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Hot Under the Collar

After watching two global-warming movies, one viewer takes stock of his options


Published June 27, 2006 at 8:29 p.m.

You know how, when you learn a new word, you suddenly start hearing and seeing it everywhere? It's as if you've opened a channel to your conscious mind for something that's been swirling around you all along. That's how I've felt about the phrase global warming as the promotional machinery kicked into high gear for An Inconvenient Truth over the past few weeks. Starring former Vice President Al Gore, the documentary film is screening at the Roxy in Burlington, and opens this week at the Savoy in Montpelier and Waitsfield's Big Picture Theater.

Now, everywhere I go, I see evidence of an intensified interest in global warming, whether I'm eavesdropping at the grocery store or spotting naked bicyclists protesting our dependency on fossil fuel. And every time I dip into the mass-media pool, I swallow a mouthful on the topic of tentative moves toward renewable energy: articles on community debates over wind-power turbines; a television segment on an Indiana town that's turning hog waste into energy independence; public-radio interviews with scientists who warn what catastrophes might result from so much carbon dioxide trapped under the planet's atmospheric membrane.

The greenhouse effect has been a mixed one on me. I've become hungry enough for information to see both An Inconvenient Truth and the other topical doc, The Great Warming. Produced by Morrisville resident Karen Coshof, it opened at the Palace Theater in South Burlington on June 16. Featuring voiceover narration by Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morissette, The Great Warming stars some of the scientists to whom Gore alludes in his film when he notes the virtually unanimous scientific opinion on the causes and consequences of global climate change. These conclusions were evidently unconvincing to Environ- mental Protection Agency officials during the first George W. Bush administration; they deleted from their 2003 report on climate change phrases such as "climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment" and "likely mostly due to human activities."

So I'm heartened that, despite the current administration's efforts to the contrary, information such as that conveyed in these two films is finally getting out to the public. But I'm also a little discouraged that The Great Warming ends its run on June 28 to make room for Superman Returns. Although I suppose we all need heroes, and I was one of only 14 moviegoers during a prime Friday-night screening last week.

Each in their own way, An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Warming bring the issue down to a question of morality. Unless viewers can dismiss what appears to be an unimpeachable scientific argument for substantially addressing global warming, they must feel tacitly complicit in the eco-crime. This appeal to ethics is a shrewd way of framing the debate cinematically. Consider that many films' most dramatic moments often arrive when the main character faces a moral dilemma. Well, here we are, the main characters in this story. And we've reached the climax -- the ultimate confrontation with the antagonist, in this case the unholy wrath of a planetary biome attempting to restore itself to balance.

Who will prevail? People seem to be talking more about global warming, and increasingly that talk seems to center on what we can do about it. "I want to sell my car," said Mary Jane Gattone of Burlington following a recent showing of The Great Warming. "We're ready to buy our mopeds." She was referring to her movie companion, Sally Newton of South Burlington, who voiced a common post-film sentiment: "I came out with frustration," she said. "How do we get people's awareness up? How do we get people to care?"

Such animated discussion testifies to the success of these films. But affecting change clearly requires action -- before the crisis becomes irreversible. Some scientists see global warming as akin to cancer. They know it's there, and that it may still be treatable. But will we seek treatment before we really feel the pain? The question places us at an evolutionary crossroads: Do we continue on our current path of consumption and pollution, or change course?

I have to confess: Some of the most fun I've had this summer has been cruising Lake Champlain in a motorboat and watching race cars at Barre's Thunder Road. And another: I sometimes drive to places I could reach -- if I gave myself more time -- on foot or bicycle. My rationalizations: I deeply appreciate the region's natural beauty when I'm out on the lake, its distinctive cultural character when I'm at the track. (And the gentle hills of Washington County are easy on the eyes.) I come away from these experiences inspired to preserve what's unique about Vermont. And anyway, I had nothing to do with designing my car-dependent community. I was born into sprawl.

Still, there are things I can do to diminish my eco "footprint": I can budget my time better, walk more, drive less, and conserve resources -- gas, electricity, water, paper, land -- by using only what I need. I can hope that others are considering similar measures -- say, my consumer counterparts in the People's Republic of China, where private automobile ownership was growing by 20 percent annually when The Great Warming was shot. There are four Chinese people for every North American.

All this makes my curbside recycling seem paltry. I'll continue to do my part, but I take Gore's message as a call for sound environmental leadership at all levels of government. Citizen action, then, must entail creating an inhospitable environment for irresponsible stewards of the land.

In the doomsday predictions of our nation's imperial decline, President Bush is the Nero who fiddles while Rome burns. In my opinion, he's well cast in the part: He's the lapdog of industrial agents who pollute with impunity, and he has blithely led us into the maw of war just to fetch their slippers. If I were a devout Christian, as are, supposedly, many Bush supporters, I'd wonder how he countenances this unrepentant desecration of God's creation. I'd ask him what shall it profit believers in traditional heterosexual marriage should they lose the very ground upon which their altar stands? I'd tell him to crack open a junior high science textbook, for chrissakes.

I didn't vote for Bush, and in future elections I won't vote for anyone who hesitates to call his administration out on their recklessness in every major arena of governance. But of course climate change is a local matter as well, and that means any Vermont candidate who wants my vote must have an informed position on the most pressing environmental issues of the day.

I'm not so naïve as to expect a smooth shift from the old-energy economy to the new-energy economy -- one powered by cleaner, renewable resources -- in the course of a single election. As another incisive documentary film, 2004's The End of Suburbia, predicts, social and political upheaval will attend the demand for oil after global production has peaked and begun its decline. Some petroleum experts say this benchmark has already been reached, and one could argue the upheaval has begun.

But I'm not cynical. For decades engineers have been developing new energy technologies. In Vermont, a Bridport farm is reportedly using the methane in cow manure to power its generators and hundreds of nearby homes. I look to these developments when my faith in human survival flags. I remind myself that, ultimately, cynicism is cowardice, because it allows one to slink away from a challenge. And, unless all this global-warming warning is just hot air, we're going to run out of places to be cool.