This Man Has Something To Tell Us
Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth"
We’re conditioned not to realize that Al Qaeda’s worst attack is like a mosquito bite compared to what Mother Nature can do when aroused.
Calling Davis Guggenheim’s "An Inconvenient Truth" “just a film of a slide lecture” is the ultimate reductivism. Al Gore’s lecture around which the documentary is built is an impressive performance, but also the result of a lifetime of passionate commitment to the environment.
We’re conditioned not to realize that Al Qaeda’s worst attack is like a mosquito bite compared to what Mother Nature can do when aroused. As Gore offhandedly puts it, 9/11 was a terrible event, but maybe we ought to worry about other threats besides terrorism. There’s a scientific consensus that climate change is currently dramatic, and that the major element in it is human and therefore reversible. It’s also obvious that the US is the major contributor to global pollution, but is unable to deal with climate-caused disasters when they come, as the material and human damage done in the Gulf region last year by Hurricane Katrina vividly illustrates.
In Guggenheim’s documentary, Gore summarizes most of the major evidence of the warming phenomenon, with emphasis on melting ice and variations in carbon dioxide and temperature levels over the whole detectable range of geologic time. He explains what these changes are causing and predicts further future consequences--drought, floods, deaths, homelessness, species extinctions and increased disease, destruction of cities and loss of arable land (the world population has tripled in Gore’s lifetime, one of the main contributing causes to this problem). Most dire and dramatic of the possible human outcomes: flooding of urban centers and settled lands resulting in displacement of as many as 100 million people.
Most dire and dramatic of the possible human outcomes of global warming: flooding of urban centers and settled lands resulting in displacement of as many as 100 million people.
Gore says ‘this is a moral issue, not a political issue.” Since it’s become clear that the current US administration favors bad science and fundamentalist Christianity over up-to-date fact, and global warming is nothing if it is not an up-to-date fact, let’s say it’s a scientific and a political issue that overrides politics with its moral imperatives. To do nothing now is to doom future generations to horrible consequences, even extinction.
According to Gore, it's a major misconception that there's serious disagreement among scientists about climate change and the human role in it, a myth perpetrated by popular journalism. He cites a check of over 900 scientific articles related to global warming that found zero that questioned its existence; and another check of 500-odd popular articles that showed 53% presenting it as uncertain. (The truth is that some scientists disagree, but they are in a small minority.) Another claim Gore deals with is that the US auto industry is holding its place by having bad emission standards. Given that GM and Chrysler are failing, this argument appears specious.
We’re like the frog in water slowly heated up to boiling that doesn’t know to jump out, Gore says.
We’re like the frog in water slowly heated up to boiling that doesn’t know to jump out, Gore says. Though the climate changes in fact are extremely rapid, they aren’t perceived as such, but Gore hopes we will still be jolted, as his father was jolted to stop raising tobacco when his older sister died of lung cancer.
As a Congressman, Gore tells us he thought his fellow politicians would see the urgency of ecological destruction. But they didn’t. They tend to set aside any matter that isn’t prominent in the minds of their constituents. Al Gore quotes Upton Sinclair: "It is hard to get a man to understand something, if his living depends on him not understanding it." À propos of this, Gore gives the notable example of the Bush environmental official who altered scientific statements, then, forced to resign, went to work for Exxon Mobil the next day. It’s interesting to contrast Gore’s obvious clarity about science with those other leaders who favor bad science that they don’t understand. A Gore administration would have been very different, one hopes, and his joking introduction, "You know me: I used to be the next President of the United States" is a sad reminder of that.
Al Gore quotes Upton Sinclair: "It is hard to get a man to understand something, if his living depends on him not understanding it."
The film opens and closes with a beautiful country scene in summer by a riverbank with everything quiet, verdant and blooming. It ends with the wish that our grandchildren don’t have to look back and wish we’d done something.
Despite this film’s accomplished quality--its sharpness and conviction, its smooth flow--it has some obvious drawbacks. One of these is its focus on Gore’s own personal history, and even the fact that Gore himself is unabashedly at the center of it. His unifying presence, and his forthright identity, make everything a political as well as scientific and moral issue. The film might even be seen, and in some circles is being seen, as a push to get him re-nominated by the Democrats for President. But as has been pointed out, the Dems lock-step voted against Kyoto ratification. In fact, Gore comes though as calm, passionate, rational, and smart; he’s not the people-pleaser that Clinton is, but may have more real warmth. Gore has become more outspoken, strong, free, his own man since his “defeat.” And that shows in his appealing speaking here. But still unfortunately, Gore’s reputation as numbingly boring, though belied by this film, may put off some people from watching it. Those who ignore that reputation will be surprised at the wit, humor, and personal honesty of the man--and at his hope.
Gore believes that there is hope, but in this film there is more about the basic phenomenon and less about what we can do about it--which is almost presented as an afterthought, since such suggestions for individual action are peppered through the closing credits rather than contained in the body of the future. There could be more about popular campaigns to change policy as well as about the policies of other nations' governments. Overall there is more emphasis on the problem than on the response.
And there is the same danger most committed documentaries have: of preaching to the converted, and alienating conservatives and non-believers in the facts, the more because it’s the last Democratic nominee for President presenting them. And yet for Gore to pretend political non-affiliation would be un-candid. It’s essential to his commitment that he should be all he is in his presentation.
This is a powerful film, whatever its faults. And that not all will be swayed by it doesn’t make it unimportant, but underlines the need for it.
©Chris Knipp 2006. See Chris Knipp's website
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This story was published on June 23, 2006.