YouTube video

Mark Hertsgaard: We are in a climate crisis because the government spent the last 20 years listening to ‘climate cranks’

Story Transcript

DAPHNE WYSHAM, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Welcome to Earth Beat on The Real News Network. I’m Daphne Wysham. Today we’re speaking with Mark Hertsgaard. Welcome to The Real News.


WYSHAM: Mark Hertsgaard is the author most recently of the book Hot. So, Mark, you were recently on Capitol Hill, and you coined this term “climate cranks”. First of all, tell us what the term “climate cranks” refers to.

HERTSGAARD: “Climate cranks” is my word for the people who keep insisting–long after the scientific case on man-made global warming is clear, they keep insisting that it’s not clear, for various different reasons economic and ideological. We have a lot of people on Capitol Hill, particularly in the Republican Party, who insist that the science is still “mixed”, as Senator James Inhofe told us yesterday on Capitol Hill. And so we decided, I should say, myself and a number of other activists from the environmental movement, and especially some young people, to go down and confront them, because we believe that it’s precisely because our government has spent the last 20 years listening more to climate cranks than to real scientists, that’s why we’re in the climate crisis that we’re in today.

WYSHAM: And you do make the distinction between climate skeptics, which you claim are actually serving a valuable function in some sense, versus climate cranks, who just dismiss the science altogether, correct?

HERTSGAARD: Yeah. The difference–you know, the media likes the term climate skeptics. And so do the deniers–they’d rather be called a skeptic. And skepticism is invaluable to the scientific process, ’cause you have to test. But a genuine skeptic is open to evidence and open to changing his or her mind. And the reason I say that these deniers on Capitol Hill, they’re not climate skeptics: because the facts don’t matter to them. They’ve made up their mind, and they work backwards from the conclusion that climate change isn’t real, and therefore I’m going to cherry-pick all the science to show that it’s not real. So I call them–that’s climate cranks, rather than a climate skeptic, which is an honorable thing to be, even if, you know, pretty dubious at this point in history, because, as I said to Inhofe yesterday, look, virtually every major scientific organization in the world–starting with our own National Academy of Sciences, its equivalent in 18 countries, but, you know, the American Physics Society, those crazy radicals at the Chemistry Society, the American Geophysical Union, literally scores and scores of scientific organizations have said, repeatedly, climate change is real, it’s happening, it’s dangerous, we need to do something about it. In the face of all that, if you are still insisting in the year 2011 that it’s all a left-wing hoax, I mean, that’s a crank. What, are they all in on the conspiracy? Every one of those scientific organizations, they’re all either incompetent or corrupt? That beggars the imagination.

WYSHAM: Now, you’ve been covering the climate-change issue for, gosh–.

HERTSGAARD: Twenty years.

WYSHAM: Twenty years. And you’re a journalist. Is this the first time that you’ve actually gotten to the point where you’ve said, okay, I’m going to go beyond journalism and be an activist and speak to folks on Capitol Hill about this issue?

HERTSGAARD: I would say that what I have done is engaged in a more overt form of journalistic activism, see, ’cause I think it is not somehow a violation of journalism to insist on the facts, you know, that it’s not a question of editorializing or political bias to say that the Republicans are against the science. That’s simply a description of reality. And one of the easiest ways to see that it is that the Republicans are the only major political party in the world who doubt climate science. Go look at the right-wing parties that are running the governments of Britain, Germany, France. They’re all under the control of right-wing governments now. None of those parties have questioned climate science for 15 years. Now, they argue about what do we do about it, you know, who pays, when [inaudible] taxes, regulations, what policy tools do we use to deal with this, but none of them dispute the science, and they haven’t for a long time.

WYSHAM: And what do you attribute that to?

HERTSGAARD: I think there’s two main reasons that the US is still lagging on this. And one reason is that there is a Fox TV presence in our media, and the mainstream media is cowed by Fox TV. And so Fox TV is amplifying the voice of a very small minority, mainly in the Republican Party, but not only. And so there’s the appearance of there being much more dispute about the science than the actuality.

WYSHAM: In fact, Fox management has in fact given instructions to their news folks and their anchor folks that they’re not allowed to use the words “climate change”, correct?

HERTSGAARD: Not exactly. There is a memo that surfaced from the Washington bureau chief of Fox TV reprimanding a reporter who had said on the air–who had given basically the mainstream scientific view of some of the extreme weather events that occurred this winter. And the bureau chief immediately sent out a memo to all the staff, saying that if you give that view, you must immediately append to your report sentences saying that many scientists dispute this. Well, I’m sorry, that is simply factually inaccurate. That is journalistic malpractice. It is not the case that many scientists dispute this. As I say, there’s a few outliers. They happen to mainly be supported by the oil and coal companies.

WYSHAM: So you’ve got Fox, who is in many ways sort of on the extreme end in terms of journalistic practice with regard to climate change and coverage of the climate crisis. But then you have other journalists that are also choosing to frame this story as it could be this, it could be that. I wonder if you can–as a journalist, if you can sort of speak to how the profession has covered the climate crisis, where they’ve gone wrong, how they could improve. And given that you clearly feel very passionately about this, how can a journalist who does feel passionately about this cover it objectively?

HERTSGAARD: Well, I should preface it by saying I wrote a book some years ago about the media in Washington called On Bended Knee that focused on the Reagan years, and the same problems that you saw then are repeating now in climate. I think the climate-change story is one of the great failures of the American media in modern times. And there’ve been a couple of causes for it. One is this belief, especially in Washington, that you cover these issues from a political perspective rather than a scientific perspective, and that you balance, that there has to be one voice over here and one voice over here. And the problem with that–that’s useful on many issues, but when it’s a scientific matter and there are 99 percent of the scientists are over here and 1 percent of the scientists are over here, and this 1 percent happens to be, usually, in bed with the fossil fuel companies, it is fundamentally misleading and, I repeat, journalistic malpractice to equate these two as equal. They are journalists. Their job is to inform the public and to follow the facts, not to cover it as a political dogfight.

WYSHAM: So we have a clip from your interaction with Senator Inhofe. Let’s take a look.


HERTSGAARD: No, not in any way, sir. I just want to ask you some questions about climate science, and I know you have a lot of opinions about it.

SEN. JIM INHOFE (R-OK): Sure. Sure.

HERTSGAARD: Why does your party continue to deny what the National Academy of Sciences and virtually every major scientific organization [inaudible]

INHOFE: You know, you know, you ask the same question over and over and over again. The science is mixed. We all know the science is mixed. The economy is not mixed.

HERTSGAARD: When all of these scientific organizations in the world and every political party in the world but your own admits that climate change is happening, it’s real, and it’s dangerous, why does your party keep insisting that it’s not?

INHOFE: That’s not–you’re wrong on that. The science is mixed on that, and you know it.

HERTSGAARD: I do not know that, sir.


WYSHAM: So tell us more about that interaction with Senator Inhofe. Now, he is one of the biggest friends of the fossil fuel industry, correct?

HERTSGAARD: You would have to say he’s the godfather of climate deniers and climate cranks on Capitol Hill. He’s the one who coined that imperishable phrase that climate change is, quote, a “liberal hoax”, the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. Of course, he comes from the oil-rich state of Oklahoma. And he has been leading the charge against climate scientists. He has even called for criminal charges against climate scientists such as James Hansen. And as you saw, he keeps insisting that the science is mixed when it’s not. So we wanted to call him out, and, frankly, not because we expect to change Senator Inhofe’s mind. The climate cranks have made up their minds. They’re not going to be swayed by facts. That’s what makes them not skeptics. But what we hope to do here is to change the political conversation in Washington, and therefore around the country, and get the rest of the political class in Washington, especially the media, to stop treating them as anything other than cranks, to realize–. They don’t have to call them cranks. The Washington Post will never call them cranks. But they should stop calling them things like climate skeptics. They should stop pretending that there is any real science behind that or that anyone should give credence to their position. They have as much scientific credibility as the Flat Earth Society, and the entire rest of the world outside of the Beltway knows it. So we want the Beltway to catch up to reality, I guess.

WYSHAM: Thanks for speaking with us today, Mark Hertsgaard. And thank you for watching The Real News Network. I’m Daphne Wysham with Earth Beat.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Mark Hertsgaard has investigated global warming for outlets including the New Yorker, NPR, Time, Vanity Fair, and the Nation. But the full truth did not hit home until he became a father and, soon thereafter, learned that climate change had already arrived―a century earlier than forecast―with impacts bound to worsen for decades to come. He is author of Generation HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

Daphne Wysham is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and founder and host of Earthbeat, now airing on 61 public radio stations in the US and Canada.