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Guided by the values and expertise of medicine and public health, Physicians for Social Responsibility works to protect humanity from the gravest threats to health and survival. Right now, you can make a difference by registering your comments on the EPA's new Clean Power rule to limit carbon from existing coal-burning power plants. Just click the button to get started.

Boiling Point

How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists are Fueling the Climate Crisis -- And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster

By Ross Gelbspan

Basic Books, 2004, 254 pp.

The cover of Ross Gelbspan’s new climate book, Boiling Point, has a quote from noted environmental writer Bill McKibben that implores: “Please read this book.” I agree. Gelbspan’s second book on global climate change is powerful stuff and I recommend it highly.  Like his first climate book, The Heat is On, this fairly short, readable work is a clarion call to action and an urgent, often angry analysis of society’s failure to do enough to stave off the gravest threat of all to the planet and to humanity. But it is, unfortunately, a bit of a sequel -- a kind of The Heat is On, II. Gelbspan’s first passionate plea to save the planet and end the fossil fuel age won a Pulitzer Prize and was a powerful wake-up call for the public. It was fresh, provocative, and dramatic after too many wonkish tomes and conferences on the science and policy of climate change. Boiling Point, on the other hand, brings us up to date on climate science and politics, yet breaks little new ground and does not offer a truly fresh perspective or any serious prospect for hope that Gelbspan, at least, can see.

There is, instead, a fairly constant hectoring tone that chides the media, environmental groups, and, indeed, “most Americans” who are, according to Gelbspan, “in denial.” And, worse, since the IPCC issued statements in 2001 that global climate change is proceeding faster than was previously thought, there is the whiff of millennialism about Boiling Point. This will no doubt stir the faithful, and certain activists who seem to thrive only on doomsday scenarios and sweeping, unrealistic solutions. But unless your Aunt Harriet already reads The Nation, or your Congressman is Henry Waxman, Gelbspan is unlikely to reach them and expand the number of Americans who need to be convinced that climate change is real and dangerous, and, more importantly, that something can be done about it.

That said, there are several very strong parts of the book that I wish Aunt Harriet would read. The latest evidence and examples of climate change are presented here in interspersed, italicized chapters called “Snapshots of the Warming” that powerfully lay out the melting ice, spreading mosquitoes, rising seas, fading coral reefs, and struggling species that are now regularly observed but little noticed or connected in the mainstream media. Gelbspan is also great, as before, on the evils of the carbon lobby, especially Exxon/Mobil and its links to the Bush Administration and campaigns to confuse the public about climate science.

All this is good stuff, but since his first book already did much of this, the new one simply seems more frantic, angry and less credible in tone since Gelbspan now indulges in phrases for chapter titles like “criminals against humanity” or “compromised activists.” He promises solutions, but clearly believes that everything that has been done or might yet be done is probably too little, too late. This is especially troubling since his analysis of activism is shallow and takes the now time-honored pot shots at big green groups that he seems to barely understand. Those that have tried to engage and involve corporations in moving against climate change such as Environmental Defense or the Pew Climate Center are seen as failed, even as Gelbspan notes that the powerful carbon lobby he described so well in The Heat is On is coming apart. Yet no credit for moving businesses along (and no serious analysis of what worked or what didn’t) is offered. When environmental groups have taken more comprehensive approaches as with the Apollo Project which links groups like the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others with key labor unions and energy groups calling for safer, cleaner energy policy, Gelbspan spends his time arguing that the project allows the use of new coal technologies to mollify unions worried about jobs. And, of course, that it isn’t bold enough to solve world ending problem he describes. So -- you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in Gelbspan’s easy armchair dismissal of environmentalists’ efforts. He also calls for work that is already happening as in the need to involve “the public health community.” PSR may not be as effective or as rich as carbon lobbyists, but even a cursory glance by Gelbspan at climate change organizing would notice the presence of the public health community led by PSR at Kyoto (I was there as were other medical and public health experts) and beyond. PSR has been organizing in 18 states, and among the leaders of current battles for clean air linked to climate change and global security during the Bush Administration.

Other green groups have mobilized as well with little notice or credit from Gelbspan. To take just one example, the mainstream National Wildlife Federation, one of the largest groups in the country with real grassroots members, nearly half of whom are Republican, has joined with PSR, UCS, NRDC, and other more obvious climate change groups to educate millions about the problem, issue compelling reports on the threats to species, and push for serious policy change. This while running a huge campus ecology program that has led to environmental education, activism, and the greening of buildings nationwide.

Gelbspan also asserts that environmentalists ought to be forging new alliances with other constituencies as if they haven’t already. He names labor (though the Apollo Project seems not to count), public health (enough said), and, incredibly, “the highly energized communities of faith.” Since the National Religious Partnership for the Environment was invited into and became a central member of the Green Group of national environmental organizations about a decade ago and linkages with the faith community have occurred at every level, Gelbspan’s willful ignorance here is hard to accept.

Gelbspan does give some nods to “grassroots” environmental groups, but again fails to sufficiently analyze how and why change is now occurring nationwide at the state and local level, even as national and international groups, stymied on the Congressional and Kyoto fronts, have indeed switched admirably to organizing, media and activist campaigns that are unprecedented and involve local groups. All of this is hard to track and would have taken more serious reporting or a different book to uncover. But it might have saved Gelbspan from that elitist, “progressive” tone that sees a global problem clearly (as if others don’t) and then simply preaches that what others do is inadequate. Thus, after criticizing what has been accomplished, Gelbspan concludes with a “plan” to solve the climate crisis that is classic coming from a lone wolf journalist. It is unrealistic and utopian while sounding good on paper or offering talking points at a rally of the faithful. Its key component calls for “rewiring” the planet to clean energy which could lead to broader changes in industrial practices such as closed-loop systems. This, of course, is admirable. It is also already being advocated and actually carried out in the real world by a number of groups and companies that Gelbspan either dismisses or ignores. A broad U.S. movement for sustainability is already well underway and involves a number of national groups who engage developers, architects, urban planners, public health specialists, religious groups, and more. In a similarly sweeping set of statements, Gelbspan also says “The climate crisis – like many other global problems—requires an international agency to regulate international corporations. “ And, this, of course, first requires an end to nationalism, a reconfigured UN, and a US prepared to lead the world into a sustainable future.

These notions are, needless to say, incontrovertible. But as Gelbspan says, “there is no historical precedent for this kind global cooperation.” And so, sadly, Boiling Point concludes without hope and with one more, slightly louder call to action for us poor working slobs who just don’t get it. If Gelbspan sticks with global climate change and writes more, I hope that he will write about the broad, diverse and active movement to stave off climate change that is occurring even as he writes and that has moved this issue from one that was ridiculed and ignored for years, to one that has already birthed global cooperation at Kyoto, broad movements at Johannesburg and elsewhere, and passed increasingly serious measures at the state level to mitigate carbon emissions while saving lives now from the immediate deadly effects of air pollution. Yes, there is still a carbon lobby and a Federal government whose conservative leaders at every level are closely tied to it. But once that changes, and only old fashioned education, organizing and pragmatic politics can do that, positive large-scale change of a sort that Gelbspan longs for, but doesn’t know to get, will burst forth.

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