Foul Emissions


New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s occasional commentaries this summer about Portland, Ore., left a lingering scent in the air—and it wasn’t pretty. How has so much propaganda about the “Rose City” spread so quickly?

Kristof’s misleading commentaries on our area cut deeper with the knowledge that the award-winning writer is an Oregon native. Kristof grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Ore. and in high school debate contests faced Tillamook County’s Lars Larson.

On September 11, in his New York Times column, Kristof wrote:

“With corpses on the streets of New Orleans, we may have seen a glimpse of the future of climate change. …So far, Mr. Bush has resisted serious action on global warming on the basis that strong measures ‘would have wrecked our economy.’ …Tell that to Portland, Ore. In early July, I wrote a column from Portland about its pioneering efforts to cut greenhouse gases. New calculations had indicated that it had cut total emissions from below the level of 1990–the benchmark of the Kyoto Accord–even as nationally, emissions have increased 13 percent. And Portland has been booming economically.”

So what’s wrong with Krisof’s commentary? Well, everything. It was based on some foul emissions from the city of Portland, but not from the usual sources.

Kristof bases his comments on a study conducted by Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development (OSD). Bad idea. The report the city issued/concocted declared that 2004 emissions of carbon dioxide in Multnomah Country were at lower levels than 1990 emissions, putting Multnomah County in compliance with Kyoto. Later the city would correct their initial report. Their update showed that because of a faulty computer analysis Multnomah County carbon dioxide levels in 2004 were actually above 1990 levels, not below.

But that didn’t stop the hype.

Jane Lubchenco, co-chair of the Governor’s Advisory Group on Global Warming blissfully told the Oregonian: “I know of no other city in the world that has lowered greenhouse emissions at this level.”

Bad hype usually makes bad policy. Thankfully, John Charles and Richard Page of the Cascade Policy Institute took a critical look at the city’s study. They responded in an August 17 Oregonian op-ed piece.

What Charles and Page corrected was not the slight computer error made during the study but, instead, the overall methodology, which Charles and Page showed to be not science, but propaganda. Their critique was devastating:

“The OSD used gasoline sales in Multnomah County to estimate vehicle miles traveled. By this logic, if everyone stopped buying gas in Multnomah Country but continued to drive, OSD would conclude that there are no CO2 emissions from cars in Portland. Clearly, that would be false, so the methodology is inappropriate.

The number of gasoline dealers in Multnomah County fell by about 26 percent during the 1990s, while they went up by 82 percent in Clark County, 7 percent in Columbia County and 8 percent in Clackamas County. In a complex metro region, people can buy their gas anywhere.

Metro’s own staff estimates that between 1990 and 2003, daily motorized travel went up 30 percent within the urbanized portions of the tri-country region. That alone suggests that local C02 emissions went up, not down, during the period."

Knowing that more than 50,000 workers commute daily from Washington County, and that more than 60,000 workers commute daily from Clark to Multnomah, completes the farce that is the city’s study.

On September 8, Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder responded to Charles and Page’s critique on the Oregonian op-ed page by ignoring their analysis and instead questioning their motives. “Their work reflects a national head-in-the-sand campaign to block action in response to overwhelming scientific evidence that human generated emissions of greenhouse gases are changing global climate.”

The paper’s headline piled on, “Think tank duo attack the threat of a good example.”

Now what’s wrong with this on-going propaganda? Plenty.

First, global warming is a serious issue, particularly for the Republican Party, the nation’s business party. Being on the wrong side of the global warming debate would be one hulluva devastating place for the GOP, both politically and environmentally. That’s why Tony Blair’s consensus approach to this issue is appreciated.

If global warming is as serious as many believe, then reporting on it must be de-politicized. News reports should be science-based and bias free, not based on the foul emissions of political hacks and career bureaucrats.

Earlier, in July, Kristof wrote about the difficulties of the issue. “I’ve been torn about what to do about global warming…in the past, economic models tended to discourage aggressive action on greenhouse gases, because they indicated that the cost of curbing carbon emissions could be extraordinarily high, amounting to perhaps 3 percent of GNP. That’s where Portland’s experience is so crucial. It confirms the suggestions of some economists that we can take initial steps against global warming without economic disruptions.”

Apparently no one bothered to show Kristof the Portland Business Alliance survey that counts the number of jobs lost in Portland’s downtown core—from 110,000 jobs in 1990 down to 82,497 in 2004. No one told him about Portland schools closing as families flee to the suburbs.

Second, bureaucrats who make up these fantasy reports do so to serve a political purpose. They must find a way to make the public believe that the “smart growth” agenda is working, not failing. Portland officials know this: if you have a national reputation for going against the grain, you better make sure your vision is perceived as working, not failing. Spreading that myth means getting a syndicated columnist or two to assist.

Last month, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and colleague of Nicholas Kristof wrote about the future of the city of New Orleans: “There are arguments about what New Orleans should try to be, a smaller controlled-growth Portland or a booming and spreading Houston.”

Now E. J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post adds to the misleading propaganda: “Rep. Earl Blumenauer…is evangelical in spreading Portland’s gospel of ‘livability’…the idea that if governments plan right (and in cooperation with their citizens), they can safeguard the environment, create more agreeable lives for families and individuals, and let loose sustainable private-sector growth.

Well, Brooks is guilty of poor research, and Dionne apparently confined his journalistic inquiries to dinner and drinks in the Pearl District. But native son and national columnist Kristof should know better. Though he uses Oregon mostly as a summer playground, he should have taken time to investigate more thoroughly. When will one of these national writers take a hard look at the Rose City’s real track record on progressive politics—looking beyond the ephemeral fragrance of the rose to see the dying plant beneath it?

BrainstormNW - Oct 2005

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