Ross Gelbspan, who exposed the roots of climate change deniers, dies at 84

Ross Gelbspan, who exposed the roots of climate change deniers, dies at 84

Ross Gelbspan, an investigative journalist whose reporting on climate change exposed a disinformation campaign by oil and gas lobbyists to sow doubt about global warming (a denialism that was adopted by Republican officials and, in some cases, by credulous media), died on January 27 at his home in Boston. He was 84 years old.

The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said his wife, Anne Gelbspan.

Gelbspan’s career included reporting on dissidents in the Soviet Union and on the FBI’s harassment of domestic critics, and his interest in the climate crisis, like those other topics, arose from a sense of outrage that powerful interests were suppressing information necessary for the democracy.

“I didn’t get into the climate issue because I love trees; I tolerate them,” he said. saying on YouTube last year. “I got into it because I found out that the coal industry was covertly paying a bunch of scientists to say nothing was happening to the climate.”

In a 1995 cover story for Harper’s Magazine titled “The Heat Is On,” which he expanded into a 1997 book with the same title, Gelbspan shed light on a group of scientists who had been paid by coal and oil groups. to inform lawmakers and journalists that global warming was not a serious threat. He unearthed a 1991 memo from the fossil fuel lobby that called for a strategy to “reposition global warming as a theory rather than a fact.” At a news conference, President Bill Clinton held up the book and said he was reading it.

In “The Heat Is On” (1997), Gelbspan cited a group of scientists who had been paid by coal and oil groups to tell lawmakers and journalists that global warming was not a serious threat.Credit…Basic Books

“In ‘The Heat Is On,’ Ross was the first to seriously debunk the oil and coal companies’ campaign to promote and fund a pseudoscientific narrative of denial,” said Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect magazine. , to which Mr. Gelbspan contributed, in an email. “He combined a deep concern for our common future with the passion and skill of a tenacious investigative reporter.”

Mr. Gelbspan wrote Harper’s reports that one of the most prominent climate skeptics, Richard S. Lindzen of MIT, speaking on behalf of a coal lobby group, testified in 1994 at a government hearing that a doubling of carbon emissions over the next century would prevent temperatures from increasing further. of a negligible 0.3 degrees Celsius. Since that testimony, the planet has already warmed 0.86 degrees Celsius, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In a second book, “Boiling Point” (2004), Gelbspan was harsh on his own profession, accusing journalists of laziness in falling into “fabricated denial” of the fossil fuel industry.

Many journalists, he said, were undermined by his ethic of impartiality, which added a false balance to stories that reflexively included climate skeptics.

“For many years, the press gave the same weight to ‘skeptics’ as to conventional scientists,” he wrote. “The question of balance is not relevant when the focus of a story is factual. In this case, what is known about the climate comes from the largest, most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.”

In “Boiling Point” (2004), Gelbspan was harsh on journalists, accusing them of laziness in falling for the “fabricated denial” of the fossil fuel industry.Credit…Basic Books

In his review of “Boiling Point” in The New York Times, Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate, wrote: “Part of what makes this book important is its criticism of the coverage that the American media has due to global warming over the last two decades.

But Gelbspan’s main targets remained companies like Exxon Mobil, which funded climate science denial, and industry-supporting officials, mainly Republicans, like President George W. Bush, who ran for the White House promising to limit carbon emissions from power. plants, then resigned under industry pressure months into his tenure. That same month, his administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement among industrial countries to reduce warming emissions.

(Last year, The Wall Street Journal revealed (Newly discovered documents showed Exxon sought to confound scientific findings that could harm its business even after the company publicly said it would stop funding think tanks and scientists who downplayed climate threats.)

“It is an unbearable experience,” Gelbspan wrote, “to watch the planet crumble piece by piece in the face of persistent and pathological denial.”

Gelbspan, a newspaper reporter and editor for 31 years before leaving daily journalism to focus on books, worked for The Philadelphia Bulletin, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and The Boston Globe.

In 1971, he spent three weeks in the Soviet Union for a four-part series that aired on The Voice. “It was a very humbling trip.” then he remembered, which describes how he interviewed political dissidents in bugged apartments, memorized his notes before destroying them so they would not be confiscated, and was interrogated for six hours by the KGB before being allowed to leave Moscow. The experience was an awakening “to the brutal realities of life in a totalitarian state,” he said.

Gelbspan joined The Globe in 1979. As a special projects editor, he oversaw a series on employment discrimination against African Americans in the Boston area, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for local investigative reporting. Although the Pulitzers are awarded to journalists and newspapers, The Globe named Gelbspan “co-recipient” of the award for conceiving and editing the series.

In 1991 he published another book, “Robberies, Death Threats, and the FBI,” an investigation of what he called secret federal harassment of critics of the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America.

Ross Gelbspan was born on June 1, 1939, in Chicago, the son of Eugene Gelbspan, who ran a kitchen supply company, and Ruth (Ross) Gelbspan. He received a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy from Kenyon College in Ohio in 1960.

While covering the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 in Stockholm, he met Anne Charlotte Broström, originally from Sweden. They married the following year. She spent 25 years as a nonprofit developer of low-cost housing for homeless families in Massachusetts.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Thea and Johanna Gelbspan, and a sister, Jill Gelbspan.

Early in his coverage of global warming, Gelbspan read the work of some climate skeptics and, for a time, became convinced there was no crisis. He then met with James J. McCarthy, a Harvard oceanography professor and leading climate expert who was co-chair of the UN panel on climate change. He convinced Gelbspan that the skeptics were wrong.

“When I asked McCarthy if climate change posed a truly serious threat,” Gelbspan recalled on YouTube last year, “he said as slowly and clearly as possible: ‘If this unstable climate we’re starting to see now started 100 years ago, , the planet could never support its current population.’”

Reflecting on your report Regarding the environment, Gelbspan added that he had felt “both a young man’s sense of wonder and an old man’s despair.”

“I was a journalist,” he continued, “and in the face of my sadness at our collective human failure, my only response has been to look reality in the eye and write it down.”

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John C. Johnson

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