June 29, 2006

Oprah Brings Attention to Global Warming, Fumbles Conservation

Has anyone noticed how Oprah collapses into a pool of plasmodium when her guests start talking science? Sure, when it's relationship issues or the inner child, she's all over it, wielding advice like a psycho-babble hammer.

I got a phone call from my mother yesterday afternoon.

"Turn on channel four, Oprah's talking about global warming," she says. My mother is one of those viewers that hates Oprah (and Dr. Phil) but watches here and there anyway. I avoid daytime TV like the plague.

Sure enough, "Leo" DiCaprio is next to Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton, sitting before a giant rotating graphic of the Earth, and Oprah is looking fidgety and nervous opposite the pair.

"Scientists agree there's no longer really any argument," [said] Oppenheimer. "The climate is changing. Human beings are largely responsible, and it's just going to keep getting warmer until we act to remove the pollution."

They walked through the little things people can do to save energy and emit less pollution, including buying and installing compact fluorescent bulbs, composting, achieving carbon-neutrality by buying trees in plantations, recycling and (I don't know how little this is, but...) buying a more fuel efficient car, like a Prius.

I think it's wonderful that the message was distributed to Oprah's huge fan base, and I see the wisdom of using someone like DiCaprio to transmit the importance of climate change to the GP. I am critical, however, of a few points:

Researchers recently published a report in Science, saying that carbon neutrality through planting trees on tree farms has it's own costs to the natural environment. The man-made forests drain nearby fresh water reservoirs, robbing the native ecosystem of fresh water.

From Trading Water for Carbon with Biological Carbon Sequestration -- Jackson et al. 310 (5756): 1944 -- Science:

Carbon sequestration strategies highlight tree plantations without considering their full environmental consequences. We combined field research, synthesis of more than 600 observations, and climate and economic modeling to document substantial losses in stream flow, and increased soil salinization and acidification, with afforestation. Plantations decreased stream flow by 227 millimeters per year globally (52%), with 13% of streams drying completely for at least 1 year. Regional modeling of U.S. plantation scenarios suggests that climate feedbacks are unlikely to offset such water losses and could exacerbate them. Plantations can help control groundwater recharge and upwelling but reduce stream flow and salinize and acidify some soils.

The hybrid car is presented as the answer to our fuel problems, but it is not efficient in all areas of driving. The Prius and other hybrids do well in the city, terrible on the highway.

From Life in the Green Lane - New York Times:

The car that started the hybrid craze, the Toyota Prius, is lauded for squeezing 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas, and it really can. But only when it's being driven around town, where its electric motor does its best and most active work. On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla, which costs thousands less. For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius's potential for fuel economy will never be realized and its price premium never recovered.

Finally, DiCaprio's argument was fundamentally flawed. Not once was a reason actually given for conservation, aside from celebrities are doing it and it could save you money. Don't get me wrong, this will be the driving force behind the green campaign to the GP, but isn't that a bit insulting to people? Aren't we just affirming people's obsession with wealth and celebrity, and relating that they cannot grasp or do not care about the fundamental philosophy of conservation?

Our future depends on the biodiversity of our planet's native ecosystems, and I believe that people do care about our natural world, no matter how it is viewed.

I think smoothing over certain negative aspects of the movement is a bad approach in that it gives those opposed to conservation ammunition to draw people away. We need a realistic approach through the idealism. We need to tell people the truth, and treat them as adults who can comprehend the problems, not children that need direction.


  1. Thanks for adding me to the blogroll! It looks like we do have similar interests. You can find that article at NYTimes.com.

  2. You're exactly right. There's a tendency, I think, to exaggerate some statistics or issues under the impression that people will take them more seriously that way, but what really happens is more people find out they're being BSed and end up thinking there *is* no problem. That's one of the reasons abstinence-only education and anti-drug education has performed so poorly; they rely more on anti-drug and anti-sex hysteria than reason, and when people find out they are being duped, they react by _underestimating_ the dangers.

  3. We're a perfect example of people who have no business buying a Prius, no matter how environmentally conscious we are. We live 45 minutes from the nearest large city, which means a lot of highway driving before we ever have a chance to do any city driving. Our home town has one traffic light, and it wouldn't have that, if that intersection didn't have a school there. We help the environment more by recycling newspaper, cardboard, aluminum cans, and plastic at the recycling bins in the next town over, which we already pass on our way to almost anywhere we're going.

    I voted for you on BLOG VILLAGE!

  4. Thank you Dirty! Both for the vote and your insightful words. Rational people should only be concerned with truth, and it seems to me that truth does not encompass propaganda (I'm sure philosophy students would debate that issue.

    Tom, no prob, I'm all about community.

    Thud, it's always nice to hear from you.

  5. I would be more inclined to believe the stories being told about humans are the only cause of Global Warming if they only would offer actual concrete proof that we are the only cause of the 1 degree increade in global temperatures over the past 400 years. I have read nothing but "We believe so it is true" for many years and that my friend isn't evidence.

    The earth is over a billion years old and 400 years is but a nanosecond in relation to a billion years. If you want to fall for the histeria that is fine, but it really isn't going to change anything. Buying a Perius or any other Hybrid vehicle in such small numbers isn't going to fix anything. The problem is millions of Americans cannot afford to go out and buy a $30,000.00 Hybrid vehicle and because of that we will still have millions and millions of cars running on fossile fuels.

    By the way, you are correct about Oprah does have trouble with topics that are far away from the human interest variety. She is home in the feel good stories where she can hit on the heart strings of her audience.

  6. Chiefley11:25 AM

    I am not overly concerned by the exact recommendations that might be given on a popular daytime tv show. We engineers and scientists tend to think that most people respond to highly rigorous and accurate arguments. But this is not the case.

    The real value of opportunities like the Oprah show is to contribute to a popular change in culture. All we really need is a kind if "tipping point" where many people become sensitive to the seriousness of environmental issues and their responsibilities to that. Once that happens, the details will sort themselves out.

    As an analogy, consider the cultural change that has happened in Organic Food. Once a notion like this enters the common consciousness of a culture, the details get sorted out afterwards.