Climate debate brings a new tear to eye
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I was a sucker for environmental propaganda. When I was a kid, I fell for all of the "Keep America Beautiful" public service announcements. The most memorable of those PSA's featured a Native American paddling a canoe across a lake to a trash-strewn shoreline.
As ads go, it was devastating. The Indian had nobility and empathy to spare. As he paddled past factories belching smoke, a narrator with the deep, biblical voice of Orson Welles intoned: "Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. Some people don't."
The early-1970s ad was stridently anti-pollution. It made no attempt to convey the other side's rationale for pumping millions of tons of poison daily into our air, ground and water.
The nascent ecology movement had demonized the logic of a free market that didn't consider the nation's natural beauty worth respecting or preserving if a buck could be made.
On cue in the commercial, a man tosses a bag of trash out of a car window at the foot of the Native American. The camera picks up on his sad expression. The shot of a single tear running down his face becomes iconic.
"People start pollution," the narrator says. "People can stop it."
I still get choked up thinking about it. Fast forward dozens of Earth Days later. Pollution is still a problem, but at least it isn't acceptable to throw bags of litter out of car windows any longer, though many people lacking conscience and home training continue to do just that.
Corporate pollution, on the other hand, is on its way to being redeemed thanks to a shift in the American public's attitude about climate change and the havoc it is already beginning to wreak around the world.
As the cost of moving toward an environmentally responsible footing for the world's economy mounts, skepticism about climate change has crept into the public mood here and abroad.
Nations reliant on heavy industry to modernize or maintain their standard of living seem to have the most questions about the reliability of the science. Suddenly, it costs real money to avert the environmental disasters looming over the horizon. No one wants to hold the economy captive for the sake of the greater good.
Maybe the status quo can be made acceptable if we're able to convince ourselves that rising sea levels and spreading drought aren't necessarily a bad thing, if nature is seen as an even bigger culprit than carbon dioxide.
As we slip into a new Dark Ages of willful obscurantism on global warming, it is hard to remember that in this country science and public opinion once converged when it came to assessing the impact of fossil fuels and carbon emissions on the environment.
Lay people didn't sift through the data obviously, but images from the front lines of the world's mounting disasters went a long way toward building a sensible consensus that something needed to be done.
As terrifying as it was to witness, there was nothing more persuasive than pictures of glaciers breaking apart while once snow-capped mountains in Asia turned brown.
It used to be difficult to argue with either the scientific data or the sight of polar bears searching in vain for floating ice to rest on. Something unprecedented in human experience is happening.
The fact that it is difficult to breathe in many of China's major cities should be a reminder of the Faustian deal developing nations willingly make to "modernize."
The negotiators meeting in Copenhagen this week have all sorts of targets in mind to curb carbon emissions, no doubt, but the forces arrayed against a comprehensive treaty have never been more implacable.
The leaked e-mails that global warming deniers point to as evidence of a conspiracy by senior climate scientists to downplay contrary evidence has given politicians in this country permission to be more obstructionist than ever.
If I thought it would make a difference, I would be all for resurrecting the powerful crying Indian PSA's of the '70s to shame our politicians into taking the looming threat seriously. But we know what would happen: Within hours, the non-Native American actor would be exposed as the owner of an SUV, a heavy smoker and a registered Democrat. And that would be the end of that.
First Published December 8, 2009 12:00 am