[Please write an email to themail@newyorker.com about this outrageous piece and submit a question to author David Owen.]

The New Yorker magazine has just published a lead story on climate, “Economy vs. Environment,” by David Owen, that is so bad, so filled with long-debunked right-wing talking points, it would barely qualify for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The piece could be the poster child for award-winning journalist Eric Pooley’s searing critique of the media’s coverage of climate economics (see here).

New Yorker magazine cover

What makes this all the more stunning is that The New Yorker is one of the few magazines in the country that have had consistently top-notch reporting on global warming, led by Elizabeth Kolbert. Her three-part series, “The Climate of Man,” which became the terrific book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, famously ends:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

But Owen’s piece, which leads off the March 30 issue and is heavily featured on their website, undoes all of Kolbert’s good work.

What is especially shocking about the piece is that after all of the magazine’s coverage of the catastrophic climate impacts we face on our current emissions path, Owen has managed to write an entire piece on climate economics that mentions that not a single one of them. And this in spite of his opening paragraph:

The week before last, twenty-five hundred delegates, from more than seventy countries, met in Copenhagen to prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will take place there in December and will produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1992 and will expire in 2012. The speakers in Copenhagen were united by a sense of urgency — and for good reason, given the poor record of most participating countries in meeting their Kyoto targets for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

I just don’t see how a responsible journalist can reference the Copenhagen conference, and not mention a single one of the dire scientific warnings of what happens on our current emissions path (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” — 1000 ppm).

I also don’t see how a responsible journalist can use that conference to kick off an article that ends by saying that action on climate would “be nudging us back toward the [economic] abysss” — when the conference itself came to the exact opposite conclusion:

Key Message 5: Inaction is Inexcusable

There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches — economic, technological, behavioural, management — to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.

Owen simply parrots the standard conservative argument that the only way to achieve prosperity is to keep emitting carbon dioxide and the only way to cut carbon dioxide is through economic collapse:

So far, the most effective way for a Kyoto signatory to cut its carbon output has been to suffer a well-timed industrial implosion …

… the world’s principal source of man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity.

Owen never bothers to cite a single analysis disputing his conclusions, even though many highly credible expert organizations do, including the traditionally staid and conservative International Energy Agency, McKinsey, as well as the economic literature as summarized in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report:

You could write a book debunking Owen’s disinformation treatise. But let me hit just a couple of the whoppers:

How do we persuade people to drive less — an environmental necessity — while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?

Uhh, actually Americans are driving less — have been for a couple of years now, but knowing that would have actually required a tiny amount of research by Owen (see here).

The popular answer — switch to hybrids — leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less — the recent oil-price spike pushed down consumption and vehicle miles travelled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, increased public transit ridership, and killed the Hummer — then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving — and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more. Increases in fuel efficiency could be bad for the environment unless they’re accompanied by powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile commutes.

No, no, a thousand times no.

This is the kind of disinformation and that you expect — and get — from the National Journal (see “Planet Gore Wrong on CAFE Rebound Effect“).

Yes, energy efficient devices often don’t save 100% of the advertised gain — but this rebound effect has been well documented and it is small. It is at most 20%, and probably much less, possibly 10%.

And in the real world I don’t expect there’s going to be even a 10% rebound effect since, as noted, vehicle miles traveled has been dropping for a while now, which Brookings thinks is actually a new long-term trend, and because peak oil is very soon going to be driving oil prices back up, as McKinsey recently explained.

Indeed, in Owen’s one brief nod to reality, he acknowledges that our entire global economy is a Ponzi scheme, using language remarkably similar to mine:

… we are borrowing against the world’s dwindling store of inexpensive energy in the same way that we borrowed against the illusory equity in our homes.

But Owen quickly abandons such rationality and returns to standard right-wing anti-renewable talking points:

Moreover, American dependence on fossil fuels isn’t going to end any time soon: solar panels and wind turbines provided only about a half per cent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2007, and they don’t work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

And yet somehow both solar and wind are the fastest growing forms of energy in the world, providing more U.S. jobs last year than coal mining. And, of course, like many journalists, he seems completely unaware of the various forms of renewable energy that don’t have to stop working when the sun isn’t shining, including, of course, Concentrated solar thermal power Solar Baseload — a core climate solution.

Finally, Owens asserts:

The prospects for a meaningful worldwide climate agreement probably improved last November, with the election of Barack Obama, but his commitments to economic recovery and carbon reduction — to bringing the country out of recession while also reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions to seventeen per cent of their 2005 level by 2050 — don’t pull in the same direction.

Again, I just don’t know how a responsible journalist can quote Obama’s dual commitments to economic recovery and carbon reduction, assert they “don’t pull in the same direction,” but never bother even quoting a single one of Obama’s arguments as to why he doesn’t believe Owen’s nonsense (see, for instance, Obama: “We can remain the world’s leading importer of foreign oil or … become the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy. We can allow climate change to wreak unnatural havoc or we can create jobs preventing its worst effects” and links therein).

Creating “green jobs,” a key component of the agenda, is different from creating new jobs, since green jobs, if they’re truly green, displace non-green jobs — wind-turbine mechanics instead of oil-rig roughnecks — probably a zero-sum game, as far as employment is concerned.

Again, hardly a zero sum game if, as Obama proposes, you are replacing hundreds of billions of dollars of oil imports a year, or becoming the world’s leading exporter of clean energy, or, for that matter, replacing Owen’s “dwindling store of inexpensive energy” — which means that current non-green jobs are simply not sustainable.

The ultimate success or failure of Obama’s program, and of the measures that will be introduced in Copenhagen this year, will depend on our willingness, once the global economy is no longer teetering, to accept policies that will seem to be nudging us back toward the abyss.


And doubly sad to see it in The New Yorker.

Owen may have been the kind of journalist Kolbert had in mind when she talked to Yale Environment 360 “about the responsibility of both the media and scientists to better inform the public about the realities of a warming world.” I’m gonna end by repeating Kolbert’s admonition to her readers:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

Please let The New Yorker and David Owen know that you don’t think they should be contributing to humanity’s self-destruction.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.