Saturday, February 2, 2008

Bill Clinton, Climate and the ‘Instanet’

By Andrew C. Revkin

February 1, 2008

Much of the power of the Web lies in speed and reach. But those same properties are the source of its greatest failing as well: the tendency to spread faulty assertions instantly and widely. Maybe it’s time for a “slow blog” movement, just as there’s now a slow food movement — and even a slow life movement, as described in The Times this week.

I’ve written about a couple of recent examples of this kind of fast-motion flow of misinformation (and often disinformation), including the release of a startling paper debunking global warming that was entirely fake and designed to fool right-wing bloggers and radio hosts.

Another incident of this sort flared yesterday, involving former President Bill Clinton. It started when the Drudge Report posted a link to an item on the Political Punch blog by the ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper quoting Mr. Clinton proposing that “we have to slow down our economy” to save the planet from global warming. (For a longer sit-down interview I had with Mr. Clinton on energy and climate, click on the video to the left).

The provocative line in the ABC blog post was this: “In a long, and interesting speech, he characterized what the U.S. and other industrialized nations need to do to combat global warming this way: ‘We just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions ’cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.’ ”

The post included a video snippet of that line, as well.

Further down in the post, Mr. Tapper included the full text and a link to the entire speech. The context makes it clear that Mr. Clinton was not recommending a slowdown to limit warming, and instead was saying that an economic slowdown and emissions cuts in the United States and other industrialized countries would have no effect because emerging economic powerhouses like China would not follow suit. But the blogosphere, for the most part, doesn’t seem to have time for full transcripts — only the portion that suits some preexisting stance.

For the record, here’s the full statement:

“And maybe America, and Europe, and Japan, and Canada — the rich countries — would say, ‘O.K., we just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions ’cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.’ We could do that. But if we did that, you know as well as I do, China and India and Indonesia and Vietnam and Mexico and Brazil and the Ukraine, and all the other countries will never agree to stay poor to save the planet for our grandchildren. The only way we can do this is if we get back in the world’s fight against global warming and prove it is good economics that we will create more jobs to build a sustainable economy that saves the planet for our children and grandchildren. It is the only way it will work.”

After the Drudge link, there was a near-instant barrage of attacks on Mr. Clinton (and in some cases his candidate spouse) from the libertarian Cato Institute, the Republican National Committee and other groups.

Almost as quickly, some longtime critics of the Clintons and global warming science noticed that Mr. Tapper’s post included the full text of the climate portion of Mr. Clinton’s speech, which clearly showed the offending line had been taken out of context. Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, writing on the National Review’s blog The Corner, said: “…That video is actually (and again, I can’t believe I’m saying this) really unfair to Bill Clinton.”

But, of course, the echo chamber was already reverberating. You may have noticed several Dot Earth visitors who reject the idea that humans are warming the planet posted links to the initial barrage of criticisms of Mr. Clinton.

Other Web sites, including the Carpetbagger Report and Media Matters, have fully de-constructed the incident (and sharply criticized Mr. Tapper).

For his part, Mr. Tapper posted a series of updates through Thursday clarifying his intent, saying he found Mr. Clinton’s speech confusing and was posing questions more than offering criticisms. And his main point, he told me over the phone late last night, was to examine whether Mr. Clinton was portraying efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions as something that would blunt the economy. This is a point that other proponents of gas curbs have sometimes downplayed.

“I didn’t think I was accusing him of anything other than candor,” Mr. Tapper said.

Does anyone out there want to start a “slow blog” movement?

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