the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

“In 39 years I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.” -- Roger Ebert

I do not exaggerate when I say that Al Gore's global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, may just be the scariest movie you will see this year. While you may be tempted to think that I am making a joke at Al Gore's expense (and who could blame me?), think again.

As the film started, Gore gave a quick encapsulation of the phenomenon of global warming, which necessitated an ever-so-brief defense of its scientific validity. I found myself reminded of a recent "National Geographic" article on Darwinian evolution that began by saying:

“Evolution is a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is 'just' a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That's what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence.”

Is An Inconvenient Truth controversial? Not in the least. Unless you are among the sliver of people who feel that global warming is one of the biggest hoaxes perpetrated on mankind. Never mind the fact that of more than 900 peer-reviewed studies on global warming in established, recognized journals, NOT ONE has challenged the idea of global warming. (On the flip-side, more than 53 percent of articles in the mainstream media have presented it as a theory or been sure to include refutations from a handful of talking heads, many of whom, like Bush-aide Philip Cooney who routinely red-penciled the conclusions of impartial government scientists and, when exposed, resigned and took a job with Exxon Mobil, are bought-and-paid-for by the oil industry.)

Following this film's debut, the Associated Press contacted more than 100 top climate researchers, including vocal skeptics of climate-change theory, for their opinion on Gore's facts. Those who had seen the film came away with an overwhelming impression: Gore got the science right.

This isn't new news. Much as some might like to lead you to believe that global warming is a new fad, it is not. It is old news with an ancient back story and far-flung ramifications. Whatever your party affiliation. I challenge you to sit though this film and not walk out of the theater profoundly affected. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is a partisan issue. It's not. It is, as Gore calls it, a moral issue.

The film is essentially a fascinating and relentless cinematic version of a scientific slide show lecture Gore has been presenting and refining for nearly 30 years, concisely laying out the case that our own carbon-dioxide emissions are becoming increasingly trapped in the Earth's atmosphere and are systematically destroying this planet. Casual in both dress and demeanor, this is the ex-vice-President as you've never seen him before and perhaps wish he could have been six years ago. There is a passion here few have ever seen.

The debate is over. The scientific community agrees the planet is heating up, that we are primarily responsible, that the effects are catastrophic, and that we have only a tiny fraction of time to reverse the coming cataclysm.

Gore has enough graphs, charts, time-lapsed photographs and scientific studies to convince even the most ardent skeptic. Calmly and with humor, Gore shows us evidence that the ice caps are melting, the ocean levels are rising, the weather has gone mad, temperatures are skyrocketing (since humans have kept records, the ten hottest years on record have occurred in the last fourteen years and of those, 2005 was the hottest ever recorded) and if we don't act soon—probably within the next decade—we face a apocalyptic future. Once the tipping point is passed, we will begin the slide towards the destruction of most life on this planet.

The most shocking thing of all is the photographic evidence. Gore doesn't need to hype the doom and gloom. The before and after pictures he shows are more than sufficiently horrifying. There's no spinning the pictures.

Where there were once monolithic, thriving glaciers, vast fields of rock remain. Where massive polar icecaps sat, indestructible and immovable, the arctic shorelines have begun to experience rapid erosion. Perhaps most alarming of all are the images dealing with the Antarctic ice shelf and the glaciers of Greenland. These titanic structures are melting, breaking up and tumbling into the sea. If only one of them, or large enough sections of both were to melt completely, sea water levels would rise to the point that every coastal city in the world, including New York, Shanghai, San Francisco, Calcutta, Miami and thousands of others would be underwater.

With these pictures and reams of irrefutable data, Gore shows that global warming is no longer a hypothetical theory. It is fact and the evidence is everywhere, not the least in the floods, hurricanes and droughts that we're seeing all over the world.

If things are even half as bad as Al Gore says they are in An Inconvenient Truth, we are very likely looking at the end of all humankind. It. Is. That. Serious.

Gore treats his audience like adults, laying out a detailed, lucid and cogent explanation of what is, perhaps, the most pressing issue of our collective history. Gore doesn't waste his time preaching to the choir. On the contrary, this film directly and respectfully addresses the queries and concerns of skeptics, methodically piling evidence on top of evidence, until the truth is obvious and unmistakable.

"It sometimes takes time to connect all the dots when accepted habits and behaviors are first found to be harmful. [But] a day of reckoning might come when you very much wish that you had connected the dots more quickly."

Gore compares our complacency to act with civilized Europe's reluctance to confront Nazism in the previous century. We are entering a “period of consequences,” he says, invoking Winston Churchill, in which we must decide and we must decide before it is too late.

“[Many] are quite literally afraid to know the truth," Gore says. "Because if you accept the truth of what the scientific community is saying, it gives you a moral imperative to start to rein in the 70 million tons of global-warming pollution that human civilization is putting into the atmosphere every day."

If this sounds alarmist, it is. And yet, you won't see Al Gore running around like a man with his hair on fire. In fact, this is not a pessimistic film. The truth may be inconvenient, dire even, but it is not hopeless.

There are no action stars or superheros to save the day. In fact, in an odd twist, this is a film in which we all star as both villain and victim. And agent of change. We mustn't give into despair, Gore warns. This nation ended slavery, gave women the right to vote and put a man on the moon. It can accomplish nearly anything. It can certainly lead the rest of the world in stopping global warming. And it even tells us how. Unlike many of the energy assets mentioned in An Inconvenient Truth, “political will is a renewable resource.”

Virtually everyone who sees this movie will be galvanized to do something about global warming. And everyone should see this movie.


Anonymous Johnny Marsh said...

In 1957 it was "Global Cooling". Now its "Global Warming". I find it funny that we can predict the end of the world in xx number of years; yet predicting the weather four days from now (with over 95% accuracy) is too complex. Of course temps are rising. 50 years ago, Miami was nowhere near the size it is now; equating to less heat retaining materials (concrete, asphalt, etc...). Temp measurements today can not accurately be compared with temp measurements more than a few years ago without totally ignoring scientific methodology.

Why is it, you can fill a glass with ice and water and the glass will not overflow when the ice melts; the ice displaces water. Why is it that this same principle does not hold true to the polar ice caps; when they melt, the seaboard will flood. Also, polar ice has more air than household ice.

Don't trees grow faster with more CO2?

The age of the earth is something like 4.5 billion years old and we are basing vast conclusions on roughly 150 years of evidence.

I do not disagree that we should and must be better stewards of the environment. But let's be realistic, who is going to fund a study that sets out to prove that everything is good the way it is. What is true of the news is also true of research money, "If it bleeds, it leads".

Keep your eyes out for the dangers associated with "Global Moderating" in the next 20 or so years.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Wow, that didn't take long! I couldn't even post a comment before someone posted exactly the kind of thing I expected to see on here within a matter of hours.

All I meant to add were a few Wikipedia pages.

One on Global Warming:

One on the scientific opinion:

One on attribution to climate change:

There are plenty more, but you can discover the rest on your own. A few notes on Wikipedia if readers aren't already familiar: Please keep in mind that pages can be edited by anyone, which means that (instead of crackpots) all opinions get a hearing, but the community is pretty quick to ensure that all statements are sourced to published works. Things that aren't sourced or backed up by data in any way don't last long on the website. You can also read any of the discussion that takes place under the "discussion" tab to see how the current version of the page has come to being. Nothing is deleted there. You can also see any previous iterations of the page, and see why and how people made changes.

Anyway, you can see the results for yourself. I'll let a community of experts handle the debate about global warming, thank you very much. No disrespect to johnny marsh. But then, maybe he's a climatologist?

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Johnny Marsh said...

I am not a climatologist, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

However, an acquaintance of mine is one of the NOAA hurricane forecasters on the east coast and enlightened me to the other half of the global warming debate. I too believed that this was the crisis of our century. However, I now believe, having read much anti-global warming propaganda that we are having a profound impact on our environment, but not to the life-threatening extent that Big Al would have us believe. We should change. We must change. However, not changing radically in the next few years will not send us down the slippery slope to oblivion.

I think readers would also be served by looking at; which takes a more tempered approach to Global Warming.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Oh, you mean the Cooler Heads website?

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Um, yep. That's what you meant. Cooler Heads is funded by big energy companies that are terrified of energy legislation. And I'm not even anti-big business or anything. This is just a simple fact that checks out easily enough. This is the kind of thing that I always run into in this debate. You just cited an advocacy group, a heavily bankrolled lobbying group. Not all lobbyists are bad, I suppose. They serve a purpose. But they are too easily fronts for other motivators, which Cooler Heads seems to be, and takes great pains to hide. The nonprofit sourcewatch is good for this sort of stuff. All they do is track where the money comes from.

I didn't cite, so please don't come back at me with a K-Street group that was erected in part by, and gets a large chunk of money from, Exxonn-Mobile.

This is why I was careful to cite Wikipedia. It's not perfect, but it's perfectly transparent.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous johnny marsh said...

Where else would research money come from to de-bunk global warming. We are a culture centered on doom and gloom. There is no news or money in everything is OK.

Is scientific evidence from studies funded by Big Oil any less credible? History is full of lessons that prove the prevailing wisdom of the time was not accurate. Remember, every scientific study has an agenda; to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

6:09 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Is scientific evidence from studies funded by Big Oil any less credible?

I am laughing my ass off.

Uh, the answer would be yes.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous johnny marsh said...

Pharmaceutical companies are out to make money, is there drug research any less credible? Research is a science and has a defined methodology. The veracity of the methodology can always be and is usually verified. If this was not the case, we would have a large group of doctoral candidates who would never be published or learn to do research. Let’s be realistic, many doctoral candidates get there first publications by verifying the methodology of others.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Pharmaceutical companies would be out of business, like, pretty fast, if they started killing their patients.

The same mechanisms are not at work for energy companies. Do I really have to make this point?

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

The veracity of the methodology can always be and is usually verified.

I had a whole post about this, but since you seem to understand this point, why would I bother?

Now, you already conceded that global warming is the prevailing wisdom. How is this conspiracy being perpetrated within the vast majority of the scientific community, since all their methodology is verifiable? I'm confused.

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Sorry. I’ll dress your earlier post more thoroughly. I’m not always this argumentative, believe me, but some of your points are rather bizarre.

History is full of lessons that prove the prevailing wisdom of the time was not accurate.

True. It’s also full of prevailing wisdom that pretty much held up. We don’t really talk about those because, really, that’s less interesting in history books about science, right? (“10,000 years ago, we learned that cooking meat kills bacteria. In the 1700’s we still thought the same thing! Neat, huh?” No, it’s more like, “Can you believe they used to use leeches on people?!”) I don’t know what the ratio is of wisdom being debunked versus validated throughout All of History, since that would require nothing short of Knowledge of Everything, but I don’t really care, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a facetious argument. You are using it here because, for whatever reason, you believe that the prevailing wisdom is wrong. If we were debating another matter where the positions were reversed, you would give as much weight to this point as I do now.

But…that’s all beside the point. You do agree that it is the prevailing wisdom among climatologists. So at least we’re not arguing about that. Trust me, there’s plenty that want to deny this, too.

Remember, every scientific study has an agenda; to prove or disprove a hypothesis.
Again, we always seem to come back to this sort of thing: A barely working understanding of how science works. It is not possible to “prove” a hypothesis, only to disprove it.

Within the scientific community, there is just as much prestige, attention, and credit given to those who disprove ideas as there is to those who substantiate claims (maybe even more to the former, since it is more definitive). This is not advertising, where the cleverest executive can spin any message to the public that they choose. If things get too far out of hand, there’s an equalizing effect that will begin to work. It’s why “cold fusion” was debunked. It’s why that Korean guy was found out as a fraud for his cloning experiments. Some scientists tried to reproduce his results and could not do it. Scientific journals spend more time on this sort of thing than anything else. You’ve said yourself that you understand this. So why is the global warming hoax so prevalent?

The scientific community is a vast collection of individuals operating alone or under various programs, grants, for-profit companies, universities, and nonprofits. Any one of these would benefit immensely if they definitively debunked “global warming,” and any one of them would suffer untold humiliation if they were found to be participating in poor science in order to secure more money, or even a more benign version of “group think”

I don’t even want to debate the science of it with you since I’m not a scientist, there’s enough material out there. (I would, however, suggest you take the wide-eyed, 4th grade level questions of “trees can always use more CO2” and the “ice cubes in a glass of water” metaphor over to the discussion section of the aforementioned Wikipedia pages, and see what the doctorates say there. I would say they’d get a good laugh out of it, but from what I’ve read I can see they deal with this sort of crap from recently-self-taught-armchair-climatologists all the time. They are probably pretty sick of it, and will probably dispatch with your concerns far more efficiently than I ever could here. I imagine that it tends to make them grumpy when they spend six to ten years in focused academic study followed by a lifetime of work in the field, only to have to anwer questions like these by people at parties because they watched Primetime Live last night and are pretty fucking proud of it, your friend at the NOAA possibly excepted. Being grumpy I mean.

I do, however, feel somewhat qualified to discuss how science itself and the scientific community works, as anyone with an interest in these things today can learn easily enough. Science builds towards a consensus. It is constantly self-scrutinizing. In fact, you get no real attention from following the pack. You do get heard if you are contrarian. Most reasonable scientists, (which would be most scientists, since they tend to be rational, hyper-left brained people,) in the face of overwhelming evidence, will still remain with the pack because, well, they put good science at a higher priority than being a glory-seeking jackass.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous johnny marsh said...

For every point in the global warming argument there is a counter-point. Both sides make compelling arguments; both sides have solid evidence supporting their claims. My contention is that there is overwhelming evidence for the case of global warming because there is more research to support that hypothesis. There simply is little professional growth in the scientific community when your research sets out to prove nothing has changed or the rate of change is slow.

Try to get a study funded by your company that sets out to prove NOT changing a work-flow process is a better move for the company. Not gonna happen. People generally make decisions based on arguments for change, not against it.

For the record, I believe we both can agree that we, as a species, are having a profound (more negative than positive) affect on our environment. However, the underlying argument here is the rate of that affect.

I whole-heartedly believe that moderate changes can be made over time vice the MUST CHANGE NOW OR FACE CERTAIN DEATH campaign. This type of rhetoric (the campaign not the research) does nothing more than divide the population they are trying to influence.

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

What happens when people have a poor grasp of the scientific method. Become a pirate!

And down with ninjas!

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Robin said...

Well, Nate you were doing pretty well, until ol' Johnny decided to just dispatch with any attempt at actual logic.

For every point in the global warming argument there is a counter-point.

That's a redundancy. It's the definition of an argument. That the opposing points are "well reasoned" is the fallacy.

Just because an Opposing View exists does not make it automatically credible. Rape is bad. No. Rape is good. An equally specious "argument." Most people would back away from that opposing point of view as fast as they could. But there'd still be a few out there who would try to defend the argument. Because they are under the misimpression that EVERY POINT "deserves" a defense. It doesn't. And, yes. I *am* equating your anti-global warming ignorance with someone who would defend Rape. Because it's the rape of the planet we're talking about. For the enrichment of a very, VERY few people, who have DUPED Johnny and his ilk into thinking somehow that there's a piece of the pie in it for them, too.

Wake up guys. They're not *just* screwing over those of us who disagree with them. They're killing us all.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous johnny marsh said...

This is a scientific argument, not a moral one. When I made the comment about point and counter-point, I had already implied earlier that there is credible evidence for each (which there is; a fact not in debate).

The argument here, at least for me, is not right vs. wrong; rather right vs. more right. I do believe there is a problem. I simply do not agree the problem is cataclysmic (which does not negate the need to deal with it).

5:03 AM  

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