Monday, July 02, 2007

Present Tense

We humans have the collective ability to ignore just about anything until it literally smacks us in the face. This is particularly problematic when comes to the very real and present danger of climate change.

"The fixation on the immediate and the spectacular compromises responsible coverage of the environment," wrote Mark Hertsgaard in his landmark essay, Covering the World, Ignoring the Earth. "How do you take a picture of the Earth getting hotter?"

Given that Hertsgaard's essay was published in 1990, the answer appears to be ignore the problem long enough and you'll get your "photo op". The images of polar bears stranded on melting ice flows and thousands of homeless people huddled in the New Orleans Superdome immediately come to mind.

It's important to note that Hertsgaard was not alone in his warnings. Many experts, led by such notable scientists as world-renowned oceanographer Roger Revelle and James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, began expressing profound concern about the impact of rising carbon-dioxide levels and its subsequent impact on global temperatures decades ago. Dr. Revelle first sounded the alarm in the 1950s - a half a century ago, and yet he is virtually unknown.

Today the environment - particularly the issue of climate change - is as hot as, well, the planet. Celebrities, politicians and those who are a little of both (most notably the "Governator" Arnold and the man-who-should-have-been-president, Al Gore) have galvanized around the cause du jour and the big corporate boys aren't far behind. Slick marketing campaigns are now selling everything from mufflers to laundry detergent as part of the solution, and the hucksters are just getting started.

On July 7, 2007, or 07-07-07 (numerologists take note), Kevin Wall, the Worldwide Executive Producer of Live 8, will bring Live Earth to the television, radio or computer nearest you. Live Earth is a 24-hour, seven continent concert series that promises to bring together over 100 music artists and more than two billion people. The humble goal of the concert is no less that triggering a global movement to solve the climate crisis. Partnering with Al Gore (there he is again) and the Alliance for Climate Protection, Live Earth will be performed on stages around the world, including the Giants Stadium in New York, Wembley Stadium in London, Aussie Stadium in Sydney, Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Maropeng at the Cradle of Humankind in Johannesburg, Makuhari Messe in Tokyo, the Steps of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai and HSH Nordbank Arena in Hamburg.

According to the Live Earth website, “All Live Earth venues will be designed and constructed by a team of sustainability engineers who will address the environmental and energy management challenges of each concert site, as well as the operations of sponsors, partners and other Live Earth affiliates. Each venue will not only be designed to maintain a minimum environmental impact, but will showcase the latest state-of-the-art energy efficiency, on-site power generation, and sustainable facilities management practices."

This is all good stuff, but if the same scientists who began warning us about climate change decades ago are correct, it may already be too late. A recent article authored by a team of scientists headed up by none other than James Hansen, concluded that the race might already be lost. According to the academic paper Climate change and trace gases, "Recent greenhouse gas emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures."

The scientists concluded, "If we have not already passed the dangerous level, the energy infrastructure in place ensures that we will pass it within several decades."

While several decades may seem too far off to even worry about, the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is already altering our climate began accumulating over a century ago. The gases we release today will remain problematic for a half a century or more. That's something we can no longer ignore.


The scientific article, Climate change and trace gases, Hansen, J. et al, published in Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society A, (Vol. 365, No. 1856, July 2007) can be downloaded from The Royal Society website at

For more on Live Earth, go to

Mark Hertsgaard is a prolific American writer and journalist who currently writes as the environment correspondent for The Nation. His books include Earth Odyssey (1998). Check out


Blogger John Daly said...

Roger Revelle does not seem to be as "unknown" as is suggested above. Al Gore described Revelle as his mentor. Revelle receive the Medal of Science from the first President Bush. There is a Revelle lecture series at UNESCO in his honor. He was for years the Chair of the NAS Board on S&T for Development, and the founder of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, as well as one of the founders of the University of California at San Diego.

December 31, 2007 9:50 PM  
Blogger Suzanne Elston said...

Agreed. Roger Revelle was revered in own time, and his research continues to inspire leaders, much like the work of Rachel Carson. Perhaps I should have more accurately written that unfortunately Revelle's work hasn't been embraced and translated into action by the general public. SE.

January 01, 2008 9:45 AM  

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