Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
A few months ago I blogged about a Los Angeles Times story on climate change, drought, and Australia. It was a classic example of how media outlets who are unlikely to take seriously other ‘end of the world’ predictions nevertheless treat climate change speculation as though it were gospel.
This past weekend though, the Times redeemed itself. The final installment of a six-part series examining financial and management concerns at LA community colleges finds that $10 million has been wasted on green energy projects. If this squandered cash hadn’t been deducted from the paycheques of real taxpayers – and hadn’t deprived real students of proper facilities – the story would be hilarious.
It is, however, a cautionary tale with larger implications. When organizations that exist to do one thing (educate young people) get distracted by other goals (reducing carbon emissions) matters are almost guaranteed to turn out badly. First, attention and funds are shifted from the core purpose. Second, the fashionable new goal is often pursued by individuals who lack appropriate qualifications and experience.
A man named Larry Eisenberg is at the center of the LA Times story. He believed his green energy vision was “amazing.” Among other things, it involved chopping down trees and covering sports fields with solar panels. Here are some choice quotes from the story:
He overestimated how much power the colleges could generate. He underestimated the cost.
…The problems with Eisenberg’s energy vision were fundamental. For starters, there simply wasn’t room on the campuses for all the generating equipment required to become self-sufficient.
…Plans for large-scale wind power collided with the reality that prevailing winds at nearly all the campuses are too weak to generate much electricity. To date, a single wind turbine has been installed, as a demonstration project. It spins too slowly in average winds to power a 60-watt light bulb.
…His advocacy had a messianic tinge. In one e-mail to his advisors, he described his renewable-energy agenda as “what the world needs now. No one else is doing it. We can and will.”
…Eisenberg’s cost estimates for taking the nine campuses off the grid ranged as high as $975 million — this for a college system that in 2010 spent less than $8 million on power bills.
…Eisenberg wanted to spend $98 million on hydrogen fuel-cell equipment that had never been put into commercial operation. He called for spending $59 million on untried hydrogen storage devices…
It’s worth noting that this excellent investigative piece didn’t get written because the newspaper decided to examine green energy boondoggles. Rather, it occurred because the paper had already cast a scrutinizing eye at other concerns associated with these community colleges.
In news elsewhere, the February 26th-March 4th print edition of The Economist magazine contains a passing reference, on page 75, to a leaked AOL document. It reveals that journalists who work for that organization are expected to file 5 to 10 stories per day:
This is called churnalism. And it’s one of the reasons media coverage of climate issues is so pathetic. Journalists on that kind of treadmill have no time to read any background. They have no time to verify any facts. They merely take a press release, modify it a bit, and file the story.
Which means that, more than ever before, we really shouldn’t believe everything we read.