Sunday, April 22, 2007


(News-Herald, April 19) I finally got around to watching An Inconvenient Truth, the movie about Al Gore and his traveling Power Point presentation about the upcoming end of the world due to global warming.

As a piece of filmmaking, it is fairly clever. To begin with, trying to add pizzazz to a slide show is like trying to add air to a Twinkie—power point is a great technical aid in making a paragraph’s worth of vague information look like Gone With the Wind. But the filmmakers make the series of slides look pretty substantial while simultaneously making Al Gore look like an elder statesman, a scientist, and a globetrotting investigative reporter.

Amidst all this, I remember seeing some Really Important Points being made: Many glaciers are shrinking. There’s more CO2 in the world now than ever before, and that’s really bad. Hurricane Katrina was very unpleasant. All scientists everywhere agree that the world is getting warmer and human beings are causing it. Global warming is cooler when it’s explained in an almost edgy, faux-irreverent cartoon by the creator of the Simpsons.

Of course, there are counterpoints to all of these, many of which can be turned up fairly quickly on the internet: They’ve been shrinking for a while. No, there isn’t, and no, it isn’t. Yes, it was, but that has nothing to do with global warming. No, they don’t. Not so much. And so’s your old man.

Global warming is still the subject of considerable debate. In fact, there’s even a debate raging about whether there’s a debate raging. And for the average innocent-but-thinking bystander, it’s not easy to pick a side. Even finding facts on which to base an opinion is difficult.

There’s plenty of opposition science out there, but an awful lot of it is bought and paid for by the corporations that would be most hurt by legislation to curb the warming. The Bush administration has already been caught telling government scientists that they couldn’t express conclusions that support the views of the Global Warming alarmists.

But folks like Gore build their case on an awful lot of tissue and smoke. Inconvenient Truth uses words like “implicated” and “suggestive” to frame their support. The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are a cornerstone of Global Warming arguments, but there is no conclusive link between CO2 levels and warming (and two sets of conflicting charts about how high the levels actually are).

And really, it’s hard not to suspect that the Global Warming Police believe its true because it casts all their favorite villains in the role of Bad Guys. It has to be seductively attractive to discover that rapacious industries and thoughtless consumers you always loathed are actually destroying the world—at last we’ve caught them red-handed!

Of course, just because some environmentalists are long on zeal and short on facts does not guarantee that they’re entirely wrong. And their arguments certainly aren’t any sillier than the counter-theory that Global Warming is happening because the sun is getting hotter.

But climate is mighty difficult to study and predict. It’s a chaotic system (I don’t know why we aren’t all learning a lot more about chaos theory) and that means it can change suddenly due to small, hard-to-predict factors. We don’t know what triggered the beginning or ends of any previous ice ages; we don’t know what will trigger the next big climate change.

Still, our ignorance ought to be a good reason to be extra cautious. If you don’t know where the sensitive spot on a sleeping lion is, smacking it indiscriminately with a pointy stick is not the smartest plan.

Nor is free market capitalism a great model for preserving the future. The driving force is self-interest—I’ll make the best choices with my property and business because those choices benefit me. But there’s no benefit to me in insuring that the environment will be in good shape in a hundred years-- I’ll be dead. Environmental concerns require a larger, longer view than the usual business decision, or, for that matter, the usual decisions we all make in our daily lives.

We can all make smarter choices. Though I’m not sure I want go as far as this line in Gore’s film: “We can all make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero.” I was not the greatest biology student in school, but I could swear that the only way I can bring my carbon emissions to zero is to stop breathing—a sacrifice I’m not willing to make.

But smart choices are hard. And to make them people need real information, not hysteria, whitewash, and propaganda from both sides.


Dittman said...

While I appreciate your attempt at evenhandedness, I'm not really sure there's much of an reputable opposition anymore. When the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, The Committee on the Science of Climate Change, The Federal Climate Change Science Project, the American Metrological Society and most reputable science journals all agree, every one else starts to sound more than a little like flat-earthers.
Now, I'd like to see us address the, did cavemen ride dinosaurs debate. Now there's some meat for serious scientific discussion!

Peter A. Greene said...

I agree that most folks have come down on the side of warming. What's causing it, what it means, and what happens next don't appear to me to be quite so settled, nor do I see any of the sides burdened by much in the way of pesky facts.

The dinosaur thing, however, is settled-- there's a real museum display showing dinos and men coexisting and everything, and surely nothing would appear in a museum that was not based on absolute facts.

John M. Karian said...

There's the religion of political correctness . . . and now, the religion of global warming . . . one thing for sure, there will always be politicians who will worship at the altars of these religions, and will make a good living on playing one side against the other, ad nauseaum.

Can you imagine how crazy things would be if there was a religion of global cooling?

lizzythebotanist said...

wa ha! mr. greene! i just found your blog through jason smith's blog! i haven't had a chance to read yet, but i am bored most nights between 8 and 11, so i'll be commenting!

Dittman said...

Good point John - the language is imprecise; the better term is "climate change" to distinguish it from "climate variability" - one natural, the other caused by humans.

From my Flickr