By Ron Bonn / SanDiego350
You could say I was present at the creation.
Looking back in our lives, we rarely know exactly when something started. But regular television news coverage of man-made climate change, with all it implies, started on New Year’s Day, 1970.
The staff of “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite”: producers, writers, technicians; a couple dozen of us in all, were sitting around the newsroom waiting for something to happen—because nothing happens on New Year’s Day—when the man himself stormed in. “Goddamn it,” he said to us, “we’ve got to do something about this environment story.”
You might guess that when Walter Cronkite said, “Goddammit,” things happened at CBS News. And what happened is that I, the science producer for “The Evening News,” was detached for eight weeks to “do something” about this environment story. Never before, to my knowledge, had a network spot news program paid that much attention to a non-breaking story.
At the end of those two months, we began a new series called “Can the World Be Saved?” It aired the Thursday and Friday nights before that first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Each segment ran for eight minutes—one third of the “news hole” for the CBS Evening News. Nothing like that had ever happened on a network evening news program. Walter was dead serious about this.
And it didn’t end there; the segment ran for 10 years on the Evening News.
Those of you old enough may remember its symbol: the stunning Apollo-8 picture of our planet floating in space—the first time humankind had ever seen our home from this perspective. As part of the symbol, the Earth was gripped by, in no very gentle grasp, a human fist. My fist.
Earth, you understand, wasn’t in the palm of my hand. We were trying to show humanity squeezing the Earth to death. The image became a signature of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
“Can the World Be Saved?” won our show its first Emmy. It took up exactly the same problems—and the same potential catastrophes—we’re all (except Donald Trump and a few Republicans) worrying about today: the greenhouse gas effect; Man’s inexorable heating of our planet as we ceaselessly burn carbon; the global population explosion, triggered by the medical revolution that began at the turn of the 20th century; the increasing scarcity of clean water. The program talked about how to reconcile all those problems so as to continue life for humankind on our blue planet—the only home in the cosmos our species will likely ever have. How we could begin to slow and then reverse the damage.
And, so far as we could tell, nobody paid any attention…
Well, folks are paying attention now.
We reported, beginning in 1970, that the polar ice caps would melt. They’re melting.
We reported that the oceans would rise, that expensive beach-fronts and island nations would vanish. They’re rising. They’re vanishing.
We reported that, as the developed nations pumped ever more heat into the atmosphere, the storms would become stronger, more devastating; droughts drier for ever-longer periods of time; all the world’s weather would become harsher, deadlier, and less forgiving. And the fires! We reported that the Earth would become less and less livable for us.
All this we reported, from 1970 through 1979. Virtually none of the recommended changes were made and now the predicted fallout is taking place.
In covering news all over the world for 40 years, I learned:
- If you get a bad, racist attorney general, he can be replaced with a good one.
- If you get an incompetent, amateur secretary of state, he, too, can after a while be replaced with a good one.
- Even if you find yourself with an ignorant, arrogant thug of a president, he can be impeached, voted out, replaced.
If you heedlessly destroy what Carl Sagan called “the blue dot”—the only place in the universe where our species—our children, our grandchildren and their children—can survive, can prosper, can live—there is no going back.
So, out of all the abominable things Donald Trump has brought us and will likely continue to bring us, this retired TV newsman is devoting much of his time and all the money my wife and I can afford, to the cause of the environment.
The hour was already late, all those decades ago when my old friend and boss said, “Goddammit.” It is now very late indeed.
Ron Bonn spent his career in television journalism, first working in the field as a writer, director, and producer for CBS News. Later, at NBC News, he traveled the Soviet Union to produce “The New Cold War,” and went to Normandy with Tom Brokaw for “D-Day Plus 40 Years.” Later in his career he taught television journalism at the University of San Diego. In addition to three Emmys, major awards include the American Bar Assn. Silver Gavel, American Women in Radio and Television Award, Overseas Press Club Edward R. Murrow Award, B’nai B’rith Edward R. Murrow Brotherhood Award, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews Award. He is co-author, with child-life specialist Kathleen McCue, of “How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness.”