A Better Climate
Investigative journalist Ross Gelbspan '60 takes up the fight against global warming
When writer Ross Gelbspan '60 began researching global warming a dozen years ago, a surprising link turned up. He found that scientists disputing the connection between global warming and industrial activity were secretly being paid by the coal industry, the very corporate interests with the most to lose from policies curbing the emission of greenhouse gases.
Gelbspan became so immersed in the issue that following the 1997 publication of his book, The Heat Is On, he crossed the line between journalism and advocacy. He wanted to do more than explain the problem; he wanted to find and promote solutions.
"It really cost me sleepless nights," says Gelbspan, who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife, Anne. "But I kept seeing the indifference and lack of response and decided to see what I could contribute through writing and my communications skills."
He convened a group of economists and energy experts, who came up with the World Energy Modernization Plan. They proposed redirecting $25 billion in United States subsidies from fossil fuels to alternative energy, to jump-start research in wind, solar, and water power.
With developing nations moving to expand their economies, the plan would also create a $300 billion "clean energy transition fund" for the Third World by instituting a tax on international currency transactions. These actions would help slash fossil-fuel emissions by 70 percent.
Since then, Gelbspan has traveled the world, promoting the plan at international conferences and seeking to win over energy executives and government leaders. The plan was incorporated in his 2004 book, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis--and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster. While the book attracted praise from such luminaries as former Vice President Al Gore, and environmentalists lauded the proposal, Gelbspan is still hoping that policy-makers decide to act before it's too late.
"It's a model of how to make it happen, and make it happen in a way that increases the wealth of developing nations," he says.
Gelbspan pushes his ideas relentlessly. He makes about forty speeches a year, before audiences large and small. "As Ross gets older, he reminds me of one of those Biblical characters who scream and yell and forecast things," says Christopher Speeth '60, one of his Kenyon roommates. "The scary thing is that I think he's right."
While Gelbspan rails about the dangers of climate change on the lecture circuit and in his books, he connects with his roots as a newspaper reporter on his Web site, www.heatisonline.org. Each day, he peruses periodicals from around the world and posts links to articles, from ExxonMobil's position on global warming to news of Europe's heat wave this past summer. The Web site recently featured an interview with Gelbspan on Australian television, his latest op-ed column, and an unsettling essay by a scientist postulating that climate change has reached the point of no return.
Gelbspan started his journalism career in high school, when the Chicago Daily News published some of his work. He came to Kenyon intent on becoming a writer. In Gambier, he wrote for the Collegian while majoring in political science--he fondly remembers the rich intellectual climate of seminars led by Richard Longaker.
A summer job at the Philadelphia Bulletin after graduation developed into a full-time position. By 1971, he was working overseas for the Village Voice, spending a month interviewing Soviet dissidents in an assignment that led to his detention by the KGB. From there, he went to the Washington Post and the Scripps Howard news service before becoming special projects editor at the Boston Globe in 1979.
In a city where racial tensions had raged over court-ordered busing, he devised an investigation of job discrimination in the workplace. His reporting team found widespread bias, and the project won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984.
Although he enjoyed the challenge of editing, Gelbspan yearned to dig up his own stories again. By the late 1980s, during the Iran-Contra scandal, he exposed the FBI's campaign of surveillance and harassment of thousands of activists opposed to US policy in Central America.
Gelbspan has tried his hand at fiction--in 1992, he left the Globe and wrote two political thrillers, as yet unpublished. But he found himself drawn back to journalism, where he developed his fascination with the issue of climate change.
This fall, as he tends his Web site and gives speeches on global warming, he's contemplating a new writing project. "I'm brewing about what comes next," he says. "I'm sixty-seven, and I still have one creative thing to do."
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