Is it Mother Nature's fault or man's?
The debate has waged for the past several years about climate change: whether it truly exists and, if so, whether it is a natural or man-made occurrence.
But in the long run, the war of words distracts from the symptoms of our dirty planet we can touch and feel every day. In some cases, it's even making people sick.
Hazy days and ozone alerts in metro Atlanta make going outside dangerous and possibly deadly for the elderly and those with asthma. Fish consumption restrictions across the state, including from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier, recommend that you don't eat certain types of fish from our waters more than once a week and others more than once a month due to chemical contaminants. Scraps of paper and soda cans are tossed along the highways and old couches are left to rot along rural dirt roads.
Thus, protecting the planet shouldn't be a partisan issue.
In his life after politics, former Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat, has continued to be an advocate for the environment. For taking global warming and clean energy to a global audience, he and the U.N. Climate Council were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Recently, Gore also challenged the United States to switch 100 percent of the electricity powering the country to clean sources in 10 years.
A U.S. president once told Congress: "The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life."
That was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, in 1907. He felt so strongly about protecting the land that he created the National Park System and established 51 wildlife refuges in his eight years as president, in total protecting some 230 million acres of national land.
"A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself," he said. Often called the country's first conservation president, he also won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, surely those on both sides of the political fence can agree on a simple principle: Keeping our planet clean is a good thing. And, after years of disagreements over climate change, it seems they finally agree on solutions. Sort of.
Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama agree on a number of basic issues concerning global warming: Cap greenhouse gas emissions; make fuel efficiency standards tougher; pursue low-carbon technologies; and continue a global dialogue on climate change. Each also espouses other ideas.
On his Web site, McCain promises protection for our natural resources, including national parks, wildlife, fisheries and wetlands. Obama's Web site promotes a plan to create millions of new "green" jobs by turning the country toward renewable energy sources. The candidates differ, however, on some of the details on how to accomplish their goals.
The issue gets tricky in talking about capping greenhouse emissions. Environmentalists say that industries are getting away with dumping toxins into the soil, water and air while some industry leaders, including automakers, claim it is too expensive to make drastic changes to lessen emissions.
We need to find a way to phase in standards for reducing greenhouse gases in our vehicles and industries without bankrupting businesses. Those businesses already taking steps to reduce their "footprint" on the earth should be commended, but we also should punish those who refuse to get on board.
The impetus for businesses to "think green" doesn't have to come just from government through regulation and fines. The public also can be an agent for change. Vote with your dollars by not buying goods or services from polluters. It works because businesses will listen to consumer wants and needs; they pay people millions of dollars for surveys to find out what consumers will and won't buy.
McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants used to use Styrofoam cups and sandwich containers, but switched to paper cups and sandwich wrappers after pressure from consumers. Automakers are putting renewed focus on fuel efficiency as gasoline costs have soared and people aren't buying as many gas-hogging SUVs.
The ideas being put forth by McCain and Obama are a good start. At least our leaders and our country are moving beyond the arguments over global warming to try to address the problems we can see happening right now. But it is just a start; there is much more than needs to be done and done quickly.
Cleaning up our polluted planet has to be an idea that everyone participates in, from the industry leader who stops dumping mercury into the lake behind his plant, to the third-grader who gets his parents to start recycling newspapers.
Remember the Keep America Beautiful television commercial in which a Native American, portrayed by actor Iron Eyes Cody, sheds a tear when he sees trash and pollution spoiling his beautiful country?
Remember the U.S. Forest Service's Woodsy Owl who said, "Give a hoot, don't pollute?"
And Gainesville's own Mark Trail comic strip, which espouses stewardship of the environment in his adventures?
Whatever happened to those icons encouraging us to keep the planet clean? They're still here, but maybe we're not paying attention. Woodsy has changed his motto to "Lend a hand - care for the land!" and Keep America Beautiful and Mark Trail are still going strong.
It will take big efforts from government and businesses on all levels and little efforts from each of us. We need to find ways to live our lives without leaving such a mess behind. After all, this planet's the only one we've got.