By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—Since this is the list-making time of year, allow me to add a tiny trophy to Al Gore’s very full shelf: the prize for the most elegant speech of 2007.
I wasn’t sure how the politician-turned-environmentalist fit the profile for a Nobel Peace Prize, but his acceptance speech connected the dots. “Without realizing it,” Gore said, “we have begun to wage war on the Earth itself. Now, we and the Earth’s climate are locked in a relationship familiar to war planners: mutually assured destruction.”
How many Americans actually heard these words of war and peace? The coverage from Oslo was overshadowed by the coverage from Iowa. The presidential campaigns used up the oxygen that might have been reserved for the greenhouse gases.
The inconvenient truth of the 2008 election year is that climate change is still way down the dance card of most-talked-about topics. It’s ranked No. 12 among Democratic candidates, and No. 15 among Republicans. Out of the 2,275 questions on the Sunday morning talk shows, the League of Conservation Voters counted only three on global warming.
Indeed, the environment has made little more than a cameo appearance on the campaign trail. Climate showed up in the last Iowa debate at the Tinker Bell moment when Republican candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed climate change was a real threat and caused by human activity. It got a star turn in July when an animated snowman at the YouTube debate asked the Democrats if his little snow-son would live a “full and happy life.”
From time to time, the candidates doff their carbon caps and calculate their carbon footprints. But the warming of the globe, the fact that the ice cap is “falling off of a cliff,” as scientists say, doesn’t heat up the campaign as much as paying for the education of an illegal immigrant.
Gore told the Nobel crowd, “We have everything we need to get started, save perhaps political will.” But, he added optimistically, “Political will is a renewable resource.” Will it get renewed?
When 187 countries met in Bali in early December to form a climate change treaty, our country was booed and isolated. We refused to join other industrialized nations in guaranteeing cuts of greenhouse gas emissions. A frustrated man from Papua New Guinea finally told the Bush delegation, “If you cannot lead, leave it to the rest of us. Get out of the way.”
It was at the last minute that our wrecking crew of delegates compromised on a meager road map. They agreed only to work for an agreement ... by 2009. For the first time, industrial and developing countries are on the same path, but any real action has been kicked down that path.
Today America remains the leading producer of one product: greenhouse gases. Congress finally passed an energy bill that will raise fuel standards for cars to 35 miles a gallon by 2020. After 30 years of stalling, we are moving into first gear, too little and maybe too late. Meanwhile, the EPA just denied the more ambitious attempts by California and other states to control emissions. Political will as a renewable resource?
This Christmas we had a national anxiety attack about unsafe toys. Eighty percent of our toys are made in China. But what is more dangerous for our children, the lead paint in some Chinese factories or the fact that China’s emissions may soon surpass our own? What’s worse, that we are China’s biggest customer or their worst role model?
Meanwhile, did you have a green Xmas? A blizzard of faux environmentalism coated the holidays. The upscale Barneys store touted “sensationally sustainable swag” and “orgasmic organic denim.” We were told we can shop to save the world, consume to sustain the Earth.
Or maybe you got a ticket for the new, hip “tourism of doom.” Go see Mount Kilimanjaro while there is still a snowflake and the Arctic while there is still a polar bear.
In 2007, consciousness rose with the thermostat. Scientists layered one set of facts on another. Gore wrapped these facts into an attention-grabbing movie. After Bali, the world’s leaders are just waiting for this presidency to pass. But we are still waiting for the renewable energy to fuel election-year politics.
On the day Gore spoke to the Nobel audience, he said, “We dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. ... We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.”
I still have a stack of greeting cards wishing Peace on Earth. Is it too corny to wish that we begin the new year making Peace with the Earth?
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group