MADISON, Wis. - From examining tensions over global water conflicts to studying the plight of North America's nearly extinct whooping crane, the recently concluded Society of Environmental Journalists conference was another hit among those of us who communicate science to the public.
None of that, of course, immediately mattered to CNN, the Huffington Post, and a number of other news outlets and bloggers who took the bait and ran with one of the biggest nonstories of late.
It began when Irish film director-producer Phelim McAleer - described by some as the radical right's answer to Michael Moore - verbally pounced on former Vice President Al Gore during the Q & A
portion of Mr. Gore's Oct. 9 speech at the Madison Concourse Hotel.
Talk about being duped. Mr. McAleer's new film, Not Evil Just Wrong, takes the view that global warming is bunk and society is being misled by a bunch of nimwits at great cost.
OK, I get it. Some people never have and never will accept the notion that human activity has combined with natural forces to alter the Earth's climate. They're entitled to their opinion and their right to voice it, even though the scientists most qualified to speak on this issue have agreed for years that humans are at least partly responsible for the Earth's warmer climate. And even though major industry executives, from oil companies to utilities, conceded long ago that it's high time to move on and work collectively to reduce the world's greenhouse gases.
Mr. McAleer began his in-your-face publicity stunt with a passing reference to a legal attempt that contrarians had made in 2007 to keep Mr. Gore's Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, from being shown in Great Britain schools. The courts ultimately let it be shown while allowing teachers to issue a disclaimer that some people consider it political.
He also challenged Mr. Gore on the status of polar bears, citing hotly disputed evidence over whether their numbers have increased or not. Mr. Gore reminded him that they're endangered either way.
What ensued was a verbal volleyball match rarely heard outside of second grade. Silly grandstanding morphed into obnoxious, tiresome, and childish behavior.
Former SEJ president and current board member Tim Wheeler of the (Baltimore) Sun assumed the role of a calm, pint-sized bouncer. He told Mr. McAleer that "we're not doing this" in reference to his grandstanding. He firmly but politely directed him away from the microphone while pointing out that Mr. Gore had answered his questions, whether he liked the responses or not.
Mr. McAleer went into a rant before his microphone was cut off. He stormed out of the auditorium and approached cameras in the hallway as if he'd just made some amazing discovery. To wit - drum roll, please! - Mr. Gore doesn't like petty arguments about polar bears.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: It's not about polar bears. It's about people.
Environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation are as guilty as anyone for reducing the climate-change issue to a symbol. Our remote-controlled society suffers from attention deficit disorder, especially when it comes to anything that smacks of science.
Try explaining how climate change in the Great Lakes region could alter food production, water supplies, shipping, tourism, recreation, property values, and water quality while resulting in more air pollution and mosquito-borne diseases. Or how it could result in millions of environmental refugees around the world, many from our own continent, as resources are stretched precariously thin by a population boom.
Maybe it's just easier to argue about polar bears.
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