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From MADD to climate change: Motivating society to demand action in addressing the very real dangers of global warming

The American public has a complicated view of global warming – most believe it is happening, but most do not think it will seriously affect their way of life and many do not attribute severe or unusual weather events to this phenomenon. While a majority view the reported seriousness as generally correct or underestimated, a sizable and, since 2009, heightened percentage see the threat as generally exaggerated.  –Gallup, March 17, 2014

In March, Gallup released the results of a poll on “Americans’ level of worry about national problems.” Climate change was next to the bottom of the list, just above race relations and well below the fear of potential terrorist attacks. It surprised me with its likeness to the acceptance and tolerance of another national concern this society faced in the past—one in which I was part of the problem.

Thirty-eight years ago in 1976 I turned 21.  I was in my third year at Western Washington State College and at midnight my roommate, Karen, decided to take me out to celebrate at a local disco where patrons were “doing the hustle.”  We had just joined a bunch of her accounting major friends when one of the bartenders recognized me.  He was from my home town in Pierce County—a very small stagnant community of around 1,500 souls who had a heightened awareness of each other.  Surprised and pleased to see his sister’s friend’s little sister, he began sending over free shots of tequila filled to the brim. Within the hour I was plastered.

I don’t recall what Karen was drinking or how much, but in my semi-conscience state I knew she was far from sober.  Understand this: when Karen was inebriated it was hard to miss. This woman, who would go on to be very successful, was normally a sweet, slightly mischievous, gentle person who called her mother “Treas” (short for treasure).  She had a pretty face w/soft features and a pleasant expression similar to that of the Madonna.  Yet, when she was smashed, her eyes would open wide and glaze over while her lips would pull back in a rather demonic smile.  Whether or not one knew Karen, the transformation was unsettling—especially in view of the fact that she was six-feet tall and, even without that expression, imposing.

Now imagine, me as the typical sloppy drunk and Karen—aka Ms. Frankenstein—walking out to the parking lot and getting into a car.  None of her friends tried to stop us.  The bartender didn’t say a word; I believe he even smiled goodbye.

We took off in my red 66 VW bug with Karen driving since I didn’t yet have my license (which was probably a very good thing).  Did we make the wise decision to go home?  Oh no, we were not in that state.  We decided instead to visit a love interest who lived on the far side of town.  I have a very clear memory of the next few minutes as we blasted through downtown B’ham at 50-60 miles per hour. (Where are the cops when you need them?)  Fortunately, the streets were completely deserted so we weren’t much of a risk to others; we were mostly just a danger to ourselves.

Arriving at his home, Karen slid the nearest house window open, which just happened to be his bedroom, leaned in over his bed and shocked him awake. Soon we were in the kitchen facing four twenty-year-old male roommates.  We stood there—foolish drunk women—and then the unimaginable happened.  They allowed us to climb back into the car and drive away.

Now one might think that we were all terrible people back then—driving drunk and allowing others to drive drunk—but it was simply a different mindset.  It was considered “funny” to be drunk; comedians had whole skits around alcoholics.  It was so common, so normal.  It didn’t dawn on most that things could/should be different.  Driving drunk, being drunk was socially accepted, but there were a few who were paying attention.

During the years from 1971 to 1976 the federal government conducted a study and released its results in 1979.  It revealed that half of all fatal accidents involved alcohol—25,000 deaths each year.  The study described a typical Saturday night as one-in-ten drivers driving drunk with only one-in-2,000 arrested.  Joan Claybrook, the director of the Transportation Department, called drunk drivers “America’s No. 1 highway menace.”  She sent letters to state and city officials asking them to use money that had been recently allotted by Congress “to attack the drunk driving problem…to the fullest extent possible.”

In the same year, the General Accountability Office (GAO) in its report to Congress blamed “society’s general acceptance of drinking and driving as the main obstacle to solving the drinking problem.”  John Moulden, a research psychologist with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, explained that “drunk driving is the most socially accepted violent crime we have.”  When those who are our judges, lawyers, and juries are confronted with a drunk driver “they tend to see themselves and take the view that, ‘but for the grace of God, there go I.’” It would be another year and a half, just a few days before the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, when society would finally begin to shift its gaze to the victims of drunken driving.

Cari Lightner, a 13-year-old living in Fair Oaks, California, was on her way to a nearby church carnival.  While walking in the bike lane at Sunset and New York Avenues, she was struck from behind by a drunken driver who had briefly passed out.  Her body was thrown 125 feet and the driver, who was out on bail for another hit and run, drove off.

For the Lightner family, this was not their first experience with impaired drivers.  Years earlier the family car was rear ended by a drunken driver slightly injuring their other daughter.  In another incident, an unlicensed driver on tranquilizers ran over their son breaking numerous bones, placing him in a coma, and causing permanent brain injury.  The offending driver received no punishment, not even a ticket.

After the death of her daughter, Candice Lightner had had enough.  The day after Cari’s funeral, Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD).  Following 18 months of campaigning, MADD was able to claim its first victory when California Governor Jerry Brown signed four bills into law.  The bills increased penalties for drunken driving, added to the number of state patrol officers, reduced the ability of offenders to plea bargain, and lowered the legal blood alcohol level to .10.  Across the nation, MADD became a household name as people began to pay attention and the number of deaths related to drunken driving started to drop.

Back in 1976, the same year as my 21st birthday, the National Academy of Sciences released a study cautioning that climbing carbon dioxide levels would threaten Earth’s future.  An editorial in the Cleveland Ohio newspaper The Plain Dealer quoted a warning from the study:  “A warmer earth in turn would mean a melting of polar ice and a consequent rise in ocean levels to a point where coastal regions could be flooded. Change for the worse in world agricultural patterns and in the oceans’ capacity to provide food also are seen as effects from a warmed planet earth.”

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, also announced the same year that it would begin a four-year research program to study the effects of increased carbon dioxide on the world’s climate.  Rumen Bojkov, director of the atmospheric science division of WMO, spoke of the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. It had increased 140 parts per million (ppm) from 280 ppm in 1900, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.  If the oceans were to reach a point of being unable to absorb additional carbon dioxide, change would become more dramatic.

The message regarding the danger of global warming has changed little in the last four decades.  The greenhouse effect causes global warming: polar ice caps and glaciers will and have melted; sea levels will rise and have risen; droughts will and have occurred.  The effects of global warming have already shown themselves; yet industry still emits carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; our transportation is still responsible for one-third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions; electricity is still produced in most parts of the country with fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide has risen by another 60 parts per million since 1976 to a total of 400 ppm. We all know the situation, so why aren’t people in the streets protesting that the Washington State legislature did absolutely nothing last session to address this dire situation?

When the Northwest experienced an unusually long period of dry, cold days of sun this last winter, people told me they liked it.  When I suggested that it was likely a symptom of global warming and probably not a good thing for the native flora and fauna, they shrugged and said they still liked it.  This response puzzled (and annoyed) me.

Looking back to my youth, I remember people having the same blasé attitude toward drunken driving.  While no one would want to be in the path of an inebriated driver, people would say they could drive while drunk without effect. Their belief that they could handle their liquor was almost a badge of honor. So many people had driven while drunk or ridden with a drunken driver at one time or another and had still made it home. People didn’t see drunken driving as a danger unless they were among the unlucky. If we had been honest with ourselves, we would have acknowledged that we were a nation of perpetrators and accomplices. And maybe attitudes toward global warming are similar; people have benefitted from the emissions of greenhouse gases and have failed to realize they are directly affected.

Maybe, as Fiona Harvey wrote in The Guardian, another “part of the problem is that global warming sounds quite nice.” She explains further that with “a couple of degrees hotter in summer—we could be sitting out on our verandahs of an evening sipping Sauvignon Blanc from our own vineyards.  Who wouldn’t want that?”  It is a nice image.  Certainly not like the image of a sloppy drunk driving away from a hit and run. But maybe that’s what we need in the state of Washington to remove people from their complacency—a less pretty image of climate change.

And what type of picture might affect people in Washington State? It doesn’t seem that the brutally cold winter on the East Coast or the drought that is occurring in California has had much of an effect. Weather happens. Nor does it appear that extreme weather such as hurricanes and tornados in the southern portion of the nation has elicited anything more than sympathy. I sense that the acidification of the oceans, oceans that have been absorbing 90 percent of the carbon dioxide, will just be viewed from the perspective of an unfortunate change in diet.  “Have you seen the price of halibut?”

There is one possibility that might motivate Washingtonians.  It was the same one that finally motivated Candice Lightner—the danger to her children.  I find it incredibly disturbing to even think of this necessity, but it’s the only way I know that clearly shows how climate change has affected us and especially our children: asthma and other respiratory diseases.

In my elementary school in the 1960s, there was only one person who had asthma. I don’t remember there being much in the way of allergies; certainly none that were life threatening.  People broke legs, had shots for rabies, and received polio and small pox vaccines.  Then, of course, there was the measles, the mumps, and chicken pox.  But things have changed.

Since 1980, the incidence of asthma has risen significantly right along with the CO2 levels. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, between the years 2001 to 2012, the proportion of people with asthma in the United States grew by nearly 17% to 25 million or one-in-twelve.  More women than men have asthma and are more likely to die of it.  Hispanics have a higher rate than Whites; Blacks have a higher rate than Hispanics. The rate of asthma among Black children increased a heart-stopping almost 50 percent from 2001 to 2009 to one-in-six.  Children are more likely to have an attack than adults.

The CDC has listed Washington State’s “asthma prevalence as among the highest in the nation, and steadily increasing.” According to the Washington State Department of Health, there are now “more than half a million adults in the state with asthma and nearly 120,000 children.” (Native adults have the highest incidence at 19 percent, nearly one-in-five.) Eight to eleven percent of middle school and high school students have asthma and almost 100 people in the state die of asthma each year—well above the national average.  (If we were average, 30 fewer people would die.)

In 2012, the American Thoracic Society issued a position paper that the “increase in incidence of asthma, allergies, infectious and cardiovascular diseases will result from a variety of impacts of global climate change, including rising temperatures, worsening ozone levels in urban areas, the spread of desertification, and expansions of the ranges of communicable diseases as the planet heats up.”  And that’s not all they said.  “Mold spores that previously were only seen in Central America have been found as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia, promoting increases in allergies and asthma, with climate-change conditions implicated.”  Those most at risk are “infants, children, the elderly, and other sensitive populations. They will be the first to experience serious climate change-related health problems.”

Pollen levels are another contributing factor in the severity of asthma.  Pollen can trigger an asthma attack and the higher the amount of pollen in the air, the more likely an attack will occur. Last year, USA TODAY published a special report on the effects of climate change. Lewis Ziska, a weed ecologist with the US Department of Agriculture, was interviewed regarding his pollen studies and the relationship between pollen production and CO2 levels.  His research has established that “pollen production rises along with CO2.” In 1900 when CO2 levels were 280 ppm, plants produced 5 grams of pollen.  In 2000, with CO2 levels of 370 ppm, pollen production per plant doubled to 10 grams. “Ziska expects it could double again, to 20 grams, by 2075 if carbon emissions continue to climb.”  According to the article the pollen season has also” lengthened up to16 days since 1995.”

I could go on and on as I already have: the hazards of ground level ozone in summer; the increase of fine particulate matter increases with the increase in the number and size of forest fires; and the rise of mold and microbial growth due to increased winter flooding.  But enough.


The comparison of climate change to drunken driving should now be obvious. Since 1976 there has been scientific evidence that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide will lead to global warming and that global warming will threaten life on this planet.  Just as people believed they could “hold their liquor,” corporations have continued emitting CO2 and producing products that emit CO2 as if it didn’t really matter. Society and government has been complicit. Consider the recent $8.7 billion tax breaks through 2040 for The Boeing Company by the Washington legislature. What does Boeing build? Electric tricycles that are transporting millions in Asia? Nope. It builds aircraft—big aircraft—that emit greenhouse gases way up in the atmosphere where CO2 has a greater greenhouse effect than at sea level.

To knowingly and willingly contribute to global warming is a crime, a socially-acceptable crime.

So, will the effects of global warming on children’s health be ground zero to the end of our complacency/complicity in climate change? Candice Lightner and her organization MADD was the spark that lit the tinder of millions who had suffered/witnessed the harm of the socially-accepted crime of drunken driving.  Please remember that while MADD has been given a great deal of credit for changing public opinion, its cause benefited from federal government studies and programs of the 1960s and 1970s and the work of another activist organization in New York State—Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID)—established in 1978, two years before MADD.  Doris Aiken established RID following the deaths of her two children who were also killed by a drunken driver.  And then there were all the other groups that mimicked MADD: Fathers Against Drunk Driving, Bikers Against Drunk Driving: Physicians Against Drunk Driving, etc.

Since 1976, there have been countless studies conducted on the effects and contributing factors to climate change.  Today, scientists have an intimate understanding of a huge body of knowledge on the warming of our planet that cannot be reasonably refuted.  There are also many organizations of dedicated activists who are working to change society’s perception of the crime of contributing to global warming, but it may be that just one small group will light the fuse.

Sylvia Smith is an Evergreen alumna and long-time WIPster. She longs to have an enclosed electric tricycle.


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