Media Mayhem: Our media columnist's first annual 'Hot' or 'Not' list
What do Michael Pollan, Marc Morano, Lisa P. Jackson, nuclear energy and the climate have in common?
Mon, Jan 11, 2010 at 06:35 AM
We know global temperatures are rising, and we know that the global belief in global warming is diving. As we start 2010, here’s my best sense of the pop-culture trajectory for other environmental issues, organizations, and personalities.
Michael Pollan has been on a roll since the 2006 publication of his bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A University of California journalism professor who’s muckraked his way through America’s agricultural-industrial complex, Pollan epitomizes how one can be an advocate for change and at the same time a responsible, fact-based journalist. Last May, his follow-up book, In Defense of Food, won his second James Beard Award for food writing. Now, he’s peddling a pocket guide called Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Given his celebrity status, its publication earned him a friendly seat as a guest the other night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s hard to imagine how Pollan could get any hotter in 2010, but you never know what’ll happen when you become the leader of a movement. HOT
Van Jones also kicked off 2009 at the top of his game. The up-by-his-bootstraps Yale-educated lawyer is an inspirational speaker who can draw enthusiasm and consensus from minorities, environmentalists and business people. Jones had founded three successful advocacy groups, authored a bestseller (The Green Collar Economy) and been cited by Time as an “environmental hero.” In March, President Obama named him to a tailor-made White House position: special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation. He seemed cut out for the moment. Then, the right-wing blogosphere discovered that Jones had said a few impolitic things as recently as early 2009; he’d praised Marx (Karl, not Groucho), signed a conspiracy-minded petition on the Sept. 11 attacks, and profanely mocked Republican politicians. A McCarthy-esque witch hunt, led by Fox’s Glenn Beck, ensued; Jones resigned in September. Since then, he’s seldom been heard from. He’s too smart, young and dynamic to stay below the radar forever. For now, though, Jones’ temperature has dropped toward freezing. NOT
Marc Morano can be imagined as the love child of Matt Drudge and Karl Rove. To most folks, that's scary. But Morano would be honored by the analogy. A former staff provocateur for U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Denial), Morano left Capitol Hill last spring and founded ClimateDepot.com. Morano’s sensationalist site doesn’t feature much original content. But it has become a credulous clearinghouse for all manner of climate change denial, rumor mongering and character assassination. Most importantly, it serves as a conduit to popularize error-strewn stories before they move on to Fox News or talk radio for amplification. Often, Morano even serves as a climate change “expert” guest on the mainstream media — even though he’s not a scientist and isn’t exactly known for honesty. ClimateDepot features regular boasts of the frequent attention Morano gets in the mainstream media — most notably a December Newsweek profile that dubbed him “king of the skeptics.” That attention has only escalated with the arrival of “Climategate,” the Copenhagen climate conference, and this winter’s cold weather. HOT
Climate scientists saw their warnings about climate change affirmed by study after study in 2009 (if anything, it looks as if change is coming faster than earlier projected). In the court of popular culture, however, climate scientists may have had the worst year for any group of scientists since the Scopes Monkey Trial. Let’s say you’ve excelled in your highly competitive scientific field all your life. Then a bunch of other scientists who can’t seem to get their work published join up with a self-interested gang of political operatives to savage you in the press and on the political stage. Those same conspirators get a hold of years of correspondence between you and other colleagues; they find two or three e-mails that can be taken out of context to imply that you’re all a bunch of frauds. In the controversy-driven media, that’s all it takes to get a large portion of the public to disbelieve you — and to swallow unquestionably the disinformation of climate change “skeptics.” It’ll be interesting to see if the disconnect between what scientists have learned and what the public believes will narrow in 2010, or if the scientists will continue to be schooled in public relations by the political operatives and publicists driving the denial bus. NOT
Lisa P. Jackson emerged in 2009 as the ascendant star of the Obama administration’s environmental team. While other administration officials were hammered for past comments or actions, no matter how inconsequential, the new Environmental Protection Agency chief worked steadily to restore credibility and morale at an agency rendered toothless during the Bush administration. To be sure, there were disappointments. Jackson’s EPA so far has stopped short of adequate safeguards for mountaintop-removal coal mining and coal ash dumps. And some EPA steps have been hampered by political will and budget limitations. But the agency has moved forward on a dizzying number of long neglected actions, ranging from toxic chemical standards, to an overhaul of Clean Water Act compliance, to this week’s push to rein in ozone smog. Of course, Jackson’s biggest step was the one announced on Dec. 7, the same day the Copenhagen climate conference opened: She signed an official finding that “the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases ... in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” That’s a necessary step toward regulating greenhouse gases. In one fell swoop, the new EPA director did more to restore American credibility on climate change than all the fiddling in Congress. HOT
Polar bears actually could be described as hot — too hot for comfort. The warming Arctic has made life more difficult for the largest of land predators. Very basically, they get exhausted swimming longer and longer distances between sea ice flows, at least according to government and university scientists, whose work has led to a finding that they should be listed as a threatened species. As with climate change itself, however, special interests — in this case, Inuit villagers who hunt polar bears and who also contend with them as dangerous pests — have hired their own scientists, who (surprise, surprise) say the bears are expanding their populations. That could be true in some regions (because my editor won’t fund my own expedition to the Great White North, we can’t know for sure). But the overall trend doesn’t look good. Despite this year’s cold weather, sea ice may virtually disappear by the end of the century. Without substantial action on climate change, the bears’ habitat will disappear far more quickly than it can adapt to the changes. NOT
Change.org and Care2.com are easily confused. Both are social media sites for do-gooders. Both mix news content with opportunities for action. Both help members act on environmental causes, along with a slew of other issues, by sending letters, starting petitions, signing petitions and tapping into other ways to get more deeply involved. Both have enjoyed astounding growth over the past year. Their business models are a bit different — Care2.com uses relationships with various nonprofit partners to hook members up with those nonprofits — but whatever the differences, the two social media/social entrepreneurship sites are robust tools. They, or websites like them, are likely to become indispensable tools for anyone who wants to build public support for a cause. HOT
The United Nations saw its limitations as the shepherd of international climate change agreements exposed in Copenhagen in December. U.N. rules, which require a consensus for any global agreement, allowed nations to develop an agreement based on the lowest common denominator. And even then the document wasn’t deemed fully enforceable because five out of 193 nation’s didn’t vote 'aye'. The current frontline on climate change turns out to run between China and the U.S. — the two countries with the largest emissions by far. Other significant battles inevitably pit the wealthiest nations and/or the biggest oil producers against the poorest countries most likely to be devastated by climate change. Copenhagen may not have been as big a failure as it’s been chalked up to be. For one thing, the United States re-established its involvement in the issue (though we still fell short on leadership). For another, Copenhagen went a long way toward clarifying that the most pressing issues on climate change are likely to be sorted out for now through bilateral and multilateral negotiations, and through the leadership of technological innovators. The sooner diplomats and the U.N. recognize that the cumbersome United Nations process will have to complement those efforts rather than solve all the problems, the better. NOT
Nuclear energy continues to split the environmental community. Traditionally opposed to nukes because of disposal, terrorism and other public safety issues, many environmentalists have switched sides or at least softened their opposition because reactors, unlike coal-fired or even natural gas plants, don’t emit greenhouse gases. The split, along with fossil fuel price hikes (and a lot of pressure from the nuclear industry), convinced Congress to make it easier in 2005 to build nuclear reactors by, among other things, approving $18.5 billion in loan guarantees. Even more significantly, some Democrats in Congress, including former nuke opponent Sen. John Kerry, are willing to offer streamlined permitting and other incentives for reactors in exchange for Republican support on climate change legislation. Fifty-three reactors are now under construction worldwide, none of those are in the United States, according to the World Nuclear Association. Of nearly 500 that are planned or proposed, however, at least 30 are in the United States. HOT
The weather seems headed in the opposite direction from global warming, and Arctic storm fronts blasting across North America have prompted plenty of crowing on the part of climate change deniers. From Seoul to Miami, records are falling at the bottom end of the thermometer. Globally, will 2010 turn out to be a cold year? It’s too early to tell. But things certainly have gotten off to a cool start. COOL
The climate still is heading upward though. Despite anecdotal observations that the last couple of years have been relatively cool in North America, the overall climate continues to head very convincingly in one direction. According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2009 was the fifth hottest year on record and the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest decade. A couple of cool months in one hemisphere —or even one cooler year globally — won’t change that trend. HOT