A Convenient Deceit?

("An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary featuring Al Gore’s polarizing perceptions on global warming, received an Academy Award last evening for Best Documentary Feature. The film also received an Oscar for Best Song, “I Need to Wake Up,” which was written and performed by Melissa Etheridge. Mackinac Center for Public Policy Science Editor Bruce Edward Walker reviewed the film during its theatrical run last summer and found the former vice president’s grasp of science lacking. The following is excerpted from this review.)

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“An Inconvenient Truth” is a platform from which Gore assumes the Cassandra role of predicting the demise of the world as we know it. As a work intended to frighten audiences into compelling government to "do something, anything" about global warming, the film fails on both scientific and rhetorical levels.

"An Inconvenient Truth" attempts to link personal events in Gore’s life with subsequent political causes. For example, the film includes scenes detailing such personal tragedies as the death of Gore’s sister from lung cancer, the traffic injuries incurred by his son as a young child and his painfully drawn-out defeat for the presidency in 2000.

Such emotionally charged cinematic manipulation serves to humanize the notoriously stiff former vice president by granting him unearned moral authority. No one but a heartless cynic would deny another human his or her personal tragedies for taking up a cause, but Gore’s assertion that his sister’s death caused him to rethink his family’s history as Tennessee tobacco farmers belies his later work in the Senate as a tobacco industry advocate. Similarly, presenting the injuries suffered by his son as a watershed moment in his own life that caused him to transform into an environmental crusader may make sense to Gore, but — like much of the film — left this viewer with more questions than answers.

Accepting the former vice president’s conclusions in "An Inconvenient Truth" presupposes that catastrophic global warming is a reality — a presupposition that many scientists dispute, believing instead that warming may be occurring, but is neither solely caused by humans nor catastrophic in nature. The Earth is not a closed system, and is prone to climate change due to many factors, including shifting of the Earth’s axis, activity on the surface of the sun, seismic activity, climate fluctuations such as El Nino and weather cycles. If one were to concede that catastrophic global warming is indeed 1) scientifically verifiable and 2) an anthropogenic fact, how then should the problem be fixed and at what costs?

For Mr. Gore, the answer is compliance with the Kyoto Protocols, which were drafted in 1997 with his assistance and which call for an 8 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2012. In his film and personal appearances, Gore maligns the current Bush administration for its abandonment of Kyoto.

Of course, there exists the inconvenient truth that the Clinton administration never submitted the protocols to the Senate for ratification. Contrary to Gore’s stated position, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution stating that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol that did not include binding targets and timetables for developing as well as industrialized nations. Otherwise, the protocols "would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States."

China and India — the world’s two largest developing nations, representing one-third of the Earth’s population — are among the countries exempt from Kyoto. As for projected costs, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that our domestic economy would take an annual $300 billion-$400 billion hit to comply with Kyoto.

Every narrative needs a villain, and carbon dioxide is the bête noire of Mr. Gore’s global warming theorists. Using several misleading charts and computer-generated animation, Gore presents worst-case scenarios of a devastated near-future including one in which Manhattan is submerged completely. While there may be no doubt among many scientists that human activity impacts the level of greenhouse gases, there currently exists no scientific method of measuring the difference between anthropogenic and naturally occurring causes. In any event, the likelihood of Manhattan becoming the next Lost City of Atlantis is highly improbable.

"An Inconvenient Truth" resorts to Gore’s too-easy use of sarcasm and eye-rolling in place of well-considered rebuttals to charges that global warming theories reflect inconclusive science. One remembers a fateful debate during the 2000 election when Gore was ill-served by such tactics. His arguments in "An Inconvenient Truth" are no better-served, although his barbs at the current administration were received warmly by audiences both in the film and the theater attended by this reviewer. The result serves to isolate the film as a partisan diatribe rather than a reasoned dissertation bolstered by scientific facts.


Bruce E. Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.