Like many film critics, I’ve received a lot of e-mails in response to my positive review of Al Gore’s global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” and to my subsequent blog entries on the same topic. Not since “Brokeback Mountain” have so many people been so sure they disagreed with a film they haven’t seen.
Normally I don’t debate a movie with people who haven’t seen it — I mean, really, duh — but since the topic of “An Inconvenient Truth” extends into the real world, and since the movie purports to be an analysis of real-world circumstances, it seemed reasonable to make an exception.
But as I’ve responded to the people who have taken time to write to me — all of them intelligent and (except one, maybe) polite so far — I’ve noticed that I’m repeating myself a lot. So I thought I’d reprint some of the letters here, and then summarize my responses to the issues they bring up. I still welcome e-mails from readers, of course, but perhaps this will make some correspondence unnecessary. Consider it a FAQ RE: Al Gore and global warming.
From a longtime reader named Joe:
You mentioned that Gore says that there is no real dissent on warming. A couple of days before your post I wrote about it on a blog, specifically about dissent on Global Warming. I know, the name of the blog is Right Wing Pundit, but I didn’t misquote the sources to prove a point.
I know, I know- maybe I am just a right winger that doesn’t want to face facts, but there are respected people that disagree with some of the science of global warming. The fact that it HAS become a partisan issue doesn’t mean that the partisan people that disagree are wrong.
My conclusion is that man’s effect on warming is just a theory, and will always be one. It is not scientific fact because it hasn’t passed the test.
From another longtime reader, Rob:
I was a little disappointed in the lack of sophistication evident in your review of “An Inconvenient Truth” and other comments of yours on the topic of global warming.
First, the idea that the Earth is warming due to human activity is indeed a theory and not one that is universally supported in the scientific community. Yes, average temperatures have gone up in recent years in many parts of the world, but we don’t know yet what’s causing that phonomenon. Could just be a normal part of the Earth’s temperature cycle, which has varied greatly over the centuries. Certainly, what’s known as “global warming” is one hypothesis that is widely, if not universally, accepted. Perhaps the fact that it IS the dominant theory in the scientific community explains why so few dissenting articles have been published in journals controlled by the scientific community. Anyone who views science as the realm of pure knowledge, and not as a hotbed for partisan politics, is naive indeed.
(Let me suggest here a very good read: Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear,” which, although a novel, explores the global warming controversy with the depth of scientific and journalistic research that has become Crichton’s trademark.)
Secondly, you express bewilderment that Republicans and other conservatives could take issue with what is clearly, in your mind, scientific fact. “Aren’t we all living on the same planet,” you ask? Forgive me for saying so, because I normally respect your intelligence–you’ve given me a lot of great movie tips over the years–but that’s nothing more than bumper-sticker wisdom, a trite platitude masquerading as a reasoned argument.
Conservatives are concerned about the global warming movement because many, both inside and outside the scientific community, are attempting to use this popular theory as a weapon in the war on capitalism. As many leading economists have concluded, adhering to the Kyoto Protocol would do great damage to our economy, perhaps irreversably. Could that, and not “saving the Earth,” be the real goal of the self-proclaimed “environmentists”? Before you answer, look carefully at their politics. You will find that many of them are socialists, if not out-and-out Marxists. The “green movement” is little more than a new cover for an old agenda: redistribution of wealth.
All conservatives are saying is, let’s not destroy the world’s economy based on panicked responses to an unproven theory. Instead, let’s begin taking sensible steps to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, such as personal conservation, greater use of mass transit, and using our power as consumers to create the demand for more fuel efficient and alternative fuel vehicles. Meanwhile, we can continue debating the science, and eventually, the truth will emerge.
Until then, remember that nothing has the power to liberate people and lift them from poverty like free markets.
From a reader named Shang:
I just read your review of “An Inconvenient Truth” and had some thoughts about global warming that I thought you might be interested in hearing. Let me state first that I am no skeptic of global warming: the evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable. I even believe human activity has contributed to it. I am interested in seeing Mr. Gore’s movie, because I believe there is great value in humans being better caretakers of this planet. The only thing I take issue with is the smug certainty that Gore and those scientists who agree completely with him express when it comes to the extent of the problem, its impacts and our ability to solve it. While I do not doubt that it is mainly Big Oil that is behind the push to downplay global warming, I question the assertion that Gore and your review so elegantly made regarding the scientific consensus about global warming.
Yes, the statistic you listed from the documentary about all 900-odd journals supporting wholly the theory is very convincing. I am impressed by that and want to know more about it, but coming from a market research background, it seems to me almost too good to be true. I wonder what the methodology is behind this assessment. Then I read articles such as this one that are candid and where the journalist is quite aware of the criticism of the skeptics’ view and easily admits the fishy Big Oil scientist connections when they are pointed out, yet explains logically how Gore cannot point out the biases that surround his research. Could it be that Gore has his “side” just as Big Oil has its “side?” Is one “side” right or might they both be wrong together?
I cannot ignore that Gore’s evidence is extremely compelling, and most authorities seem to see things his way, but we must realize that going with his assumptions on faith and developing solutions accordingly, while they very well could lead to a viable answer, could also have significant costs and devastating, cascading socioeconomic impacts. Not going with his solutions may also have catastrophic outcomes, which is what he wants everyone to believe, and admittedly out of nothing but sincerity and no ulterior motive. But to ignore reputable sources, which I believe he might be doing, in order to push for extreme measures could be seen as irresponsible.
From a DVD Talk reader who probably had not read anything of mine before and who is named Dave:
It’s too bad you don’t check you facts. There are plenty of scientists who dispute Gore’s publicity stunt:
[Dave neglected to mention this, but what he is about to cite comes from an article in the online publication Canada Free Press. I do not know how reliable this publication is generally, but I do know that one of their writers once plagiarized material from The Onion for a news story, apparently not realizing The Onion is a FAKE news outlet and that the material she stole from them was made-up. Anyway, back to Dave’s letter/CFP quotation.]
Professor Bob Carter of the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University, in Australia gives what, for many Canadians, is a surprising assessment: “Gore’s circumstantial arguments are so weak that they are pathetic. It is simply incredible that they, and his film, are commanding public attention.”
Carter does not pull his punches about Gore’s activism, “The man is an embarrassment to US science and its many fine practitioners, a lot of whom know (but feel unable to state publicly) that his propaganda crusade is mostly based on junk science.”
Appearing before the Commons Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development last year, Carleton University paleoclimatologist Professor Tim Patterson testified, “There is no meaningful correlation between CO2 levels and Earth’s temperature over this [geologic] time frame. In fact, when CO2 levels were over ten times higher than they are now, about 450 million years ago, the planet was in the depths of the absolute coldest period in the last half billion years.”
Dr. Boris Winterhalter, former marine researcher at the Geological Survey of Finland and professor in marine geology, University of Helsinki, takes apart Gore’s dramatic display of Antarctic glaciers collapsing into the sea. “The breaking glacier wall is a normally occurring phenomenon which is due to the normal advance of a glacier,” says Winterhalter. “In Antarctica the temperature is low enough to prohibit melting of the ice front, so if the ice is grounded, it has to break off in beautiful ice cascades. If the water is deep enough icebergs will form.”
Dr. WibjÃƒÂ¶rn KarlÃƒÂ©n, emeritus professor, Dept. of Physical Geography and Quaternary Geology, Stockholm University, Sweden, admits, “Some small areas in the Antarctic Peninsula have broken up recently, just like it has done back in time. The temperature in this part of Antarctica has increased recently, probably because of a small change in the position of the low pressure systems.”
But KarlÃƒÂ©n clarifies that the ‘mass balance’ of Antarctica is positive – more snow is accumulating than melting off. As a result, Ball explains, there is an increase in the ‘calving’ of icebergs as the ice dome of Antarctica is growing and flowing to the oceans. When Greenland and Antarctica are assessed together, “their mass balance is considered to possibly increase the sea level by 0.03 mm/year – not much of an effect,” KarlÃƒÂ©n concludes.
Gore’s point that 200 cities and towns in the American West set all time high temperature records is also misleading according to Dr. Roy Spencer, Principal Research Scientist at The University of Alabama in Huntsville. “It is not unusual for some locations, out of the thousands of cities and towns in the U.S., to set all-time records,” he says. “The actual data shows that overall, recent temperatures in the U.S. were not unusual.”
[End uncredited CFP quotation.]
Obviously, he went to the Michael Moore school of movie making. Inuendo, half truths and misleading statements are no substitute for the facts. [Nor is copying and pasting a Web article a substitute for an actual letter!]
From Dave again, when I wrote back to him and asked why I should believe the scientists he quotes over the ones Gore uses, and also indicated that I, as a non-scientist, have no choice but to go along with what the majority of scientists believe, which in this case is that global warming is real, bad, and preventable:
I appreciate that you are in the entertainment business and science may not be “your thing”. Still, as a journalist you have a certain responsibility to your readers. Mr. Gore is trying to make money and increase his political coin by releasing a controversial movie. I wasn’t encouraging you to believe one view or another. It’s just that I take umbrage at people who throw away their critical thinking skills and accept facts blindly. It’s clear you did by various statements in your review. As an example:
“They did a random sampling of 928 global-warming-related articles from all the regular peer-reviewed scientific journals. Of those 928 (which comprise 10 percent of the total published), how many suggested that global warming was not a reality, or that it was part of a natural Earth cycle, or that there was nothing we could do about it? A grand total of zero.” [That paragraph is a quote from my review of Gore’s movie.]
Did you attempt to verify this statement? What is their definition of “random”? Of those 9,000 articles, perhaps 8,000 refute their claims and they took a “random” sampling of the ones who agreed with their premise.
Any endeavor that has the possibility of garnering the creator fame or monetary gain should be closely scrutinized, both for the facts of the subject matter and the motivation. For example, perhaps he wants to increase his visibility for a possible run at the White House? Imagine what “his” scientists would stand to gain if that would happen.
I encourage you to listen to BOTH sides and make an informed decision, rather than believing what you are told. Question everything.
* * * * * *
So there’s a sampling of what I’ve gotten so far, and I should add a thanks my longtime brother Chris for sending me the Canada Free Press link, which is how I was able to spot where Dave had gotten his info from.
Now here is my response to all of this, more or less divided by topic of concern.
IS THERE AN OVERWHELMING CONSENSUS AMONG SCIENTISTS ON GLOBAL WARMING?
Gore says there is. In “An Inconvenient Truth,” he says that in a random sampling of more than 900 articles on the subject published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, NONE of them took the contrary position. Meanwhile, he points out, in newspaper articles about it, the contrary position gets mentioned more than 50 percent of the time — a contrary position that, he says, very, very few scientists actually hold. The media exaggerate how much disagreement there is, in other words.
So says Gore. Dave asked, “Did you attempt to verify this statement?” Well, no. I don’t know what Dave thinks I ought to have done. Gore doesn’t say who conducted this random sampling, or which specific scientific journals they used. Short of obtaining every scientific journal published in the last decade and doing a random sampling of 900 articles myself, there’s not much I can do to corroborate Gore’s claim.
There are people with such resources, and I don’t doubt they will pore over the scientific journals to see if they can refute or confirm Gore’s statistics. But I am not one of those people.
But even if Gore is right, and peer-reviewed scientific journals almost never publish articles suggesting global warming is a) not real, b) not bad, or c) not preventable anyway, that doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is settled.
In his blog entry linked above, Joe quotes the Denver Post in saying, “There are many younger scientists who voice their concerns about global warming hysteria privately but would never jeopardize their careers by speaking up.”
In other words, perhaps the reason scientific journals don’t publish articles debunking global warming is that scientists who take that position are afraid to speak up. Perhaps the reason “the scientific community” generally agrees on it is that those who disagree aren’t admitted into the “scientific community.” It is something to think about.
SO IF THERE’S NO OVERWHELMING CONSENSUS, IS THERE AT LEAST A MAJORITY OPINION?
Yes. I think even those who claim global warming is a crock admit that their viewpoint is the minority one among scientists. It may be a growing minority, and a vocal one, but it remains a minority.
And see, that’s the whole point for me. When a movie says something that I recognize as blatantly illogical or untrue, I’m quick to point it out in my review. But I’m not a scientist. What Gore says in “An Inconvenient Truth” makes sense to me. He explains himself very clearly, and the science he uses seems sound, at least to my layman’s mind.
I’m sure there are people hard at work as we speak, debunking whatever elements of Gore’s film need to be debunked. And if specific errors in fact or methodology come forth, I’ll be glad to know the truth on the matter.
But in the meantime, Gore’s opinion — that global warming is real, bad, and preventable — is the one shared by a majority of scientists. Again, maybe not so many as to be a hands-down, end-of-discussion consensus, but enough to where I, as a regular joe, can comfortably accept that majority opinion as a reliable one and act accordingly.
Dave wants me to listen to the opposing scientists, and OK, I’ve read what they say. But why take their word over that of Gore’s scientists? Logically, if there are qualified individuals coming up with different conclusions, my best course of action is to go with the prevailing, majority opinion.
ENVIRONMENTALISM AS A PARTISAN ISSUE
Rob took me to task when he said: “You express bewilderment that Republicans and other conservatives could take issue with what is clearly, in your mind, scientific fact. ‘Aren’t we all living on the same planet,’ you ask? … But that’s nothing more than bumper-sticker wisdom, a trite platitude masquerading as a reasoned argument.”
Fortunately, I didn’t actually say that. What I said, in my blog entry about the film, was: “How did the environment become a partisan-politics issue? Though it may seem otherwise, Republicans and Democrats actually live on the same planet (Earth), and the condition of that planet affects both groups.”
All I was saying was that protecting the Earth — whether that means fighting global warming, or proving global warming doesn’t exist, or whatever — should be something ALL political parties are interested in. Yet for some reason, it’s vastly partisan.
Rob said the conservative position is “let’s not destroy the world’s economy based on panicked responses to an unproven theory. Instead, let’s begin taking sensible steps to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, such as personal conservation, greater use of mass transit, and using our power as consumers to create the demand for more fuel efficient and alternative fuel vehicles.”
The problem as I see it is, since environmentalism is so partisan now, all the conservatives can do is SAY that. If a conservative even thinks of doing the things Rob mentions, he is branded a hippie liberal tree-hugger Marxist. So instead, the conservative party line is to TALK about those things, but not to actually do much about them. In fact, some people take stubborn pride in doing non-environment-friendly things just because they don’t like environmentalists (i.e., liberals), sort of like the anti-vegetarian “for every animal you don’t eat, I’m going to eat three” joke.
IS THERE ANY HARM IN FOLLOWING GORE’S ADVICE, EVEN IF GLOBAL WARMING TURNS OUT TO BE FALSE?
What Gore and his ilk suggest is reducing oil and energy consumption, which means driving less, using hybrid cars, developing alternative fuel sources, etc. All of this will help stop global warming — but even if global warming proves false, well, aren’t those good suggestions anyway?
I mean, don’t we all agree that less dependency on oil — especially foreign-owned oil — is a GOOD thing? Wouldn’t we all like lower emissions on cars and thus cleaner air to breathe? And in addition to slowing global warming, doesn’t reducing your electricity usage save you money?
Let’s say a doctor tells you you’ve got cancer, and the only way to cure it is to eat right and exercise daily. Then it turns out you didn’t have cancer after all. Are you mad? Or are you glad you got in the habit of eating right and exercising daily?
Rob brings up what what many on his side of the issue have brought up, which is that Gore’s ideas, if followed to their conclusion, could destroy the national and world economies. Gore addresses this point in his film, but only briefly (that’s one of the movie’s flaws, I think), and not in much detail. I get the impression he talks about it more in his live presentation, and that only a few moments of it was included in the film.
I know, if this is possible, even less about economics than I do about science. But I’m smart enough to see that certain things cause other things. Using less electricity and oil will hurt the electricity and oil industries, which will hurt the many people who are employed by those industries, which will hurt the overall economy.
However, let’s not forget that the economy changes frequently as technology, trends and lifestyle choices evolve. Companies that once made millions producing film are suffering because everyone uses digital cameras now. The people who once produced typewriters have had to focus on niche markets or change their wares. I imagine at one point there were a lot of horse breeders and buggy manufacturers who were sad indeed to see the automobile become so popular.
If an alternative fuel source were found, something cheaper, cleaner and more renewable than gasoline, I think most of us would be delighted about it and would give very little thought as to how it will impact the poor oil companies. They might go bankrupt, and their employees might have to find new jobs in other fields, but life would, in fact, go on. It wouldn’t DESTROY the economy; it would merely change it.
Of course, if the prevailing notions about the severity and preventability of global warming are true, then all of this is irrelevant. We would have to do whatever is necessary, whether it hurts the economy or not. But we’ve survived other economic changes and crises and would probably survive this one, too.
ARE GORE AND HIS COHORTS EXAGGERATING OR LYING ABOUT THIS?
This has always seemed to me the weakest argument. What do Gore or the global warming scientists stand to gain by lying? What’s in it for them?
Now, denying global warming, there’s where the money is. The oil companies and car manufacturers certainly have a vested interest in global warming not being accepted by the general public. But where’s the money in environmentalism? I suppose if Gore owned a company that makes hybrid cars, maybe you’d have something there.
Rob suggested the opposite, actually: that many of the global warming fanatics DON’T want to make money, and in fact don’t want ANYONE to be rich. “Could (destroying the economy), and not ‘saving the Earth,’ be the real goal of the self-proclaimed ‘environmentists’?” Rob writes. “Look carefully at their politics. You will find that many of them are socialists, if not out-and-out Marxists. The ‘green movement’ is little more than a new cover for an old agenda: redistribution of wealth.” He calls it part of the “war on capitalism.”
I’m going to go ahead and dismiss this as what we in the business call crazy talk. I guess maybe there are environmentalist nuts who truly DO have destruction of the economy as their ultimate goal, with little or no sincere concern for actually saving the Earth. But come on, the movement as a whole?
Gore certainly isn’t a socialist or a Marxist, unless you’re one of those right-wingers who think ALL liberals are closet socialists (in which case I respond: shut up, you closet fascist). And I have no reason to doubt that the other people who claim to be concerned for the environment actually are. They may recognize an impact on the economy as a potential byproduct of reformed environmental policies, but it would be an awfully elaborate plan to have THAT as their ultimate goal, with the “save the Earth” thing just the means to that end. I mean, there are probably more direct ways of destroying capitalism, if that’s your intention.
Dave wrote, “Mr. Gore is trying to make money and increase his political coin by releasing a controversial movie.” I guess the way that would work is, he makes everyone think global warming is a serious threat, then takes the lead in defeating global warming. It would be like a knave riding into a village, announcing there are (fictitious or harmless) dragons out in the forest, then getting elected mayor on the strength of his “Stamp Out Dragons” policies.
But watching Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth” — and let me point out again that as far as I can tell, none of the people whose e-mails I’ve quoted here have actually seen it — I see a sincere, passionate man. I don’t see how you can come out of the film not believing that Gore truly believes everything he says. If he’s faking it, his talent for acting (or BS-ing) is epic.
Does that mean he’s unaware of how it might help him politically, should he choose to become a politician again? Of course not. I’m sure he knows the effect this might have on his career. I just don’t think that’s WHY he’s doing it. Now, I can only base that on my gut instinct as I watch him in his film. But one thing I AM good at, if not science or economics, is watching movies.