NRC Report Highlights Need for a Modern Day "Smokey" the Bear Campaign on Global Warming

By The Intersection | June 23, 2011 4:00 pm

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., a research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

I remember the “Smokey” the bear commercials very well.  They usually appeared during my Saturday morning cartoons, back when kids actually sat and watched cartoons each morning while slurping a bowl of Honeycombs.  The commercials often involved some terrible scenario in which an absent-minded person committed a stupid act that destroyed an entire forest.  In the end, “Smokey” would appear, sometimes with a tear in his eye, to say, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” The message was clear and powerful.  Even as a child, I felt responsible for protecting the forests.  I dared not leave a hot fire pit after a night of camping.  It was an effective campaign the likes of which we could use today.

I believe a recent report from the National Research Council makes a compelling case for the need to create a modern day “Smokey” the bear campaign.  Only this time, Smokey will encourage us to reduce our carbon footprint.

The report makes recommendations for the best “Policy Options to Reduce Petroleum Use and GHG Emissions in the U.S. Transportation Sector.”  Much of the report covers the issues with which we are all very familiar, improving fuel economy standards, increasing investments in public transportation and infrastructure and even increased fuel taxes.

One section of the report that jumped out at me was entitled “Measures to Curb Private Vehicle Travel.”  According to the report, there are more than 225 million private automobiles in the U.S. that account for about 40% of all CO2 emitted from transportation.

The authors state:

“…any serious effort to reduce energy use and emission from transportation must cut the amount of energy used and GHGs emitted from private vehicles, especially those in metropolitan areas.”

The focus on metropolitan areas is important because three-quarters of private vehicles are located in cities and their surrounding areas.  Also, more than half of the U.S. population lives in suburbs. These areas tend to be less dense and feature more separation of land uses. This leads to more parking and road capacity and higher levels of motor vehicle ownership and use. Therefore, these parts of the country offer the greatest opportunity for reducing automobile travel by investing in alternative modes of transportation such as walking, biking and public transit.

The report makes three policy recommendations designed to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT):

1) create more compact patterns of land development

2) expand the array of transportation options available to residents of these areas

3) increase the price of road use and parking

Sure, these policies will have some impact.  But, the problem with each of these recommendations is that they are passive ways of motivating behavior changes. A more effective way to change behavior may be to convince the residents that it’s in their interest to do so.  This is why I believe a campaign that focuses on the people will enhance the impact of the policies.

In addition to implementing the recommended policies, a “Smokey”-like campaign will remove some of the sting.  If people understand and appreciate the reasons why these policies are being implemented, they will be more likely to accept them and perhaps even contribute to their implementation.  I realize that adults who are jaded by the current political climate will be difficult to reach, but we can instill in the next generation the need for a change.

I can tell you from experience that the younger generation is aware of climate change.  Despite the beliefs of their parents, they are receiving the message that global warming is a threat.  Like my generation feared the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, I believe this generation recognizes there is a problem and they can effect the change that we need.  A campaign that encourages them to do their part could go far toward this goal.

So who’s going to make it happen?

Follow Jamie Vernon on Twitter or read his occasional posts at his personal blog, “American SciCo.”


Comments (5)

  1. Glidingpig

    Well, In the last 3 weeks from when I last filled my tank on my car, I have driven about 70 miles and rode my bike 180 miles. I commute 4 days a week or so on my bike. I only drive less than 5k miles a year now, and just ticked over 3k on the bike odometer. Lost around 40 lbs.too.

  2. While I agree that a climate Smokey the bear might be a good idea, I would point out that many in the forest science community don’t have a particularly favourable view of Smokey. At least that is the impression I got doing my undergrad at UBC in the faculty of Forestry.

    The problem is that as forest scientists have learned of the importance of forest fires in many forest ecosystems the public, in large part thanks to smokey, sees all forest fires as bad. This has lead to conflicts with the public as forest managers try to implement prescribed burn programs.

    Even all these years later, when ever I see Smokey the Bear, all I can think of is a certain prof’s rant against the “evil Smokey”

  3. Jack Ryan

    I think a more accurate campaign would be, “It makes sense to be more economical even though Global Warming/ Climate Change/ Cooling hasn’t been proven yet, let alone how much man has or has not actually contributed to it.”

  4. Matt B.

    Actually, his name Smokey Bear, not “Smokey” the bear. Just like that Looney Tunes character isn’t “Daffy” the duck.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar