Melting iceberg straight ahead

Does global warming have a PR problem?

Humorist Art Buchwald, who taught us all a lot about living until we die (which in his case was in 2007), was asked toward the end of his life what he would miss most about the future.

Global warming, he said, because he loved wearing shorts.

It’s the kind of snappy answer you’d expect from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. But it also says a lot about global warming. Like Rodney Dangerfield, it “don’t get no respect.”

We know all about global warming, don’t we? Increased greenhouse gases. (Thank you, fossil fuels and deforestation.) Melting polar ice caps. Retreating glaciers, permafrost and sea ice. Heat waves. Droughts. Heavy rainfall. More hurricanes like Sandy. Loss of coastlines. Population relocation. Decreased crops. Higher food prices. Species extinctions.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

But hey, it’s not all bad, right? I mean, everybody likes shorts and summer. Or as some of my friends observe, “New York will be like Miami year-round.”

Yep, just like Miami – if Miami were under 10 feet of water.

Hearing the Miami comparison, former Congressman Richard L. Ottinger laughs, too. But as founder and dean emeritus of the Pace Energy and Climate Center in White Plains – dedicated to finding economic and equitable alternatives to traditional fuels – Ottinger knows that global warming is no laughing matter.

“People have been led to believe it’s something way off in the future and it isn’t,” he says. “It’s going to affect everyone.”

In other words, Hurricane Sandy was just the tip of the, uh, melting iceberg.

Maybe it’s the “warming” part of global warming. “Warm” is such a nice word, isn’t it, with suggestions of a winning personality, spring’s return, fun in the sun or maybe cocoa and a roaring fire at Christmas. Somehow, “warm” doesn’t say “unhappy polar bears.”

But they will be and so will the rest of us. In an installment of PBS’ “Moyers & Company” – in which Bill Moyers interviewed one of the leading Cassandras on this issue, research scientist Anthony Leiserowitz – Moyers notes that global warming is “the crisis that could make all the others irrelevant.”

“It’s the message from the most informed scientists in the world. …And they say that unless we slow the release of global emissions from fossil fuels, slow it enough to keep the planet’s temperature from rising by two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the earth’s polar ice sheets will melt away – with catastrophic consequences.”

He went on to say that two major scientific reports have concluded the two degrees Celsius increase is “all but inevitable.”

Sheesh. Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it? Yet according to Leiserowitz, who studies risk perception and decision-making as director of the Yale Project on Climate Communication, only 16 percent of Americans are alarmed enough to want to get moving on solutions. Almost 30 percent are concerned, but think we’ve got plenty of time to figure this out. A quarter of us are cautious fence-straddlers. Eight percent are disengaged from the issue, with another 8 percent dismissive of the problem. But the latter 8 percent – which embraces everything from an oil industry skeptical of the scientific data to creationists who believe that a God-centered nature sorts out itself – is highly effective, Leiserowitz says, in communicating its opposition.

Which begs the question: Does global warming have a PR problem? It’s not a superficial consideration. People learn through storytelling, whether visual or verbal and written, mostly verbal and written. It’s one of the first demands children make of their parents: “Tell me a story.” And in a 24/7 information age of Instagram and the Twitterati, he who seizes and drives the narrative, controls public opinion.

Ottinger acknowledges that global warming, or climate change, has a public relations problem. But there’s more to it than that, he says.

“We’re a very present-oriented society and we don’t act on long-term consequences well enough.”

That’s reflected in the 30 percent in Leiserowitz’s data who are concerned but, like Scarlett O’Hara, will think about it tomorrow. Besides, they have more immediate concerns – the economy, immigration reform, gay marriage, North Korean nut-job nuke threats, what Kim Kardashian should do about her weight gain, etc.

Then, too, Ottinger adds, “it’s such a huge problem” – global warming, not Kim’s weight – “that people say, What can I do?”

Right, I mean, if scientists say it’s inevitable, what’s the point?

Except that it’s not too late to stop compounding the problem. On the Moyers’ program, Leiserowitz talks about the acid rain problem, which was solved by a cap-and-trade system in which the amount of sulfur dioxide emitted from smokestacks was capped over time, with efficient companies selling their emission rights to companies that needed more time to meet the standard.

But it’s not just a case of Congress or corporations acting. Ottinger says individuals can drive more fuel-efficient cars, insulate their houses and invest in renewable energies like wind and solar. He himself is using geothermal energy with an upfront cost of $30,000 that will pay off in 10 years.

Yet in a fragile economy, the last thing people might want to hear is the cost of a problem that appears abstract, amorphous, faraway or even nonexistent. A recent proposal by the Obama administration to reduce sulfur emissions in gasoline was met by a range of possible price increases (1 to 9 cents a gallon) and an equal array of public opinions – although according to Leiserowitz, two-thirds of Americans believe that environmental protection either has no ill effect on the economy or actually helps it.

So if this is not about money, then what? Maybe it’s about the need for a grassroots movement that would swell to Washington, D.C., like the civil rights’ and women’s movements, Leiserowitz suggests. Maybe it’s about women – the social fabric of our world, as Anna Quindlen once described them – banding together, the way they’ve done to change the culture on breast cancer and drunk driving. Or maybe it’s a case of an idea whose time has come.

There’s change in the air, and we’re not talking just climate change. This past winter, President Barack Obama discussed the environment in his inaugural address and State of the Union speech. Recently elected Pope Francis – who took the name of ecology’s saint – has stressed the importance of nurturing nature from day one.

If not now, when? If not us, who? Otherwise, with those polar ice caps dripping, instead of “blah, blah, blah,” we may be saying, “blub, blub, blub.”

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