Heating up

Dec 6, 2006 at 12:00 am

Tucked away in a Dearborn office, Kathryn Savoie is preparing her arsenal to fight a global war on Michigan battlefields.

She follows a leader who says he'll do battle until the world changes. She's had intensive training to help her take on the powerful forces that have plentiful economic and political resources — forces that have quashed her allies for years. She has a stash of carefully crafted weapons that she hopes will lure more people into action.

Savoie is a foot soldier in former Vice President Al Gore's battle against global warming that was documented in the film An Inconvenient Truth, released earlier this year and now available on DVD. Savoie's tactics: speaking at schools, universities and community groups to share statistics and evidence of the problem and explain what each person can do to help solve it.

"There is a sense of urgency," says Savoie, the environmental program director at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

Global warming — or, as the federal government under the Bush administration prefers to call it, "climatic change" — is caused by increases in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere that trap heat there and cause the earth's air, land and water temperatures to rise. The resulting increase in the earth's average annual temperature is causing glaciers to melt, plant and animal life to change migratory patterns, hurricanes, typhoons and tornados to increase in strength and other disruptions in the environment, scientists say.

"There's a message in this. It is worldwide," Gore says in the film. "Ultimately, this is really not as much a political issue as a moral issue. If we allow this to happen, it is deeply unethical."

While some U.S. policymakers have been slow to accept and respond to the threat, the mainstream scientific community is convinced. According to a Science magazine review of 928 peer-reviewed papers published in academic journals from 1993 to 2003, "none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position" that earth's climate is being affected by human activity, specifically that most of the warming during the last 50 years was likely due to an increase in pollution.

University of Michigan research scientist Shaopeng Huang, who saw the film when it was released in theaters last summer, studies global warming by measuring changes in the earth's subsurface temperature.

"It's telling us that there's no question about recent warming on a global scale," he says. "Some places are experiencing a certain degree of cooling but on a global scale, it's warming."

In September, Savoie was one of the first 50 people to be trained as part of the Climate Project, a grassroots educational effort associated with the documentary, which chronicles the growing problem of global warming and Gore's efforts to combat it. Those with the project plan to eventually train 1,000 people to get its message out nationwide.

For Savoie, watching An Inconvenient Truth was a wake-up call. She started reliving some of her graduate school lectures during the 1980s at the University of Michigan, where she earned a doctorate in ecology. "A lot of scientists were talking about it then. It was a pretty new thing," she says. "It all sounded very far off in the future and something I didn't have to worry about immediately."

But as she finished school and began working at ACCESS, personal observations began to confirm her professors' warnings: Winter doesn't seem as harsh, air quality is questionable, water levels in the Great Lakes are down.

"As time went on, I felt like I started to see some of the things scientists were predicting," she says. Then, while discussing An Inconvenient Truth with a friend at the National Wildlife Federation, she learned about the trainings. "I said, 'sign me up,'" she recalls. Her application was accepted.

Savoie joined people from around the country in Nashville, Tenn., for three days of workshops and discussions, beginning with a reception at the Gores' house. The Gores "were so grateful. I felt a sense of gratitude from them that people had come on their own accord and their own expense," Savoie says.

The next morning, the group stood along the Caney Fork River as it flowed through the Gore family farm in Carthage, about 55 miles east of Nashville, and listened to Gore talk about growing up there, becoming aware of environmental issues and how stopping along the riverbank could remind him of the importance of his work.

"It's someplace that's very special to him. He talked about the connection to the earth," Savoie says.

Among Savoie's "classmates" was country singer Kathy Mattea, who did her first presentation last weekend in Battle Creek after a concert. "My first thought about my own self was, 'Do people really want to get their global warming facts from a country singer?'" Mattea says. "For me, it is a personal commitment and more spiritual process in that I have to take action."

Oregon's secretary of state, Bill Bradbury, also attended the training and gave his first public presentation last month. "People are seeing that this is a problem that they really want to deal with. I'm encouraged that there really is starting to be more and more of a shift in people's attitudes about it," he says.

During the training, Gore showed essentially the same slideshow used in An Inconvenient Truth. "It really makes the science of global warming understandable to the public," Savoie says. Participants practiced giving the lecture and learned how to localize its issues in their home territories.

For Michigan, Savoie says, she'll include data about heat-related deaths and illnesses, the reduction of water levels in the Great Lakes and the threat of mosquito-borne diseases that can come as the insect population increases when colder temperatures don't exist to regulate them. Bradbury discusses glacier melt on Mount Hood and rising sea levels along the Pacific coast. Mattea has included pictures of coal mining debris taken in her home state of West Virginia.

Savoie includes three recommendations for action to her audiences. First, "talk to somebody" about the issue with a sense of urgency, she recommends. Second, she asks people to become aware of their own impact on the environment and provides a few actions to limit it — reduce use of hot water, electricity, gas or oil for heating and fuel for their cars; drive more fuel-efficient cars and limit airline travel. "There are a million things you can tell people to do. I think the biggest thing is to have people become conscious," Savoie says.

Third, she says to contact politicians at every level — from local to federal — to urge officials to do something about the environmental issues. "I'm asking people to take some action to create the will for change," she says.

From his geothermics laboratory in Ann Arbor, Huang applauds the outreach efforts and hopes to see their effects — someday — in his research.

"I definitely think that the public should be aware of whatever the potential implications of the current warming are and try to understand the science behind it so that everyone can start to think about how to do our own part, reducing whatever risk," he says. "We need to be prepared and try to reduce the risk that global warming can bring to society."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]