The Economist Wants to Put Greenbacks Behind Green Industry

In presenting the story of global warming, the convention of providing journalistic "balance" runs up against its logical limit.

“The Heat is On,” says The Economist. The warning is emblazoned on the magazine’s Sept. 9 cover, over a photograph of a parched desert where the only sign of life is the indefatigable cactus. Inside is a 24-page special report on climate change anchored by a photograph of a firefighter with his back turned to a raging wildfire.

But the images belie the editors’ true intentions. The “heat” that is on is not a reference to rising temperatures during the twentieth century or any other physical evidence of trends in global warming. Rather it is an entreaty to the public, the business world and government (especially America’s) to mitigate human contributions to climate change, and to do it now.

With regard to climate science itself, there is nothing terribly special about author Emma Duncan’s special report. She thoroughly and categorically sums up the major facets of this most clamorous debate. The first half of the report’s 11 articles read like a well-articulated FAQ on climate science: is climate change a hoax? What’s with all the scientific uncertainty? Are hurricanes growing more frequent or intense? Is warmer weather really that bad? What will happen to flora and fauna as the planet heats up? What happens when sea level rises? Each of those questions has been covered individually and in more depth elsewhere. What is truly special about Duncan’s report is that she quickly dismisses the naysayers who tout the unknowns in climate science as a banner excuse to avoid cutting back on deleterious emissions of greenhouse gases. She writes in the story’s leader:

“So is it really worth using public resources now to avert an uncertain, distant risk, especially when the cash could be spent instead on goods and services that would have a measurable near-term benefit?

If the risk is big enough, yes. Governments do it all the time. …”

Global warming poses threats that are both long-term and global, making it, according to Duncan, “one of the hardest policy problems the world has ever faced.” But the real threat, as she points out, is that world leaders become bogged down or beaten down by such difficulties, “and in that way, nothing will be done.”

This reluctance to take a hard line on global warming also ensnares American media. Journalistic norms that mandate “balanced” stories have pushed many writers to give equal weight to dissenting scientific opinion, no matter how trivial or on the fringe, in their articles. In the case of climate change, this lends credence to the arguments of those, such as former White House confidant Phil Cooney, who distort scientific uncertainty for political ends. The extent to which humans are guiding climate change in the face of long-term natural variations and cycles, is an important question in some debates, but completely irrelevant in others. Excessive greenhouse gas emissions are dangerous - enough said. If you don’t believe the literature, stick your mouth on the end of a tailpipe. The risks are there. The heat is on. Emissions must be cut.

But how do we make mitigating greenhouse gases attractive? Money is the obvious response, but perhaps not the best. The Kyoto Protocol attempted to jump the global and long-term hurdles that make policy so difficult, but failed. The protocol’s only child — the market in carbon — has made emissions reduction attractive by making it profitable. “But,” writes Duncan, “deciding whether it is worth taking action against climate change is not as simple as setting the costs of climate change against the costs of mitigation.”

Mitigation, in other words, must seem lucrative on a case-by-case, rather than a collective, basis. Apparently it does, to some extent. Venture capitalists risked $1.6 billion on clean energy technologies in 2005, according Environmental Entrepreneurs, a group of business professionals who promote enterprise that is both economically and environmentally sound. That figure represents a 43 percent increase over 2004 and ranks the clean technology industry sixth among venture capital recipients. In addition, some of the world’s largest multi-national corporations cut emissions by up to 70 percent in 2004 for individual savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a report by The Climate Group, a non-profit that pushes for business and governmental response to climate change. To quote Duncan: “Business seems to be buzzing with green activity.”

Indeed, a special section titled Small Business, published by The New York Times on Sept. 12, saw fit to include two articles on earth-friendly start-ups. In one, the challenge is clear: green businesses struggle “because they must operate under constraints that less idealistic enterprises can ignore,” writes Jonathan D. Glater. In the other, the opportunity is clear: “So far, commercial demand has outpaced supply” for biodiesel fuel, writes Susan Moran. The stories’ combined message might be summed up in The Economist’s concluding headline, “Where to start: Technological and economic solutions to climate change are available. The problem is politics.”

Again, we must give Duncan credit for not mincing her words: “America is the key.” Her report attributes most of the drive for green business to government. If companies believe that the government will regulate and legislate so as to make emissions reductions and investments in green technology worthwhile, business will act accordingly. Kyoto led to a strong carbon market in the European Union. Though flawed by many accounts, this market created profit incentives that made reductions palatable to business. In April, six of eight major energy companies testifying before the United States Senate said they would accept a similar system. But so far, Congress has balked at mandatory regulation.

If America is the key, according to Duncan, it must lead by example. She recommends subsidizing early-stage R&D of green technologies to bring down prices, and instituting a carbon tax (or a cap-and-trade system, as exists in the E.U.). If America leads, Duncan reasons, the developing world (most importantly China and India) will follow.

But the future of mitigating climate change remains as uncertain as the science itself. Will businesses continue to take the initiative on emissions reductions and green technology or will government step-up and lead the charge? Duncan puts the question directly to George W. Bush: if Kyoto has become anathema to American ears, why not start fresh? Call it the “Crawford Convention,” she writes, referring to the ranch where the American president ostensibly enjoys the pristine beauty of nature.

At least The Economist is doing something about its footprints, however. In a small footnote, the editors claim:

“This survey, which generated about 118 tonnes of carbon dioxide from flights, car journeys, paper production, printing and distribution, has been carbon-neutralised through the carbon Neutral Company. The cost was £590; the money was spent capturing methane from an American mine.”

How responsible.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.