Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Don't worry about global warming - we'll just live indoors

Planet of the Indoor People -- by William Saletan (from the Washington Post)

Have you heard the news? Scientists have found a planet that can support life. Parts of its atmosphere are too hot for year-round habitation, its gases impede breathing and surface conditions are sometimes fatal. But by constructing a network of sealed facilities, tunnels and vehicles, humans could survive on this planet for decades, and perhaps even centuries.

The planet is called Earth.

If you've seen this planet lately, you know what's going on: record-shattering temperatures, scores of Americans dead. By summer's end, the toll will be in the hundreds. It's not as bad as 2003, when a heat wave killed more than 35,000 people in Europe. But according to global-warming forecasts, within 40 years, every other summer will be like that one.

Thank goodness for air conditioning. To keep old folks alive, cities from Washington to Los Angeles are opening artificially cooled buildings to the public.

Meanwhile, people are lining up to buy window units. According to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, shipments of air conditioners and heat pumps have tripled over the past three decades.

The percentage of single-family homes built with central air has gone from 36 to 87. The percentage of cars built with air conditioning has risen from 61 to 98. In 1970, 42 percent of occupied mobile homes had it. By 2003, that percentage had more than doubled.

It's a heartwarming -- or, more precisely, a heart-cooling -- story. Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. Air conditioning takes indoor heat and pushes it outdoors. To do this, it uses energy, which increases production of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere. From a cooling standpoint, the first transaction is a wash, and the second is a loss. We're cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that's still habitable.

All over the country, power consumption is breaking records, and air conditioning is a huge reason why. We use about one-sixth of our electricity to cool ourselves. That's more than the total electricity consumption of India, a country whose population exceeds 1 billion. To get the electricity, we burn oil and coal. We also run air conditioners in our cars, which reduces urban fuel efficiency by up to four miles per gallon, at an annual cost of 7 billion gallons of gasoline.

More burning of oil and coal means more greenhouse gases. Stan Cox, a scientist at the Land Institute, calculates that air-conditioning the average U.S. home requires 3,400 pounds of carbon dioxide production per year. The effects of this are particularly bad at night.

Over the past five summers, very high minimum daily temperatures -- those that score in the top 10 percent historically -- have been far more widespread in this country than during any other five-year period. This is what's killing people. Outdoor air used to cool at night, allowing us to recover from the day's heat. Now it doesn't. To fuel our air conditioning, we're destroying nature's.

The hotter it gets, the more energy we burn. In 1981, one in three American households with central air used it all summer long. By 1997, more than half did. Countries once cooled by outdoor air now cool themselves. In Britain, 75 percent of new cars have air conditioning. In Canada, energy consumption for residential cooling has doubled in 10 years, and half the homes now have central air or window units. Kuujjuaq, an Eskimo village 1,000 miles north of Montreal, just bought 10 air conditioners. According to the mayor, it has been getting hot lately.

Instead of fixing the outdoors, we're trying to escape it. On every street in my neighborhood, people have torn down ordinary houses and put up giant air-conditioned boxes that extend as far as possible toward the property line. They've lost yards and windows, but that's the whole idea.

Outdoor space is too hard to control, so we're replacing it with indoor space. From 1991 to 2005, the median lot size of single-family houses sold in the United States shrank by 9 percent, but the median indoor square footage increased by 18 percent. If you can't stand the heat, go hide in your kitchen.

Seven years ago, when my wife and I moved into our house, we planted a garden and built a patio in the back yard. Now, overcome by heat and mosquitoes, we're thinking of replacing them with something a bit more climate-controlled. We still want to look at nature. We just don't want to feel it. And for better or worse, we'll probably succeed.

Two months ago, we saw Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." Walking out of the air-conditioned theater, we agonized over what we could do to fight global warming. The conversation ended when we realized that our most useful contribution would be to cancel the renovation. Wrapping ourselves in a climate-controlled bubble can't make global warming less true. But in the short run, it can make it a lot less inconvenient.

That's the problem in Washington today. Policymakers aren't facing global warming, because they aren't feeling it. They gave themselves air conditioning in the 1920s and '30s, long before the public got it. White House meetings and congressional hearings on climate change are doomed as soon as the thermostats are set. Don't ask whether these people are living on the same planet. In effect, they aren't.

When outdoor heat leaks into the Washington bubble, like crime into a wealthy neighborhood, officials treat it as a faux pas. Three weeks ago, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters in the congressional press gallery: "It'd be nice if they could get you a little more air conditioning up here."

White House press secretary Tony Snow assured correspondents last week that their briefing room would soon be renovated. "Gathering from the temperature in this room at this moment, I think everybody agrees that it's probably about time to have a new and updated air-conditioning and heating system," he joked.

But maybe the air-conditioning system we need to fix is the one outdoors. And maybe we won't face that truth till it becomes more inconvenient.

( William Saletan covers science and technology for Slate, the online magazine at

2. Beyond Propaganda – by JOHN KENNEY

FOR some men, it’s cars, a sports team or watching “The Godfather” over and over. For me, it’s oil companies. They fascinate me. Their size, their power, their reach. So I was particularly interested in the recent news about BP shutting down the nation’s largest oil field, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

I was interested in part because six years ago I helped create BP’s current advertising campaign, the man-in-the-street television commercials. I can’t take credit for changing the company’s name from “British Petroleum” to “beyond petroleum” (lower case is cooler); my boss at the time came up with it.

That was the summer of 2000. Ideas were needed. We were pitching to the top man, Sir John Browne (now Lord Browne). My partner and I got the assignment. Other agencies got to work on Nike, Apple, Super Bowl spots. I would have taken Taco Bell. We got an oil company. At the time, I knew nothing about oil companies.

I started reading. The facts alone are amazing: 85 million barrels of oil a day used worldwide; 250,000 people born every day; climate change. I read Sir John’s speeches and read about BP and its technological achievements and investment in hydrogen.

This wasn’t my idea of an oil company chief. This was hope. Why didn’t they talk about this stuff? And why did all big oil company advertising look alike? The typical helicopter shot of a tanker at sea, sunlight reflecting off the logo as it dissolves to a towheaded urchin on the beach, frolicking in the pristine waters. A voice like Morgan Freeman’s saying, “At Gigantico Petroleum, we’re on the move to keep the world on the move. And to fill this tanker with cash.”

So we thought, what if you stripped away the corporate speak? What if you engaged in the debate that was happening with oil and energy and the environment?

We borrowed a video camera and approached people on the street, asking them questions: Would you rather have your car or a cleaner environment? Is global warming real? (Remember, this was 2000, when only one oil company, BP, had even admitted the possibility of global warming.) If you could say something right now to the head of a big oil company, what would you say?

It was an amazing experience. I had done man-in-the-street interviews for other products and knew that it was exceptionally difficult to get someone to stop and talk. People are simply too busy to talk seriously about, say, toilet paper with a stranger.

But with oil it was different. People stopped. They talked. They were intrigued and passionate and intelligent and a little angry. They understood that oil companies simply deliver a product. Yet — and I think this has to do with their size and profit — people often expected something more from them than they did of other large industries. A gallon of milk costs more than a gallon of gas, but it doesn’t cause global warming. And we don’t need 85 million barrels of it a day.

In short, they knew the power of an oil company executive. And they wanted leaders.

After a day and a half of interviews, we had enough footage for five commercials. They were raw and emotional. The things people said were sometimes none-too-flattering to BP or the industry. At the end of each spot, we put up a list of what BP was doing in terms of cleaner fuels, alternative forms of energy, recognizing global warming and reducing their own emissions; stuff you didn’t hear from an oil company. Before the “beyond petroleum” tagline, we added, “It’s a start.”

We did print ads too. The same way. Real people, real quotes as headlines that challenged BP and the industry. No oil company — few companies at all — had ever spoken like this, confronting the debate so frankly.

They liked it.

Advertising is a funny business. You get to help shape the personalities of huge companies. Most often it’s for cellphone service or credit cards or fast food or paper towels. Rarely are you faced with whether you “believe” in a product or service. This was different. This was serious. I believed wholeheartedly in BP’s message, that we could go — or at least work toward going — beyond petroleum.

The campaign first appeared a few days before Sept. 11, 2001. It was shelved for a long time. Then relaunched. In that time, I moved on to other assignments and later another agency.

The campaign is running again. I heard that the interviewees are prescreened now, which is too bad. And last week, I heard that the pipeline in Prudhoe Bay is corroded and leaking. The company that claims to be beyond petroleum shut down a pipeline that serves up 400,000 barrels of petroleum a day. Maybe Coca-Cola’s new line should be “It’s good for your teeth.”

I read too that the energy expert Daniel Yergin claimed last week that “new analysis of oil-industry activity points to a considerable growth in the capacity to produce oil in the years ahead.” It seems unlikely that anyone’s going to push hard to change our energy future.

I guess, looking at it now, “beyond petroleum” is just advertising. It’s become mere marketing — perhaps it always was — instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm. Maybe I’m naïve.

It’s just that I believe that the handful of men who run these remarkable companies possess something more valuable than wealth, privilege and power. They have at their disposal the truly rare possibility of creating a legacy, the ability to change things, on a huge scale.

I never actually met Lord Browne. He announced recently that he’ll retire at the end of 2008, when he reaches BP’s mandatory retirement age of 60. I have no doubt he is a good, decent and exceptionally bright person. But imagine what the headlines could have read: “Lord Browne to retire; changed oil industry and the world.”

Think of it. Going beyond petroleum. The best and brightest, at a company that can provide practically unlimited resources, trying to find newer, smarter, cleaner ways of powering the world. Only they didn’t go beyond petroleum. They are petroleum.

The problem there is that “are petroleum” just isn’t a great tagline.

(John Kenney is a creative director at an advertising agency)


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