[Originally posted in July 2006 at SciFiDimensions.com; re-posted on October 16, 2007 at AmericanFreethought.com. This documentary subsequently won an Academy Award; Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for his work in raising awareness about global warming. I should also point out that when I wrote this review, my views were much more Libertarian and my skepticism toward both major American political parties was 50/50. Today, I’m a full-throated liberal Democrat who thinks Libertarians are either hopelessly naïve or willfully cynical, and that Republicans are surely and steadily destroying this country.]
It should come as no spoiler to learn that the “inconvenient truth” championed by former Vice President (and failed presidential candidate) Al Gore is that global warming is real, and the culprit is carbon dioxide generated by human civilization. But is this inconvenient truth really the truth—and is it the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
All documentaries should be approached cum grano salis; political documentaries should be taken with a spoonful of salt; and documentaries starring politicians should be taken with a near-lethal dose of the stuff. While documentaries are supposed to be objective presentations of whatever subject matter they analyze, more often than not they are tainted by one agenda or another. Such is the case with An Inconvenient Truth.
But first…the science. The bulk of the film is constructed from clips of Gore’s live lecture and PowerPoint presentation, given all over the world in the years since he lost the 2000 presidential election. The overwhelming scientific consensus, according to Gore, is that global warming (they call it “global climate change” nowadays) is not only real, but really is caused by homo sapiens, and by homo Americanis moreso than others. From that standpoint, there’s nothing new or controversial in An Inconvenient Truth. Gore, who’s spent a lifetime espousing the view that we need to do something about “greenhouse gas” emissions, presents one data set after another showing that glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate; that the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps are melting; and (with a chart going back 600,000 years) that CO2 levels in the atmosphere directly correlate to overall global temperatures. And if you believe the data, CO2 levels have skyrocketed over the last 200 years (coinciding with the rise of industrialization), so the implication is that the world will get much hotter, and very soon, and it’s our fault.
Now, any layman who says he really understands all the science behind this, and has actually followed the research in any detail, is either a rarity or a liar. This is not to say that Gore’s data is fraudulent, merely that it is impossible for any movie to provide a full grounding in so complex a topic in a mere 90 minutes. Where did this 600,000 years’ worth of data come from? Do scientists accept it as accurate? Is there really no controversy over the accuracy of predictive climate models?
A critical viewer will have klaxons going off in his head at the number of manipulative and misleading sequences. There’s no scientific benefit in seeing a computer animation of what looks for all the world like the Coca-Cola polar bear swimming in the open sea that used to be the North Pole, slowly drowning as he struggles to find an iceberg big enough to climb on to. And while Gore rightly points out that tourists who cruise glaciers will witness the process of “calving” (i.e., the glacier dramatically breaking up into clunks where it meets the ocean) he fails to mention that this is a normal process, not an indicator of a problem. Finally, he shows a frightening series of then-and-now photos of glaciers that have either melted into tiny fragments of their former majesty, or disappeared altogether. Questions arise, such as: Were these glaciers not disappearing, say, 300 years ago? Could their disappearance be due to the normal long-term cycle of ice ages? (The earth has been emerging from an ice age during all of human history.) Are there no current glaciers growing, and is there no increased accumulation of ice at either pole (the answer, according to some sources, is “yes”), and if so, how is that? Again, I make no assertion that Gore’s data is wrong; I simply point out that it does not address contrary data or obvious questions-for-clarity.
By far the most annoying aspect of this film is the extent to which it pulls away from its purported message (global warming) to engage in blatant politicking. We’re scarcely five minutes into the film when Gore quips to an audience “I used to be the next president of the United States.” Taken by itself, it’s an amusing bit of self-deprecation, but as the film progresses, we’re treated to a montage of the 2000 election debacle that perpetuates the view that the Republicans stole the presidency. Then there’s the heartbreaking—but ultimately irrelevant—story of the near-death of Gore’s son. More relevant is the story of Gore’s sister’s death from lung cancer (due to smoking), which morphs into a lesson on how a deadly problem can easily be ignored until it is too late. Finally, there are several nodding winks that telegraph the idea that Republicans are not addressing the issue of global warming and are actually making it worse, and if only Al Gore were president the environment would be safe. Now, Gore was VP for eight years, and I don’t exactly remember him knocking over grandmothers and orphans to do something about CO2 emissions. Gore also doesn’t explain why it is that the US Senate rejected Kyoto by a vote of 95-0 (in other words, the vast majority of both Republicans andDemocrats would not support it). At any rate, while you can’t help feeling a little sorry for Gore and his anticlimactic political career (”Missed it by that much!”), you also can’t help coming away from An Inconvenient Truth with the impression that it’s just a gussied-up combination trial balloon and 2008 campaign advertisement (or at the very least, something designed to scare people into voting Democratic). Gore also points an accusing finger at Big Oil, quoting Upton Sinclair’s “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But in the interest of full disclosure, Gore should reveal what kind of livelihood he has made in delivering his anti-Big Oil PowerPoint presentation “over a thousand times.” Maybe he’s done it for free, but if not, might that make him willfully blind to any counter-claims?
Ironically, Gore is ignoring the easiest way to scare people into using less oil: the fact that it continues to entangle us with anti-progressive Third World regimes run by dangerous tyrants. The relationship between oil and global warming might be ironclad, but the problem it presents could be bypassed by addressing the more immediate connection between profligate oil use and global chaos. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or rather, an environmental scientist) to figure that one out.
Reservations notwithstanding, I do recommend An Inconvenient Truth as an intriguing film and as good a starting point as any to continue the debate about what to do about growing energy consumption and the ill effects it might have on the environment and our national security. My concern is that adoring Democratic viewers will swallow Gore’s message whole-hog, while Republicans will either boycott it completely, or stiff-neck their way through it and emerge unenlightened.