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Political Will: Olympics, Elections & Live Earth

Posted Oct 07 2008 7:19pm
"One World, One Dream" – that’s the motto for the 2008 Olympics. But considering where the Games of the XXIX Olympiad are going to be held, I cannot say that I agree.

It’s not my dream to send the best physically-conditioned athletes in the world to Beijing, China, a city with pollution two to three times higher than what the World Health Organization considers safe. And if you take a look at the Olympic Charter, it’s not the dream of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) either – yet they’re the ones responsible for choosing this host city.

"It hurts to breathe."

The Olympic Charter states several of its goals in the "Mission and Role of the IOC" including:
  • "To encourage and support measures protecting the health of athletes" and
  • "To encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly."

So it’s beyond me how the 115 members of the IOC, all of whom are representatives of their respective countries (including just two from China), could have come up with a majority vote in favor of holding the Olympic games in this country, where there are an estimated 750,000 premature deaths each year caused by pollution-related disease. Now it seems the IOC may be wondering the same thing.

Though Beijing promised to clean up the air in time for the games in August of 2008, progress is apparently so slow (or completely non-existent) that the IOC President recently announced that some Olympic events may have to be canceled.

That’s no surprise to Dr. Greg Anderson, the exercise physiologist for the women’s Canadian soccer team. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Dr. Anderson described what it was like for his team this past April and May when the women were in Beijing training for the Women’s World Cup of Soccer that will be held there in September.

"Once you play, and you start to have high air flows in and out of your lungs, the really high ozone levels in Beijing cause a real burning sensation in your lungs," said Dr. Anderson. "About four days in, they ended up with low-grade inflammation in the back of their throat. Mucous was being produced to try to trap all the particulate matter in the air, which is very high."

George Bush To the Rescue?

Despite the health hazards, the Canadian women’s soccer team will return to Beijing for the World Cup in September, the same month in which U.S. President George Bush is holding a global warming conference in Washington DC. The invitees – representatives from 15 national governments (including China). The goal – deciding how to proceed when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. (You know this one – it’s the treaty Bush refused to sign because it would have limited the emissions the U.S. was allowed to pump into the atmosphere.)

"We can all make major strides," Bush has been quoted as saying of global warming, "and yet there won’t be a reduction until China and India are participants."

Grist recently pointed out the hypocrisy of this statement:

"Since 1995, two federally controlled agencies – the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. – have spent $21 billion in loans and loan guarantees for fossil-fuel projects in more than 40 countries." (Of course, that covers Bush’s entire time in office.)

Equally disturbing is the role that the United States plays as the largest shareholder in the World Bank. Instead of encouraging this organization to approve loans for projects that are least harmful to the environment, our government has done just the opposite. As reported by Grist, "newly released documents show that the U.S. has pushed the bank to exclude climate concerns from investment calculations."

Kennedy for President

Considering how much the Bush administration’s policies have directly contributed to global warming, it’s no surprise that only Al Gore was referenced more than George Bush during the Live Earth Concerts on 7-7-07 – in the music, on the clothes and, most notably, in the speeches.

There are excerpts from several speeches in the Live Earth Concert Review Series I wrote for But there’s one that stands out as particularly important in this context, not only for what it implies about the Bush administration’s responsibility for "environmental injury," but for what it says about us.

With the passion, confidence and strength of will I’d love to see in our next president (though he’s not running), Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. said this at the U.S. Live Earth Concert:

"Environmental injury is deficit spending. It’s a way of loading the cause of our generation’s prosperity onto the backs of our children…. The good news is we have the scientific and technological capacity to avert its most catastrophic impact. We only need the political will …. It is more important than buying compact fluorescent light bulbs or than buying fuel-efficient automobiles. The most important thing you can do is to get involved in the political process, and get rid of all these rotten politicians that we have in Washington DC…."

The 2008 election for a new U.S. president is more than one year away. But we cannot wait until then to exercise the "political will" Kennedy is talking about.

In a new game show called "The Power of 10," host Drew Carey asks this question of a contestant: "What percentage of Americans would rather watch a hot dog eating contest over a 2008 presidential debate?" Though the answer was (thankfully) just 26%, the question itself speaks volumes for how we view the political process in this country – as something too boring or inconsequential to concern ourselves with. (If you disagree, check out Grist’s series of interviews with presidential candidates.)

And as for Kennedy’s point that it’s going to take more than buying CFL’s and fuel-efficient cars to save the environment, he’s right in more ways than one.

Equally important to voting at the polls is voting at the cash register.

Made In China

The thick, pollution-filled air that our Olympic athletes will be breathing next year in Beijing is largely caused by the coal-fired power plants that are manufacturing products for us as cheaply as possible – maximizing profit for companies and minimizing cost for consumers. Toys in the most recent Chinese recall are a perfect example -- a toy that costs a manufacturer in China $3 to make, costs an American manufactuer $10. One of the most notable reasons is this. Workers making toys here in the States make as much as $18 an hour, while the average hourly wage of a worker making toys in China is just 42 cents.

Now I’ll give you one guess (because that’s all you need) to figure out where American-owned GE manufactures those "Energy Smart" CFL’s … and where Japanese-owned Toyota manufactures the nickel foam for the hybrid Prius battery.

Am I saying we should return all the CFL’s we finally finished installing all over our homes? No. (Like me, you probably saw just one choice of CFL brands on store shelves anyway.) What I am saying is this:

There are no simple solutions to global warming because "environmental injury" is so deeply embedded into every layer of our society. That’s why Live Earth is more than a concert. It’s a movement that’s going to last the rest of our lives.

"One World, One Dream"? Living the Live Earth Pledge -- that's mine, a dream best expressed by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in his closing remarks at Live Earth:

"We are not protecting the environment for the sake of the fishes and the birds. We’re protecting it because nature is the infrastructure of our communities, and if we want to meet our obligations as a generation, as a civilization, as a nation … we’ve gotta start by protecting our environmental infrastructure – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wildlife, the public lands, the things that connect us to our past, to our history, that provide context to our communities and that are the source, ultimately, of our values and our virtues and our character as a people and the future or our children. And I will see all of you on the barricades."

Related Articles: "Crossing the Border," The Freelance Observer

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