PBS Frontline: 'Heat'

Martin Smith
PBS Frontline Producer Martin Smith

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Martin Smith
Frontline Correspondent
Wednesday, October 22, 2008; 11:00 AM

PBS Frontline correspondent Martin Smith was online Wednesday, Oct. 22 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film "Heat," which examines how big businesses -- including oil and coal companies, electric utilities and car manufacturers -- have fended off new regulation and stifled discussion of climate change, and how others are repositioning themselves to prosper in a radically changed world.

"Heat" will air Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Smith has won every major award in television including two duPont Columbia Gold Batons and four Emmys. He most recently produced "The Storm," an Emmy Award-winning look at Hurricane Katrina and the state of America's emergency response system, and "Return of the Taliban," in which he reported from the forbidden tribal areas of western Pakistan.

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Burlington, Vt.: How can you do a two-hour show on the causes of global warming and the U.S. contribution to it without evening mentioning the contributions of our agricultural-industrial complex? It has a huge impact, especially the meat industry.

Martin Smith: Unfortunately, there are limits to what you can say in two hours. We left out a number of things that I wish we had included. You are correct, of course, that the agro-industrial complex is a major piece of the problem -- I have no argument with that. But we did have to make some hard decisions about what to include and what to excise.

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Saul Lichtenstein: Can you tell me what you see the Europeans doing to combat climate change that we can be doing now?

Martin Smith: The Europeans are having a serious debate about the issue and have introduced targets and given industry subsidies to help them meet those targets. But that's not to say that they don't face problems -- not everything they've done has been successful, and they haven't met their own goals. To answer your question, the best thing that could happen in the United States is for Congress to pass some kind of legislation that would put a price on carbon.

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Selinsgrove, Pa.: As a model for the evolution of the energy industry I think that comparisons could be made to the telephone breakup. Initially the big companies resisted competition on "their" lines. Then other companies were allowed in. What really changed it, though, was the evolution of technology. The introduction of cell phones took competition completely outside the established infrastructure. Finally Web phones like Vonage again changed everything by adding the same service through a different vehicle. This broke the monopoly of the phone industry giants and gave consumers equal or better services at far lower prices. I believe this is what needs to and will happen in the energy industry. Do you agree?

Martin Smith: This may help overall, but the core of the problem is that we've allowed people to put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for free. Once a cost is attached to that, both big and small businesses will have incentives to clean up their footprints.

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Elmhurst, Ill.: Did not see all the show last night so I am not sure if global dimming was mentioned. I noticed several comments on the PBS Frontline about being one-sided, or that warming is not the real issue. Global dimming, if true, makes the argument "global warming" even more pressing than I care to think about. This could have irreversible affects.

Martin Smith: We take the position that the overwhelming majority of the world's scientists take, which is that the science is now settled and that the story has shifted from a scientific debate to a business debate. For a discussion of the science of global warming, we refer you to an earlier Frontline, "What's Up With The Weather."

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Arlington, Va.: Your movie makes many of the energy companies look like hypocrites. While they're denying and stifling debate about global warming, they're spending millions on advertising about how they're combating global warming. Did anyone in your film try to call them on this?

Martin Smith: Dan Kammen, a professor at University of California-Berkeley and a renewable energy specialist, makes this point in the film.

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Atlanta: Why did you not cover biodiesel from algae? Some report that this is the biofuel process with the most promise, as it could coexist with coal-fired power plants to get rid of CO2.

Martin Smith: This is an area that is worth more coverage. Our focus was on the failure of the corn-based ethanol program to deliver on its promises. But you are correct that biofuel derived from either waste or algae shows some promise. There are pollution concerns with algae that need to be resolved -- it seems that there is no one perfect solution. And we weren't able to address everything in this film.

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Des Moines, Iowa: If higher fuel efficiency standards are a good idea because they theoretically would put more "green" vehicles on our roads, wouldn't creating similar requirements for new building construction and even all manufacturing also be a good idea?

Martin Smith: Absolutely. New York City is developing standards on this, and in California this has been a big part of their efforts to cut greenhouse gases.

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Wilton, Maine: Mr. Smith, very much enjoyed your informative insight and effort on this presentation. The American public needs to understand that the reason the French Power Plants have not had any problems is the fact they are gas-cooled, not water-cooled. We, along with England, made the mistake of taking the submarine and putting it on land. It is too bad John McCain does not do his homework.

Also, nuclear submarines pump in cool ocean water to cool the reactor and discharge boiling hot water into the ocean every minute. Could that be a contributing reason for the rice in ocean temperatures? There are hundred of nuclear submarines all around the world 24 hours a day in all the major oceans of the world, and going under the ice caps. ... Please keep up the good work, and in the spirit of Edward R. Morrow, good night and good luck.

Martin Smith: I appreciate the words from Murrow. I've not seen any research on the contribution of nuclear submarines to ocean temperatures. It is important to remain open-minded about nuclear energy's potential, especially given the alternatives.

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Potomac, Md.: Thirty years ago, global warming was thought to be a possibility 250 to 400 years in the future. NASA scientists now say the tipping point is now, not hundreds of years from now. What do you think will be the first signs that no one can ignore?

Martin Smith: For many scientists the signs are already apparent -- what we saw in the Himalayas, what's happening in the Arctic, the increased strength of storms -- and millions more people every year are coming to grips with this. But it's hard for them to pay attention to melting ice caps when their 401(k)s are melting at an even more rapid rate.

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Clifton, Va.: What a biased report. Please -- if all the vehicles on our roads in the U.S. today magically became hybrids, it would have no effect on global warming. Sorry hoss, the Earth has been warmer in the past 10,000 and 15,000 years. Yeah, humans have had some effect, but let's stop the "sky is falling" mentality.

Martin Smith: We're not scientists, but I doubt your comment would past muster with most climate experts. The debate on the science, by and large, is settled. As for vehicles, there's some truth to what you're saying -- it would slow the rate of growth in emissions, but not solve the problem altogether.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Who is going to help get effective legislation passed that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, T. Boone Pickens or Al Gore?

Martin Smith: It's important to keep some issues straight here -- energy independence is one thing, addressing climate change is another. While there is some overlap, there are some key differences. Achieving energy independence does not mean that we would decrease emissions, especially if it meant increasing our dependence on coal.

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Norman, Okla.: I saw your "Heat" program last night and I would like to do as much as I can as an individual to reduce global warming. I opted to use the wind power option through my local utility (Oklahoma Gas and Electric) for my electric service. My family already owns two older-but-efficient small cars. I would like to figure out what else an individual can do.

I am wondering if writing my views to my senators and representatives would help the most (Sen. Inhofe is one of them). It sounds pessimistic, but from what I see of Congress and their reliance on lobbyists and big money from corporations, it looks like an individual stating their views would not be very effective. Is there anything else that you could suggest an individual who would like to do more to reduce global warming start to work on first? I'm ready to get started...

Martin Smith: Former Vice President Al Gore believes that the key to this whole thing is people power -- that the more informed people are, the more likely they are to make the right choices. At www.frontline.org/heat you'll find other resources.

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Houston: Thank you for your show "Heat" -- I am sure it will have a big impact on the way people invest in companies. You have pointed out a lot of problems, but what were some of the possible solutions that you came across during filming?

Martin Smith: What the film pointed out was the important role that our public officials have to play in rewriting the rule book for business, and the public's role in electing officials whose values they share, and making those views known. We don't think that Washington has all the answers -- but conversely, if Washington isn't in the game, it's game over.

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Washington: I seem to encounter this abstinence over and over among our leaders: Right after you show a scientist detailing that in many if not most parts of the U.S. carbon capture is not workable, a utility company CEO will say how they are moving forward with greening blah blah with carbon capture. This is so frustrating!

Martin Smith: We're in an election year. Clean coal has become a useful slogan. Unfortunately it doesn't go much deeper than that. We hope that clean coal can work, but we wanted to point out that there's a very long way to go. The U.S. government supported a test project on carbon capture and storage, but they killed it. As author Eric Pooley points out, it's like putting a lone horse in the starting gate and then shooting it.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Do you know about the enormous pockets of methane that are beginning to escape from beneath the arctic ocean floor as the permafrost melts, and that methane has 20 times the atmospheric heat retention inducing qualities of CO2?

Martin Smith: Yes -- that's a major concern for climate scientists.

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Chicago: Your program was sobering and somewhat depressing ... the magnitude of the challenge is enormous. Given the current state of our economy and the long list of challenges facing our new president, how likely is it that our government will establish a cap-and-trade or other carbon scheme in the foreseeable future?

Martin Smith: I think we have as good a chance now as there ever has been. Both candidates have pledged that they want to do this, the public seems to be behind it, and Democrats who control Congress seem determined ... but we are at a crossroads.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Mr Martin -- Excellent program. I was struck by one statement, made by the female professor (name escapes me). She crystallized perfectly what I believe to be the essence of our failed energy policy -- and frankly, several other failed policies, to wit: Everyone looks out for their own short-term, special interests absent any true national vision -- the West Virginia coal industry, the Michigan auto industry, the Midwest corn industry. In your opinion, how much does that paradigm prevent the United States from developing a coherent, effective energy policy?

Martin Smith: That was Amy Myers Jaffe at the Baker Institute. Narrow self-interest is etched into the DNA of our political system.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Mr. Smith: In the early '90s we owned two Honda's, a CRX and a Civic. Both had small motors -- 65-85 horsepower -- and on the highway the actual calculated fuel economy was 60 and 55 miles per gallon, and they were affordable cars. Now the so-called hybrids get that same mileage, and they are expensive. Until hybrid technology improves, why can't auto manufacturers go back to this previous fuel efficiency?

Martin Smith: They could and they do in Europe and Japan -- but it's more of a consumer issue. As Maryann Keller points out in the film, in America people like to live large. As one senior American official put it, the American way of life is not up for negotiation. This is sadly a problem.

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Toronto: I consider the destabilization of our planets climate to be an global environmental crime against not just humanity but all living things. We are seeing the results of massive financial accounting fraud in the credit crisis. Scientific accounting fraud is being used to sabotage legislation to deal with global climate destabilization. Should politicians and the CEO be held criminally liable for global ecological crimes against our planet?

Martin Smith: Companies are concerned about liability issues, and you don't have to look further than the tobacco lawsuits to understand why. There's a village on a peninsula in Alaska that is suing major energy companies for changing their environment and forcing them to relocate entirely. If climate change continues on its current path, there likely will be more suits like this.

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Mike Johnston: Do you think that efforts by T. Boone Pickens and others will have a direct impact on the climate change issue? Pickens for example advocates a switch to natural gas, which is 90 percent cleaner than other fossil fuels and produces 25 percent less CO2. A 25 percent CO2 reduction achieved by switching the transportation sector to compressed natural gas pretty much would meet the Kyoto goals.

Martin Smith: T. Boone Pickens doesn't speak too much about climate change. More than anything he seems motivated by turning a good profit. There's nothing wrong with that -- in fact, until more businesses see opportunity to turn a profit in developing clean energy, there's unlikely to be much progress. As far as natural gas is concerned, it does reduce carbon emissions but it doesn't eliminate them. To get to the 80 percent cuts scientists are talking about, you'll need much cleaner energy than natural gas.

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Washington: I saw parts of "Heat." I think that a lot of the problem is that luddite Americans have been electing luddite politicians who think that if they ignore global warming, it will go away. The science and science fiction writers have been discussing climate change since I was in high school, 40 years ago. Climate change won't go away. Humanity may go away if humanity ignores climate change. If you doubt me, check in with your neighborhood raptors and get their opinions.

Martin Smith: The naturalist Jane Goodall that the best thing for the planet would be the extinction of man. It's a rather stark statement that makes its point. Unless we figure out how to live in harmony with our environment, scientists say, we're screwed. Climate change is the Earth talking back to us. Climatologists say it's up to us to listen hard.

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Barrie, Ontario: Excellent research. We in Canada just voted down a new government that had proposed a carbon tax as a major platform. Unfortunately the carbon tax was not fully explained to us, nor was and the importance that was attached. Timing is everything -- I wish I had seen your presentation prior to voting, as I may well have voted for the carbon tax. Surely that is the way to go. Strong government leadership on this issue is imperative -- your election results could prove interesting for the future.

Martin Smith: Besides Joe Biden, nobody likes taxes. We've been getting something for nothing -- by dumping carbon for free. Now the bill is coming due, and Mother Nature is likely to be much rougher than your neighborhood loan shark in getting us to pony up -- at least that's what leading scientists are telling us.

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Reston, Va.: Has regulation failed the taxpaying public? Is it possible at this stage to even visualize an environment where energy companies compete (from a pricing standpoint) for customers -- thus applying downward pressure on pricing? Does the supply system intrinsically encourage bidding up the value of energy? What impact does the U.S. Energy Policy have on pricing?

Martin Smith: In several states, regulators are trying to introduce a new way of managing energy companies, so that they have an incentive to supply less electricity rather than more. California is the leading example of this so-called decoupling.

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Traverse City, Mich.: I don't think enough people around the world care enough to make these changes. Do they not see that if we don't make these changes our planet is doomed? They only are considering their comfort, but what is more important -- having everything you want as easily as possible, or life? Something needs to be done now, before it's too late!

Martin Smith: Look, we all like to be comfortable -- it's in human nature. We really caution against self-flagellation and asceticism. I don't think that's going to get people motivated. This is something that Arnold Schwarzenegger understands very well. It seems what we need more is to get really, really smart about finding solutions, rather than turning off the lights and sitting in the dark. And try telling the 3 billion people in India and China that they can't have cars or appliances like we do.

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New York: With oil prices plummeting, do you worry that the motivation for alternate energy like wind will wane? If so, would setting a price floor on gasoline make sense, so that gas never would go below, say, $3.50 per gallon? The tax money could be used to build out the infrastructure to support energy from the wind corridor.

washingtonpost.com: As Fuel Prices Fall, Will Push For Alternatives Lose Steam? (Post, Oct. 20)

Martin Smith: Price controls have been tried and largely have failed, but the current thinking is that an economywide price on carbon is the better approach. It's going to be difficult and it seems important to accept that we're going to make mistakes along the way, but you can't win if you're not in the game. We hope projects like "Heat" raise awareness and stimulate conversation.

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New York: In regards to CEO and energy industry leaders, it seems pretty clear that in the short/medium terms, profits direct behavior -- but in the long term we're all effected, potentially very negatively. From your interviews was there any sense that, beyond their roles as business executives, that there are pressing issues that we all face together in the not so distant future?

Martin Smith: Sadly no -- CEOs are under enormous pressure from shareholders to pump up the bottom line. I found that many of the CEOs that we talked to still don't believe that climate change is real. They don't say this openly, but it became clear in our off-camera conversations with many of them that they were deeply skeptical. That said, they see a business risk in doing nothing. A good example of this is Bob Lutz at GM, who has said climate change is a crock of shit. At the same time he is pushing the Chevy Volt electric vehicle because he knows that GM has to get in the game.

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Munich, Germany: In many ways, I'm hoping that the U.S. will become a driving force in combating global climate change. Although we in Europe are trying to contain carbon outputs, it's obvious that businessmen in India and China are emulating American business practices and priorities. Although they are competing with European and American businesses, they still look up to and admire the American style of business. Hence, I hope that American corporations will give people and businesses in China and India something to admire regarding Global Warming.

Martin Smith: The world looks to the United States -- to the White House and leading companies -- for leadership. But it's a challenge for America, where there is an innate distrust for government, unlike in Germany.

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Washington: You interviewed executives from the coal, oil and nuclear industries. Why didn't you interview anyone from the ethanol industry?

Martin Smith: We tried to interview the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, a major player in that space. After a lot of back and forth with the company, they declined.

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Fairfax, Va.: Congratulations on your very sobering film. Global warming is potentially one of the greatest perils to ever face mankind, and yet it's a topic that seems to get ignored. You would think we'd be having a nonstop, 24-7 worldwide discussion on this. Why is that not happening?

Martin Smith: We've seen more and more discussion of energy and climate issues in the campaign of late. This is somewhat surprising given the state of the economy, but people are by their very nature concerned about their short-term problems. This attention to immediate dangers has served us well as a species for the past 2 billion years. The question is what we need to do to survive another 2 billion.

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McCoy, Texas: We support the Pickens Plan. It is time to quite the talk and act! We can do it and will implement the plan!

Martin Smith: Do you work for T. Boone Pickens?

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Tulsa, Okla.: Wouldn't oil companies also benefit from an expansion of natural gas consumption? Oil and gas go together.

Martin Smith: Absolutely -- that's why they want to do more offshore drilling.

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Meriden, Kans.: In your reporting, are there any really "clean" coal power plants in operation? Both candidates continually mention this option.

Martin Smith: No, so go to a town hall meeting and ask them what they are talking about.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Do you think natural gas for large trucks and city fleet vehicles will catch on in the U.S., as it has many other parts of the world?

Martin Smith: It makes a lot of sense for fleets. That's what T. Boone Pickens favors. But it's more about reducing dependence on foreign oil than climate change.

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Houston: Mr. Smith, I have been working on plug-in hybrids since 2005. I have driven my own Plug-in Prius for more than a year using clean domestic wind energy to offset the amount of fuel I need to burn. I get better than 100 mpg during the work week, and use no gas during the weekends while still driving around with my family. I since have converted two more Priuses and five 50-mpg Ford Escapes from my garage. I loved your show "Heat." Do you plan to do any show about the benefits of plug-in cars?

Martin Smith: At this point, we're still trying to recover from making "Heat." Don't know the answer yet -- please give us some time.

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New York: Many environmentalists remain (regrettably) anti-nuclear power. Are you capable of understanding nuclear power in the context of "economic justice," namely developing nations being entitled to reliable base load electricity?

Martin Smith: Many environmentalists are changing their views on nuclear power. Concerns about waste issues are being trumped by climate concerns.

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Martin Smith: Thank you for all your questions -- sorry we couldn't answer them all. There's a discussion section at the film's Web site, and we invite you to participate in that. Thanks again from Martin Smith and Chris Durrance.

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