“An Inconvenient Truth” Plays It Straight

Caught up to "An Inconvenient Truth this past weekend in Hollywood. Like everyone else who’s seen it (and many who haven’t) I have an opinion on it, but having reported on this issue for a few years, and having read the text version of Al Gore’s slideshow on global warming, I was more interested in what the audience thought.

I can’t draw draw huge conclusions from a single showing early in the film’s run, when it is likely to attract the most partisan crowd. Nonetheless, the mostly young crowd I saw it with clearly was fully involved, eager to catcall the Bush administration (although the documentary didn’t go after Bush much, and Gore avoided even mentioning his name).

More interestingly, the audience was slow to stir after the lights came up, which is one of the surest indications of a movie that has won people over. Coming out I overheard several admiring comments, including: "That was way better than I thought it would be." Very encouraging.

The too critics have mostly liked it: those reviews scored by Metacritic somehow add up to a 69 score, which is more favorable than it sounds, and dwarves several much bigger pictures out right now, such as "The Da Vinci Code" (a 46).

In terms of the chattering class, more important than the movie reviewers probably are the political reviewers, and in this the movie has clearly triumphed. Not only has the movie gotten numerous good reviews from political columnists, but attempts to discredit it have been shot down instantly.

The New Republic editors wrote an unusually biting take-down of the right-wing attack machine’s numerous but weak attempts to attack the documentary with misleading "facts":

Meanwhile, on "The Journal Editorial Report," a TV show featuring the folks from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Rob Pollock claimed, "Everyone agrees there has been some warming over the past century, but most of it happened before 1940." (Not true. The last three decades have seen the sharpest rise.) On Fox, a global warming documentary Sunday night featured the entire cast of Exx-con luminaries, including Patrick Michaels, John Christy, Roy Spencer, and Senator James Inhofe, whose contribution included the claim that global warming is "a total hoax."

Indeed, on this issue the allegedly fearsome right-wing attack machine appears almost toothless, judging from the whiny letter in TCS Daily by the aforementioned Roy Spencer, who seems mostly irked that when Al Gore met him, he mistook him for someone else.

And the desperation of some of their attempts has been thrown back in their faces by Think Progress, which caught one ExxonMobil-backed pundit comparing Al Gore to Hitler on FOXNews, and linked to a great long story in the Washington Post featuring prominent denier William Gray, who also embarrassed himself by comparing Gore to Hitler. (Basic rule of American rhetoric: If in an argument, you compare your opponent to Hitler, the argument is over and you have officially lost it.)

For a more measured, scientific analysis of William Gray, check out this annihilation in Real Climate.

Meanwhile self-style moderates (Gregg Easterbrook), and genuine libertarians (such as Andrew Sullivan), and even a genuine skeptic or two have rushed to announce that yes, they get it, climate change is real. And lefties reveled in the moment: Frank Rich called the movie a "landslide" at Cannes, and connected it with Gore’s prescient criticism of the administration’s failure to plan for Iraq after the war:

But in truth, as with global warming, Mr. Gore’s stands on Iraq (both in 1991 and 2002) were manifestations of leadership — the single attribute most missing from the current Democrats with presidential ambitions. Of the potential candidates for 2008, only Senator Feingold raised similar questions about the war so articulately so early. The Gore stand on the environment, though still rejected by the president and his oil-industry base, has become a bipartisan cause: 86 evangelical Christian leaders broke with the administration’s do-nothing policy in February.

Yesterday Paul Krugman picked one small moment in the movie and wrote a hard column about it. He focuses on a small moment in the film when when Gore showed footage of prominent James Hansen testifying before Congress. The young Al Gore asked Hansen–fairly harshly–if in fact his works had been twisted by deniers and misleaders. Krugman picks up the story:

Leading the charge was Patrick Michaels, a professor at the University of Virginia who has received substantial financial support from the energy industry. In Senate testimony, and then in numerous presentations, Dr. Michaels claimed that the actual pace of global warming was falling far short of Dr. Hansen’s predictions. As evidence, he presented a chart supposedly taken from a 1988 paper written by Dr. Hansen and others, which showed a curve of rising temperatures considerably steeper than the trend that has actually taken place.

In fact, the chart Dr. Michaels showed was a fraud — that is, it wasn’t what Dr. Hansen actually predicted. The original paper showed a range of possibilities, and the actual rise in temperature has fallen squarely in the middle of that range. So how did Dr. Michaels make it seem as if Dr. Hansen’s prediction was wildly off? Why, he erased all the lower curves, leaving only the curve that the original paper described as being "on the high side of reality."

Krugman goes on to criticize Hansen for not being more outraged (for those interested, more of the column is posted below the fold) and warns Al Gore that if he hopes to promote global warming as an issue, that he "and those on his side will have to learn to call liars what they are."

Tough words, but clearly this was not the approach taken by Al Gore in his movie, and to date, it seems to me, the movie is successful because it doggedly insists on focusing on the natural facts and avoids name-calling, even when it must have been tempting. His handling of the science is "admirable," say the folks at Real Climate, but when it comes to using graphs and ideas to make a point, I would go further, and call it inspired. Gore has the nerve to ask a question and leave it resonating in the mind, and then return to the same idea a half-hour later. (If you see the movie, you’ll know what I mean.) The nickel drops, we get it…we’re convinced.

But the slide-show is just half the movie. The other half is a look at Al Gore today, in an up-close-and-personal television style, with pictures of Gore going from airport to airport, flashbacks to his youth, to his time in college, to meeting Roger Revelle, to learning about the issue, and on up to the present day, tapping away at his presentation on his laptop.

This Rich criticized as a likely "test drive for a presidential run." Gore promptly denied that, and I believe him. Just look at what he says at the start of the movie. "I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time," Gore says, "and I feel as if I’ve failed." What presidential candidate talks of failure?

As the story develops, it becomes clear that Gore is the man behind the curtain of this movie, and a man who knows his subject. He avoids alarmism, yet finds amusing ways to bring home the potential of real disaster…but spends much more time touching on our deeper connection to our home, our planet, our earth. Gore’s stolid sincerity has at last become a feature, not a bug–as they say–and the director does a fine but subtle job of linking Gore’s past (as an earnest student, in the halls and classrooms) to his present (as an earnest professor sort, walking through airports and hotel hallways with his slideshow computer).

Who knows what the upshot will be. Many scientists doubt that we will find the political will to change our carbon-emitting behavior, and no doubt, many alleged conservatives hope that proves to be the case. But for those of us who do want to change our wasteful, reckless ways can only thank our lucky stars that someone as thoughtful and as decent as Al Gore took on the lifetime task of telling this story.

Dr. Hansen was one of the first climate scientists to say publicly that global warming was under way. In 1988, he made headlines with Senate testimony in which he declared that "the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now."

When he testified again the following year, officials in the first Bush administration altered his prepared statement to downplay the threat. Mr. Gore’s movie shows the moment when the administration’s tampering was revealed.

In 1988, Dr. Hansen was well out in front of his scientific colleagues, but over the years that followed he was vindicated by a growing body of evidence. By rights, Dr. Hansen should have been universally acclaimed for both his prescience and his courage.

But soon after Dr. Hansen’s 1988 testimony, energy companies began a campaign to create doubt about global warming, in spite of the increasingly overwhelming evidence. And in the late 1990’s, climate skeptics began a smear campaign against Dr. Hansen himself.

Leading the charge was Patrick Michaels, a professor at the University of Virginia who has received substantial financial support from the energy industry. In Senate testimony, and then in numerous presentations, Dr. Michaels claimed that the actual pace of global warming was falling far short of Dr. Hansen’s predictions. As evidence, he presented a chart supposedly taken from a 1988 paper written by Dr. Hansen and others, which showed a curve of rising temperatures considerably steeper than the trend that has actually taken place.

In fact, the chart Dr. Michaels showed was a fraud — that is, it wasn’t what Dr. Hansen actually predicted. The original paper showed a range of possibilities, and the actual rise in temperature has fallen squarely in the middle of that range. So how did Dr. Michaels make it seem as if Dr. Hansen’s prediction was wildly off? Why, he erased all the lower curves, leaving only the curve that the original paper described as being "on the high side of reality."

The experts at http://www.realclimate.org, the go-to site for climate science, suggest that the smears against Dr. Hansen "might be viewed by some as a positive sign, indicative of just how intellectually bankrupt the contrarian movement has become." But I think they’re misreading the situation.

In fact, the smears have been around for a long time, and Dr. Hansen has been trying to correct the record for years. Yet the claim that Dr. Hansen vastly overpredicted global warming has remained in circulation, and has become a staple of climate change skeptics, from Michael Crichton to Robert Novak.

There’s a concise way to describe what happened to Dr. Hansen: he was Swift-boated.

John Kerry, a genuine war hero, didn’t realize that he could successfully be portrayed as a coward. And it seems to me that Dr. Hansen, whose predictions about global warming have proved remarkably accurate, didn’t believe that he could successfully be portrayed as an unreliable exaggerator. His first response to Dr. Michaels, in January 1999, was astonishingly diffident. He pointed out that Dr. Michaels misrepresented his work, but rather than denouncing the fraud involved, he offered a rather plaintive appeal for better behavior.

Even now, Dr. Hansen seems reluctant to say the obvious. "Is this treading close to scientific fraud?" he recently asked about Dr. Michaels’s smear.

The answer is no: it isn’t "treading close," it’s fraud pure and simple.

Now, Dr. Hansen isn’t running for office.

But Mr. Gore might be, and even if he isn’t, he hopes to promote global warming as a political issue. And if he wants to do that, he and those on his side will have to learn to call liars what they are.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

One thought on ““An Inconvenient Truth” Plays It Straight

  1. “If you’re 20 and not a liberal, you don’t have a heart. If you’re 30 and not a Conservative, you don’t have a brain.”

    Like

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