Happy New Year, Mother Earth
Jude Wanniski
December 31, 1997


Memo To: Website browsers, fans, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: One more year for Mom, in the bag.

Our favorite Earthwatcher, Dr. Fred Singer  <ssinger1@gmu.edu>, herewith issues his year-end report on the planet from the Science & Environmental Policy Project. Mother Earth has made it for one more year, thank goodness, but the Forces of Darkness never sleep. Nor do Al Gore and Ted Koppel.

* * * * *

We're about the close the book on 1997, edging ever closer to the turning of the Millennium and the predicted tidal wave of environmental apocalyptics. Those who own family-sized cars and home furnaces, brace yourselves. 

Actually, 1997 wasn't all bad. A seemingly large number of scientific studies were withdrawn from publication, but honesty and personal responsibility among scientists strikes us as a good sign, not a bad one. In Norway, the government dug in its heels and won big concessions from the International Whaling Commission. Out west, a federal judge told Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to send his Canadian wolves packing. Greenpeace and its various chapters of in-your-face activists continued to lose public support. Tropical disease experts, including several from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, slammed claims of widespread malaria outbreaks due to global warming.  Scientists at Penn State discovered that the Old Faithful geyser and other thermal fixtures at Yellowstone National Park emit 10 times the carbon dioxide of a typical mid-sized coal-fired power plant. A new analysis of existing data indicated that, in the event of a global warming, sea level will go down, not up. And despite opposition from the Natural Resources Defense Council, House Resolution 859 was introduced at year's end to repeal the provision limiting Americans to (generally inadequate) low-flush toilets. Awwwriiight!

In the news media, 1997 saw an epidemic of schizophrenic reporting. At the Washington Post -- where the slogan is "If you don't get it, you don't get it" -- readers went from getting it right almost all of the time (under old science editor Boyce Rensberger and reporter Kathy Sawyer) to getting it wrong almost all of the time (under new science editor Rob Stein and reporter Joby Warrick).  But at other newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe, flights of astonishing insight and uncommon good sense began balancing out the standard environmental nonsense. Even old Left-wing columnist Alexander Cockburn started bashing the global warming hysterics -- most recently in the December 10 Los Angeles Times -- so we figure science came out ahead. 

There were a few losses, of course, the Kyoto agreement being the most glaring. Mainline religious groups -- particularly those often criticized for exhibiting "finger to the wind" syndrome on a number of fronts -- hopped on the environmental activist bandwagon. The National Council of Churches ran public service announcements reminding us of our "moral obligation to fight global warming." The government of Pakistan announced that it would be calling on Muslim clergy to spread eco_awareness in the provinces. At Kyoto, an inter-religious gathering at the Catholic Cathedral brought together Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Shintoists, and a Rabbi who tooted the shofar for "good luck" during the climate talks. Somewhat in this same vein, we should all take note that on January 14, 1998, the 26-nation Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic will go into effect, setting aside the entire continent as a natural reserve "devoted to peace and science."

Professor Andrew Blaustein, an ecologist at Oregon State University, re-emerged in December with a reworked version of his "UV-B kills frogs" theory. Four years ago, Blaustein garnered widespread media attention by claiming that increasing UV from a depleting ozone layer was wiping out frogs and toads in Oregon and elsewhere. One totally befuddled Los Angeles
reporter even linked the frogs' demise to the Antarctic ozone "hole," some 14,000 miles away. But when Boyce Rensberger, then Washington Post science editor, informed Blaustein that increases in surface UV had not yet been measured, Blaustein, scarcely missing a beat, regrouped and offered that the culprit then just might be a fungus from fish hatcheries -- a fungus that had been under control until the Environmental Protection Agency banned a long-used fungicide.  With that, Prof. Blaustein dropped off the media radar screen. To date, scientists still haven't seen an increasing trend in surface UV, but now Blaustein is back, capitalizing on the frog deformity scare and claiming that UV is causing amphibian malformations. "We were stunned by our findings," said Blaustein to the Associated Press. "This is proof that excess UVB radiation in nature can cause death and deformity in this species." He couldn't have been too "stunned"; he made the same claim four years ago.

Here in Washington, D.C., Environment Writer, an obsequious little publication mailed out to reporters, furthered its agenda in its December/January issue with gushing praise for the Washington Post series on global warming and for the television networks' handling of the Kyoto climate talks -- all of which we thought were among the most glaringly bad reporting this side of Toronto (the Toronto Star being the absolute worst).

MediaWatch, taking a different tack, awarded ABC News' "Nightline" the Janet Cooke Award "for outrageous distortion" for a December 9 program implying intentional fraud in the business-funded anti-climate treaty ads that ran on U.S. television in the weeks running up to Kyoto. (Cooke was a Washington Post reporter who had to return a Pulitzer Prize after word leaked out that she'd "imagineered" her winning entry.) 

According to the award citation, "Nightline" Host Ted Koppel trotted out Environmental Defense Fund activist Michael Oppenheimer, and ran clips of "Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (not!)" Ross Gelbspan, Sierra Club activist Carl Pope, and Vice President Albert Gore, in suggesting that those citing opposing data and opinions on the global warming issue were deliberately lying.  Koppel compared skeptical scientists to members of the "Flat Earth Society." 

The show sparked numerous complaints to ABC "spokesperson" Sue Chang and Nightline producer Richard Harris, a rather nice fellow who usually books more credible guests. But we note that with this latest gaffe the track record of the Nightline host is beginning to cast some doubt on his membership in the exclusive club of Inside-the-Beltway media intellectuals. It was Mr. Koppel, after all, who once referred to Albert Gore, on the air, as "one of the most scientifically literate men to sit in the White House in this century." Well, sure, that's faint praise, but still, Koppel should be more careful. Much more of this and he could end up reading the news in Poughkeepsie.

At year's end, the only 1998 resolution at The Science & Environmental Policy Project is to continue to promote sound, scientific data as a basis for policy, despite fanatical activists, ambitious politicians, and odds that never seem too promising. But we're encouraged by the December 20 issue of The Economist -- one of those seemingly schizophrenic publications -- where a colleague saw a terrific and unfortunately unbylined article called "Environmental Scares" and passed it along.  

Here's how The Economist characterized the seven-year life-cycle of environmental catastrophes: Year 1 a scientist discovers some potential threat. Year 2 journalists oversimplify and exaggerate it. Year 3 environmentalists chime in and polarize the issue ("Either you agree that the world is about to come to an end and are fired by righteous indignation, or you are a paid lackey of big business"). Year 4 brings the international conferences and bureaucrats well-supplied with club-class tickets and limelight. Year 5 is the year nations pick one country as villain and gang up on it. Year 6 is when skeptical scientists say the scare is exaggerated, driving the Greens into paroxysms of pious rage ("How dare you give space to fringe views? cry these once-fringe people to newspaper editors.") Year 7 is the year of the quiet climbdown. Without fanfare, the official consensus estimate of the size of the problem shrinks to nothingness.

Highly unscientific, of course, but whoever wrote this article, we hope he's right. Happy Year 7.