The Week That Was
November 16-22

Whoa! BIG trouble in Paradise! First, Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth, forced to back off from imposing a "gag order" on the U.S. delegation to next month's Kyoto climate treaty talks--and anxious to secure less stressful employment afterwards--announces that he's bailing out of the Clinton Administration to head up Ted Turner's $1 billion UN fund. This ticks off the White House, which rushes to replace Wirth as leader of the U.S. delegation with Undersecretary of State Stu Eizenstat.

Unfortunately, as the White House soon realizes, the reaction from much of the press and public to this last minute switch will likely be "Stu who?" Which means Vice President Al Gore will be left holding the bag on whatever comes out of Kyoto--and at this point it doesn't look good. The Senate is voicing strong opposition. The perception that the United States is getting jerked around by the Europeans and stiffed by the Chinese and Indians is coming through in the press, even in the coverage by "green" reporters. And for all the misinformation the White House put out with its costly global-warming PR campaign, a perusal of the CNN chat line and numerous other global-warming sites on the Internet shows that many Americans--if web junkies are any indication--have been doing their science homework. Now the White House is strongly urging Gore to skip Kyoto altogether. An anonymous U.S. official quoted in the Washington Times says, "Mr. Gore wants to go, but we're telling him to stay home. It could be a shambles." (Al Gore: "Hold me back, fellas!")

We think Gore should go. Global warming has been his primary means of gaining national attention for years; it has secured his place as America's leading harbinger of gloom and doom. For the Administration, which rightly sees Kyoto taking a turn for the worse, the issue could prove dispensable. Perhaps in another week Mike McCurry will simply be standing up at the lectern in the White House press room saying, "Kyoto? Kyoto? Is something going on in Kyoto?" But for Gore, this is a tar baby. He can hardly turn it loose now. This is a fascinating development, which we are following closely.

Interesting happenings over the last week. As we noted in our previous report, public impression of scientific research often depends on what scary quotes come out of the press conference and how a reporter decides to spin it. The often-criticized Bill Stevens of the New York Times apparently did NOT attend the press briefing in Washington for the just-released research paper "Arctic Environmental Change of the Last Four Centuries" and wrote a remarkably substantive and objective account of that research. Good for him! Joby Warrick of the Washington Post, however, DID attend the briefing. His article, "Arctic Implicates Humans in Warming," is...well, the headline says it all, doesn't it.

In reading these two radically different accounts, we were reminded of an incident four years ago when another writer--the Post's Boyce Rensberger, who now edits the "Horizon" section--bucked the environmental lobby and wrote a lengthy front-page article on global warming that was an excellent compilation of what was known, and not known, at the time. The reaction was swift. Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund hopped on a plane in New York and flew to Washington just to take Rensberger to lunch and straighten him out on a few things--like how the world works.

So our advice to Bill Stevens is this: make Oppenheimer take you to a REALLY expensive restaurant (on the EDF budget -- he can afford it) and stay away from hyperventilating press briefings. You understood that research paper just fine. As for Warrick, our commiserations. Oppenheimer will never bother to take any of us to lunch either.

This just in: the Los Angeles Times (and Greenwire) reports that the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian Church, in an "unprecedented defense of the environment," has declared environmental degradation a "sin." Paul Gorman of the multi-faith National Religious Partnership for the Environment, based in New York, said the statement by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I elevated environmentalism to "a whole new level of theological inquiry." To which Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt added: it will be viewed as "one of the great, seminal important religious statements of our time."

In Oslo, Norway, members of the activist group known as the Sea Shepherd Society have scuttled another Norwegian whaler--this one owned by a member of the Norwegian Parliament. Not to worry. EnviroNews Service reports that the scuttling was done "in accordance with established non-violent methods to ensure that there would be no injuries." [?!] This was the second Norwegian whaler sunk in 12 days to protest Norway's actions at the meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Monaco last month, when it stymied the IWC's plan to extend a moratorium on whaling that had no scientific foundation. Norwegian whalers go after the non-endangered minke whale, whose numbers are up around 900,000 worldwide. The Sea Shepherds indicate they will continue their attacks on Norwegian whaling vessels.

Stephen Glass, writing in The New Republic ("No Free Launch," Nov. 3 issue), reports that organizers of a rally to protest the launch of Cassini--a plutonium-powered space probe that will orbit Saturn--claimed that thousands of environmentalists decided to demonstrate just how fearful they were that the satellite's plutonium battery would blow up and rain radioactive particles over Florida by making the ultimate public statement--they stayed home!

While Glass notes that this made it very difficult to measure the actual size of the rally, organizers were quick to provide the details. "We showed them how dangerous it is. At some times the place was like a graveyard," boasted Ryan Hogin, a Montana anti-Cassini activist. "The experts are saying tens of thousands protested--I'd say it was closer to 100,000 that stayed home...maybe more." (Glass assures us he's not making this up.)
See the update on this item in the June 8, 1998 edition of TW2

In Santiago, Chile, the Ecological Council of Maipu reports that giant, two-foot-long rats are stalking the suburbs. The rats are suspected of existing on a diet of hormone-laced chicken droppings, hence their robust size. Environmentalists claim these rats are now attacking chickens and goats.

More on the harmful effects of UV-B on frogs. Scientists in Oregon tried to capitalize on the ozone depletion scare four years ago by claiming that increases in UV-B were responsible for the disappearance of many species of toads and frogs that had been reported at various sites around the globe. Didn't pan out. Now scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Continent Ecology Division in Minnesota have announced a possible link between UV-B and the frog deformities that have been reported lately in that region.

The researchers were quick to point out that their findings did not implicate UV radiation in any deformities in HUMAN embryos (but, hey, let's raise that spectre anyway and see how many anxious mothers-to-be we can stir up). They were also careful to state that results from their laboratory experiments might not apply to the natural setting. There's good reason to add that caveat: 10 years of measurements at dozens of sites in the United States showed that levels of UV-B have actually decreased, at some sites as much as 18 percent. (See "Fired at D.O.E.")

Another research paper has been withdrawn, this time in Nature. A team of scientists who had previously reported high levels of genetic damage among rats found at Chernobyl have retracted their conclusion. They couldn't replicate their results. We find this level of honesty and responsibility refreshing. After all, even peer-review is no guarantee that a scientist has called it right.

Washington Post science editor Rob Stein declined an opportunity to meet with Fred Singer for a little slide show on global warming, saying that he and Joby Warrick were "very familiar with Dr. Singer's thoughts on the subject." Stein let it be known that he was the "primary editor" of the Post's recent series on global warming. We assume this is a heads-up that--a la Ross Gelbspan--Rob Stein will be the one claiming the Pulitzer.

A disturbing commentary article by George Melloan in the Wall Street Journal last week ("Democracies should be aware of rights erosion," Nov. 18). Four years ago, 21 heavily armed commandoes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--backed up by a spotter aircraft and CNN reporters--swooped down on a Montana sheep ranch owned by 72-year-old Paul Berger in an attempt to uncover evidence that he'd been poisoning eagles. No such luck. But the incident raised many questions for Melloan.

Federal agencies have recently added 2,439 armed police, bringing the total to nearly 60,000. "Why do Fish and Wildlife have a strike force?" he asks. Why do the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms need SWAT teams separate from the FBI? Why does the Bureau of Land Management, which overseas federal lands, need a police force, as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has recently proposed?"

"One reason," says Melloan, "is that federal agencies are increasingly confronting angry citizens who object to federal efforts to deprive them of their property rights under open-ended powers that Congress has granted to federal bureaucracies." Melloan asks whether the United States, in the cause of preserving the planet or preserving law and order, isn't edging toward becoming an illiberal democracy.

That's a good question indeed.

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