Thursday, May 25, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Last night, I went to see the new Al Gore documentary about climate change [opened in New York at Landmark Sunshine Theatres on E. Houston, between 1st and 2nd – order tickets ahead if you can, it is crowded].

Go see it. And tell others.

As we walked out of the theater, my old flatmate Abby, a social worker in New York, summed it up best: “That was fabulous. I feel so empowered. I want to go do something”.

The film focuses on the presentation about global warming that Al Gore has been giving around the world over the past few years. His beautiful and largely accurate multi-media presentation puts to shame the lousy powerpoint slideshow most of us scientists deliver on the subject. Abby was riveted throughout: “I knew about global warming, but no one had ever explained it so well”.

The film cuts away periodically from the presentation to Gore talking about how the issue became his passion, tracing the story from a college class with the famous scientist Roger Revelle, who first began measuring atmospheric CO2 levels, through attempts to educate other his Washington, the near-death of his son in 1989, the 2000 election and finally to today, where he is trying to increase public understanding, presentation by presentation. Watching the former US vice-president deliver such a literate and passionate explanation of the science will leave you - whether Democrat and Republican, liberal or conservative, American or not - wondering about the direction of, and the competence of, the present administration in Washington. Abby and I had trouble imagining the current president working the slideshow, let alone discussing the science.

Gore stresses that climate change, at heart, is a moral issue. The take-home message is that the future is in our hands, that it is the responsibility of everyone on the planet, especially Americans, to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, to be complete, I noticed a few minor mistakes in the science – things like the timing in the temperature reconstruction of the last 1000 years, the exact predictions for melting of glaciers in atop Kiliminjaro, etc. – but they do not detract from the overall presentation. The numbers about global emissions appear wrong because Gore is talking about just carbon emissions, rather than all greenhouse gases. The list of Kyoto signatories is misleading; 180 countries signed Kyoto but that includes all the developing countries that do no have binding emissions targets (not what most people think of when they hear Kyoto). I also thought Gore could offer much more on less carbon-intensive energy technologies, though that is more a point of style than substance.

That all being said, Gore does a terrific job in explaining the basic science, better than most scientists, better than any other documentary I had seen. I'd say scientists could learn more from Gore about how to present climate change to a general audience than he could learn from us about climate science.


Jason West said...

Great review, Simon. I'll look forward to seeing it. For those in Princeton, it opens at the Garden Theater June 2 - "inconveniently" when I'll be out of the country.

Simon Donner said...

Thanks Jason. It will open across the US and Canada on the 2nd. There's list of theatres on the film's site (

The more people that see it in New York [and LA] this week, before the national release, the more theatres that will pick it up. So if you live in NYC, go see in the next few days.

Tim said...

Let me just quote Jacques Ellul:

This need of a certain cultural level to make people susceptible to propaganda2 is best understood if one looks at one of propaganda’s most important devices, the manipulation of symbols. The more an individual participates in the society in which he lives, the more he will cling to stereotyped symbols expressing collective notions about the past and the future of his group. The more stereotypes in a culture, the easier it is to form public opinion, and the more an individual participates in that culture, the more susceptible he becomes to the manipulation of these symbols. The number of propaganda campaigns in the West which have first taken hold in cultured settings is remarkable. This is not only true for doctrinaire propaganda, which is based on exact facts and acts on the level of the most highly developed people who have a sense of values and know a good deal about political realities, such as, for example, the propaganda on the injustice of capitalism, on economic crises, or on colonialism; it is only normal that the most educated people (intellectuals) are the first to be reached by such propaganda… All this runs counter to pat notions that only the public swallows propaganda. Naturally, the educated man does not believe in propaganda; he shrugs and is convinced that propaganda has no effect on him. This is, in fact, one of his great weaknesses, and propagandists are well aware that in order to reach someone, one must first convince him that propaganda is ineffectual and not very clever. Because he is convinced of his own superiority, the intellectual is much more vulnerable than anybody else to this maneuver…

Anonymous said...

I havent seen the movie. I probably should. Lots of things i should probably do. I ask a questino of all liberals. Your cry in the past has often been "question authority". Its actually a good motto.
but why is it that Al Gore is beyond question?
question authority.
ANd never forget. The automobile is the savior of the lower classes.