9/11, Climate Change, and Why Facts Matter

Via Peter Sinclair of Climate Crock fame, posted to Climate Denial Crock of the Week Today. Reproduced with permission. Peter retains copyright.

This is a post I did not expect to write. I saw no reason to, until I read this morning’s piece by Kurt Eichenwald in the NYTimes.

Why is a post about the 9/11 attack relevant to the story of climate change? Because its the clearest, most hideous, and most instructive example of how groupthink among a cadre of key policy makers is much more serious than merely a political game of  point/counterpoint.

In the months leading up to the 9/11 attack, according to new documents that have come to light in recent years, as well as long-documented and agreed upon historical fact, cold warriors in the Bush administration chose to ignore a powerful body of ominous warnings about terrorist activity in the United States, because it conflicted with their preconceptions about what reality was and how the world works.

An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat.

this, in spite of vehement protests by the very intelligence professionals most closely in touch with the facts.

 Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.

Officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the C.I.A. grew apoplectic. On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place, two people who were there told me in interviews. The suggestion was batted down, they said, because there would be no time to train anyone else.

That same day in Chechnya, according to intelligence I reviewed, Ibn Al-Khattab, an extremist who was known for his brutality and his links to Al Qaeda, told his followers that there would soon be very big news. Within 48 hours, an intelligence official told me, that information was conveyed to the White House, providing more data supporting the C.I.A.’s warnings. Still, the alarm bells didn’t sound.

We already knew, as of 2006,  about CIA director George Tenet’s desperate attempt to get Condoleeza Rice’s attention in July of 2001.

On July 10, 2001, two months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet met with his counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, at CIA headquarters to review the latest on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist organization. Black laid out the case, consisting of communications intercepts and other top-secret intelligence showing the increasing likelihood that al-Qaeda would soon attack the United States. It was a mass of fragments and dots that nonetheless made a compelling case, so compelling to Tenet that he decided he and Black should go to the White House immediately.

Tenet called Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, from the car and said he needed to see her right away. There was no practical way she could refuse such a request from the CIA director.

For months, Tenet had been pressing Rice to set a clear counterterrorism policy, including specific presidential orders called “findings” that would give the CIA stronger authority to conduct covert action against bin Laden. Perhaps a dramatic appearance — Black called it an “out of cycle” session, beyond Tenet’s regular weekly meeting with Rice — would get her attention.

Tenet had been losing sleep over the recent intelligence he’d seen. There was no conclusive, smoking-gun intelligence, but there was such a huge volume of data that an intelligence officer’s instinct strongly suggested that something was coming. He and Black hoped to convey the depth of their anxiety and get Rice to kick-start the government into immediate action.

The rest is history. In the face of alarm bells and warning lights blinking, Mr Bush decided to take a month off.


Two years later, almost  80 percent of the American people had been convinced, completely at odds with the evidence, that Saddam Hussien was responsible for the attack, and that he had to be taken down, in light, again, of shaky circumstantial evidence of shadowy weapons of mass destruction. Terrorists had again been demoted to bit roles, as tools in the hands of malefic nation states just coincidentally ruling over one of the greatest pools of hydrocarbons on the planet.

I’m not aware that anyone, in any major media outlet, has ever been questioned, disciplined, or God knows, fired, for the gross negligence, incompetence or venality  that allowed this story to be spun out of control – a body of misinformation and invective untethered to reality became the driving rationale of the world’s oldest democracy and most powerful nation. I’m not aware that anyone in the media, or in those leadership positions, has expressed regret, or apologized,  given evidence of any learning process – or even lost a moment’s sleep, about the greatest foreign policy disaster in American History.

In the Fox News/talk radio alternative universe, painstakingly created over 20 years, climate science is – at best, merely the opinion of a small number of scientists, overactive in their zealotry and activism – at worst, a hoax and a plot to distort and cripple the world economy in service of a utopian collectivist worldview.
Just coincidentally again, the story line plays to the best interests of a small and powerful group of super wealthy individuals and corporations.

It is a tragic bookend to the 9/11 story is that, in the early days of the Bush administration, after a campaign where candidate Bush expressed concern about climate change, and the need to begin to deal with it – the new president asked the National Academy of Science, once again,  to re-examine the issues of climate change, including

• Are greenhouse gases causing climate change?
• Is climate change occurring? If so, how?
• Is human activity the cause of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change?

The report was released in June of 2001, concurrent with the cascade of blinking warnings on terror. According to the New York Times

“Greenhouse gases are accumulating in earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise,” the report said. “Temperatures are, in fact, rising.”

The report was requested by the White House last month in anticipation of an international meeting on global warming in Bonn in July but arrived just before President Bush leaves next week for Europe, a trip that includes talks on global warming with leaders of the 15 European Union countries in Goteborg, Sweden.

European leaders expressed outrage in March when Mr. Bush rejected the global warming pact known as the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, and the subject has been building as an important test of the administration’s foreign policy.

In the White House’s first official acknowledgment of the academy’s conclusions, Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, told reporters today, “This is a president who takes extremely seriously what we do know about climate change, which is essentially that there is warming taking place.”

Although the report, once again, sounded the gravest warning from the nation’s most prestigious body of experts, once again, those experts were ignored. They were unwelcome, inconvenient, for powerful groups whose voices carried much greater weight in the new administration.

More than a decade later, the mechanisms of power in Washington remain paralyzed with inaction on the issue, and the media shows only an occasional and fleeting sign of waking out of a torpor in the face of a grave and gathering threat. ABC news Bill Blakemore writes about the disconnect in a piece just published

A number of the world’s professional climate scientists are perplexed by — and in some cases furious with — American news directors.

“Malpractice!” is typical of the charges this reporter has heard highly respected climate experts level — privately, off the record — at my professional colleagues over the past few years.

Complaints include what seems to the scientists a willful omission of overwhelming evidence the new droughts and floods are worsened by man made global warming, and unquestioning repetition, gullible at best, of transparent anti-science propaganda credibly reported to be funded by fossil fuel interests and anti-regulation allies.

As scientific reports about the speedy advance and devastating impacts of man made global warming have grown steadily more alarming, surveys have shown most mainstream American news organizations covering it less and less over the past two years.

Even during this hot summer, when inescapable bad news about the warming climate from around the United States and the world has forced its way into main stream media coverage, it has usually been reported only in a reactive and literal event-coverage sort of way.

There’s been little of the persistent probing analysis and regular coverage scientists say is urgently needed for a grave planet-wide crisis — reporting of the kind surveys show there was much more of in mainstream coverage up until two years ago.

Why this decline in persistent coverage?

In response to another danger, in another era, Winston Churchill famously expressed the agony of watching the tragedy of denial in the face of oncoming darkness.

“They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent”  Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences.  We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now”

I began this series and this blog because I could not wait for a blinkered and hobbled professional class of journalists to come to their senses and begin reporting the facts as they are, in language that common people can understand. I could no longer tolerate the polite indulgence given not just to ignorance, but to a class of paid disinformation specialists, operating to further the interests of a few, against the very life support system of the planet.

Ironically, in today’s edition of the Times, concurrent with Eichenwald’s piece, another story is running, detailing the slow and inadequate response to rising sea levels in the New York City and East Coastal areas.

But even as city officials earn high marks for environmental awareness, critics say New York is moving too slowly to address the potential for flooding that could paralyze transportation, cripple the low-lying financial district and temporarily drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Only a year ago, they point out, the city shut down the subway system and ordered the evacuation of 370,000 people as Hurricane Irene barreled up the Atlantic coast. Ultimately, the hurricane weakened to a tropical storm and spared the city, but it exposed how New York is years away from — and billions of dollars short of — armoring itself.

“They lack a sense of urgency about this,” said Douglas Hill, an engineer with the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University, on Long Island.

If we’ve learned nothing else from the 911 attacks, maybe its that we never learn anything. But facts do matter. Every opinion is not equally valid. It is not ok to tolerate disagreements that are not in good faith. The consequences are more than intellectual – they go beyond merely scoring talking points or one-upmanship at the water cooler – it is important that we understand where we are and what we are doing.

“You have your opinion and I have mine” does not cut it. Reality matters. In 2001 we may have been near the edge of an abyss. In 2012, we may already be stepping on to empty air.

It is well past time for politicians, citizens, and the professional media class to wake up and begin telling the truth.


  1. This is a fantastic and insightful post and has so many ramifications far beyond the scope of 9/11 or climate change. certainly climate change is the biggest issue facing the world today, but, as now trite as it seems to say it, the truth of what we are facing is "inconvenient" for many. Unfortunately, if we've actually leaned anything about the 9/11 events it's that we often won't wake up to reality until it hits us hard, and sometimes even then we don't actually wake up, buttery to interpret those hard hits from reality using old and false paradigms.

    Here's the truth that reality seems to trying tell us-- our models for climate are wrong-- very wrong. Just a little over 5 years ago they were saying we wouldn't see an ice free Arctic until 2100. Then 2007 happened and the date was moved to 2070, then to 2040 and 2030, and now it more likely than not that we'll see an ice free summer Arctic before 2020. The effects of this will be planetary in scope and some which we are already seeing. The world is going to change very greatly and very soon and it will be no less inconvenient for everyone on earth than 9/11 was for the people of the U.S. Are you psychologically ready for it and will you recognize it for what it is when it hits?

  2. The most important issue, amounting to an existential threat, of this century is certainly climate change.

    We are facing a final exam in this curriculum, over the next few decades. I hope we can try to get caught up with the work!

  3. Peter Sinclair:

    Kudos on a well written and thought-provoking article.
    You certainly have challenged me to ratchet-up my efforts on the climate change front.

    Anyone who accepts what mainstream scientists are telling us about climate change has, in my opinion, a moral obligation to his/herself and to future generations to loudly and clearly sound the alarm bells.

    We must sound those bells until the overwhelming majority of the world’s population demand and get their institutions – governmental and non-governmental alike- to take meaningful actions to both mitigate against and adapt to the consequences of manmade climate change.

  4. Tragic that we can reference Winston Churchill on "the agony of watching the tragedy of denial in the face of oncoming darkness." It bears repeating:

    They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now

  5. Look at the latest stupidity committed by the Harper Conservatives:

    "OTTAWA- Atmospheric scientists from around the world are asking Environment Canada to back down from a plan that they believe would compromise ozone and radiation monitoring by putting it into the hands of an Information Technology computer expert..."


  6. Pingback: 2012 SkS Weekly News Round-Up #1

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