Newspaper op-ed pages are supposed to be a forum for insightful commentary, diversity of opinion, and expert analyses of the issues of the day. Especially at major papers, they play an extremely powerful role in guiding and shaping the national discourse. All of this is as it should be. But unfortunately, precisely because op-ed slots are so coveted, these pages are carefully targeted by special interests, which sometimes succeed in using them to advance their own points of view. On the op-ed pages, then, not all is necessarily as it seems.
This is worth bearing in mind when we consider a series of op-eds about global warming written by James R. Schlesinger, former CIA director, secretary of defense, and the nation's first secretary of energy during the Carter administration. On July 7, 2003, Schlesinger wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post headlined "Climate Change: The Science Isn't Settled." On January 22, 2004, he wrote a similar piece for the Los Angeles Times headlined "Cold Facts on Global Warming; Officials mustn't be unduly influenced by scare tactics that cite climate change." Most recently, on August 8 of this year, came Schlesinger's Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined "The Theology of Global Warming." In the past two years, then, Schlesinger has hit all the majors except for The New York Times and USA Today, preaching his gospel of global-warming skepticism. He's probably the nation's leading voice when it comes to promoting a contrarian interpretation of the science in these venues.
But now let's examine the bios that went with these articles:
"The writer, who has served as secretary of energy, made these comments at a symposium on the 25th anniversary of the Energy Department's C02/climate change program." (Washington Post, July 7, 2003.)
"James Schlesinger was secretary of Energy for President Carter, secretary of Defense for presidents Nixon and Ford and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a senior advisor for the investment banking firm Lehman Bros. and sits on the boards of various energy and defense companies." (Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2004.)
"Mr. Schlesinger, the first secretary of energy, launched the Department of Energy's Carbon Dioxide Effects and Assessment Program shortly after the creation of that department in 1977." (The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2005.)
As they say on Sesame Street, one of these kids is not like the others. Only the Los Angeles Times did its readers the service of disclosing Schlesinger's energy-industry ties in connection with his global-warming op-ed.
In fact, Schlesinger sits on the board of directors of Peabody Energy, which describes itself as the "world's largest private-sector coal company." Peabody has not exactly been a fan of the push to impose mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from the energy sector, through policies such as the Kyoto Protocol. In 1998, Peabody sponsored a report titled "The Kyoto Protocol: Putting US Electricity Supply and GDP at Risk" (as if global warming doesn't also put us at risk). In 2001, Peabody Vice President John Wootten argued that the Bush administration had "correctly refused to regulate CO2 as a pollutant or implement the Kyoto Protocol." As far as science itself goes, the company's annual report states that "the effects of human interaction on the climate deserve continued study to resolve uncertain & often conflicting research," and that in the meantime, only "voluntary programs" should be pursued to deal with emissions -- precisely what Schlesinger has been arguing in his op-eds.
Don't readers have a right to know about Schlesinger's seat on the board of directors of a coal company when he sounds off about the uncertainties of climate-change science? Schlesinger's office did not reply to submitted questions for this column, but Peabody spokesman Vic Svec informed me that Schlesinger's perspective on climate change "was well-formed before any affiliation with Peabody." Still, it's not clear how that's supposed to be any consolation, given that the evidence keeps mounting that global warming is not only under way but beginning to have serious impacts. If Schlesinger began doubting the science years ago, that only means that he really ought to be rethinking his position now. In any case, there's at least the appearance of a conflict of interest here -- precisely the reason that one would expect disclosure in the bios accompanying Schlesinger's op-eds.
Schlesinger's op-eds themselves, meanwhile, are extremely misleading. In his latest Wall Street Journal piece, for instance, Schlesinger wrote, "The insistence that global warming is primarily the consequence of human activity leaves scant room for variation in solar intensity or cyclical phenomena generally." Yet the virtually undisputed mainstream opinion is that these factors alone can't provide an adequate explanation for the current warming trend; human causation has to be invoked to account for what we're actually seeing. When 11 National Academies of Science (including the United States') released a statement recently on climate change, they noted that "it is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities."
Other Schlesinger op-eds repeat other standard climate-change contrarian tropes. In the Los Angeles Times, for instance, he wrote that "satellite measurements over 35 years show no significant warming in the lower atmosphere, which is an essential part of the global-warming theory." As it happens, this month two papers came out in the journal Science explaining errors in these temperature records. When corrected, the lower atmosphere turns out to be warming after all, a devastating blow to one of the favorite greenhouse "skeptic" arguments.
Let's hope for some mention of this fact in Schlesinger's next op-ed -- along with a disclosure of his Peabody affiliation.
Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a columnist for The American Prospect Online. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.