Global Warming: Ready for Prime Time

Climate change -- sexy? Not so long ago, coverage concerning the suspected adverse impact of greenhouse gases (GHGs) on our planet was relegated to staid, scholarly journals read almost exclusively by environmental scientists and engineers. Hardly a glamorous gig. Now, in contrast, the topic of global warming is a hot topic (pun intended) among mainstream media moguls, and, as a result, the American public.

One leading example of climate change's recent move into the spotlight is the cover story found in the April 3, 2006, issue of Time magazine. Featuring a photograph of a forlorn-looking polar bear stranded on a melting ice floe, the cover boldly states "Be worried. Be very worried. Climate change isn't some vague future problem -- it's already damaging the planet at an alarming pace. Here's how it affects you, your kids and their kids as well."

Another popular magazine, Wired, sports on the cover of its May 2006 issue a headshot of an unsmiling Al Gore, the former vice president, and the attention-grabbing headline, "Climate Crisis! The Pro-Growth, Pro-Tech Fight to Stop Global Warming." Also recently gracing U.S. newsstands was the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, which is labeled the "Special Green Issue" and has a cover populated by celebrities George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Robert F. Kennedy, and, of course, everybody's favorite eco-poster boy Al Gore. The cover's headline reads "A Threat Graver than Terrorism: Global Warming. How much of New York, Washington, other American cities will be underwater?" The fact that global warming is being featured in an upscale magazine stuffed with ads from Tiffany, Dior, Chanel, Giorgio Armani, and Louis Vuitton, seems to indicate that the subject is becoming fashionable among affluent readers (and leading fashionistas).

This high-profile treatment of climate change is not just limited to the print media. On April 22, the cable channel Home Box Office (HBO) premiered an hour-long documentary about global warming called Too Hot Not to Handle. It features comments from scientists from Harvard, MIT, and a number of other well-respected U.S. universities about the possible dire effects of global warming if no actions are taken to cut the current level of GHG production. At press time, another documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, was scheduled to be released in late May. It is a profile of Al Gore and his work related to climate change issues.

Despite their somewhat hyped-up headlines and slick marketing campaigns, the magazines and documentaries mentioned above do make serious efforts to spell out the theory of global warming in terms that can be understood by non-scientists. They attempt to explain to their lay audiences that many leading scientists believe global warming is happening as a result of the rising levels of GHGs, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, perflurocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride, that collect in the atmosphere and trap heat radiating from our planet toward outer space. They also describe how these gases act like the glass in a greenhouse by allowing sunlight to enter into the Earth's atmosphere, but preventing the resulting heat from escaping back into space. As well, they point out the primary sources of GHGs, including coal-fired power plants and automobiles, and focus on the possibly severe consequences of a continued buildup of GHGs in our atmosphere, such as melting polar ice caps raising sea levels and flooding low coastal areas.

What results could follow from the media ratcheting up the visibility of issues related to global warming? Many environmental activists argue that as a greater number of U.S. citizens gain a better understanding of climate change's potentially dangerous impact on our planet, they will in turn put pressure on their elected officials to do something to solve this growing problem.

Ultimately, our society must look beyond the sound bytes, media hype, and heated rhetoric that surround the issue of global warming and focus on finding real-world solutions. In order to deal with this complex problem, we must support more funding for scientific research aimed at identifying the worldwide impact of climate change. Additionally, we need to have our elected officials at both the federal and state levels take action to implement new laws focused on cutting GHGs. Finally, we need to demonstrate to the management of industrial facilities that improving operational efficiency through GHG reductions can actually help their bottom lines, not hurt them. It's time for our country to put this important issue on center stage.

This editorial originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 17, No. 5

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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