Activists Corner Elected Skeptics on Capitol Hill, Target Media's 'False Neutrality'

Wed Feb 16, 2011 12:12pm EST

Journalist-turned-activist Mark Hertsgaard argues that the mainstream media is to blame for allowing climate change denial to continue on Capitol Hill

By Elizabeth McGowan

WASHINGTON—If Sen. Jim Inhofe was even remotely thinking about adding Mark Hertsgaard's newest book to his reading list, he likely shelved that idea around noon Tuesday.

That's when the independent California journalist and the Republican Oklahoma senator wrapped up a pointed but cordial — and somewhat convoluted — five-minute exchange about global warming.

Hertsgaard is the author of the mid-January release "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years." He cornered Inhofe near a bank of members-only elevators at the Dirksen Senate Office Building to ask how he could remain the Senate's most adamant climate change denier when every noted scientific organization agrees the planet and its inhabitants are destined for a world of hurt unless heat-trapping gases are tamed.

"Yeah, are you kidding?" he told SolveClimate News when asked if it was worth it to wait 85 minutes in a windowless Dirksen hallway until Inhofe emerged from a fourth-floor committee hearing room. "For my daughter's sake I want to know why he thinks he can do that."

"Hot," the most recent of his six environmental tomes, is dedicated to his 5-year-old daughter Chiara. She has inspired the 54-year-old's fatherly concern toward what he calls Generation Hot, the two billion youngsters worldwide now forced to cope with climate disruption.

Even though it was just 24 hours after Valentine's Day, Hertsgaard didn't come to Capitol Hill expecting to sway hearts — or even minds — on the climate change front. Instead, Tuesday's event to confront "climate cranks" — coordinated by partners including the Sierra Club, 350.org, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and The Nation — offered a lesson to budding activists on staking out politicians and a chance for Hertsgaard to vent.

Throughout the day, the energetic author was trailed by four young local organizers, a couple of communications specialists and three videographers.

"I think he knows his lines," Hertsgaard said about trying to push the envelope with Inhofe. "He should. He's been saying the same thing for 20 years."

Frustration with Media Coverage

During the Hertsgaard encounter, Inhofe offered the same nay-saying spiel he offered the week before at a House subpanel hearing on draft legislation he's behind to stymie the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate carbon emissions. And Matt Dempsey, communications manager for his boss — the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — backed him up on every point.

But, then again, what did the activists expect when hitting the skeptic jackpot?

For one, Inhofe famously labeled global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." And, last winter he questioned the science further when his family built an igloo and mockingly christened it former Vice President Al Gore’s home after "Snowmageddon" buried the nation’s capital.

Hertsgaard, who has written for the likes of The New Yorker, Time, Vanity Fair, The Nation and Politico and reported for National Public Radio, insists that the "mainstream media" are to blame for giving congressional deniers a pass. On Tuesday, he confronted Inhofe on each of his points about the science being "mixed," the dire impact of carbon controls on the economy and what little difference EPA action will have on global emissions.

"It's important to say, 'No senator, the science is not mixed.' But a lot of mainstream reporters don’t argue back," Hertsgaard said in an interview, adding that a sense of false balance can be attributed to a Washington press corps not familiar with environmental issues. "But virtually every science organization tells us climate change is real and very dangerous. It's a matter of demonstrable science not opinion. To pretend otherwise borders on journalistic malpractice."

Hertsgaard is embarrassed to hail from a country with a political party that denies climate change, adding that European conservative parties argue about policy, not science. Here, he continued, Republicans reject the science because of its political implications — mandatory government regulations imposed economy-wide.

"We're in such a bizarre political bubble in Washington, D.C.," he noted during the brisk walk to Dirksen. "And that wouldn't happen if we didn't have Fox TV amplifying the argument and the mainstream media caving into this false neutrality."

Environmental Dollars in Jeopardy

Organizers chose Tuesday to act because it fit into Hertsgaard's schedule, plus both the House and Senate are in session. However, it also coincides with GOP efforts to cause mischief with the EPA’s 2011 budget.

Congress failed to pass the White House 2011 budget during December’s gridlock, instead opting for a temporary spending bill that operates the government at fiscal 2010 levels through early March. Legislators have until March 4 to craft another continuing resolution to set funding through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The repercussions are that the government will shut down if House and Senate leaders can’t compromise on funding government for the remainder of the fiscal year.

House Republicans have drawn the ire of the environmental community by not only proposing to whack about $3 billion from EPA’s budget this year but also halting the agency’s efforts to fashion or enforce carbon emissions rules.

"With Newt Gingrich calling to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, the House Republican leadership has taken a big step toward making this a reality by slashing funding for environmental and public health safeguards in their proposed continuing resolution," League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski said. "Their call for a 30 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency budget … would jeopardize the water we drink and air we breathe, endangering the health and well-being of all Americans."

It is premature to comment on the continuing resolution because the process is just beginning, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters in a teleconference Monday afternoon.

"We want to work with House Republicans to cut spending and cut the deficit but we want to make sure we don’t undermine our ability to protect public health and the environment," she said.

Meanwhile, although the separate 2012 budget President Obama proposed Monday slices the EPA’s overall budget from a 2010 high of $10.3 billion to $8.87 billion, it increases dollars allotted for regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

That $190 million figure — an increase of close to 30 percent — includes $25 million for states setting up carbon emissions permitting programs, Jackson said.

"We need to get started," she said about giving businesses the certainty to make long-term investments in reducing their carbon footprints. "The longer it takes to make modest steps, the harder it will get. We can make common-sense steps right now."

Lesson Learned

Seconds after the Inhofe engagement, Hertsgaard and his small tribe of followers rounded a corner and punched the "down" button on an elevator open to the public so they could reconnoiter on the ground floor.

Back in the crispness of the outdoors under a brilliant blue winter sky, they marched in front of the Supreme Court building, making a beeline toward Independence Avenue. Their next destination? A hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy in the Rayburn House Office Building.

One of Hertsgaard's supporters pulled out color photographs so everybody would be able to recognize their next targets — GOP representatives Fred Upton of Michigan, chair of the full committee, and John Shimkus of Illinois, chair of the subcommittee.

Allie Carter, a recent Michigan State University graduate and environmental activist who works for a D.C. nonprofit, glanced at the two faces, committing them to memory. When Hertsgaard challenged Inhofe, Carter had gamely chimed in, pressing him on why her generation should suffer the consequences of Congress's refusal to take a leadership role.

Although she has heard Inhofe's denial shtick before in news reports, witnessing it firsthand clearly made an impression on the 23-year-old Illinois native who is dedicated to the carbon-reduction cause.

"Being face-to-face with him made it more invigorating," Carter said, pausing in front of the U.S. Capitol. "That made it more personal for me. And that encourages me to work even harder."

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