deeply invested in the short-term political process and the conventions of political reporting, to consistently separate the real questions from the BS.

Is Avatar stupid? The standard rap is that James Cameron’s movie turns the complex relationships between civilization and nature into a black-and-white, heroes-and-villains battle. It caricatures corporations (and, more generally, capitalism and Western civilization) as rapacious. Nature and indigenous populations, meanwhile, are treated with dewy sentimentalism that discounts the achievements of civilization and the rapaciousness of nature itself.

David Brooks is the latest to take a shot, identifying some implicit racism in Avatar‘s plot, in which a white guy becomes the hero of blue people. (At least he’s handicapped.)

All good points! But there’s something seriously off-base about these critiques.

Here’s what I’d ask the critics: It may be cliched; it may not be even-handed. But does Avatar (in which a corporation and and its army of mercenaries attempt to kill members of an indigenous tribe and destroy their jungle home in order to mine a rare element) get the basic man vs. nature theme wrong?

(more…)

If you read only one thing today about climate change, take a pause from all the Copenhagen coverage (the conference lasts nearly two weeks, after all) and take a look at James Fallows’s post comparing the New York Times’s climate email hack story with that of the Washington Post. Fallows argues, compellingly, that the Times does a better job explaining the basics: that the hacked emails don’t cast doubt on the scientific consensus of climate change. If you want the story from the ground up, read the Times. The Post, he notes, casts this as a political story and temporizes a bit on its scientific importance or lack thereof:

In this case one big-time paper, the Post, sticks with “critics contend,” while the other presents a contrast between “decades of peer-reviewed science” and politically-motivated opposition. Moreover, the NYT presents the controversy as something that might get in the way of deliberations in Copenhagen; while the Post presents it as a scandal in which “wonky” emails may not constitute “proof” that climate change is a “lie or a swindle” but still justify introducing “lie” and “swindle” as possibilities.

Not to overdramatize, but: in a way the papers are betting their reputations with these articles. The Times, that climate change is simply a matter of science versus ignorance; the Post, that this is best treated as another “-Gate” style flap where it’s hard to get to the bottom of the story.

I think Fallows is a little unfair to the Washington Post reporters (one of whom, Juliet Eilperin, is a friend). The climate emails do “raise hard questions,” as the story says, about how some climate scientists have been operating, and they have set off a significant political fight. There’s nothing wrong with focusing a story on this. The problem is context. To cover the politics, first you must take pains to establish the scientific – and political – context, otherwise readers will never get the bottom line on what it all means. That is: The fundamentals here are not in serious dispute, though there are unresolved issues and thus fierce intra-academy disputes. The Post goes through the motions on this, quoting scientists on the consensus, but still seems curiously agnostic about what to make of the whole thing. We don’t get a sense of how serious the issues really are. (As a former newspaper reporter, I’ll tell you where I think the problem lies: the piece needed more/better editing, and didn’t get it.)

I’ve been avoiding the great climate email hack story because, on one level, there’s not much to say about it. Obviously the global scientific community is not nefariously conspiring to foist man-made global warming on an innocent world. The notion that there might be such a conspiracy is preposterous on its face: there are simply too many scientists, scientific institutions, and credible, time-tested scientific practices and traditions, dating back to the Enlightenment and beyond, to make such a mass conspiracy possible, especially on the most important scientific issue of our time (or at least the one with the most real-world implications). So, Jim Inhofe, George Will, et al, enjoy this controversy while you can. You’re ultimately going to have to keep looking if you want to discredit global warming science.

That, of course, doesn’t make this whole controversy meaningless. It is, sadly, significant. There’s a huge fight underway for public opinion and over government action, and it’s not going particularly well. While it’s abundantly clear humans are having a significant impact on climate, and bold action is needed soon to head off a lot of disastrous effects, according to the latest Pew survey only 44% of people in the United States (and the same percentage in Russia, and just 30% in China) say global warming is a serious problem.

And the scandal, in which internal emails apparently showed that scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit massaged data and discussed how to foil freedom of information requests has handed a cudgel to opponents of action on climate change.

It’s amazing to watch. Climategate allows the political opponents of action on global warming to perform a brilliant bit of misdirection. For the moment, anyway, they don’t have to argue that anthropogenic climate change can’t be real (an increasingly difficult argument to make). Instead they can now argue – credibly – that scientists behaving badly must be investigated. (more…)

Coming a bit late to Mad Men, but enjoying it so far. Last night’s episode included a clever riff on our contemporary environmental mores: Don Draper takes his family on a picnic to a pretty woodland park. As he prepares to leave, he hurls his beer bottle (or soda, I couldn’t tell – but, given this show, probably beer) down the hill. A few minutes later, Betty Draper picks up the blanket and shakes all the garbage onto the grass. They drive off in their gas-guzzling new Cadillac.

By today’s standards this is shocking. Littering is still common, of course, but it is no longer ubiquitous. And whether they litter or not, most Americans know they aren’t supposed to. We can thank rising environmental consciousness, driven in part by PSAs like the famous “crying Indian” TV spot, still nine years off in the MM universe. So it seems guaranteed that MM will return to this issue, since in 1962, according to Wikipedia, Keep American Beautiful was already starting to mold the public consciousness with advertising:

Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953 by consortium of American businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and concerned individuals in reaction to the growing problem of highway litter that followed the construction of the Interstate Highway System, and an increasingly mobile and convenience-oriented American consumer. The goal of the organization was to reduce litter through public education and advertising.

KAB had many early local ad campaigns, including an effort in Pennsylvania that coined the term “litterbug.” Another popular television campaign theme from the mid 1960′s was “Every Litter Bit Hurts”featuring character “Susan Spotless.”

Yet what I found especially interesting was how little things have changed. We litter less and recycle more than we did in 1962. But the aggregate consumption and wastefulness of society is many times greater, and by most accounts leading us into serious trouble and major economic and social changes. So we may look back smugly on Don Draper’s environmental cluelessness, but in fact we are, collectively, far more clueless than he. We have a lot more information, but still aren’t acting much on it. And in another 46 years, people will probably be looking back on us with an even more jaundiced eye than we’re aiming a Don.

Note: Iron Eyes Cody, the actor who played the crying Indian, wasn’t an American Indian at all. His parents were born in Sicily. Amazing.

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