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Volume Ten, Number Two   March 2005   www.columbiajournal.ca



Boiling Point
How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and
Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis-and What We can Do to
Avert Disaster 
by Ross Gelbspan
Basic Books         New York          2004
$31.00                                254pp.

Tom Sandborn


“The deep oceans are warming, the tundra is thawing, the glaciers are melting, infectious diseases are migrating and the timing of the seasons has changed. And all this has resulted from one degree of warming. By contrast, the earth will become 3 degrees to 10 degrees F warmer later in this century.” Ross Gelbspan
“Trust us. There is nothing to worry about.” The fossil fuel industry and accomplices. 

We shouldn’t worry at all about global warming and climate change. The anxious concerns felt in some circles about human use of fossil fuels disrupting climate stability, melting the polar ice and flooding our coastal plains are all bogus- just another product of “junk science” or even of an evil conspiracy led by opportunistic scientists. We should forget about the Kyoto Accord, let alone any more ambitious attempts to reduce human impacts on the environment. .  Or at least that’s what the folks over at the Fraser Institute would like you to believe, and have they ever lied to us before?

The right wing think tank recently brought this “What, me worry?” message about global warming/climate change to a sympathetic downtown business luncheon crowd in the form of an address by Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist.  The Fraser Institute has a long-term interest in undermining any perception that industry might need to damp down  in its bonfire of fossil fuels to reduce the dangers of climate change, an interest, not coincidently, shared by many of the big business organizations and firms that support the Institute’s well oiled propaganda machine with their tax deductible contributions. If Lomborg and the other sunny optimists financed by fossil fuel interests and other opponents of government regulation and control are right, Canada should join the United States in pulling out of the Kyoto Accord and we should all go out and buy a new SUV and some coal mine stock right away, and forget all the nattering from environmentalists about how the concentrations of CO2 left in the air when we burn gas or coal are de-stabilizing the climate regime that has made human civilization possible. But if the business class efforts to discredit warnings about global warming/climate change are just what they appear to be, at least to this jaundiced observer, self interested propaganda on par with the “science” trotted out for decades by the tobacco industry to dismiss cancer warnings, then we may be in very deep trouble indeed.

Before making a decision on this crucial question, taking a look at Ross Gelbspan’s new book, Boiling Point would be time well spent. Gelbspan, a veteran journalist who has served as both reporter and editor at the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Bulletin and the Washington Post, has been covering environmental issues since attending the United Nations conference on the environment in 1972, and his 1997 book, The Heat is On has served since its publication as one of the best single volume summaries of global warming science and politics available to the interested and intelligent lay reader.

Boiling Point is a sequel to the earlier book updating and enriching its best elements. Once again, Gelbspan provides us with clear, plain language accounts of the science involved (much of which has been reported  by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at http://www.ipcc.ch/, where the reader can assess for herself the work of thousands of the world’s leading climate scientists), the lucid analysis of what industries and ideologies are arrayed in self-interested opposition, and the common sense suggestions for tactics to wean  the modern industrial  world away from its suicidal addiction to fossil fuels and internal combustion engines.

Gelbsan provides us with the usual list of warning signs, familiar by now to most who have been following the global warming/climate change issue- the thinning of polar ice, the warming of the oceans, the up-tick in average world temperatures, the alarming increase in floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events, the death of coral reefs and the imminent drowning of island nations and coastal plains. All this, by the way, is already occurring; these are events that cannot be dismissed as artifacts of imperfect computer modeling or alarmist projections about the future. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, Gelbspan gives us a set of practical suggestions for public policy, suggestions that stand a real chance of ending our race toward climate catastrophe.

One of his proposals is immediate action to implement the World Energy Modernization Plan, developed in 1998 by a group of energy company presidents, economists and policy experts meeting at Harvard Medical School. This plan is designed to go well beyond the modest emission control targets of the Kyoto Accord, which both supporters and opponents agree will not, in itself, solve the problem of global warming.

The plan calls for a drastic change in energy subsidy policies in industrial nations, an end to the long and disastrous pattern of using tax payers’ dollars (estimated at $200 billion a year across the industrial world) to support industries and energy sources that are unsustainable in the mid to long range, and a shift of those subsidy dollars to developing and promoting renewable energy sources that do not damage  the air or the climate system. Second, the plan would create a large fund (perhaps raised  through a so-called  “Tobin tax” on global currency speculation) to transfer renewable energy technologies to the developing world, to help them skip the poisonous and polluting process of energy generation the first world has endured and inflicted on a suffering planet already. Finally, the plan would create a worldwide standard for fossil fuel efficiency, set to ramp up by five percent a year. This approach, Gelbspan argues, would be simpler, more effective and fairer than the emission-trading scheme currently attached to the Kyoto agreements.

What Gelpspan and his colleagues are proposing, then, is a global campaign to change the face of energy production and use, one with built-in elements to protect the interests of the most vulnerable third world countries and to disarm at least some of the objections of industry lobbyists. This proposal alone is worth the price of admission to this book, and comes in addition to its many other virtues. It has become a cliché for enthusiastic book reviewers to say “If you only read one book this year, let it be this one.” Well, cliché or not, that is my position. Read this book, think about it and share it with your friends. It addresses a crisis that could destroy human civilization on the planet, and proposes some practical steps that can be taken to forestall the coming disaster. Boiling Point is absolutely essential reading for world citizens. Read it and weep, perhaps, because it does convey some deeply disturbing truths about our treatment of the planet. But read it and act, too, because the fight to protect the earth is not yet lost, although we may be in the last generation that can think so.

Recommended further reading:
Impacts of a warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment at www.amap.no/acia/index.html

Meeting the Climate Challenge  at http://www.tai.org.au/



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