Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

It has taken me much longer than I expected to see Al Gore's film on climate change, "An Inconvenient Truth," mostly as a consequence of my move from Connecticut to Virginia not long after its release. The documentary is out on DVD, now, removing all my remaining excuses and making it as painless as a click on a Netflix menu. I am glad that I've seen it, not least because of the number of times I've been asked for my reaction to it over the last six months--a sure sign that its message is seeping into the public's consciousness. This well-made film manages to be interesting and even occasionally amusing, while answering the question of how one can make a 90-minute film about a Powerpoint presentation. Although I didn't agree with every aspect of it, particularly its treatment of the more extreme consequences of climate change, I can recommend it as something that every informed American should see.

If you're going to see it, and you haven't read any recent reviews of it, you should know that while it is certainly about climate change, it is also very much about Al Gore and his long engagement with the issue. As a result, it must be viewed as a partisan political film. It takes shots at Republican administrations, past and present, while lauding the actions of the administration in which Mr. Gore served. The film is also surprisingly personal in places, and Mr. Gore's anecdotes about a tragedy and near-tragedy in his family helped humanize his message and explain his resolve, without seeming exploitative.

The other key fact about "An Inconvenient Truth" is that it is unabashedly intended to persuade, rather than merely describe. Mr. Gore's arguments are laid out in a logical progression, but they don't include many caveats. Uncertainties and complexities are generally glossed over, and assumptions are not explored to any great degree. In addition, he dismisses climate skeptics as misguided or disqualifies them on the basis of their connections to large corporations, while ignoring the implications of the vast grant-making machine that climate change science has become. And for a globe-spanning production about this most global of problems, it conveys an oddly US-centric undertone, as if we were the only impediment to solving the problem.

My biggest surprise in watching "An Inconvenient Truth" was my own reaction to it. A new reader of this blog might misinterpret my comments above as indicating some skepticism about global warming, when I'm actually convinced that it is real, man-made to a significant degree, and extremely challenging. I just think there's a different way to tell the story--as I have tried to do here over the last three years--emphasizing the prudent management of these large risks and their attendant human and financial costs. I also believe it's important to convey clearly and honestly that this problem can't be resolved quickly, simply, or cheaply, because its causes are so deeply embedded in the infrastructure of our civilization.

When "An Inconvenient Truth" came out in May, I looked at the various reactions it generated, and I questioned whether Mr. Gore was really the best spokesman to convey the climate change message to skeptics. Having seen it, I cannot imagine this film having been made any other way, because its subject encompasses not just the details of climate change, but also the political reaction to them and Mr. Gore's involvement with the process. So although I regard Tom Brokaw's Discovery Channel special as a better factual overview of global warming for a general audience, the Gore film does a fine job of previewing the intense political debate that must precede any national commitment to a stronger response to this problem. That discussion could start as soon as next January, with the new Congress.

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