Ross Gelbspan, Who Exposed Roots of Climate Change Deniers, Dies at 84

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Ross Gelbspan, an investigative journalist whose reporting on climate change exposed a campaign of disinformation by oil and gas lobbyists to sow doubt about global warming — a denialism that was embraced by Republican officials and, in some cases, by a credulous news media — died on Jan. 27 at his home in Boston. He was 84.

The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his wife, Anne Gelbspan, said.

Mr. Gelbspan’s career included reporting on dissidents in the Soviet Union and on F.B.I. harassment of domestic critics, and his interest in the climate crisis, like those other subjects, came from a sense of outrage that powerful interests were suppressing information needed for democracy.

“I didn’t get into the climate issue because I love the trees — I tolerate the trees,” he said on YouTube last year. “I got into the issue because I learned the coal industry was paying a handful of scientists under the table to say nothing was happening to the climate.”

In a 1995 cover story for Harper’s Magazine headlined “The Heat Is On,” which he expanded into a 1997 book with the same title, Mr. Gelbspan shined a light on a group of scientists that coal and oil groups had paid to tell lawmakers and journalists that global warming wasn’t a serious threat. He dug up a 1991 memo from the fossil fuel lobby calling for a strategy to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.” At a news conference, President Bill Clinton held up the book and said he was reading it.

In “The Heat Is On” (1997), Mr. Gelbspan cited a group of scientists that coal and oil groups had paid to tell lawmakers and journalists that global warming wasn’t a serious threat.Credit…Basic Books

“In ‘The Heat Is On,’ Ross was the first to do a serious debunking of the campaign by the oil and coal companies to promote and finance a pseudoscientific narrative of denial,” Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the magazine The American Prospect, to which Mr. Gelbspan contributed, said in an email. “He combined a deep concern about our common future with the passion and skill of a dogged investigative reporter.”

Mr. Gelbspan wrote in Harper’s that one of the prominent climate skeptics, Richard S. Lindzen of M.I.T., speaking on behalf of a coal lobbying group, testified in 1994 at a government hearing that a doubling of carbon emissions over the next century would cause temperatures to rise no more than a negligible 0.3 degrees Celsius. Since that testimony, the planet has already warmed 0.86 degrees Celsius, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In a second book, “Boiling Point” (2004), Mr. Gelbspan was tough on his own profession, accusing reporters of laziness in falling for the “manufactured denial” of the fossil fuel industry.

Many journalists, he said, were undermined by their ethic of even-handedness, which added false balance to stories that reflexively included climate skeptics.

“For many years, the press accorded the same weight to the ‘skeptics’ as it did to mainstream scientists,” he wrote. “The issue of balance is not relevant when the focus of a story is factual. In this case, what is known about the climate comes from the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.”

In “Boiling Point” (2004), Mr. Gelbspan was tough on reporters, accusing them of laziness in falling for the “manufactured denial” of the fossil fuel industry.Credit…Basic Books

Reviewing “Boiling Point” in The New York Times, Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee, wrote, “Part of what makes this book important is its indictment of the American news media’s coverage of global warming for the past two decades.”

But Mr. Gelbspan’s chief targets remained companies like Exxon Mobil, which funded the denial of climate science, and industry-supporting officials, mainly Republicans, such as President George W. Bush, who ran for the White House promising to cap carbon emissions from power plants, then reneged under industry pressure months into his tenure. That same month, his administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by industrial countries to reduce warming emissions.

(Last year, The Wall Street Journal disclosed that newly uncovered documents showed that Exxon sought to muddle scientific findings that could hurt its business even after the company publicly said it would stop funding think tanks and scientists who minimized threats to the climate.)

“It is an excruciating experience,” Mr. Gelbspan wrote, “to watch the planet fall apart piece by piece in the face of persistent and pathological denial.”

Mr. Gelbspan, a newspaper reporter and editor for 31 years before he left daily journalism to focus on books, worked for The Philadelphia Bulletin, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and The Boston Globe.

In 1971, he spent three weeks in the Soviet Union for a four-part series that ran in The Voice. “It was a very sobering trip,” he later recalled, describing interviewing political dissidents in bugged apartments, memorizing his notes before destroying them so they wouldn’t be confiscated and being interrogated for six hours by the K.G.B. before he was allowed to leave Moscow. The experience was an awakening “to the brutal realities of life in a totalitarian state,” he said.

Mr. Gelbspan joined The Globe in 1979. As special projects editor, he oversaw a series on job discrimination against African Americans in the Boston area, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for local investigative specialized reporting. Although Pulitzers are given to reporters and to newspapers, The Globe named Mr. Gelbspan a “co-recipient” of the prize for conceiving and editing the series.

In 1991 he published another book, “Break-ins, Death Threats and the F.B.I.,” an investigation of what he called secret federal harassment of critics of the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America.

Ross Gelbspan was born on June 1, 1939, in Chicago to Eugene Gelbspan, who ran a kitchen supply company, and Ruth (Ross) Gelbspan. He received a B.A. in political philosophy from Kenyon College in Ohio in 1960.

While covering the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 in Stockholm, he met Anne Charlotte Broström, a native of Sweden. They married the next year. She spent 25 years as a nonprofit developer of low-cost housing for homeless families in Massachusetts.

Besides his wife, he is survived by their daughters, Thea and Johanna Gelbspan, and a sister, Jill Gelbspan.

Early in his coverage of global warming, Mr. Gelbspan read the work of some climate skeptics and, for a time, became convinced that there was no crisis. Then he met with James J. McCarthy, a Harvard professor of oceanography and a leading climate expert who was co-chairman of the U.N.’s panel on climate change. He convinced Mr. Gelbspan that the skeptics were wrong.

“When I asked McCarthy about whether climate change posed a truly serious threat,” Mr. Gelbspan recalled on YouTube last year, “he said as slowly and clearly as possible: ‘If this unstable climate we are now beginning to see began 100 years ago, the planet would never be able to support its current population.’”

Reflecting on his reporting on the environment, Mr. Gelbspan added that he had felt “both a young man’s sense of wonder and an old man’s despair.”

“I was a reporter,” he continued, “and in the face of my sadness over our collective human failure, my only response has been to look reality in the eye and write it down.”

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