At its core, An Inconvenient Truth is a movie version of a multi-media lecture by former Vice President Al Gore. The film occasionally cuts from Gore's presentation to brief aspects of his biography: long boyhood summers working on his family's Tennessee farm, the death of his beloved sister from lung cancer, a life-threatening accident suffered by his young son and, inevitably, Gore's controversial and still-debated defeat by George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race. These personal elements have led conservative pundits like syndicated columnist George Will to conclude that An Inconvenient Truth is the opening salvo in Gore's 2008 presidential campaign. Gore denies this, but we all know such denials are de rigeur in an election still 29 months off. I readily acknowledge that I voted for Gore in 2000 and remain an admirer of his political philosophies. And that's exactly why I regret the inclusion of the personal scenes in this film -- because it allows Gore's detractors to dismiss his presentation as a political manifesto rather than an attempt to communicate complicated scientific conclusions in language that can be digested by everyday people.
Gore's lecture illustrates how Earth's frightfully thin and fragile atmosphere can be dirtied by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to produce the "greenhouse effect," which traps the sun's radiational heat and drives up worldwide temperatures. Gore points out that the 10 hottest years in recorded human history have all occurred in the last 14 years. 2005 was the hottest of all. Those who dismiss the fact that human activities have triggered this temperature increase argue that global temperatures are cyclical. Gore responds by charting the cyclical fluctuations over the last 10,000 years (data produced from Arctic and Antarctic ice core samples) and matching it to contemporaneous carbon dioxide levels. High carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere produce rising temperatures; lower carbon dioxide results in cooler periods. The problem is that current carbon dioxide levels are far and away the highest they've been since before the last ice age, and if human beings don't change their habits quickly, levels will increase, perhaps catastrophically, over the next 40 years.
In further response to the naysayers, Gore points to the worldwide retreat of glaciers, disappearing mountain snow caps (40 percent of the world's population gets its drinking water from melting Himalayan snow), the alarming melting of ice shelves in Antarctica, the shrinking ice fields in Greenland and the thinning polar ice cap at the top of the globe. This huge infusion of melted ice water into the world's oceans could raise sea levels by 20 feet over the next half century. In sum, we are face-to-face with apocalypse. We must act, or we will be acted upon by a natural order we have disrupted by cutting and burning our forests and pumping pollutants into our air.
Conservatives of the kind who support and work for the Bush administration deride such fears as a "Chicken Little Syndrome" and sneer that taking measures to clean the air and replant the earth would wreak economic disaster. Exchanging bird for bird, Gore ridicules their attitudes as an "ostrich reaction." First, he submits, we possess no reasonable alternatives. Second, it's preposterous to think jobs won't follow practices to produce a cleaner and therefore cooler planet. The Bush administration, with its well-established ties to the petroleum industry, is so hostile to an analysis such as the one Gore embraces that early in the first term it withdrew from the Kyoto Treaty to reduce global warming. Bush and other "conservative" spokesmen attack the entire idea of human-induced global warming as mere speculation. But Gore points out that of 928 peer-reviewed scientific articles which have addressed the issue, exactly zero find that the current rise in world temperatures is not influenced by the practices of human civilization. In the end, I wished that Gore had provided solutions more sweeping than urging people to walk to work rather than drive, but I certainly accept his premise that the world cannot afford American leadership so stubbornly blind to the gravest threat humankind has ever faced.