Fulcrum Ruminations

Saturday, August 26, 2006

An Incovenient Truth

My wife and I went to see Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, last night. I had resisted seeing this due to my general dislike of Al Gore and what I'd heard about the alarmist nature of the film.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be not quite what I'd heard. One would think someone as cynical as I am would have known better than to believe the reviews, but even I, your humble voice of reason from the center, can sometimes be in thrall to preconceived notions.

First up (if I can make a somewhat trivial observation) the film has one of the best posters I've seen in a while. Check it out -

Smoke from some kind of industrial plant curling upwards to form the image of a hurricane. Pretty good design, eye-catching and summing up the basic thrust of the movie in a single picture.

This movie is not so much a documentary as it is a filmed version of a lecture Al Gore has given around the world many times. Mr. Gore apparently holds this issue to be a great personal priority and his passion for it shows as the film plays out.

I have to note that this is not the Al Gore from the 2000 presidential campaign. This Al Gore is warm, engaging, by turns serious, funny, coldly rational, and wistful. Not at all the wooden, impersonal Algore of the campaign videos. Seems plain that the guy is a much better public speaker when away from the political handlers and their blandifying advice.

Aside - this seems to often be the case with politicians at this level. You get them in a setting other than campaign politics and they are quite often very engaging and human. Two recent exceptions to this rule, tho, would be Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom were extremely effective public speakers no matter the topic.

As Mr. Gore goes thru his presentation, he quotes many scientific studies and public statements from climatologists and other scientists. He does this in a manner that makes the complex and controversial subject very understandable, and even includes a brief animated segment explaining the greenhouse effect that I would swear was done by the same studio that produces The Simpsons. I must note that this is a rare talent, making dense scientific matters comprehensible to laymen. How much of it is Mr. Gore's native ability and how much is due to assistants and speechwriters is anyone's guess, but Gore does a creditable job with it. He is also shown to use an Apple laptop for his personal work, which of course demonstrates superior taste in and knowledge of computers. *ahem*

Gore limits himself to two minor cheap shots at his political opponents, which saves this from looking like a bid for the 2008 presidential race, but he still should have left that out if he wants the issue of global warming debated on its own merits.

He does a good job showing the correlation of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere with increases in global average temperature. The implication is that this is due to human activities, which is the majority position of the climatological community but by no means the fully settled issue that this film implies. A recent study, in fact, suggests that the Greenland ice sheet has been diminishing for at least the last hundred years, which puts the start of the phenomenon well before human industry had added any significant amount of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Gore also cites a large number of published scientific papers which support his thesis, carefully omitting mention of the large number of other scientific papers which do not. It's a classic case of choosing information which supports your starting position and ignoring that which does not, which is of course a standard debating tactic.

Overall, the movie is a bit preachy but not terribly so, presents its information in easily digestible form and shows Al Gore as a much more human figure than the Sunday talk shows ever have. I would urge anyone with any interest in either global warming or Al Gore to see it.

Now for some personal observations.

I've been to Antarctica. I've seen with my own eyes the evidence of retreating ice sheets. I've had presentations from actual scientists explaining the collapse of a large segment of the Larsen ice shelf in recent years. There is no doubt in my mind that global warming is a real, measurable, scientifically verified phenomenon. The question as I see it is how much of this phenomenon is due to human activities and how much in the way of corrective action can be done. If this is simply a normal cycle of the global climate, then interfering with it might be far, far more harmful than we can know. But if it is due to us, then we must do something.

What it boils down to is, of course, long-term thinking vs. short term thinking.

Al Gore attributes much of the problem to two main causes - pollution from human industry and transportation systems, and environmental damage like clearing rain forests. Should this be the case (and I think Gore actually has a pretty good argument) then the solutions are obvious.

They start with conservation. Protect the rain forests, change human habits so that we use less of . . . well, everything, basically . . . and invest our efforts in non-fossil-fuel energy sources.

Fortunately, there's a ready answer to much of this. Commercial power generation, for example, could be moved away from oil and coal based generating plants and much more heavily concentrated on nuclear power. This can be done now, with technology that's been well in hand for almost a half-century. Cars can be made much more fuel efficient (Detroit is once again on a downward spiral due to its emphasis on producing gas-guzzling SUVs rather than light, efficient sedans), public transit can be greatly expanded, people can turn their lights off, etc etc. This is all without even considering moving to renewable energy sources such as the familiar wind/solar/tidal/geothermal technologies we've all seen on the Discovery Channel.

The long-term solution as I see it is nuclear fusion. If we can finally crack that nut, we get cheap, pollution-free, almost limitless power. Power enough to maybe even actively clean the gunk out of the air that we've dumped into it over the last century or so.

But, knowing human nature as I do, I foresee that it will take some sort of catastrophe to finally get things moving in these directions. Al Gore's movie, useful as it may be, is not going to be enough by itself.