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Can You Prevent Global Warming?

The people who brought you Smokey Bear urge citizen action to forestall climate change.

April 4, 2006

Modified: April 4, 2006

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Two new Public Service Announcements released by the Ad Council say global warming could produce irreversible changes as soon as 30 years from now, and they urge individual citizens to take action.

The ads correctly summarize the bulk of scientific opinion, which holds that the earth will warm by 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.3 degrees Fahrenheit) sometime in the next 20 to 54 years, and that this warming will be accompanied by severe weather events. It's not so clear what the ad's viewers can do about that.


On March 23, 2006, the Ad Council and Environmental Defense announced the start of a new public service campaign  to raise awareness of global warming and educate individuals on what they can do to help. 

Environmental Defense is a non-profit environmental advocacy group that has focused on the issue of global warming for several years. The Ad Council is a non-profit public service group that helps coordinate advocacy campaigns with various sponsors. Past campaigns have targeted such things as drunk driving and forest fires with  the "Friends Don't let Friends Drive Drunk" and "Smokey Bear" ads.

Is the Globe Warming?

The central message for the campaign, as  explained on the Ad Council's website, is that " The most respected scientific organizations have stated unequivocally that global warming is happening , and people are causing it by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests." That is correct.

Indeed, that conclusion is supported both by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the top science advisers of 11 leading industrial nations, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

The IPCC  is a UN organization which connects experts from around the world to study climate change, and includes the work of hundreds of contributors for its reports. Their most recent report, released in 2001, stated that the earth has warmed 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.1 degrees Fahrenheit) during the 20th century and that there was "new and stronger evidence" that human activity was the cause.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences is a society of scholars chartered by Congress in 1863 to advise the government. In 2001 the NAS, in a report requested by the Bush White House, said :

National Academy of Sciences, 2001: Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.

In June 2005, the science academies of 11 leading industrial nations (including the NAS)issued  a joint statement urging prompt action on climate change:

Joint Statement, 2005:  There is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring ... It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities.

Together, the two ads say that within 30 years the planet could see irreversible changes bringing severe weather events including heat waves, droughts and hurricanes. They also urge viewers to visit a website to learn what to do.

“Consequences are only 30 years away.”

The ad "Train" states, "Some say that irreversible consequences are only 30 years away." That's a fair characterization; mainstream scientific opinion holds that big changes could happen that soon.

Ad Council ad "Train"

(On Screen: Camera cuts between images of trees, grass and the outdoors)
Man: Global Warming

( On Screen: A speeding train )
Man: Some say irreversible consequences are 30 years away.
( On Screen: Camera cuts between grass and train )
Man : 30 years? That won't affect me. 
( On Screen: Train rushes forward behind man.  He steps out of the way to reveal a child behind him and in the way of the train )
( On Screen: The words "There's still time.  Fight Global Warming.)

All of the studies cited by the ad's sponsors warn of irreversible consequences based on a prediction that temperatures will rise an additional 1.3 Celsius (2.3 degress Fahrenheit).  The IPCC report predicts that will happen sometime between 2026 and 2060, depending.

IPCC Report, 2001:   Results from coupled ocean-atmosphere climate models driven by a variety of GHG (greenhouse gas) emission scenarios indicate that the Earth will have warmed by 2 degrees Celsius relative to the 'pre-industrial' era (and by 1.3 degrees Celsius relative to the present) sometime between 2026 and 2060 . Much of this range is caused by uncertainties in future GHG emissions. To the extent that the global community continues to follow a "business-as-usual" path with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels and does not seek to limit GHG emissions, the climate will pass the 2 degree Celsius threshold sooner rather than later.

That's not a unanimous conclusion, however. The IPCC report notes reservations of some experts who think the science is not definitive enough to say temperatures will rise that quickly. One such dissenter is J. Patrick Michaels, a  past president of the American Association of State Climatologists as well a contributing author of the IPCC report.  He also maintains the World Climate Report blog, and  is a fellow at the free-market, libertarian Cato Institute.  

"Massive Heat Waves . . . Severe Drought . . . Devastating Hurricanes"

The "Tick" ad projects the message that today's children will grow up to be confronted by "massive heat waves," "severe drought" and "devastating hurricanes" as a result of man-made global warming. 

Ad Council Ad: "Tick"

(Camera Cuts to Different Children to say each word with the "ticking" sound of a clock in the background.)
Children: Tick ..Tick...Tick...Tick... Tick... Tick... Tick...Massive Heatwaves...Tick... Tick...Tick... Severe Droughts...Tick...Tick...Tick... Tick...Tick... Tick...Tick... Devastating Hurricanes...Tick...Tick... Tick...Tick...Tick...Tick...Tick...Tick... And the worst...Tick...Tick...Tick... Tick... is yet...Tick...Tick...Tick... to come...Tick.
Announcer : What kind of world are you leaving us? 

(FightGlobalWarming.Com appears on a black screen)
Announcer: Learn what you can do, while there's still time.

To document these threats the Ad Council provides several peer-reviewed papers  from science journals. The  IPCC report stated:

IPCC Report: Some extreme events are projected to increase in frequency and/or severity during the 21st century due to changes in the mean and/or variability of climate, so it can be expected that the severity of their impacts will also increase in concert with global warming.

However, the IPCC consensus also noted some degree of uncertainty:

IPCC Report: The potential for large scale and possibly irreversible impacts poses risks that have yet to be reliably quantified.

Another view is offered by Roger Pielke Jr., who says perceptions regarding hurricanes are skewed by recent major storms. He adds:

Pielke : Claims of linkage between global warming and hurricane impacts are premature . . . (and) any future changes in hurricane intensities will likely be small in the context of observed variability.

Pielke directs the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research and maintains the  Prometheus science policy web log.   

"There’s still time,”  "Our Future is Up to You."

Both television ads follow up with calls to action. The campaign's website has a section where individuals can calculate the amount of carbon dioxide they produce and see tips on "cutting the carbs," such as using energy-efficient lightbulbs and programmable thermostats, planting trees, washing clothes in cold water, driving less aggressively and less often, keeping tires properly inflated and turning off car air conditioners and "cracking the window" instead.

It's not clear what this would accomplish, however, even if a majority of Americans began following such advice. Many scientists say far more drastic reductions in emissions are needed. A Dutch report cited by sponsors says, for example, "Industrialized countries will need to reduce their emissions by 15-30% below 1990 levels in 2020."

Dissenters argue that drastic changes are not worth the effort. Michaels summarizes  this point of view in a recent web post: 

Michaels : Atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions are going to continue to grow until major technological advancements take place—advancements that are, at the very least, decades away. So whether or not the climate changes we are observing now are reversible is a non-issue. There is nothing substantive that can be done about it anyway.

However, the more widely held scientific opinion is that massive change is needed soon. The IPCC summary for policymakers urged nations to adopt a wide "portfolio" of painful and politically controversial actions, including taxes and regulations:

IPCC: The portfolio may include -according to national circumstances-emissions/carbon/energy taxes, tradeable or non-tradeable permits, land-use policies, provision and/or removal of subsides, deposit/refund systems, technology or performance standards, energy mix requirements, product bans, voluntary agreements, government spending and investment, and support for research and development.

--by Justin Bank and Brooks Jackson

Update April 5 - Several readers wrote to point out that the Ad Council campaign mascot's proper name is  actually "Smokey Bear," and not "Smokey the Bear" as our article originally had it.  "Smokey the Bear" was a popular 1952 song, adding "the" to make the rhythm work.  Some of us still can't keep the beat out of our heads.

Clarification, April 6: We originally characterized Roger Pielke as a "dissenter from the consensus view." Prof. Pielke says that was wrong, and that "there is no present consensus" on hurricanes and climate change.


den Elzen, M & M Meinshausen. "Multi-gas emission pathways for meeting the EU 2°C climate target," Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Cambridge University Press. 2005.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,   Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report, Cambridge University Press. 2001.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report: Summary for Policy Makers.  

Joint Statement of Science Academies: Global Response to Climate Change, 2005

Michaels, Patrick J. "Non-Linear Climate Change," World Climate Report. 9 Aug 2004.

Michaels, Patrick J. "Observations, Not Models," World Climate Report.  14 April 2004. 

Michaels, Patrick J. "Hot Tip: Post Misses Point," World Climate Report.  31 Jan 2006.

National Acadamies of Science.  "Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions," The National Academies Press. 2001.

Pielke, Jr., R. A., C. Landsea, M. Mayfield, J. Laver and R. Pasch. "Hurricanes and Global Warming," Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Nov 2005.