An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim, 2006

After the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to his opponent, popular vote winner Al Gore threw himself into traveling the world giving a slideshow presentation about global warming. An Inconvenient Truth is a documentary that intercuts highlights of the slideshow with clips of Gore's day-to-day life and voiceovers on various topics.

I would rather have just seen the slideshow. I think the stuff about Gore himself detracts from the main message (that global warming is real, that it is not controversial among the people who actually know anything about climatology, and that you are free to examine the evidence for yourself). Yes, it's true that far fewer people would have been enticed to go see a presentation about climate change had it not been delivered by the rightful president of the United States. But the biographical stuff is both cursory and unnecessary: everyone knows who he is, and by the time anyone sees this movie who might not know who he is, it will be so out of date that no one will care.

For that matter, even if the movie had been just a filmed version of the slideshow, Gore would have detracted. I first learned about the greenhouse effect when I was seven years old, back when the Earth had a lot more glaciers, from Chapter IV of Cosmos. The comparison is not a kind one to the former vice president. Carl Sagan could pull up to a drive-thru and ask for a six-pack of Chicken McNuggets and make the order sound majestic and thrilling. Gore, with his exaggerated boy-howdy accent, just sounds smarmy. But I suppose that, as with the walking and/or talking and/or chess-playing dog, it's not that a politician delivers a scientific lecture well that earns him credit so much as the fact that he does it at all.

After An Inconvenient Truth came out, Fox News and its ilk immediately set out to debunk it.


If you're a climatologist, then okay, perhaps your motives are purely scientific — you see some flaw in the interpretation of the data. But it's been firmly established that scientists don't actually disagree about the fundamentals of global warming. That means that there are people out there who don't like the implications.

The main implication is that we need to stop pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The most commonly proposed remedy is to increase the mileage of cars. There is powerful opposition to such a move. But from whom? I mean, who doesn't want cars to get better mileage? Not only would it mean less CO2 in the atmosphere, but it'd mean people would spend less on gasoline. It's win-win... unless you're on the side of the oil companies. If people spending less on gasoline means that your stock doesn't rise quite so quickly or that your retirement package falls a little short of the $400 million that Exxon CEO Lee Raymond received, then sure, you might be so greedy that you fight for your second yacht and don't care if fifty years down the line it means five billion dead of famine. But the oil industry doesn't cover all that many people even if we throw in the shareholders. Why else are so many people in denial about climate change?

I think that to a great extent it comes down to people acting as if politics were a team sport. It's very curious how people feel compelled to subscribe to every article of their side's faith. Take Dennis Miller. He claimed that he signed on with Team Bush after 9/11. That explains his support for the war — he saw the skyscrapers fall down and wanted to bomb hisself some Ay-rabs. But how on earth does it explain his dismissal of global warming? Ah, you might say, but that's his libertarian bent coming to the fore — government mileage and emissions standards interfere with the perfect workings of the free market! That must be the same libertarian bent that prompts him to go on Bill O'Reilly's show to trade jabs at the American Civil Liberties Union before heading over to The View to endorse the Patriot Act. (No, I'm not going to put it in all caps.)

The name of the game is identity formation. The oil companies don't need to actually convince people of the merits of their case against global warming, so long as they can get people to identify with the right team. This can be via a circuitous route. Molly Ivins identified the three dominant strains of Texas culture (which went on to take over American culture) as machismo, religiosity, and anti-intellectualism, and any of these three forces can lead one to dismiss global warming. Let's start with machismo. Say that you are a boy growing up in one of these regions and, like the young Karl Rove, get beaten up by prepubescent girls. Later in life you will be susceptible to advertising that promises to supply you with the masculinity you crave. Perhaps you see some ads featuring the grill of an enormous SUV with an even more enormous caption reading "YIELD." You buy one. Now you are an SUV guy. You rule the roads in your massive steel tank! But then you hear that there is a movement afoot to raise mpg requirements to a level SUVs can't attain. Oh no! Castration! So when Fox News trots out Climatologist Nick from Hollywood Upstairs Polytechnic Institute to tell you that auto emissions are harmless fun, you'll give his words more weight than those of the entire scientific community.

The religiosity route goes global warming = environment = hippies = dirty sinners = must be a hoax and possibly a Satanic one. (Note that I said "religiosity" and not religion. There is actually a heated dispute — er, no pun intended — in the evangelical community over the global warming issue.) For anti-intellectualism, "It's twenny below out today — 'global warming' my ass!" will suffice. But ultimately, whatever path they took, I would submit that most of those who deny global warming do so because they feel that big business (including the oil industry) is on their team, the environmental movement is on the other team, and they're backing their boys. And of course much the same is true on the other side — I haven't done any of the data gathering, number crunching or climate modeling myself, so I believe in global warming primarily because my formative years shaped me into the sort of person willing to take the word of the unanimous scientific establishment.

(I am also the sort of person who drives a Honda Insight. I've had it for about five months now. I frequently get over 60 miles per gallon in the thing, and 70+ is not unheard of. 50-60 is more common. 40-50 is very disappointing. Anything below 40 miles per gallon now strikes me as just abysmally low. The fact that people are squabbling over figures in the 20-30 mpg range is kind of depressing.)

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