A film forecasts catastrophic weather events, citing carbon dioxide emissions from burning of fossil fuels as the cause. Glaciers melt. Cities flood. Science teachers around the country screen the movie in their classrooms. But the film isn’t An Inconvenient Truth. The year is 1958. Al Gore is 10 years old.
As part of a series of educational films produced by Bell Telephone Company in the 50s and 60s, Unchained Goddess, a metaphor for unruly weather, rewarded middle schoolers with both a movie day and ample information about the atmosphere for decades. And with the combined genius of Bell Laboratories’ science and Mel Blanc’s voice-artistry, the cartoon documentary also suggested that,
“Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization.”
The statement stirred little dissent. And even though It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra directed the film, it won no Academy Awards. Now, almost 50 years later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), composed of more than 1,200 scientists from 40 countries, confirms the film’s sentiment that humans are influencing the earth’s climate.
While the IPCC reports lack the film’s pastel cartoon tourists, who peer through glass-bottom boats at a submerged Miami, they do cite scientific data showing that North America’s “coastal communities and habitats will be increasingly stressed by climate change.”
Other IPCC forecasts include water shortages in regions dependent on mountain snowmelts, heightened risk of extinction for numerous plants and animals, and more human deaths from heat waves, floods, storms, fires, droughts, and diseases. On the bright side, the reports also list potential benefits of global warming, such as fewer fatalities from cold weather.
As far as combating global warming, according to the IPPC, halting its arrival completely is no longer a viable option like it may have been in 1958. Certain nations and regions will have the resources necessary to cushion their people, economies, and environments from the detriments of global warming. But to prevent the worst consequences, nations must now begin making preparations, including installing drought warning systems, adapting farming practices, and in some places, relocating communities.
One viewing of the Unchained Goddess demonstrates why the U.S. may need to take precautions. Soon after classical music accompanies images of polar ice caps cracking and plunging into open water, narrator Frank C. Baxter describes an inland sea covering the Mississippi Valley like The Blob. This scenario remains uncertain, but gleaning its conclusions from data taken since 1970, the IPCC provides a more current and comprehensive assessment of the future impacts of climate change.
“We now have more evidence of temperature rises to support the scientific principles behind the concern,” says George Thurston, associate professor of environmental health sciences at New York University, who is not affiliated with the IPCC. Thurston says he would show Unchained Goddess to his “Weather, Air Pollution, and Health” class to put the issue into historical context.
In 1932, The New York Times wrote of the “Next Deluge Forecast by Science,” but there is no attribution to greenhouse gas emissions. So, with Jetsons-esque animation, Unchained Goddess may have been among the first mainstream references of anthropogenic global warming.
After decades of warning, the idea that humans are climate change culprits seems to be gaining acceptance, especially since the IPCC’s first report in February, which stated with over 90 percent certainty that we are the driving force behind rising temperatures.
Yet, debate lingers. Policymakers from China, Australia, Russia, and the United States postponed the April release of the IPCC findings after an all-night dispute over the report’s use of language. Even an excerpt of Unchained Goddess is inciting cyber-squabbles on YouTube.
Perhaps the only thing more complicated than reaching a scientific consensus on climate change is reaching a political one. As Baxter explains, “For in weather, we are not only dealing with forces of a far greater variety, than even the atomic physicist encounters, but with life itself.”
Story by Melissa Mahony. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007.