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MYERS: A drought of common sense

A few months ago a drought article I wrote was illustrated with a photo at Lake Tahoe. It was of a boat tied up at the edge of the lake. By the time I snapped the photo the boat was sitting on dry rocks, the water having receded many yards below the boat.

I was reminded of that a couple of days ago when a friend gave me a copy of Time magazine issued almost three decades ago. The cover date is July 4, 1988 (which means it was issued on June 28 – journalism ethics does not necessarily include posting an accurate release date on magazine covers).

The cover story was “The Big Dry” – an analysis of the LAST western drought, which went from the mid-1980s to the early ‘90s. It contained a photo of a Lake Tahoe boathouse with a dock leading to it, both on supports several yards above the drought-reduced water level.

That same issue of Time contained an article headlined “Is the Earth Warming Up?” It was a report on NASA scientist James Hansen’s pioneering warning to Congress that the “probability of a chance warming of that magnitude [being observed by science] is about one percent. … Altogether the evidence that the earth is warming by an amount which is too large to be a chance fluctuation and the similarity of the warming to that expected from the greenhouse effect represents a very strong case.”

Time handled the story beautifully. It didn’t leap beyond known information. It said the current drought might not necessarily be related.

For reactions, it contacted not television weathercasters or urologists who styled themselves scientists but real climate scientists. (At least one of those who urged caution has since become convinced of the reality of human-caused climate change.) At the time, there was no climate change denial industry to cloud the issues, no fossil fuel billionaires funding denialist organizations, so the magazine was able to deal with the issue clean.

It’s no longer that way. Though it seems too cynical to be believed, there is more evidence all the time that big money is trying to keep human deterioration of the planet going in order to keep the money coming in.

A few days ago a bankruptcy filing by Arch Coal of Missouri, one of the largest producers in the country, revealed it has been secretly subsidizing the denialist Energy &Environment Legal Institute. It’s the second coal company shown recently to be funding denialism.

Meanwhile, two members of Congress have called on the Justice Department to probe whether ExxonMobil has been withholding information on the risks of its products to the environment for 40-plus years, akin to the tobacco companies concealing the science on its products. The Justice Department referred the investigation to the FBI.

The potency of denialist money is shown on the presidential campaign trail. The London Guardian reports that $107 million has been invested by fossil fuel barons in GOP presidential campaigns in the last year.

“About one in three dollars donated to Republican hopefuls from mega-rich individuals came from people who owe their fortunes to fossil fuels – and who stand to lose the most in the fight against climate change,” the newspaper reported. Ted Cruz, a fierce denialists, has been a particular beneficiary – through his “super” political action committee, naturally.

It should be noted here that there is no scientific debate going on about climate change outside well-funded special interest groups. Scientists go on with their work and smart businesses and agencies continue coping with it.

The Pentagon, for instance, considers climate change a “threat multiplier” and has directed commanders to incorporate the problem into planning. For instance, seacoast military bases are planning for the rise of water levels.

Nevertheless, the denial industry has given cover to a lot of mischief. Even Nevada’s utility regulators and the legislators who directed them to reassess net metering fall into this category.

As CNN columnist John Sutter wrote, “World leaders finally get it. That’s why nearly 200 of them signed the Paris Agreement at the UN COP21 climate conference in December. It commits all of us to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner sources of energy like solar and wind.

But apparently that collective will to wage a war on climate change hasn’t trickled down to Nevada. Instead, the local utility and officials are injecting uncertainty and doubt into the solar market at exactly the moment when the opposite is needed.”

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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