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Global warning

By Marc Gunther (Fortune Magazine) - April 5, 2006

The media agrees with the majority of scientists: Global warming is here. Now, what to do about it?

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) – Forgive the bad pun, but global warming has become a hot topic in the mass media.

ABC News spent two days focusing on climate change last month. Time ran a cover story headlined, “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.” HBO will show a documentary called “Too Hot Not to Handle” on Earth Day. Next month, Paramount plans to release “An Inconvenient Truth,” a theatrical film about former vice president Al Gore’s crusade to protect the earth from global warming.

These programs strike similar themes. They assert that the scientific debate over global warming is over, and they argue that action must be taken sooner rather than later to protect the Earth from catastrophe.

Global warming is “no longer a controversy,” said Terry Moran, an anchor on ABC’s “Nightline.” “Science tells us it’s a fact.”

Time writes: “The debate is over. Global Warming is upon us — with a vengeance,”

“All our lives will be affected and most of those effects will be very unpleasant,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton professor who gets plenty of airtime on HBO.

And, of course, Al Gore declares, “It is now clear that we face a deepening global climate crisis that requires us to act boldly, quickly and wisely.”

Some global warming skeptics, of course, will differ. There’s an alarmist tone to some of this coverage, particularly HBO’s show, which is produced by Hollywood activist Laurie David.

Then again, maybe it’s time to sound alarms. The truth is, it’s hard, if not impossible, for those of us who are not climate scientists to assess the scientific evidence.
The media shift

What’s significant here is the media shift. A growing consensus has emerged in the media around global warming. That’s new — in an effort to provide balance, much media coverage of global warming has until relatively recently given something close to equal time to the shrinking minority of scientists who challenge the majority view that the problem is real, caused by human action and worth worrying about. The new consensus (which threatens to become a drumbeat) will only step up pressure on government and business to act.

Put another way, the political climate and the business climate are changing as fast, if not faster, than the global climate.

States and localities are already acting. They are promoting green buildings, mass transit and the use of alternative fuels. Even on Capitol Hill, there’s gathering momentum for legislation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

“Washington is the last holdout,” says James Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, on HBO.
Business opportunities

Regulation would deliver competitive advantages to the growing number of companies that have decided to take climate change seriously. They include General Electric with its ecomagination initiative, Toyota and Honda with their hybrid cars, Florida Power & Light with its investment in wind power, UPS and FedEx with their purchases of vehicles driven by alternative fuels, and many others.

“This could be the biggest business opportunity of all time — to move away from a carbon-based economy to a new economy that doesn’t hurt the Earth’s climate,” says Jonathan Foley, director for the Center for Sustainability at the University of Wisconsin.

Big institutional investors are also pushing companies to act. (See “Global Warming Could Melt Your Portfolio.”) A global coalition of investors, called the Carbon Disclosure Project, has urged companies to report on their exposure to climate change risks. You can read more by clicking here.

And, at the very least, corporate reputations are at stake.

Norm Thompson, a mail order company with outdoorsy roots, wins praise from the media for operating out of a green building, investing in wind power and printing catalogs on paper containing a minimum of 10 percent recycled content. By contrast, Victoria’s Secret is bashed by activists and the press for mailing 390 million catalogs a year.

Even some small companies are getting into the act. HBO spotlights Hot Lips Pizza, a chain of four pizza parlors in Portland, Oregon, that purchases locally grown ingredients, uses waste heat from its pizza ovens to heat water and delivers its pizzas in electric cars.

Portland, of course, is not America, and Hot Lips is not Domino’s. But when a local pizza joint gets national exposure for trying to curb global warming, you can see which way the wind is blowing.

Plugged In is a daily column by writers of FORTUNE magazine. Today’s columnist, Marc Gunther, can be reached at mgunther@fortunemail.com.