Mar 062012

Since being named chair of the Department of Energy’s climate change committee, Jim McFadden hasn’t exactly become a household name.  But that’s the way he likes it.

“I’m not doing this for the recognition,” he says.  “I’m not trying to be Princess Diana, here.”   The look in my eyes stops him in his tracks.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he rushes to say.  “She was a beautiful woman.”

“Is that…all she was?” I ask, trying to remember how to modulate a voice.

“She was…she was very graceful,” he stammers.

“I couldn’t agree more!” I almost shout, my ‘protection stench’ dissipating and my hormones starting to selectively erase my memory.  Back to the matter at hand – how long before there’s a big vacuum that sucks up extra carbon dioxide?

McFadden laughs.  “If it were that easy, we’d have done it already.”  On top of that, McFadden explains, the government isn’t allowed to research anything that ‘fights’ global warming until 2017.  “We lost a softball game to the auto industry,” he admits sheepishly.  “So we’re starting on a grassroots level.”

McFadden’s job is to call people and remind them to turn off their lights.

“If you’re not in the room, turn ‘em off.  It’s that simple,” he says.  “Except if you see a movie about a robber, and you don’t want to take any chances.  Or if you like keeping the Christmas lights on all the time, because it makes you feel cozy and you want people driving past to feel cozy too.”

“Or what if there was a Dracula around?”  I point out.  “Draculas hate lights.”

“Exactly,” says McFadden.  “There will always be exceptions.  We’re not trying to knock out global warming with a single blow, here.  The main thing is, you paid good money for your light bulb, and you deserve to have it last as long as possible.”

Suddenly, I catch a glimpse of McFadden’s planner.  It is a sheet of paper with three phone numbers on it; the words “call these” written above.  As if to confirm my suspicions, McFadden is waving another sheet of paper that says, “Yep, only calling these three,” and nodding at me while maintaining unblinking eye contact.

I find it hard to believe that so few people could solve a problem as big as global warming.  But it’s nice that McFadden is letting me interview him, so I don’t pry.  Luckily, McFadden tackles the issue himself.

“I know, I know.  It doesn’t seem like a lot,” he says.  “But take a moment, and imagine if those people were to – pay it forward.”

“Why, you could…change the world!” I exclaim.

“That’s right.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some calls to make,” he winks.  He literally makes his mouth wink the words out.  Unnerved, I rush from the room.

Next, I’m headed to China to meet with engineer Ling Yun.  In 2006, China became the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, and Yun is working to reduce these emissions.  My flight leaves from Atlanta, so I make a stop at the Coca Cola factory, which has been a fixture in this easy-going southern city since 1886.  Inside, my press pass gains me a sip of their newest concoction.  “It really tastes like pie,” I holler. “I feel like I just ate a big piece of pie!”  As my plane takes off, I can’t help but smile.  It’s been a good day.

China, or so the story goes, is a land of contrasts, a subtle mix of the old and new.  It stands by the principles of its forefathers even as its sayings industry puts billions into finding the “next Confucius.”  It holds onto its ancient culture of filial devotion while developing a new one based on transportation tubes.  It keeps its prisoners in feudal dungeons, but turns their corpses into plastic for those “BODIES…The Exhibition” shows.

All this and more is reflected in Ling Yun’s face, because I hold an old Chinese mask in front of it for half the time he speaks.  It helps me.  As we stroll down the corridors of the country’s biggest lead factory, Yun stresses the importance of technology in his crusade against global warming.

“This is the largest iron cylinder in the world,” he boasts, throwing open the doors to a vast warehouse.  “Using technology, we keep it white hot with just half the coal we needed before.”

Next, he leads me to a sparkling hall filled with wheels on motorized poles.  Each is attached to a computer that monitors energy efficiency.

“No room of wheels has greater spinning synchronization!”  Yun shouts above the din.

Watching twenty thousand wheels spin backwards, then forwards, then backwards again, then briefly stop, then forwards, does have a certain pleasure.  Perhaps this is how that old Venetian trader felt, the great Signoro Marco dí Põlo, when he marveled upon the same sight that greets this trader’s eyes (trader of words, that is!).

But despite the vibrant beauty of this oriental land of horrible factories, I have my doubts as to whether Yun’s efforts will be enough to turn the tide against global warming.

“Let me put it this way,” says Yun, in the straw-inflected voice that results from firm mask pushing.  “The US didn’t worry about things like carbon dioxide while it was industrializing.  Why should China?”
“We only want to hold some of the nice things,” says an orphan, appearing from out of the shadows.  “Some of the nice things like you have.”

Perhaps the little fellow is right.  But is it necessary for Yun to pay his workers in dry ice, or keep a cylinder of carbon dioxide strapped to his back, punctuating his sentences with a rush of gas?

“We are a developing country,” he tells me.

Two men, two perspectives.  Yet Jim McFadden and Ling Yun are working towards one goal – making sure we never have to watch our children burn up because they couldn’t put their protection-suits on fast enough.  Their methods may not be perfect; their solutions are by no means foolproof.  Perhaps there are other approaches, I think, as I scan the long list of names I’m supposed to have interviewed for this article.  But the point of the matter is this: neither McFadden nor Yun is telling us to use our cars less.

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