BRANCACCIO: Welcome to Cincinnati, Ohio, a special Earth Day edition.
In a few minutes we'll be hearing from a very unexpected voice who is advocating for action on global warming.
He's CEO of a company that produces enormous amounts of the gases linked to global warming. It's one of America's biggest electric utilities based right here.
That CEO says one of his moments of clarity on the topic of climate change happened during a conversation with his granddaughter. For me it was a trip to France two summers ago where I really began to understand the idea of hot.
It was the infamous heatwave that made international headlines. The readout in the car with no air-conditioning translated to 109 Fahrenheit and there was nowhere to hide.
Horribly, some 14,000, mainly elderly, died in that stretch of brutal temperatures. Scientists have since argued in the journal NATURE that heatwaves like that one will become more than twice as likely due to global warming.
Stick with us. My eyes also used to glaze over on this topic but that's until I looked into it further.
Brenda Breslauer and Kathleen Hughes produced our report.
Richard Alley has a cool job. So cool he has to suit up for work:
DR. ALLEY: Warm coats, lots of layers, big boots, gloves.
BRANCACCIO: That's because Dr. Alley spends much of his time doing research in temperatures well below freezing. His laboratory is a freezer. They call it the ice box. It's 20 below zero.
DR. ALLEY: We've pulled out a couple samples of ice. One of them there is a piece from Greenland, and then this one is a piece from Antarctica…
Dr. Alley is what's known as a paleoclimatologist. He studies the history of the Earth by looking at ice cores. Cylinders of ice drilled out of glaciers and ice sheets.
This is our block of gold. This is the key. This is what we're after to tell us how the world works. And it's in here.
BRANCACCIO: Dr. Alley, a professor at Penn State who teaches geosciences when he isn't in his freezer, is part of the scientific consensus on global warming. He shares the belief that humans are changing the atmosphere and that the climate is warming as a result. He is studying ice cores to understand the history of a phenomenon called abrupt climate change.
DR. ALLEY: We believe that at certain times in certain places, the Earth's climate system will slowly change, and then it will jump or flip to a new state.
BRANCACCIO: The concern is that global warming might trigger this kind of change, leading to an abrupt, possibly catastrophic, transformation of the climate.
Other scientists looking at different parts of our Earth's system believe there is an urgent need to act now. Dr. Tim Barnett of Scripps Institution of Oceanography near San Diego used to be a skeptic. Then he began examining how global warming is affecting our oceans.
DR. BARNETT: We're not talking scare tactics here. We're not talking about being doom and gloom. We're talking about the situation that we're creating for ourselves. And the best minds on the planet tell us that we've got a problem. And we better damn well pay attention to it. And we just have not done that yet.
BRANCACCIO: So how is all this science playing out in American politics? In Congress, the House has just approved a sweeping energy bill, which now goes to the Senate. It's chock full of tax breaks and subsidies to coal, oil and gas companies the very industries that contribute most to global warming.
And who's one of Capitol Hill's most outspoken voices on global warming? Senator James Inhofe of oil-producing Oklahoma. He's Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Committee's biggest recipient of contributions from oil and gas companies. He says global warming is a hoax.
SENATOR INHOFE: Put simply, man induced global warming is an article of religious faith to the radical far left alarmists.
BRANCACCIO: This has all become a pitched battle in Washington between those guided by the vast majority of the scientific community and those who believe the problem is less than urgent, overstated, or fabricated. At the moment, the latter group is winning on the policy front. We'll drill down deep into that in a minute. But first, why are most scientists so worried? One answer can be found in the history of climate change as inscribed in some very old ice.
They really do have these incomparable records of temperature, snowfall, dust, pollen, volcanic eruptions.
BRANCACCIO: The cores are extracted from Greenland, Antarctica and other places where snow has compacted over tens of thousands of years into sheets of ice. Scientists use specialized equipment to drill miles into the depths of the ice. The cores are later shipped back in sturdy tubes to labs around the country where they can be mapped and analyzed.
And so if one looks here and here and here, the thickness of an annual layer tells you how much it snowed that year 25,000 years ago. And 25,000 and one and 25,000 and two and 25,000 and three.
BRANCACCIO: Like rings in a tree, the lines in ice cores tell the story of how the Earth has changed.
DR ALLEY: And it's a very complete history. There is actually air in here. The bubbles are in there and those are samples of air from 25,000 years ago.
BRANCACCIO: Bubbles trapped in the ice are a time capsule capturing the contents of the atmosphere throughout history.
And if you want to know what was the methane concentration in Greenland 48,000 years ago you can go back and pick that one out and pick that piece of ice. And break the bubbles and pull the methane out and find out.
BRANCACCIO: All this data frozen in the ice confirms that the planet is warming. Now there have always been natural swings in the Earth's climate but what's new, according to scientists, is that humans have now become a dominant force in climate change.
Drive a car or turn on a light, chances are coal or gasoline is being burned to produce that energy. These fossil fuels release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. By far the biggest contributor is carbon dioxide, or CO2. It's a natural part of our world…we breathe it out, plants suck it in. But when CO2 builds up in the atmosphere, it acts like a blanket keeping heat from escaping, thereby warming the Earth.
DR. ALLEY: We are now changing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And we're changing them fast enough that nature cannot undo what we're doing in the very near future.
BRANCACCIO: Just listen to the most recent evidence coming out of the Arctic.
SUSAN JOY HASSOL:
The Arctic is warming very rapidly. It's warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. And it's projected to warm twice as much as the rest of the world in this century.
BRANCACCIO: Susan Joy Hassol is one of the authors of a major report on Arctic climate. A four year study released in November by 300 scientists from around the world.
SUSAN JOY HASSOL:
The Arctic plays a very special role in global climate. The Arctic is like the air-conditioner for the world. When the Arctic starts to lose its snow and ice, it doesn't just affect the Arctic. It affects the entire planet's climate system.
BRANCACCIO: That's because Arctic snow and ice reflect the sun's energy, helping to keep the planet cool. As that ice melts, the darker land and water absorb more of the sun's heat, warming up the planet.
Dr. Alley has studied how warming has affected Arctic glaciers.
The black and white photograph here is an 1899 shot. The 2003 photograph, in color over here, the ice is basically gone. And so, one can look at it and say, "Ice. No ice. Ice. No ice." From the same place.
BRANCACCIO: And there's Etek Glacier 1919. And then in 2004. Muir Glacier 1941. 2004.
Over the last century or so, almost every glacier on Earth that we've watched, has gotten smaller.
BRANCACCIO: And when glaciers, which are based on land, melt, sea level rises, ultimately affecting our coastlines.
SUSAN JOY HASSOL: We're expecting one to three feet of sea level rise in this century. And this is what Florida looks like with three feet of sea level rise. Everything in red on this map would be inundated.
BRANCACCIO: Scientists predict that if bigger sources of frozen water melt, like significant portions of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, the rise in sea levels could be devastating. And while this would take at least hundreds of years to happen, it is not the stuff of science fiction. In 2002, a shelf of ice bigger than Rhode Island broke off from the coast of Antarctica. And Greenland is showing increasing signs of surface melting today.
There are points of no return. So if we get it too warm, Greenland melts over some centuries and sea level rises 20 some feet. And if you're-- you sort of are sitting near the beach, you're underwater. And so-- that's not-- it's not the end of humanity, it's not the end of civilization. But if you lose a big ice sheet, the coast really does change.
BRANCACCIO: Here's what Florida would look like with a 20 foot rise in sea level. Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and all the areas in red are underwater.
Another piece of the global warming puzzle is the rising ocean temperatures. It's what Dr. Tim Barnett studies. He's a marine physicist at Scripps. Back in the 1990s, he was part of an international research team studying global warming and he was the skeptic.
But as the results of that group became more and more strong, more and more evidence, I began to swing. I mean, the scientist has to look at the facts, the evidence, and be ready to adjust your position.
BRANCACCIO: And he has. Just two months ago, Barnett presented a scientific paper billed as "clear evidence of human-produced warming." He and his colleagues at Scripps had set out to discover what caused ocean temperatures to rise.
The amount of energy is tremendous. The amount of energy that's gone into the ocean in the last 40 years to do this is enough, if we could harvest it, to run the State of California, the world's seventh biggest economy for over 200,000 years. It's a huge amount of heat.
All of the oceans in the upper layers are warming.
BRANCACCIO: They found that natural variations like the changes in the sun or volcanoes could not explain the ocean warming. The only explanation was the increase in man-made greenhouse gases in the environment.
And the computations of that when compared to what the ocean had done were just snap on.
BRANCACCIO: Scientists say there's no quick fix for the problem of global warming. Once released into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide lasts for centuries. And while new technologies can help, fixing global warming is a tough sell politically. It means increasing conservation and reductions in the use of oil, gas and coal.
Which may explain why it's easier to talk about popular fiction, if you're the chair of the Senate Environment Committee.
I highly recommend this book to the Presiding Officer.
BRANCACCIO: Senator James Inhofe endorsed STATE OF FEAR, celebrity author Michael Crighton's latest thriller about how global warming is a clever ruse perpetrated by eco terrorists.
I think it is imperative people see some of what is going on right now and how public opinion is catching on to this hoax that has permeated our country for so long.
BRANCACCIO: And it's not just a work of fiction the influential Senator is relying on. He couldn't make time to talk to us for this story, but one of Inhofe's staffers pointed us to a number of scientists affiliated with think tanks and other groups known to be at least partially funded by the fossil fuel industries.
ROSS GELBSPAN: I refer to this as a massive campaign of deception and disinformation by the fossil fuel lobby.
BRANCACCIO: Until about 10 years ago, Ross Gelbspan was an editor and reporter at THE BOSTON GLOBE. Then he started working on a story he couldn't let go of.
These documents are what I collected really in terms of this disinformation and deception campaign. I'd love you to understand that I'm not an environmentalist, I didn't get into this because I love the trees. I got into it, because I found out the coal industry was paying some scientists under the table to say this isn't happening and I said if there's this cover up going on, what are they covering up.
BRANCACCIO: Gelbspan now devotes all his time to writing about global warming. He's written two books on the subject. The most recent is called BOILING POINT.
ROSS GELBSPAN: The industry strategy from the beginning has been to create doubts and make the public think this is really a two-sided debate when it is not, certainly from the scientific viewpoint.
BRANCACCIO: What Gelbspan calls the disinformation campaign started back around 1989 when representatives of the petroleum, automotive and other industries formed something called the Global Climate Coalition.
On its heels came the Information Council on the Environment, funded by the Western Fuels Association, which mostly represents coal interests.
ROSS GELBSPAN: And we got a copy of the strategy papers for that campaign. And it said that the purpose of the campaign was to reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.
BRANCACCIO: Part of the Council's strategy was to draw on several prominent global warming skeptics, scientists who argued that global warming is mired in unknowns.
GELBSPAN: They sent these scientists all over the country to do media interviews.
BRANCACCIO: As he dug deeper into the campaign, Gelbspan says he learned that industry had paid those some of those scientists and others fees and compensation amounting to more than a half million dollars between 1991 and 1995.
DR. PATRICK MICHAELS [VIDEO]: The most recent scientific evidence is overwhelmingly that the forecasts of global warming are going to be reduced even further.
BRANCACCIO: At least two of the scientists appeared in videos distributed by yet another group, the Greening Earth Society, also supported by the coal industry.
DR. ROBERT BALLING [VIDEO]:
And they are in perfect agreement with the satellite record. They see no warming at all.
ROSS GELBSPAN: And the real purpose was to create confusion and to basically portray this issue as a he said/she said issue that was stuck in uncertainty. And it worked with the press very well so that every time a reporter was doing a story about climate change, one of these greenhouse skeptics got on the phone and said: "Yeah but on the other hand."
BRANCACCIO: Then in 1997 the Global Climate Coalition launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign to persuade the public that the science behind the international Kyoto agreement to reduce greenhouse gases was shaky.
AD [VIDEO]: Countries responsible for almost half the world's emissions won't have to cut back.
Check it out for yourself, it's not global and it won't work.
Enter George Bush, a former oil man. Early in his administration he infuriated leaders of the industrialized world by pulling the U.S. out of the Kyoto Treaty. Among the reasons?
PRESIDENT BUSH: The targets themselves were arbitrary and not based upon science.
BRANCACCIO: It turns out the President may have had help articulating his position. This 2001 memo by Frank Luntz, a well known Republican consultant, advises the White House on how to "address global warming." The first piece of advice? "You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."
Exxon Mobil also had advice for the president.
ROSS GELBSPAN: This is a copy of the memo that was sent from Exxon Mobil to the White House in February 2001. Around the time the President took office. And it says: "Global climate science issues for 2001, can Watson be replaced now at the request of the US?"
BRANCACCIO: Exxon asked the White House to use its influence to oust the scientist leading the international research team reporting to the UN. He was Robert Watson and he'd made an urgent call for the nations of the world to reduce emissions. Within a year he was no longer in his position.
ROSS GELBSPAN: It shows the influence of the fossil fuel lobby and basically calling the shots on the Bush administration's climate and energy policies.
BRANCACCIO: Exxon Mobil's reach is wider than most people realize. This month's cover article in MOTHER JONES magazine found that Exxon Mobil alone contributes to more than 40 policy groups that seek to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change.
We contacted Exxon which said the groups it funds work on a wide range of issues, not just climate change. But Exxon continued, "We believe that the scientific evidence on greenhouse gas emissions remains inconclusive."
PRESIDENT BUSH: When we make decision we want to make sure we do so on sound science, not what sounds good but what was real.
BRANCACCIO: In 2002, the administration unveiled a strategy to reduce something called carbon dioxide intensity.
PRESIDENT BUSH: My administration is committed to cutting our nation's greenhouse gas intensity how much we emit per unit of economic activity by 18 percent over the next 10 years.
BRANCACCIO: Sounds good. But reducing carbon dioxide intensity doesn't actually cut down overall emissions. What it does is slow their growth.
SUSAN JOY HASSOL: But our emissions are still going up. And until we do something that is actually reducing our emissions, then we're not really doing anything to solve the problem.
BRANCACCIO: President Bush's program is voluntary, industry is under no obligation to participate. In fact the Bush administration is fighting a lawsuit brought by 12 states and three cities demanding that greenhouse gases be regulated as a pollutants.
SUSAN JOY HASSOL: As long as it's free to dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, people are going to keep doing it
BRANCACCIO: The fossil fuel industry has been fighting to keep it that way for the past two decades. But recently a few industry leaders have broken ranks. Two weeks ago Duke Energy called on the government to tax carbon dioxide. And here's the annual report just out from Cinergy Corporation, one of the nation's largest coal-fired utilities. Global warming: Can We Find Common Ground? In it the company says science proves global warming is a man-made phenomenon and calls for action.
Jim Rogers is Cinergy's CEO. Headquartered in Cincinnati, its plants burn up to 30 million tons of carbon dioxide producing coal every year.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: You talk about human activity is contributing to the warming of our planet. I mean, Jim, you run a utility company. What got into you?
Quite frankly most people expect us to duck the issue of global warming, but I believe that the Earth is warming. I believe that manmade sources are contributing.
But why bite off something as controversial as this in the first place?
JIM ROGERS: If you look at what's going on around the world, the Kyoto Treaty was signed in February, 38 industrial countries have signed on to it. If you look at all the-- and just look on the covers of magazines how many times global warming has been on the cover. It starts to say that this issue is in the consciousness of people. And is an issue that eventually is going to be dealt with in this country, as it's being dealt with in other parts of the world.
BRANCACCIO: Rogers is no environmental purist. His company has been fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for violating The Clean Air Act. Still, here's a powerful industry player calling for action.
And you could live with more government regulation? I don't typically hear that from CEOs.
I think it's a little bit about understanding where it's going. And recognizing this is a problem that's going to take many decades to solve. The longer we postpone acting on the issue, the more extreme the measures might have to be to deal with the issue in the future.
DAVID BRANCACCIO:: What happens if you and Cinergy spend quadrillions on limiting the amount of greenhouse gases you put out as a company, but that utility competitor X, call it what you want, doesn't do that? Doesn't that undermine all your efforts?
I have every belief that we'll drag them along with us. The reality is the big dollars that'll be spent will be spent after there are laws and regulations in place, not before.
BRANCACCIO: But remember, the Bush administration doesn't want to regulate greenhouse gases. It's hoping industry will volunteer to cut emissions.
TONY BLAIR: Is causing global warming at a rate.
BRANCACCIO: Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair along with the leaders of France, Germany and The Netherlands have pledged to go far beyond the United States, even further than the Kyoto Treaty.
TONY BLAIR: I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly.
Prime Minister Tony Blair of England is trying to cut greenhouse emissions by 60 percent over the next 50 years. What if that's what the American government under maybe some other administration comes up with? Could you do business in that kind of situation?
JIM ROGERS: We would find a way. Because what Prime Minister Blair did is he put a stake in the ground. He put it out there five decades out. And what that does is it says, okay, that it's almost like sending a man to the moon. We said that in the early-'60s that we were gonna put a man on the moon and we did it.
BRANCACCIO: So where are we now?
Scripps scientist Tim Barnett recently got a chance to find out when he met with the president's top policy advisor on the environment, James l. Canoughton.
He took his time to say that there were things that this administration was doing on global payoff in the 50 or 70 year time scale.
But I think the point that he missed, and I hammered on him a number of times is we're on a much shorter time scale. We don't have time now. I mean, if the greenhouse signal is there. It's alive and well in the environment and in the ecosystems. We need to do something right now.
BRANCACCIO: So, what's happening in Congress?
SENATOR JOE LIEBERMAN: The McCain-Leiberman Stewardship Act.
BRANCACCIO: Legislation sponsored by Senators John McCain and Joseph Leiberman that takes the first baby steps toward regulating greenhouse gases is headed for defeat.
Nothing could please Senator Inhofe more.
SENATOR INHOFE: I am returning to the floor as I many times in the last few years, to further address what I have considered to be probably the greatest single hoax ever perpetrated on the American people, and that is this thing called global warming.
DR. ALLEY: There are debates about global warming. There are clearly debates about what one should do. But there are so many good scientists. There are so many good scientists that are funded by the federal government, that are working by the federal government that are trying to do the right thing. I do not believe for one minute, I do not believe that all these hundreds and thousands of colleagues that I have are out there trying to hoax the public.