THE BLOG

Seeds of Doubt

12/04/2009 02:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

American ingenuity is alive and well. Or at least it's alive, as evidenced by such recent US inventions as Bacconaise, Snuggies, and credit default swaps.

If this represents the best we can do, though, we may be in trouble. Because now, more than ever, the world needs true innovators and visionaries who can find the solutions to climate change.

I don't mean to dismiss the insulation value of a Snuggie, nor to imply that a blanket with sleeves does not constitute a remarkable breakthrough. But American industry has to do better if we want to reclaim our status as the world's great innovator.

You would think that business leaders would recognize the extraordinary opportunity that climate change presents to create markets for new products, not to mention those desperately needed green jobs. Sadly, with a few forward-thinking exceptions, much of corporate America remains in denial, betting on business as usual to sustain its bottom line.

That kind of blinkered thinking has left our auto industry on life support after decades of fighting higher fuel efficiency standards, on the grounds that such onerous regulations would bankrupt it.

This shortsighted approach assumes that economic prosperity takes precedence over the well-being of people and the planet. We all know the saying "health is wealth." If you've got a terminal illness, all the money in the world won't save you.

The same rule applies to the environment. Rising profits have got nothing on rising sea levels; well-stocked corporate coffers will be useless to combat the droughts, floods, hurricanes, disease and pest outbreaks that climate change has already begun to unleash.

And yet, many of our politicians and business leaders obstinately refuse to accept the urgency of this crisis. It's a shame that we even have to discuss the so-called "Climategate" scandal, because, as Huffington Post's Katherine Goldstein noted on Wednesday, "The verdict on global warming is in -- it's caused by humans and it is happening and nothing in the emails remotely challenges that."

But as the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday, congressional Republicans cited the controversial emails on Wednesday in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency calling on the Obama administration "to suspend efforts to combat climate change until the controversy is resolved".

The US has the sorry distinction of being the only industrialized nation where a significant percentage of the population remains unconvinced that climate change is real. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and anti-conservation conservatives like James Inhofe are partly to blame, spreading the notion that global warming is a fraud.

And then there are the professional climate change naysayers, brought to you courtesy of the massively funded "manufactured doubt industry," as David Michael reveals in his book Doubt Is Their Product. These shills-for-hire--or "biostitutes," as Robert Kennedy Jr. dubbed them--are the same folks who've deliberately distorted science in order to mislead consumers about the hazards of everything from tobacco to asbestos to lead, phthalates, and numerous other industrial toxins.

Pity the poor layperson who's trying to make sense of it all. And now, the agriculture industry, which generates more greenhouse gases worldwide than every form of transportation combined, has set out to persuade a perplexed public that it is not only not part of the problem, but is, in fact, the solution.

Consider the new pr campaign from Monsanto, the biotech behemoth best known for its genetically modified seeds and the herbicide Roundup. Monsanto's now declaring itself a champion of sustainable agriculture, adopting the motto "Produce More. Conserve More. Improve Farmers' Lives."

Sounds great, doesn't it? Consumers get the impression that Monsanto's producing the kind of high-yielding, drought resistant seeds that farmers will need as resources dwindle and growing conditions become more challenging. And isn't that exactly the kind of innovation I'm calling for? Here's a giant corporation acknowledging the challenges of climate change and taking steps to deal with it.

The only problem is, Monsanto has yet to succeed at creating such a product. It's like clean coal--it makes for good pr, but it doesn't actually exist. And it's doubtful that the promised seeds will ever materialize, according to agronomy professor Kenneth Cassman. At a forum on global agriculture hosted by Jeffrey Sach's Earth Institute at Columbia University in October, Cassman declared that while genetically modified crops have the potential to provide greater resistance to disease, pests, and weeds, they hold little promise of improved yield and drought tolerance.

When a Monsanto executive in attendance disputed Cassman's claims, Cassman replied that Monsanto had yet to provide any evidence of such seeds, and questioned whether the whole thing was "a marketing ploy."

Conventional farming is, in some ways, the agricultural equivalent of Detroit's doomed automakers; an industry in denial, unwilling and unprepared to adapt to an environment altered by climate change. In fact, as the Economist reported last month, America's commodity crop farmers are hellbent on opposing any form of meaningful climate change legislation, on the grounds that it will destroy their livelihood.

Looking to industrial agriculture to solve the environmental problems that it's played such a prominent role in creating is like asking the same financial geniuses who crashed our economy to drive it out of the ditch. Does that really make any sense?

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.