Wednesday, September 20, 2006

If you believe in prayer, pray

Several years ago, a wise old hermit who lived on the hill behind our house dared suggest that there are two types of lecture. There are those done with PowerPoint, he said, and there are those where you actually learn something.

I thought of him and his befuggled wisdom while watching “An Inconvenient Truth”, in which Albert Gore Jnr – who woulda, coulda, shoulda been president of the US of A – gives a slideshow on how we have to save the planet.

He makes an interesting, terrifying and clearly and concisely argued case. It’s not just him on stage with a whole series of statistics, either. He includes silly cartoons about frogs and muggings to get the point across.

Admittedly, the cartoons aren’t quite as memorable as the history of guns in Bowling for Columbine (which is, I learn from Wikipedia, not the work of Matt Stone and Trey Parker). But they do show one thing: it’s not a complicated idea and the consequences are utterly appalling.

Gore apologises for explaining the science, and briefly explains that the more human behaviour clogs up the atmosphere the less heat can escape the planet. This is already happening at an unprecedented rate: the 10 hottest summers on record have all been since 1990, and the new rising tides, floods and hurricanes threaten the lives of millions.

It’s damning and evidential – the point about global warming being that it’s not proven by any one given statistic, but by the vast and ever-growing evidence that all points in one direction.

That said, Gore does tend to refer to what “scientists say” generally, rather than always providing specific sources. The peer-reviewed scientific community does, Gore says, agree unanimously on the reality of climate change, even if they argue about specifics. The conflict of opinion is in the non-peer-reviewed news media.

I’d have liked to have understood more of what scientists disagree on. Is it the conclusions we draw from data – that some top men think we’ve got five years of Greenland being icy, and others as much as 50? Or are there more fundamental differences about what the causes are and what can be done?

For all he’s on the side of the scientists, Gore does use terms that would appal scientists I know. He refers to earlier summers meaning baby caterpillars are born earlier than they used to be. This means they no longer dovetail with the births of baby birds, so the birds are going hungry. Gore calls this messing with “nature’s plan”.

This anthropomorphising carefully avoids having to talk about why the Earth’s creatures so well fit the conditions of the places they live in. We get no mention of why human beings suit a particular, small range of climatic, temperate and atmospheric conditions. Yes, he mentions ice ages from 10,000 years ago, but there is no hint of a whiff of a mention of the dreaded evolution.

The Dr cynically suggests that tying the need to adapt our behaviour to the environment to the way we’ve already adapted would be a turn off for too many people.

Evolution is about adapting to circumstance or dying out. Now we can see how things are going wrong – and how they’re going to get worse – we either adapt or die.

But that doesn’t contradict the firmly held beliefs of those who refute all the first principles. The way we live now is soiling God’s creation and we are already being visited by plagues and tornadoes of Biblical proportions. There is evidence all over the world that says in very big letters, “Don’t make me come down there!”

Gore is keen to engage with arguments against, and his point about the US car exports is fascinating. The industry argues that enforcing better fuel efficiency and lower emissions will damage their sales. But because US standards are so way behind China, Japan and Europe, US cars cannot be sold abroad. So the only way to up sales and so increase revenues and numbers of jobs is to, er, enforce these standards.

Gore also argues that global warming is not a (party) political issue but a moral one – we have to save our planet. He didn’t say, though he really have ought to, “Or we’re all going to die!”

For all it’s above party politics, the lecture was explicitly critical of the current US president and former Republican regimes. Gore is damning about conflicts of interest with lobbying groups, though it would have made a more balanced case if he’d shown where the Democrats got it wrong, too. That would also make it less easily dismissed as a party political tirade.

The film is aimed specifically at US audiences (we’re told to write to Congress rather than to our political leaders), and I can see why some have seen this as a prelude to a presidential campaign.

That feeling is not helped by Gore using the personal life of his family to get his point across: stuff about his dad’s farm, his son being hit by a car, his sister dying of lung cancer. Yes, it made things more personal and gave us an insight into the man, but – bar the parallels with the decades of denial from the tobacco lobby that cigarettes were carcinogenic – it felt like it was straying from the point.

So will it make a difference? The Dr and I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in the US while on our honeymoon and were amazed by the audience’s reaction. We couldn’t possibly believe, after all the evidence on screen, that Bush could get re-elected. But he was.

I think Gore’s film is different, though. While challenging Bush to ratify the Kyoto agreement, he also lists the states and cities who have pledged their agreement – acting despite the president. The credits roll explaining what we can do – yes even us foreigners.

A good place to start is

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. :)