The financial crisis is nothing to bat an eyelash at, of course, but as the U.S. is swept up in the flurry of our economic meltdown, which has severely narrowed our vision inwardly, the world keeps turning. Or should I say, warming. There is the very serious danger that our current domestic financial crisis will blind us to the ever-present and growing global environmental crisis that demands the attention and cooperation of all nations. We now have "economic meltdowns on top of ice-cap meltdowns," Frontline correspondent Martin Smith said after a Washington, D.C. screening of his documentary, Heat: A Global Investigation, which airs on PBS Tuesday, Oct. 21, at 9 p.m. EST.
With bailouts and buyouts hogging the front pages, it may seem that the environment is irrelevant to more pressing domestic problems, but the economy and the environment have a strong symbiotic relationship. In most cases, economic interests still trump environmental results, and Smith's climate change documentary is focused specifically on what big businesses around the world are doing (and not doing) to tend to the earth's future.
Over the course of a year and a half, Smith traveled to 12 countries on four continents and conducted more than 60 interviews to take the pulse of the world's major corporations and governments on their intentions of addressing the global crisis. We all have a role to play in caring for the earth, but the policymakers and CEOs Smith interviews hold much of the power, which they may use for good or evil. Smith's interview with Ling Wen, a Chinese CEO of one of the world's largest power companies, was chilling. China is now building two new coal plants a week, "developing like a proverbial teenager," says Smith. When asked who comes first, the public (i.e., the environment) or his shareholders (i.e., money), Wen quickly says the shareholders: "We must create money, not lose the money." Environmental responsibility would only be a priority if his shareholders wanted it to be.
India is the next stop in Heat's investigative trail, which is fitting as India is predicted to surpass China as the most populous country by 2050. This growth estimate, tripled with the demand for cars and the roads that must be built for those cars, does not bode well for the atmosphere: The process of making cement is the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and cement production is growing 10 percent a year in India.
And because of India's population boom, "if every Indian were to live like an American," says one Indian interviewee, "then the planet is doomed." Quite true -- while Americans account for about 5 percent of the global population, we consume an exorbitant quarter of its energy, and between now and 2020, according to the film, our electricity consumption will go up 41 percent. If we expect other countries to conserve energy and limit pollution, we'll need to pick up the pace ourselves. That Chinese CEO isn't the only one guilty of putting financial interests over environmental ones. Smith also interviewed General Motors' head of environmental affairs, asking why GM didn't make a hybrid before Toyota. It came down to one question: "Can this vehicle make money?" GM's guess was no, so they went the way of more SUVs and trucks.
"I have reported on the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the rise of Al Qaeda, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Smith writes on the PBS Web site. "But nothing matches climate change in scope and severity." Foreign policy is crucial, and the economy is certainly alarming, but as Judy Woodruff, PBS senior correspondent and NewsHour political editor, put it at the screening, "It won't matter how well Dow Jones Industrials can do if we can't survive on the planet."
No matter who takes office in January, the environment will be one of the most important issues to deal with. Both presidential candidates claim commitment to the climate change issue and call for reform and reduction, so regardless of the election's outcome, we need to be serious global citizens and hold the next president to stewardship and responsible membership in the global community. May we not forget that we are a world and humanity of interdependence. And, for some illuminating and hard facts to remind us of that, let's inform ourselves by tuning in Tuesday night.
Kaitlin Barker is the editorial resources assistant for Sojourners.