A look back, from 2050, at how we ruined the environment


November 21, 1990|By Michael Hill

As James Burke sees it, the entire civilized world is in the position that U.S. automakers and steelmakers were in, say, 20 years ago. Only this time, those giant industrialists know for a fact that higher gas prices and Japanese cars and steel are on the way.

Yet still they focus on next quarter's bottom line instead of taking some losses to gird their obsolete loins for the lengthy battle the future holds.

It's not Japanese cars and steel that the world faces, it is environmental catastrophe in the form of global warming and all of its complex ramifications.

Yet Burke, a veteran British science journalist, sees our political leaders as a bunch of Neros, collectively fiddling while our cars and energy plants continue to burn the fossil fuels that will lead to the destruction of life as we know it.

"After the Warming" is Burke's two-hour examination of this phenomenon that will be on PBS tonight. It was co-produced by Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, which will show it at 8 o'clock, along with some fund-raising spots Burke recorded for the station.

This is the best product of the MPT era of president Raymond Ho and his international co-production ventures, most of which have been near misses. Indeed, "After the Warming" is a near-brilliant piece of television.

That's because it's appreciable on several levels, as a dazzling display of electronic wizardry, as a fascinating historical lesson, and as a carefully researched, detailed accounting of the global warming scenario, which, even if you can't keep up with all the facts and figures, manages to convey an overall evocation of the pains of adjusting to life with the diminished use of carbon fuels.

"This was a genuine co-production," Burke, whose previous PBS series include "Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed," said while in Baltimore last week. "After the Warming" was made by MPT along with broadcast concerns in England and Australia.

"Some co-productions just mean that someone has agreed to buy the series overseas, but we had researchers in England and the United States. Glenn Tolbert was the line producer for Maryland Public Television and he was fully involved."

In "After the Warming," Burke dresses up, as he puts it, "in a funny suit" and poses as an electronic journalist in the year 2050, hosting a documentary on how the world and it climactic evolution got to where that it is then.

The first hour is an amazing accounting of world history from the point of view of the weather as Burke gives a meteorological explanation for many, if not most, of the significant developments of mankind, from Egypt's beginning of settled civilization to the invasion of Europe by Asiatic tribes to the invention of the chimney and how it made business into a year-round concern.

As Burke explains it, up until the 20th century these changes were caused by the variables in the Earth's orbit and tilt. But, the industrial revolution caused man to begin burning those fossil fuels and thus to start having his own influence on the planet's climate.

And that could prove as devastating as the melting of an ice-age dam that caused a huge flow of fresh water into the Atlantic a few millennia ago, just one of the many amazing tales Burke relates to illustrate what a complicated device the world's weather is, with air and oceans and sun and trees and plankton and winds and deserts and, now, man himself coming into play, a change in one inevitably rippling through the rest.

Burke, who was trained as a scholar of ancient English and taught for eight years before stumbling into a job with the BBC -- "They wanted humanists in their science department because they thought we could explain things in ways people could understand" -- admits that telling the tale from the point of view of the future is a bit of a gimmick.

"You do things like that to get people interested and then hope that they will learn something along the way," he said.

It's actually a very useful device because it means that the warming scenario is presented not as theory, but as fact, as something that has happened. And, that, Burke says, is as it should be viewed, objecting to programs that, in the name of fairness, will have one scientist who thinks it's going to happen and another taking the opposing side.

"But actually, among scientists, 90 percent think it's going to happen and 10 percent don't," Burke said. "It's just a matter of when. And most of the politicians want to see it happen before they do anything about it. Well, that's like saying you should wait until your house burns down before you buy insurance."

But, just as "After the Warming" is not a gloomy prediction of a bleak future as seen by scientists looking forward from 1990, neither is it an accounting of a world that responded properly when looking back from 2050, which is, after all, only 60 years from now.

Burke's scenario has measures taken around the year 2000 to reduce the use of carbon fuels. Countries were assigned limits on the amount they could burn setting up a trading system with first world countries buying carbon credits from third world countries in exchange for advanced technology.

But Burke has most measures taken only after dire occurances, droughts, famines, floods, storms, invasions and the like. And even then, certain results could not be foreseen.

Indeed, as Burke looks back and regrets those wasted decades between 1980 and 2000 when the world argued about what to do, instead of doing anything, you can conjure up that final scene in "On the Beach," the nuclear disaster film that ended with a deserted Australian city, the wind whipping through the sign left from the revival that read, "There is Still Time Left, Brother."

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