An Inconvenient Truth (documentary)

The main argument I’ve been hearing against global warming is that the Earth naturally goes through cycles, and that there’s nothing we can do about a periodic cooling off or heating up of the atmosphere. The point Al Gore’s shockumentary “An Inconvenient Truth” makes over and over again is that yes, things like this have happened before — BUT NOT THIS MUCH.

Scientists can determine the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels for the past 650,000 years, and in that time the level never went above 300 parts per million. Now it’s at 380 and rising. So yes, the CO2 levels have gone up and down over time — but they’ve never gone up THIS high before.

More CO2 means higher temperatures — Gore has the graphs to prove it — and sure enough, 10 of the hottest years on record (that is, since 1880 or so) have been in the last 14 years. The very hottest year on record? A little year we like to call 2005.

So the world IS heating up, and that’s pretty well irrefutable. I mean, the temperature is easy to agree on, and it’s a cinch to keep track of. The question, then, is two-fold:

1. Is it our fault?
2. Can we do anything about it?

Gore, as you already know, says the answer to both questions is yes. “An Inconvenient Truth,” directed by TV-drama man Davis Guggenheim, feels like the summation of Gore’s life’s work. He starts out folksy and accessible, talking to his audience (most of the film was shot at one of his PowerPoint-based public speeches) and presenting the facts in a simple, easy-to-understand fashion. As he progresses, he becomes more impassioned, more fervent. It’s clear he has no ulterior motive. He believes this whole-heartedly.

About an hour of the film focuses on what’s happened so far and what’s happening now. There are alarming before-and-after photos of the world’s glaciers, many of which are now lakes or gone altogether but which were enormous masses of ice just 30 or 40 years ago. Gore shows us huge chunks of Antarctica that have broken off the ice shelf and melted into the sea. We get the stats on the polar ice cap, which has grown progressively thinner in the last 100 years.

He explains why it would be bad if the ice caps melt, and why increasing temperatures have done some major damage already. He explains it better than I could, but suffice it to say, it’s not good.

Gore says the biggest misconception people have about global warming is thinking it’s still being debated within the scientific community. “Not really,” he says, and then he unloads these findings, which I found very enlightening:

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. What Gore is saying — it’s real, it’s not natural, but we can stop it — is the overwhelming consensus among scientists, if the articles they publish are any indication. It’s not being “debated.” It’s accepted as fact.

[UPDATE: In July 2006, I posted a blog entry detailing how this study was inherently flawed and its findings incorrect. Gore probably wasn’t aware of that yet when he endorsed it in his film, but it does hurt part of his case.]

Yet 57 percent of newspaper stories related to global warming mention the “controversy” or “uncertainty” of it. Gore says this is due to a campaign of misinformation by Big Oil, which wants to reposition global warming as a “theory” rather than a fact. He compares it to the tobacco industry, which still insists there is some “debate” as to the harmfulness of their product, when really the only debate is in their imagination.

Gore is at his best when he’s on the stage, presenting the information like a particularly engaging college professor. His lecture is compelling and alarming, smart enough to be useful but not overloaded with so much scientific jargon that it makes your eyes glaze over. Gore post-2000 reminds me of Bob Dole post-1996: If he’d been this personable and normal during the campaign, he might have won.

The film’s less useful moments are some narrated segments in which Gore suggests that major incidents in his personal life — his son’s near-fatal car accident in 1989, his defeat in the 2000 election — refocused his vision on environmentalism. It may be true, but it smells sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing, which he tends not to be otherwise. A lone reference to 9/11 is manipulative and unnecessary, too.

Does he have his facts straight? Well, unless scientists have been refuting his claims and simply failing to publish articles in scientific journals saying so, then yes, he apparently has the vast majority of the scientific community behind him. And if what he’s saying is true, then we ought to do something about it. This isn’t a “fun” film, per se, but it never ceases to be fascinating and eye-opening.

B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; PG, alarming statistics and some intense bar graphs.)