2006), 100 min.
Four decades before Al Gore made the cover of Vanity Fair this past April, he ran for a body decidedly less chic than geek: Harvard’s blessedly impotent Student Council. Four out of five undergraduates (I among them) ignored the election, leaving the young statesman-to-be to find solace in Roger Revelle’s lectures on the then-infant science of ecology. These lectures so filled him with environmental foreboding that soon-to-be freshman Senator Gore took to hectoring the National Academy of Science on the fate of the earth.
A stint at divinity school and extensive postgraduate study of the works of Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich and Captain Planet turned Gore ’69 into a fine stump preacher, but at great cost in what the French call deformation professionelle. The case for climatic catastrophe he expounds in his recent award-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, is impassioned enough as a slideshow presentation, but as a science final it just goes thud. Gore has blotted his blue book with too many agenda-driven factoids to earn more than a gentleman’s C.
Yet despite his marginal academic performance, Gore’s impersonation of the Daily Planet’s science editor may prevail, because as complex as climate change is, for decades most No Spin Zone personalities have done nothing but deny it—which isn’t complex at all. This leaves them ill-prepared to respond to a solid hour of high-quality hype that is Aspen chic and slick as Wile E. Coyote. An Inconvenient Truth is scripted by prose stylists of New Yorker quality, storyboarded by Hollywood and Madison Avenue’s finest, and computer animated by übergeeks able to earn their residuals the old-fashioned way—by scaring the hell out of the audience.
Conservative attempts to field the film tend to drift into exemplifying the denial it decries. The joke was on Soapy Wilberforce when the Victorian bishop tried to lampoon Charles Darwin at an 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science—Thomas Huxley lay in wait to make a monkey’s uncle of him instead. But Gore can deploy his considerable gifts of hyperbole with impunity, for history’s tables have been turned: This film by Sagan’s bulldog was produced with the advice and consent of the chief executives and editors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The Right just doesn’t get it. An Inconvenient Truth, like the latest Discovery Channel productions (especially “Global Warming: What You Need to Know”), is a political sermon, not science. Silicon graphics have been driving popular science into the eyeball-popping future, while most of Gore’s potential opponents have been left behind in a rapture of terminal scientific illiteracy. For all the talk of a culture war over environmental science, Republicans have fled the field. Having spent decades denying entirely what Gore merely exaggerates, they lack both the scientific understanding and the media assets to respond in kind.
Al Gore has been growing ever more anxious to get on with the business of governing us since his debut in Washington. Even then he did not let inconvenient scientific truths get in the way of well-rehearsed speeches: “My purpose is to sound an alarm, loudly and clearly, of imminent and grave danger, and to describe a strategy for confronting this crisis . . . the horrendous prospect of an ecological collapse”, he said on May Day 1989, the night before the National Academy of Science began debating its report, Global Change and Our Common Future. Changing the course of human events, however, left Gore no time to actually attend the event, so he delivered his orotund sermon the day before the forum began. It wasn’t the first time he had cut class. Two years earlier, I watched him materialize at the very end of a two-day symposium, entitled “Is Nuclear Winter Real and Relevant?” to opine that hopes for disarmament should not be staked on undependable climate models.
Had he hung around for the 1989 NAS symposium, he would have gotten a real object lesson in uncertainty. The scientists who spoke the day after his departure admitted that it would take decades for a clear greenhouse signal to emerge from the noise of climatic variation. It is not easy to unravel the effect of burning fossil fuels from the chaos of natural history. They told of how drought withered the American heartland as smokestacks grew cold in the dust-bowl depths of the Depression, and of how rising Great Lakes floods led to ill-informed public fears of a return to the Ice Age in the 1970s. Princeton’s J. D. Mahlman observed, “Until such decadal-scale fluctuations are understood or are predictable, it will remain difficult to diagnose the specific signals of permanent climate change as they evolve.”
Mahlman no longer doubts the existence of man-made climate change. Neither do I: the numbers talk, and now that the errors in satellite temperature measurement that plagued the climate change debate for twenty long years have been corrected, a pretty clear signal has emerged from the natural noise of Earth’s forever varying climate. Yet the huge disconnect between what scientists think they are finding out and what some people think they have always known continues. Qualitative knowledge of the existence of causes is not the same as quantitative certainty of their future effects.
That does not stop Gore from insisting that all change is crisis. Taking a page from Greenpeace’s principled stand against beating cuddly baby seals to death with baseball bats, Gore has now taken to playing to the polar bears, preaching that wholesale extinction looms in consequence of economic growth and Republican incomprehension of his thirty year-old environmental policy agenda. He never pauses to question if three decades of scientific progress, from genuine confusion to interdisciplinary ignorance of only half of what makes climate tick, might require the entry of some humility into the debate. The truth be told, nobody yet knows what fraction of the warming trend arises from human action and Gore’s pretended certainty that “the debate is over” is a deterrent to finding out.
Far from falling prey to self doubt, Gore shows star quality in equating Greenland’s present rate of iceberg spawning with the Manhattan-swallowing sea level rise depicted in the popular (but awful) 2002 film The Day After Tomorrow. Al knows better than to slip a scene from that film into his slideshow in front of a live audience of Harvard undergraduates, let alone professors, but it remains a great special effect. The only problem, as anyone with access to the information superhighway can confirm, is that calving 100 cubic kilometers of ice equals a sea-level rise of about one-eighth of an inch. Gore’s “imminent and grave danger” remains closer to rising dampness.
Still, even the smallest of rising tides lift all environmental advertising budgets, and Gore’s Earth Day cohort has already prospered by supporting the agenda he has so long shared with the UN’s climate bureaucracy. Its heroic efforts at appearance-of-consensus building have been abetted by an unlikely and purely American phenomenon. Objective science and the “executive summaries” written by the international environmental bureaucracy seldom coincide, but their dissonance pales in comparison to the sheer scientific incompetence of American conservatives in response to the long-running green public relations campaign. The American Right has played into the hands of the environmental Left by abdicating meaningful engagement on the most important front in the culture wars, and the reason is clear: The metaphysical concerns of the ascendant religious Right in America have made it difficult, if not impossible, for Republican politicians to acknowledge science’s material reign in an increasingly technological world. Far more pay lip service to Intelligent Design and the right to life movement than follow progress in molecular biology or geophysics.
The dominant conservative media, too, have next to nothing serious to say about science, their sound bites often range from the tendentious to the goofy. The ravings of Rush Limbaugh speak for themselves, and as best as I can tell, the last two decades of television have seen the conservative groups field only two spot ads on CO2. A mere two hours of John Stossel on primetime and a blockbuster by Michael Crichton (who got the satellite temperature debate dead wrong) cannot hope to redress the impact of thousands of hours of canned eco-video.
Turn the dial leftward nowadays and you will see three full-time science cable channels and dozens of high-budget NOVA and National Geographic specials on PBS. No wonder the most presentable conservative talking heads—Richard Lindzen, for example—pride themselves on not watching television. Bad mistake. Meanwhile, at the movies, hundred-million-dollar extravaganzas like Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow serve as grist for Hollywood’s green focus groups, and as prequels to Gore’s silver screen debut. Conservative political strategists have not been entirely oblivious to this, but without sufficient scientific intuition to be on the right side at each technical controversy’s inception, none is ready for a primetime counteroffensive. The harsh reality of reruns precludes prevailing in the cultural science wars simply by defunding public television. Responding to this rout by firing the science editors of the Washington Times or National Review is not an option either. They have none (though, in fairness, neither does The Nation or The New Republic).
Little wonder that media-wise liberals smell blood. The production companies that privately provide the science programming that liberal foundations pay for don’t need public subsidy. All they need to do is read and follow the scripted opinion leaders in New Scientist or Scientific American that have set the stage for Al Gore’s newest political commercial.
High technology is the wellspring of our national prosperity. Policies that variously ignore the laws of thermodynamics or deny the germ theory of disease may satisfy some on K Street (smarmy oil company advertorials and books like The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS come to mind), but neither the long-term interest of the nation nor, paradoxically, its energy industry, can forever rely on misinforming the dimmer half of the electorate. Instead of hoping, or praying, that the science wars will go away every four years, thoughtful conservatives need to cultivate basic Republican scientific literacy. In four decades Democrats like Mr. Gore have learned no more science than a forty minute speech can convey. Can the next Republican presidential candidate do better? It shouldn’t be that hard.
To overcome Gore’s seemingly apocalyptic lead, a Republican candidate could begin by studying some climate statistics. There are already some surprises on the average temperature map. As to the practical impact of climate change in the Industrial Revolution’s aftermath, latitude notwithstanding, Baltimore is still cooler than New York. If Gore is saying sooth, the genuine inconvenient truth about global warming is that the middle-of-the-road forecast for mid-century amounts to two degrees, sliding Chicago toward the torrid clime of Cincinnati, and making posterity in Pittsburgh endure the sort of Philadelphia summers that reduced the Founders to torpor in un-air-conditioned Independence Hall. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has started battling its local problem, the urban heat island effect, with a “Cool Cities” initiative to carve gigawatts off peak-power demand by cutting back on blacktop roads and roofs—let it not be said that Republicans can’t do passive solar.
Climate modeling remains a risky business but, all things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia than watch my old schoolmate pontificate on what he thinks science says about the future, while showing slides calculated to impose his own dystopic vision. Not much has changed at Harvard since Gore’s eponymous ancestor Samuel harkened to the Reverend Cotton Mather’s sermons and sallied forth to deliver the Commonwealth from the witchcraft crisis. Do you suppose he took notes?