"Before it’s too late

I made a point of watching Queen Elizabeth on her recent trip to the States. McCartney was right: Though she doesn’t have a lot to say, Liz seems like a pretty nice girl. And those hats! Every day a new bonnet in some color seemingly derived from a wildflower cited in one of Shakespeare’s plays.

We Americans have mixed feelings about royalty. Having rejected the idea in a fit of youthful pique back in 1776, a certain part of us retains a wistfulness for monarchy. Our being constitutionally opposed to the concept hasn’t kept us from creating surrogates, called celebrities, whose actual accomplishments, like Elizabeth’s, are unspecifiable, but whose tastes and foibles — like the love of small dogs, big houses and sporting events — provide constant fodder for magazines, talk shows and 24-hour news.

To tell you the truth, I think the time is coming when we’ll find that a queen, or king — a supreme leader, if you prefer — could come in handy. How else are we going to deal with climate change?

Let me tell you what I mean. The other night I was watching the weather forecast on TV. The North American continent was covered with animated swooshes of citrus color — tangerine, lemon and lime — indicating warm Pacific air originating somewhere south of the equator. The weatherman, an affable fellow approved by the American Meteorological Society, said his colleagues had spotted activity out there over the South Seas suggesting that the summer to come could bring an unusually long string of 90-degree days.

The next day, on my way home from work, I noticed the temperature was 85. And it wasn’t even the middle of May. Through my open upstairs windows I heard the air conditioning kick in at my neighbor’s house next door.

Here’s my point: Many, maybe even most, of us understand the importance of cutting down on greenhouse gases. We see stories almost every day about scientists warning us that time is running out before we reach the point of no return if we’re to avoid rising temperatures’ worst effects. Turn around and someone else is talking about the ice melting in Greenland.

Meanwhile, we dutifully collect our recyclables, ride our bikes and screw in those twirly light bulbs that are supposed to live longer than many small mammals. But tell me: How many of us will be willing to forego the unspeakable bliss of an air-conditioned workplace or bedroom during a prolonged heat wave?

I happen to work on the upper floor of a building that was designed with windows that cannot be opened. Even on a sunny winter day it can get overheated. If we have a long, hot summer I guarantee you that the AC here — and in countless buildings like it — will be chugging.

In his book about life in Washington, D.C., during World War II, David Brinkley pointed out that foreign diplomats used to hate being sent to our nation’s capitol; it was unbearably hot and humid, considered a hardship post. Then came air conditioning and everything changed. People could work on war all day and party all night in cool comfort.

Well, the climate in Washington, D.C., is remarkably similar to Indianapolis. And we’re just as hooked on AC. Our workdays, indeed, our very understanding of daily life, is scheduled as if weather doesn’t exist. Not long ago, our public schools made a big deal out of putting AC in every building so that kids’ time in class could be extended. This was supposed to be good news in a place where the most characteristic sounds of summer are the whir and gurgle of energy-chomping cooling systems.

That’s why I think we need a maximum leader. And not some milk-and-cookies monarch; someone with teeth. If scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization sponsored by the United Nations (whose findings, by the way, are supported by the Bush Administration), are correct, we have until 2015 — eight years! — to get our act together. That will still leave billions of people short of water by 2050.

But American automakers insist that making cars that get more than 27 miles of gas to the gallon isn’t good for business. Air polluting coal is still the fuel of choice in our cities. And who among us will leave the AC switched to “off” as the temperature outside rises this summer? We can call this freedom of choice, but it begins to look more like dithering.

I think we may need a queen. Someone to make the decisions for us we’re unable to make on our own. Only a queen, God save her, may be able to save us from ourselves.



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