It's billed as the biggest show on earth: eight pop music concerts spanning 15 time zones and an expected TV, radio, and Internet audience of 2 billion people.
The "Live Earth" shows that start Saturday in Australia are meant to be more than a planetary party. Event founder Al Gore hopes they will kick-start a global civic crusade to combat climate change and to inspire individuals everywhere to do their part.
Will the event mark the debut of a "Global Warming Generation" – a significant shift in attitudes and behavior? Or will it simply be a fun, musical follow-up to Mr. Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," that resonates little beyond the current advocates?
Reporting from eight countries indicates that today the issue is most relevant to residents of the US and Europe. But in the developing countries where the concerts are being held, such as China, South Africa, and Brazil, few citizens appear to see global warming as a pressing personal problem. In Turkey, the concert was canceled because it couldn't get enough local support.
No matter, say organizers. "These concerts are a way to engage individuals who have not been engaged before," says Andrea Robinson, in charge of gathering support from nongovernmental organizations worldwide for the event. "Music can have a definitive effect on a culture at a particular moment."
In industrialized nations, where more people say they are worried by climate change, surveys indicate that not many of them are yet doing much about it in their daily lives.
Eighty-eight percent of Americans believe individual actions can have a positive impact on climate change, according to a poll carried out in anticipation of the "Live Earth" concerts, and 51 percent of those who had heard about the event expected it would inspire them to do more.
Using music by the likes of Ludacris and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to attract young people's attention, "Live Earth" aims "to have people make changes in their own lives," says Yusef Robb, global coordinator for the concerts. "When people change, corporations and leaders follow."
Critics, such as Roger Daltrey, former lead singer for "The Who," and Bob Geldof, the original global-gig guru, have said that the last thing the world's climate needs is a yeti-sized carbon footprint left by rock stars jetting to venues that will tap megawatts of electricity for lighting and sound systems.
"Live Earth" planners counter that they have deployed "sustainability engineers" at all the venues to make them as green as possible, from using recycled toilet paper to LED lights. And they say that hundreds of millions of people are not aware enough of global warming's threat.
Certainly the Turks do not appear overly concerned. Plans for a concert in Istanbul had to be scratched because "nobody is interested," complained Cengizhan Yeldan, the frustrated promoter.
In China, No. 13 on green issues list
In China, which is about to overtake the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, climate change came 13th on a list of 14 environmental concerns in an opinion poll last year, way behind food safety and air pollution. "The sense of urgency is still not so big as in other countries," says Ma Jun, head of the Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs, a Beijing think tank, "because here air and water pollution threaten people's health directly every day."
When Hu Xin, an environmentalist, returned home recently from studying in Sweden to take the helm of "Global Village," a prominent NGO in Beijing, he says he found "hardly anybody (on the staff) who knew enough about climate change to conduct change-related projects."
In South Africa, host to the Johannesburg concert, a poll late last year found that nearly half the respondents did not think global warming would affect them personally. "When you come from a place where people are looking for their next meal," says Kushmika Singh, a student of Environmental Sciences at Witwatersrand University, "you might not care what is going to happen to the environment in 50 years."
In Rio de Janeiro, organizers hope 1 million people will show up for a concert on Copacabana beach starring Lenny Kravitz. If so, it's likely to be the music, not the cause, that draws. When Greenpeace staged a bicycle ride through the city this past Sunday to draw attention to global warming, only a few hundred people turned out.
Many around the world appear to feel that climate change is so large a problem there is nothing they themselves can do about it. "Individuals can take action by pressuring their government to do something, but I don't think my turning off the lights or driving less will do anything," says Fang Jie, a 27-year-old in Shanghai, China, who has bought a ticket for the concert there.
Ursula Wolsoncraft, a 28-year-old project administrator in Sydney, says she encounters a similar attitude among her generation of Australians. "They feel climate change is such a big problem they have no control over it," she explains.
That is where "Live Earth" hopes to make a difference, says Ms. Robinson. "People feel powerless," she acknowledges. "They wonder what they can do about a melting glacier. Part of "Live Earth" is to tell them, 'Hey, there is something you can do'."
Bring your own chopsticks
Concertgoers and TV viewers will be shown video clips and public service messages proposing scores of practical tips for cutting CO2 emissions, from turning off their computers at night in America to bringing their own chopsticks to restaurants in China, so as not to use the disposable wooden ones provided and thus save millions of trees.
In Fukuoka, Japan, English major Yuko Araki says she expects young Japanese to pay more attention to musicians than to politicians discredited by a string of scandals. "If popular artists send some message about environmental problems to young people they are sure to listen," she says.
How much they – and their peers in other industrial countries – will actually do, however, is unclear. A poll published Tuesday in Britain found that though 68 percent of respondents believe we are seeing climate change, 37 percent admitted to doing nothing at all about it.
"Most people seem to accept climate change but don't buy into it enough to translate into action," says Phil Downing, head of environmental research at IPSOS Mori, which conducted the poll. And though young people "seem to be the most concerned about climate change," he adds, "paradoxically they are the most likely to engage in behavior that's environmentally destructive like flying, buying plasma screens and fast cars."
While US high school students may not be indulging in such pastimes yet, they do not seem to care much about global warming. A poll last November by Hamilton College found that only 28 percent of American high school students think it is very likely that climate change will affect them personally in the future.
Generation Y: Seeks green employer
Their older brothers and sisters, however, think differently. "Generation Y is getting fired up about global warming," says Jeff Angel, director of the Total Environment Centre, a green advocacy group in Sydney. "There's a lot of evidence in Australia to show that young people look for employers with the right environmental credentials."
In America, too, "there has been an absolute explosion among young people whose main concerns are related to the environment," says James Pittman, who teaches Environmental Studies at Prescott College in Arizona. "They are concerned about their future and it is really starting to sink in."
Global warming "is the defining challenge of our generation," proclaims Billy Parish, a 25-year-old who dropped out of Yale to found Energy Action, a coalition of US universities and students seeking to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. "The window of time ... we have to solve this problem is a narrow one."
"Live Earth" is seeking to capitalize on that sort of attitude. "Today's generation has a decision to make, it has a choice," says John Hanawa, who works at the Beijing office of the UN Development Program, which is helping to organize the Shanghai concert. "That's why we have these events ... to get traction with young people."
If the strategy is not working so well in Rio, where "there has not been one article in the Brazilian press about the cause of the show, about global warming," complains environmental activist Sergio Ricardo, the sky is a little brighter elsewhere.
In China, for example, climate change has become a "hot topic" among young people in the past few months, says Mr. Hu, now that the government has begun to tackle the subject more frankly and opened it for public debate. "It is almost like trying to be green is some sort of fashion," adds Mr. Ma.
In South Africa, where young people have been at the forefront of protests to win better public services in the townships and for new government policies on HIV/AIDS, global warming could be the next big youth cause, says John Langford who is organizing the Johannesburg concert.
"While "Live Earth" might be another step in a long-running campaign against global warming in the US and Europe, here it could be the launch of a broad social movement," Mr. Langford predicts.
• Written and reported by Peter Ford in Beijing. Reported by Nick Squires in Sydney, Takehiko Kambayashi in Tokyo, Jude Blanchette in Shanghai, China, Stephanie Hanes in Johannesburg, South Africa, Yigal Schleifer in Istanbul, Turkey, Mark Rice-Oxley in London, Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro, and Tony Azios in Boston.