Wrong Focus on Climate Change

12/23/2009 04:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

If the goal is environmental activism, we can rally around far more unifying and less controversial topics than climate change.

As my mother always says, "all you have to do is put your head next to a tail pipe of a car and breathe in and you know it's not good for you." The obvious, tangible environmental problems that affect our every day lives are so abundant--I find it shocking that we need to resort to a doomsday scenario in order to mobilize.

We cannot even swim in the Hudson River. This was a glorious estuary where not too long ago people once plucked oysters out of the waters and feasted on a daily basis. In the last 5 years, I have yet to walk on a beach where I haven't seen a piece of garbage. Regulations that protect our drinking water and the air we breathe have languished, some not updated for over 20 years. The New York Times recently revealed that millions in U.S. drink dirty water, potentially causing potential problems from parasites to cancer. This is unconscionable.

These are the reasons we should protect the earth; things that impact people daily, not some abstract fear. Just go for a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains and witness for yourself the almost daily haze over Los Angeles and you'll have a pretty clear agenda. Look at the bikers riding around with facemasks in Milan and China, blowing their noses with soot coming out in their snot and you have an immediate environmental cause. Count the number of kids you know that have asthma and you can make demands to clean the air. Who could argue with that?

I am not knocking all the attention to the climate change issue. What's most positive about the global warming campaign is that it has created a global conversation about the earth's environment, uniting people across cultures and continents. The fact that there was a climate conference in Copenhagen where leaders from across the world, including President Obama, attended to confront the human interaction with the earth is impressive. Not to mention the tens of thousands of people from Denmark, to Italy to Australia and everywhere in between who fought to make their voices heard on behalf of the world. People sincerely want to protect the earth for our future.

But climate change remains a controversial issue with controversial strategies that in some ways have impeded environmental progress. Only a few weeks ago, hacked emails from a 1999 correspondence from a British University reignited the questioning. It appeared that some scientists were allegedly "cooking the books", and intentionally overstating the human influence on climate change in order to fuel this movement. We've spent an exorbitant amount of time and hot air simply debating whether or not we're even causing the problem.

In terms of an environmental agenda, activists have put too much time, money and energy into advancing belief in global warming rather than advocating and financing ways to just get out there and clean up. We know that the climate of earth changes over time and it is obvious that human behavior has an impact on the environment. Smoke stacks pollute and cutting down rainforests creates deserts. The earth goes through ice ages, continents shift. Yellowstone could erupt, covering North America with ash and disrupting world weather patterns for a decade (it has been 600,000 years since its last major eruption and it's due for another eruption). The sun may explode or begin to die. There may be a nuclear disaster. We all agree: it's best to be prepared for the worst.

But how does that cosmic fear get our kids clean drinking water? How much money is being spent to make sure that chemicals are not dumped? How much money is being spent to clean up each and every river? What new programs are in place to clean the air in your city? Can children frolic in your rivers? Can you look out over your city skies without seeing a smog layer? What about that trash pile up in Naples, Italy?

Environmentalism is not just global or local, it's quite personal. Most people don't want to live in a garbage dump. Most people don't want to bring their kids to beaches with chemical waters, PCBS, and little pieces of garbage floating around their faces. Maybe there's a few that don't care, and those are the ones we give the finger to as we go and pick up their litter that they've left on the beach. Some people are forgetful. Sometimes garbage cans over flow. It's beyond the point of raising consciousness. It's about picking up. Lady Bird Johnson's anti-litter campaign in the 60's unfortunately is still needed even as the planes leave Copenhagen. Join a pick up group and do it every month. Commit to carpooling or taking public transportation every once in a while.

We don't have to imagine the end of the world coming in order create change in the present, in the world that we interact with on a daily basis. Even the most conservative global warming skeptic understands the need for clean air, clean water, clean neighborhoods, and pristine forests. And I bet the bank that if we take the critical, immediate incremental steps needed to clean our planet, human impact on climate change will diminish in kind.