In a case of bad timing, last week brought with it more below average temperatures in New York coupled with another chorus of headlines from scientists spelling out dire warnings about global warming. As scientists gathered in Copenhagen for an 'emergency meeting' reported that climate predictions of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from two years ago are being outdone by worst case scenarios -- ice melting!, seas rising!!, rainforests disappearing!!! -- I, along with the rest of New York, was looking at the calendar trying to remember when it gets warm. It's been a long, cold winter here and Spring has barely even registered, so my feeling is, there go hopes that we as a people will get out in support of Congressional legislation and a new UN treaty on climate change. It sounds trite, but here's my hunch: beliefs in global warming rise and fall with, well... the mercury. And that spells trouble for those of us who believe we need to make changes now to head off global warming.
We in the temperate world have the luxury of waiting to act as long as catastrophe isn't affecting us personally, but according to the scientists who met in Copenhagen last week, we need to look beyond our own experience to an array of fast changing global realities. They produced some very alarming evidence, but so far their alarm call is not being met with action. These scientists, after all, research and report using a global perspective, but as far as my fellow New Yorkers and me are concerned: it's time for summer!
It's the same wherever you are: all weather, like politics, is local. Herein lies a major, but little discussed problem confronting those who want action on global warming: We can't agree on whether to act, largely because we experience weather locally rather than globally. From this perspective, the only hope for spurring Americans to care lies not in ad campaigns or celebrity endorsements of the cause, but in a long, hot summer that lasts until December when world leaders meet in Copenhagen to negotiate the new climate change treaty. But if the summer is anything like last year's mild weather in my neck of the woods, then we're in trouble -- and so are hopes for meaningful Congressional climate change legislation and a treaty.
As scientists and even our political leaders agitate for action, Americans seem to care less and less. The alarm bell is ringing and we're hitting the snooze button. In fact, fully 41% of Americans now believe that global warming has been exaggerated. Moreover, Pew Research recently released a poll of Americans that placed Global Warming dead last on a list of top 20 priorities for 2009. Sadly, even after An Inconvenient Truth and "Reality" ads about global warming galore, climate change is still not an important issue for most Americans.
Maybe there's a lesson here: Global warming, after all, has been marketed as an idea or even a product choice (choose this over that), rather than presented in a way that can bring home the reality of global climate change or the policy choices that confront us on a daily basis. People act when they feel affected by something. That's why I think colder than usual weather spells trouble for spurring action on global warming. As a filmmaker, I am frustrated to realize that TV ads and 'awareness campaigns' aren't doing the trick either. I can see global warming ads at the Super Bowl, but I can just as easily filter out the message of that ad as one for beer or an SUV.
As it stands with global warming, there's nothing that can elevate our senses the way cold wind on our face or the sun in our eyes can when we step out the front door. Case in point, there's nothing like the fury of a hurricane to get people talking about action on climate change. But the reality is, the weather may not cooperate. We may not have record heat or extreme weather disasters to stimulate public attitudes on global warming.
So even while political leaders like President Obama are making pledges to cut carbon emissions, the reality is House and Senate leaders are going to vote according to their constituents' wishes on whatever bill or treaty comes their way. Obama may find it lonely at the top as the American public puts less and less urgency behind global warming. And it's just at a moment when we as a nation should be turning up the heat (pardon the easy puns).
We in the media, as well those that care in the public at large, need to find a way to couch the debate in a way that doesn't make it so easy to ignore. Unfortunately, I'm not really sure what can be done. A recasting of weather forecasting might help. The abysmally flat Weather Channel and accompanying website could spice up their local weather reports with a global warming weather forecast that explained why maybe it was freezing in New York but downright warm in Anchorage. Overall, I wish the news media would inundate us with the reality of global warming -- photos, testimonials, even disasters -- and not with the he said/she said 'scientists pronounce...' 'leaders declare...' 'celebrities endorse...' junk that we get instead of real reporting.
Make me feel global warming, even when it's 30 degrees outside. That's all I'm asking...