Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Climate Change on Film

Two years ago I had occasion to wonder if a movie might alter public opinion on climate change. Then, the object of my speculation was "The Day After Tomorrow," a fictional account of sudden climate change putting most of the world into a new ice age. The film didn't work terribly well, either as a thriller or as an argument for immediate action on climate change. Another film on climate change opens this week. Former Vice President Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" is a documentary on the detection of global warming and the possible consequences and remedies for it. We'll have to wait to see whether it turns out to be another "Day After Tomorrow" or this year's "Fahrenheit 9/11."

The film has already stirred up controversy. John Tierney's op-ed in the New York Times (Times Select required for full access) suggests it avoids offending its core audience by skirting the role of nuclear power in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and by failing to demand near-term sacrifices. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal included an op-ed by former Delaware governor Pete DuPont that went much farther, disputing the underlying science of climate change. Gregg Easterbrook, in today's New York Times, rebuts these counter-arguments, though I part company with his comparison of air pollution, which results largely from fuel impurities and incomplete combustion, to CO2 emissions that derive from the basic chemistry of combustion. Meanwhile, The Economist gave the movie a mild endorsement.

I intend to see "Inconvenient Truth" as soon as the constraints of getting a babysitter allow and will review it here. I don't expect to be surprised by its point of view. However, I'm already concerned about the degree to which the man and the message are becoming intertwined. As regular readers of this blog know, I regard climate change as a very serious risk that must be managed actively and creatively, on a national and global scale. I'd bet that a majority of those who are likeliest to pay to see Mr. Gore's film already believe this.

We lack a national consensus on climate change, and achieving one will require making an effective case to conservatives that it is a) a genuine problem and b) not something that can be left to the market to sort out. I doubt Mr. Gore is the best choice for that task. Worse, if "Inconvenient Truth" becomes a liberal cause celebre in the way that "Fahrenheit 9/11" did, this will further polarize the argument and impede the genuine progress being made toward a necessarily bi-partisan response. So while I can appreciate his passion for global warming, I wish Mr. Gore had confined his role in this film to one behind the scenes, and deferred to a neutral spokesman capable of reaching across the political divide to make the case to the whole country.

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