Friday, June 02, 2006

Movie Review: An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore's documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, opened today. The Onion describes it as "disturbingly realistic" and "unwatchably factual." Fox News, of course, paints the film as alarmist nonsense, but global warming is very real.

The science is difficult to argue with: atmospheric carbon dioxide never exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm) in the last 650,000 years — until the last half-century, when it climbed to 380 ppm and rising. In more than a century of weather records, the #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, and #10 hottest years are all within the last 15 years, and 2005 was the hottest ever, edging out 1998. In 2002, a chunk of ice covering several thousand square miles broke off from Antarctica into the Southern Ocean over a period of only a few weeks. The TV ads for Inconvenient Truth show the photos of Mount Kilimanjaro (with its famous snows on the brink of disappearing) and of the receding glaciers of Patagonia (South America). The ice in the Arctic Ocean, in and around Antarctica, and in Greenland, is receding dramatically.

Certainly there are scientists who doubt that global warming is happening, or who doubt that humans are causing it, but they are a tiny minority. While not quite unanimous, the scientific consensus is overwhelming that human activity is causing global warming. It isn't just the burning of fossil fuels, though, although that is certainly a significant part of it. In many parts of the world, it is a common practice to burn down large areas of forests to clear the land for farming. In the Yucat√°n, the locals will burn down the trees on a few hectares, farm it until the soil is exhausted — perhaps five years, if they're lucky — and then abandon it and move on to the next bit of land. Burning down the trees is a double blow: it releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while at the same time reducing the reabsorbtion of CO2. Simply put, trees breate in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. A single tree can absorb a ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

An Inconvenient Truth is the film version of the slide show that Al Gore has been presenting for several years. In the film, we see a side of Gore that was woefully difficult to find in the 2000 campaign: he is articulate and comfortable, he shows a sense of humor, and he comes across as much more approachable as a human being than he did during the Presidential campaign. Indeed, much though the litany of global warming facts makes an indelible impression, one of the first things I said coming out of the theatre was, "Why the hell didn't we see this Al Gore six years ago?"

There are a few other points from the film that bear mention: U.S. automakers can't compete effectively in China — the largest potential market of the 21st century — because American cars don't meet Chinese environmental standards. So much for the caricature of the developing world as less "green" than the more advanced nations. In fact, California's emission requirements — far tougher than U.S. federal standards — would take 11 years to reach parity with China today, and yet U.S. car companies are suing to block implementation of the California regulations.

Global warming doesn't mean you get to go to the beach in February. It means stronger hurricanes, worse tornadoes, more floods, more droughts, and even more blizzards. As perverse as the notion might sound, global warming could even precipitate an ice age. A warmer earth isn't a more temperate place to live, it is a world with greater volatility in its weather. Global warming also isn't an issue that we can afford to ignore. You owe it to yourself, and especially to the next generation, to go see An Inconvenient Truth.

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