The New Hot Zones

In the din and clamor of issues competing for public attention, there's an inner circle of causes that virtually define good citizenship. Who would argue that a mind isn't a terrible thing to waste? The quasi-official gatekeeper to this pantheon is the Ad Council, which deploys more than $1 billion in donated media time and space each year for a few dozen carefully vetted, slickly produced messages. Last week a new issue got the Ad Council's blessing, a potential catastrophe that could make college dropouts the least of our worries: global warming.

The council's two new TV spots were released on the same day as the première of a lavishly produced documentary, "The Great Warming," and in the same month as two major books on the subject: "The Weather Makers" by Australian biologist Tim Flannery and "Field Notes From a Catastrophe" by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. May will also see the release of "An Inconven-ient Truth," a film and book about Al Gore's one-man crusade against warming. Both the Ad Council campaign and the Gore film are linked to Web sites (, that emphasize citizen action to reduce production of greenhouse gases--a departure from how the issue is usually framed, in terms of contentious political decisions about gas mileage and international treaties. "There's a moment when we move from fear to action, and I think we're there on global warming," says Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, the Ad Council's partner on the campaign. Im-plicitly, this approach also removes the taint of partisan politics from an issue on which the Bush administration has been widely criticized. Which is not to say that the ads pull their punches. In one, a man stands in the path of a speeding train, symbolizing the threat of global warming. When he realizes the danger is decades away, he steps safely off the track--revealing a young girl standing behind him.

But what's significant is that the issue now has the high-minded imprimatur of the Ad Council, which gave the world Smokey Bear. This has not escaped the notice of people on the other side of this issue, such as James M. Taylor, the spokesperson for climate issues at the Heartland Institute, a conservative Chicago-based think tank. The Ad Council is supposed to be nonpartisan, Taylor wrote in an e-mail, but "global warming alarmism is markedly controversial ... This Ad Council campaign amounts to nothing more than an end run around a skeptical Congress, a skeptical president and a sharply split scientific community." Like the groups promoting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution, Taylor's outfit is fighting to convince the public that there's even a debate going on. But in a statement earlier this month he actually went further, asserting, preposterously, that the only remaining scientific debate is over how much "marginal" harm-- or benefit --global warming will bring to humanity.

Taylor's evidence for a split in scientific opinion is a petition--circulated by the eminent physicist Frederick Seitz and signed by some 17,000 scientists in various fields--calling on the United States to reject any limits on carbon emissions. It was attached to a study by four scientists, none of them climatologists, which called global warming "an invalidated hypothesis." But the paper and the petition date from 1998, and climate science has come a long way since then, says Dan Lashof, a researcher at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The paper makes much of a chart showing that atmospher-ic temperatures measured by satellites appeared to decline from 1979 to 1997. Then, after the paper was written, they began to climb. The climatologist who did the original satellite study, John R. Christy of the University of Alabama--who is personally skep-tical of the need to control carbon dioxide--told NEWSWEEK in an e-mail that "[s]ince the El Niño of 1997-98, our satellite trend has been positive." That doesn't prove anything by itself, but it calls into question the fairness of using decade-old data to make a political point in 2006.

To be fair, neither side has a monopoly on hot air in this debate. While the Gore film is affecting and low-key as it follows him on his travels, "The Great Warming" shows exactly what's wrong with turning complex issues over to Hollywood: it's manipulative (it travels to Peru to report on the death of two boys from cholera contracted during a flood--implying a causal connection that serious scientists invariably warn against) and muddled in its use of scientific terms. But both the Kolbert and Flannery books are sober, detailed and alarming without being alarmist. Kolbert is better at evoking melting glaciers and dying butterflies, while Flannery is especially clear on the global science. Perhaps the most significant two words in his book, though, are "Paul Anderson." Anderson, chairman and CEO of Duke Energy Corp., one of the nation's largest utilities, wrote the foreword.

Which is the sort of straw in the wind that gives hope to Richard C. J. Somerville, a distinguished climatologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "I'm an optimist," he says. "I think people now realize climate change is important. What they don't know yet is that something can be done about it."