Pots, Kettles, and George Will Teaching People to Think

By David Swanson

George Will has pulled a trick out of Karl Rove’s bag and begun attacking his opponents at his own weakest point. In his latest column, Will attempts to teach other people how to think straight. This has to be worth a few guffaws…

“In a campaign without peacetime precedent,” Will begins, “the media-entertainment-environmental complex is warning about global warming. Never, other than during the two world wars, has there been such a concerted effort by opinion-forming institutions to indoctrinate Americans, 83 percent of whom now call global warming a ‘serious problem.’ Indoctrination is supposed to be a predicate for action commensurate with professions of seriousness.”

While Will, of course, approves of and engages in wartime indoctrination, he actually intends in the above paragraph, I think, to oppose both indoctrination and the idea that global warming is something serious. But he doesn’t come out and say it isn’t something serious, perhaps because someone has told him about records and memories. On April 25, PBS will air a show about Iraq wartime indoctrination that includes a video clip of Will on ABC in October 2001 announcing that Saddam Hussein “has contacts outside in Sudan and Afghanistan with terrorists. He met, they did indeed have a contact between Atta and an Iraqi diplomat.” Note that this piece of indoctrination was not an exaggeration or a faulty conclusion; it was a lie based on nothing. But I digress.

“For example,” Will continues, “Democrats could demand that the president send the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate so they can embrace it. In 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 in opposition to any agreement which would, like the protocol, require significant reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions in America and some other developed nations but would involve no ‘specific scheduled commitments’ for 129 ‘developing’ countries, including the second, fourth, 10th, 11th, 13th and 15th largest economies (China, India, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico and Indonesia). Forty-two of the senators serving in 1997 are gone. Let’s find out if the new senators disagree with the 1997 vote.”

Now Will is aware that the current President ignores any actions taken by Congress that he does not approve of, and he is aware that Senators are no more supportive of serious action to protect the environment than is his fictional “media-entertainment-environmental complex.” His point seems to be that the 83 percent of Americans who call global warming a serious problem must be wrong because 95 percent of US Senators say so. I’d be more inclined to say they must be right because Will opposes them and is afraid to outright say so. But neither one of these arguments amounts to anything, and Will would know it if he opened a first-year logic book instead of trying to teach other people how to think like him. In the next paragraph, Will tries to make an argument based on substance.

“Do they also disagree with Bjorn Lomborg,” Will asks, “author of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’? He says: Compliance with Kyoto would reduce global warming by an amount too small to measure. But the cost of compliance just to the United States would be higher than the cost of providing the entire world with clean drinking water and sanitation, which would prevent 2 million deaths (from diseases like infant diarrhea) a year and prevent half a billion people from becoming seriously ill each year.”

The problems with this claim need to be listed.
1.-Will never advocates for providing the world with clean water and sanitation, any more than hotel and restaurant “think tanks” actually work for the social programs they claim would work better than a decent minimum wage. Good causes dragged out to oppose other good causes and then left on the shelf make for hypocrisy.
2.-The cost of the ongoing war Will indoctrinated us for dwarfs the cost of almost anything else, which serves to deny Will the right to talk about costs until he demands an end to the war.
3.-Shifting to renewable energies can be accomplished in a way that actually benefits the economy, while complying with Kyoto and much stricter restrictions, and at the same time reduce the impulse for more war indoctrination.
4.-The fact that Kyoto is so weak is not an argument against the seriousness of the threat it attempts to begin ever so slightly to address. To decide something about the seriousness of that threat, you would have to actually talk about what the threat is.
5.-If the threat is as serious as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, then we should be talking about the potential loss of many more than 2 million people, and we should be weighing the seriousness of the threat against any inconveniences or alterations to our lifestyles, something we cannot do if we avoid even talking about it.

“Nature designed us,” Will goes on, “as carnivores, but what does nature know about nature? Meat has been designated a menace. Among the 51 exhortations in Time magazine’s ‘global warming survival guide’ (April 9), No. 22 says a BMW is less responsible than a Big Mac for ‘climate change,’ that conveniently imprecise name for our peril. This is because the world meat industry produces 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, more than transportation produces. Nitrous oxide in manure (warming effect: 296 times greater than that of carbon) and methane from animal flatulence (23 times greater) mean that ‘a 16 ounce T-bone is like a Hummer on a plate.'”

This tells us a couple of things we already knew: Time magazine has to make a joke out of even the most serious news. And Will has to use such jokes to pretend to argue against the conclusions of people in the reality-based community. But look at Will’s argument that our meat industry does not cause climate change. It consists of a single word: Nature. Now, there’s a word vague enough to mean nothing. Plenty of people would argue that for most of the existence of homo sapiens the creatures hunted and gathered, and agribusiness was nowhere to be seen, so it’s NOT natural. There’s no need to settle here on a definition for a meaningless word, but we should be able to challenge Will’s claim that “climate change” is “conveniently imprecise.” It refers to a significant change in the earth’s temperature likely to result in melted glaciers, flooded cities, destroyed crops, heightened storms, and the extinction of species. Who would benefit from pretending such a thing existed? Will makes no case that anyone benefits, but he apparently has his eye on haters of ice cream. He continues:

“Ben & Jerry’s ice cream might be even more sinister: A gallon of it requires electricity-guzzling refrigeration, and 4 gallons of milk produced by cows that simultaneously produce 8 gallons of manure and flatulence with 8 gallons of methane. The cows do this while consuming lots of grain and hay, which are cultivated by using tractor fuel, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and transported by fuel-consuming trains and trucks.”

You’ll begin to notice as we read on that Will’s arguments against steps to reduce global warming consist of either claiming those steps would actually increase it or claiming that other steps would be needed too. But few would disagree. We are going to have to shift to local production and consumption to reduce transport. We are going to have to reduce the pollution created by transportation. We are going to have to use organic farming methods. We are going to have to produce electricity for refrigerators and everything else from renewable sources. Unless there is no threat. But none of this addresses Will’s ever-implied claim that climate change is not a serious threat.

“Newsweek says most food travels at least 1,200 miles to get to Americans’ plates, so buying local food will save fuel. Do not order halibut in Omaha.”

Is that an argument? “Under your theory I would not be able to buy halibut in Omaha. Therefore you are mistaken. QED.”

“Speaking of Hummers, perhaps it is environmentally responsible to buy one and squash a Prius with it. The Prius hybrid is, of course, fuel-efficient. There are, however, environmental costs to mining and smelting (in Canada) 1,000 tons a year of zinc for the battery-powered second motor, and the shipping of the zinc 10,000 miles — trailing a cloud of carbon — to Wales for refining and then to China for turning it into the component that is then sent to a battery factory in Japan.”

Will knows that he can either not worry about any of this and go on whistling and war-indoctrinating, or he can take it seriously and advocate for the elimination or improved production of Priuses and Hummers. Instead he takes the path of arguing that Priuses hurt the environment, and therefore the environment is not at risk. And he lays it on for a couple of more paragraphs:

“Opinions differ as to whether acid rain from the Canadian mining and smelting operation is killing vegetation that once absorbed carbon dioxide. But a report from CNW Marketing Research (‘Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles from Concept to Disposal’) concludes that in ‘dollars per lifetime mile,’ a Prius (expected life: 109,000 miles) costs $3.25, compared to $1.95 for a Hummer H3 (expected life: 207,000 miles).

“The CNW report states that a hybrid makes economic and environmental sense for a purchaser living in the Los Angeles basin, where fuel costs are high and smog is worrisome. But environmental costs of the hybrid are exported from the basin.

“We are urged to ‘think globally and act locally,’ as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done with proposals to reduce California’s carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent by 2020. If California improbably achieves this, at a cost not yet computed, it will have reduced its contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions 0.3 percent. The question is:

“Suppose the costs over a decade of trying to achieve a local goal are insignificant. And suppose the positive impact on the globe’s temperature are insignificant — and much less than, say, the negative impact of one year’s increase in the number of vehicles in one country (e.g., India). If so, are people who recommend such things thinking globally but not clearly?”

Speaking of not thinking clearly… If the threat is serious but the proposals to address it laughably insufficient, then we need tougher action. If the threat is not real, then the baby steps are not insignificant, they are nonexistent. Will has to come down on one side of this fence, but he won’t until a storm knocks him off.

George Will’s e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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