Phoenix Rises (Again) on Global Warming

Like the mythical phoenix rising out of the ashes of its own flames, the global warming story has risen out of the pile of clichés and denials into which it had collapsed or perhaps been pushed. 

Pushed by whom? The allegations include everyone from intimidated or befuddled journalists to profit-hungry oil and coal companies.  What's happening now? The makings of a change in the zeitgeist -- a new cultural map delineating the risk to humanity as the planet gets warmer.  

Coming soon:  

- "Too Hot NOT to Handle," on HBO, a half hour of clear and passionate explanations by world-class scientists, followed by solidly grounded ideas for solutions to help prevent global catastrophe.  

- "An Inconvenient Truth," which has Al Gore describing what he calls a planetary emergency, opens in movie theaters around the world in late May.  

- Discovery Channel and others also have their own Earth Day series on global warming.  

Already you may have caught:  

- "Hot Zone: The Reality and Risk of Global Warming," a two-day series on ABC News programs and outlets, including this Web site, where it will be updated continually, since this is, unfortunately, a story with a future.  

- Time magazine's special issue last week with "Be worried, be very worried" on the cover.  

- Vanity Fair's first "green issue" with a cover sporting Al Gore, Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  

There was even a two-hour "Global Warming Comedy Special" on TBS, which reaffirmed what the great Stanley Kubrick proved with "Dr. Strangelove," his classic dark comedy about nuclear war. Some threats are too grim to be absorbed except with a strong dose of denial-defeating humor.  

The difference between nuclear holocaust and global warming is that the former hasn't happened. The latter (according to all but a tiny handful of scientists) is well under way and is caused either substantially or solely by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  

Hollywood producer Laurie David is a driving force behind three of the above projects (the HBO program, the Gore movie and the TBS comedy special), but global warming is no longer the province of "Hollywood liberals" or Democrats.  

At a screening of the HBO hour in Washington, I spoke not only with former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, who reports there's a new bipartisan surge to fight global warming, but I also heard about the urgency of emissions regulations from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of a growing number in his party now openly worried about global warming.  

As people of all political stripes now say in one way or another, there are no Republican or Democrat children.  

But why have editors and the public taken so long to catch up to the reality about which the world's scientists have for 10 years agreed? An unusual scientific agreement arrived slowly after three decades of rigorous skeptical debate. Natural psychological denial alone cannot explain it.  

Were some parties trying to keep us confused as long as possible?  

And if so, to what end?  

And why would they do this, given the seriousness of the matter? Global warming has long been understood to have catastrophic consequences for civilization that will happen sooner or later and possibly within this century if greenhouse gas emitters continue with business as usual.  

It is shocking to reread  the coverage of global warming from 10 years ago, and even earlier. So many of the warnings and the science of global warming were already being reported.  

For professional (which means chronically skeptical) journalists, the phoenix  of global warming began to rise again two years ago. There were headlines in 2004 like that on National Geographic's cover story "Global Warning;" U.S. News and World Report's cover article "Preparing for a warmer world;" and USA Today's above-the-fold front-page declaration "The Debate is Over: The Planet IS warming."  

Even Business Week had a cover announcing "Many Companies Now Preparing for Carbon Constrained World."  

Those companies have for some time included big oil and coal corporations, whose products give off much of America's greenhouse gas emissions.  

(The United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, is estimated to generate about 25 percent of the globe's man-made greenhouse emissions.)  

Coal and oil executives have for years been aware of the science behind global warming and its connection to coal and oil.  Various executives have reportedly said privately for years that they were ready for carbon restrictions but could only cut carbon if the cuts became mandatory and were forced on them by the federal government.  

The White House, indeed President Bush, for reasons that are unclear, continues to suggest that the science promulgating global warming as a man-made phenomenon is in considerable doubt.    

Last week the president said to reporters, who did not challenge him, "The globe is warming. The fundamental debate is, is it man-made or natural?"  

It is simply not true that this is a "fundamental debate," as any credible, nonpoliticized and workmanlike examination of the scientific community's discussions and studies will reveal.  

Then why would the president make such a statement?  

Perhaps he misspoke, or was simply condensing his thoughts into an extremely tight package. But it is also true that a great many political analysts have written and spoken about this president's debt and allegiance to the oil companies, for which he worked as a prominent executive, as did Vice President Dick Cheney.

Several books of investigative journalism, including  Ross Gelbspan's "The Heat is On" and "Boiling Point," have reported that oil companies in the 1990s, apparently trying to stave off profit cuts from carbon regulation as long as possible, hired PR firms to promote the notion that there was fundamental and widespread debate among scientists about even such basic questions as whether global warming was happening at all.

  And now The Washington Post, picking up a journalistic line of inquiry already opened by Andrew Revkin in The New York Times and by ABC News, has just published a comprehensive report by staff writer Julie Eilperin titled "Climate Researchers Feeling Heat From the White House."  

It says that "scientists working for the federal government say the Bush administration has made it difficult for them to speak forthrightly to the public about global warming. The result, the researchers say, is a danger that Americans are not getting the full story on how the climate is changing."  

They are now. Or very soon will.  

Your computer screens large and small, cell phone screens, iPods, radios, TV screens, newspapers, magazines and even your local movie theaters will make it inescapable.  

As stories go, this one-of-a-kind phoenix (mythology says there was only one in the world) is of unprecedented scale and complexity.  

But as it rises again for us to consider, with so many other parts of its enormous complexity to challenge us, there is still that one talon pointing at the executive and legislative branches, perhaps curled into a question mark as if to ask,  why has our country and its government been so slow  to confront this unprecedented danger?