Climate of Opinion

Blogger Joe Romm drives the global warming debate in Washington. But has he left the rest of the country behind?

By Bill McKibben

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Straight Up: America’s Fiercest Climate Blogger Takes on the Status Quo Media, Politicians, and Clean Energy Solutions
by Joseph J. Romm
Island Press, 248 pp.

 logging is still a new enough art that we’re only now learning the various possible styles—only now figuring out what makes a truly talented blogger. There are inspired generalists like Andrew Sullivan, who each day write about a wide range of issues with an exhilarating all-in brio. And there are inspired specialists, like Joe Romm, who earns the sobriquet he gives himself in the subtitle of this book. He is fierce—fierce with opponents and fierce in general, driven to use the Internet as a weapon in the very specific fight to wring a climate bill out of the U.S. Congress. As a result, this book—a collection of some of his thousands of blog posts—is a good way to think not only about climate but about the uses of the Web. (Full disclosure: Romm has reprinted several of my pieces on his Web site.)

Climate first. Romm, a former Department of Energy appointee in the Clinton administration, knows his climate science, um, cold. Trained as a physicist, he is unintimidated by scholarly work, and is able to synthesize huge amounts of complex data. He has been a persuasive voice for the most important truth about global warming: that it is a far worse problem than either politicians or the general public understand. In his posts and in his previous book Hell and High Water Romm has made the stakes clear. “If we stay anywhere near our current emissions path,” he writes, the century will bring “staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land … [and] sea level fires of some five feet. Dust bowls will cover the southwestern United States and many other heavily populated regions around the globe. Massive species loss will occur on land and sea—affecting 50 percent or more of all life.”

These changes may sound remarkable to most journalists who have been covering climate as a “he said, she said” ideological debate for two decades, but in fact they are relatively uncontroversial middle-of-the-road projections. (If you want your hair properly curled, Google “James Lovelock” and “global warming.”) But it has been Romm’s willingness to repeat these concerns, over and over, that has been essential in emboldening a few opinion writers—Tom Friedman, for instance—to keep this message in the mainstream media.

Romm has been consistent in insisting that we have much of the technology necessary to at least begin tackling the problem. He regularly documents the gains we could easily squeeze from commonsense efficiencies, like ending tropical deforestation, to creating a massive program to paint roofs white so they reflect the sun. He’s been a longtime champion of the plug-in hybrid car, for example—a technology that will be available in showrooms in a matter of months, and from GM, of all people. (Hopefully they’ll figure out how to knock the price tag for the Chevy Volt below $40,000; it needs to be more than a fringe vehicle.)

Romm is very clear on the economics of climate change: any large-scale adjustment, while not cheap, is affordable, and neglecting the issue as we have done will prove to be very expensive in the long run. Indeed, it’s hard to read him without understanding just how disingenuous and shortsighted is the Republican argument that we should ignore global warming because it will cost us money. His strongest data—and a card he plays regularly—comes from a 2009 report published by the consulting firm McKinsey. The McKinsey report found so much low-hanging fruit that they estimate most of the first few decades of carbon trimming will actually make us money along the way. Americans waste a huge amount of energy—you get a sense of how much when you consider that the average western European uses about half the energy of an American. And most of us are familiar with how to prevent this kind of waste: walk, and drive less; use energy-efficient windows, appliances, and light bulbs; and so on. McKinsey calculates that by simply adopting these measures we would cut our energy consumption by 23 percent in 2020.

The second half of Straight Up—and at least half of Romm’s daily blog—covers the politics of climate. In general terms he’s been a partisan of Al Gore, and a scathing opponent of the Bush-Cheney “reign of error.” But that’s easy—the bigger role he’s played is as a tireless foil to the “right-wing disinformation machine” that has tried—with great success, it need be said—to delay action by confusing and disheartening Americans about global warming. The right’s basic message—that there’s no need to worry, and that worrying in any effective way would bankrupt the nation—is not supported by the evidence. It is, however, supported by both a good deal of fossil-fuel industry cash and a good deal of wishful thinking from all of us who are so used to the lifestyles underwritten by cheap fossil fuel.

It requires a thick skin to take on the daily task of dealing with the disinformers, but Romm has the taste for this kind of blood sport, and the talent as well. He coined the term “anti-science syndrome” (and its rude acronym) for the campaign to undermine the scientific consensus. He’s waged memorable wars with, say, Lord Monckton, the “potty peer” from Britain’s House of Lords who dropped his earlier campaign to quarantine all AIDS sufferers for the greater media exposure of trashing climate science.

If he’s hard on the right wing, though, Romm is also stern with progressives, mostly for their poor messaging on climate issues. Romm’s avocation is Rhetoric, of which he’s made a formal study (he disclosed on his blog last year that he has an unpublished manuscript on the topic, which one hopes will see the light of day). Sadly, he writes, “Scientists might even be described as anti-rhetoricians, since they avoid all of its key elements,” from tropes to metaphor to alliteration to that most basic of all techniques, repetition. He understands why Sarah Palin is effective, and he understands why most enviro attempts at “framing” go so wrong. One of my favorite posts skewers some well-funded D.C. group for trying to drop the term “global warming” for “our deteriorating atmosphere.” He writes, “It is very hard to see how a six-syllable word is going to be a core element of successful messaging.” Indisputable, I think—as indisputable as his science.

In fact, my main dispute with Romm’s work is his relentless focus on Washington. Since the advent of the Obama administration he has devoted a great deal of his fierceness to attacking anyone who questions the legislative solutions to climate change put forward by the Democrats in the White House and Congress. (Even mild apostasy—like supporting the Senate bill put forward by Susan Collins and Maria Cantwell, instead of the one supported by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman—has been enough to earn the heretic both barrels of Romm’s scorn.) It’s not that his message is absurd. We do desperately need action from Washington on climate change, and at this moment that action may come only with huge compromise, like the president’s recent endorsement of offshore oil drilling. (Though Obama’s biggest effort at this, lifting the longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling, just blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. On the plus side, the blowout in the Gulf has given the new energy legislation introduced by Kerry and Lieberman its best chance at passage, demonstrating quite vividly the costs of a dirty-energy economy. And BP has been very helpfully playing the role of villain.)

But Romm’s hyper-realism may ignore more important political possibilities. He’s paid less attention to the emerging popular movement on climate change than to the machinations of the Senate, but if we’re actually going to get change on the scale we need, it’s quite possible it won’t happen without an aggressive, large, and noisy movement demanding that change. And Romm, who would have a good deal of useful things to say to such a movement, hasn’t been very interested. He’s deeply Washington centric. And in that he’s not alone—most of the D.C. green movement has pretty much written off organizing out in the hinterlands in favor of lobbying in the offices of senators and congressmen. The problem with that strategy, though, is that effective lobbying depends on senators and congressmen actually perceiving that there’s some pain involved in doing the easy thing and stalling action. (Pain beyond wrecking the planet—I’m talking real pain, like losing an election.)

I hope the green groups, and Romm as their most important chronicler, regroup and reconsider strategy. It’s not impossible to imagine a mass movement devoted to changing how we handle global warming. Two years ago a few of us formed a campaign called 350.org, devoted to spreading the (very critical) news that NASA scientists had set 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide as the most the atmosphere could safely contain. Since we’re already at 390 parts per million, we require urgent action if we’re to scramble back below the red line. Last fall, 350.org managed to pull off 5,200 simultaneous rallies in 181 countries, what CNN called the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.” Still, that movement remains in its infancy and still finds too-scant support from D.C.’s green groups.

In some larger sense, it’s a reminder that blogging needs to work hard to escape the hermetic seal of the Web. The promise is that the Web will serve as a window open to the world, and Romm serves that promise well; but writing about politics will never replace the need for actually doing politics.


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Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, the author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, and founder of the climate campaign 350.org.  
 
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