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Director: Davis Guggenheim
Writers: Al Gore
Stars: Al Gore
Release Date: May 28, 2006 (United States)
Run time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
An Inconvenient Truth presents in film form an illustrated talk on climate by Al Gore, aimed at alerting the public to an increasing “planetary emergency” due to global warming, and shows re-enacted incidents from his life story which influenced his concerns about environmental issues. He began making these presentations in 1989 with flip chart illustrations; the film version uses a Keynote presentation, which Gore refers to as “the slide show“.The former vice president opens the film by greeting an audience with his well-known line about his campaign in 2000: “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States.” He is shown using his laptop to edit his presentation, and pondering the difficulty he has had in awakening public concern: “I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time and I feel as if I’ve failed to get the message across.”Gore then begins his slide show on Global Warming; a comprehensive presentation replete with detailed graphs, flow charts and stark visuals. Gore shows off several photographs of the Earth taken from multiple space missions, as Earthrise and The Blue Marble. Gore notes that these photos dramatically transformed the way we see the Earth, helping spark modern environmentalism.Following this, Gore shares anecdotes that inspired his interest in the issue, including his college education with early climate expert Roger Revelle at Harvard University, his sister’s death from lung cancer and his young son’s near-fatal car accident. Gore recalls a story from his grade-school years, where a fellow student asked his geography teacher about continental drift, whether the coastlines of South America and Africa might fit together; in response, the teacher called the concept the “most ridiculous thing [he’d] ever heard.” Gore ties this conclusion to the assumption that “the Earth is so big, we can’t possibly have any lasting, harmful impact on the Earth’s environment.” For comic effect, Gore uses a clip from the Futurama episode “Crimes of the Hot” to describe the greenhouse effect. Gore refers to his loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 United States presidential election as a “hard blow” yet one which subsequently “brought into clear focus, the mission [he] had been pursuing for all these years.”
Throughout the movie, Gore discusses the scientific opinion on global warming, as well as the present and future effects of global warming and stresses that global warming “is really not a political issue, so much as a moral one,” describing the consequences he believes global warming will produce if the amount of human-generated greenhouse gases is not significantly reduced in the very near future. Gore also presents Antarctic ice coring data showing CO2 levels higher now than in the past 650,000 years.The film includes segments intended to refute critics who say that global warming is unproven or that warming will be insignificant. For example, Gore cites the retreat of nearly all glaciers caused by melting over recent decades, showing nine cases, such as the Grinnel and Boulder Glaciers and Patagonia. He discusses the possibility of the collapse and melting of a major ice sheet in Greenland or in West Antarctica, either of which could raise global sea levels by approximately 20 feet (6m), flooding coastal areas and producing 100 million refugees. Melt water from Greenland, because of its lower salinity, could then halt the currents that keep northern Europe warm and quickly trigger dramatic local cooling there. It also contains various short animated projections of what could happen to different animals more vulnerable to global warming.
I knew when I sat down to review this 2006 film that I was signing myself up for a difficult task. Should the Academy Award winning documentary (which played a role in Gore winning a Nobel Prize) be judged on a technical basis? Should it be judged by the science – as it was understood in 2006? Should we judge it with the benefit of hindsight? How can someone who is not a scientist sort through this information? I will make an attempt.
In its technical aspects, this is a really well-done documentary. It manages to make a slideshow about increases in atmospheric CO2 into something compelling, balancing the information dump with just enough humor and personal asides to keep me interested from beginning to end. I particularly enjoyed the Futurama clip Gore uses to explain Global Warming as a concept.
The documentary – even in its own time and before we apply hindsight to the science – was not perfect. One issue I had with Gore’s approach was the emotionally manipulative way he misrepresented the Hurricane Katrina disaster. In discussing the hurricane, he presented the loss of life, and property damage, as wholly a function of the hurricane. He did not mention the failure of the levees in New Orleans as a significantly contributing factor to the devastation. The result is that he creates an impression that global warming created a super-hurricane, and that we are almost certain to see an increasing number of such disasters in the future. Fortunately, we have not (yet?) seen this particular prediction come true.
Another grievance I had concerned the argument over the economy. Gore admits that opponents to the measures he proposes have concerns over how those measures would impact the economy. People need jobs, food, housing, etc. The argument [paraphrased] is something like, “your plan is as devastating as what you’re proposing we avoid – and you cannot even prove the disaster you are predicting.” Gore dismisses this, complete with a picture of a balance scale that has gold bars on one side, and the entire earth on the other, before giving a very thin argument concerning the car industry benefitting overseas from increased emissions standards. He fails to mention the energy industry as a whole, or the ripple effect to other areas of the economy which would be effected by a dramatic injury to that sector of the economy. If the political opposition argues that his proposals would be horrible for the economy, and society, why not at least let the audience hear their case? Gore’s argument would have ben more compelling had he given them their day and then debunked them.
At one point in the film, Gore visits China and presents the Communist Chinese government as not only an ally in the global warming effort, but an ally that is outpacing the U.S. by some distance. This portion of the argument is also relatively thin with respect to actual data. The intention seems to be to shame and politically motivate his American audience, rather than to accurately inform them.
Gore points out repeatedly that there is unanimous agreement on the science he presents, though he also admits dissent exists. He gets around the dissent, and discounts it, by comparing dissenters to the tobacco lobby scientists who denied links between cigarettes and cancer. How does that comparison stack up with the benefit of hindsight? It’s not as favorable for the former Vice President as you might think. For one thing, and most obviously, the vernacular around the climate crisis has changed since the documentary. Gore talks repeatedly about “global warming.” In the not even two decades since the film, though, the argument for warming has taken enough hits that the nomenclature is now “climate change” (though the warming talking points always emerge when the weather provides an opportunity.)
Gore says in the documentary that the climate pattern on earth has been pretty much the same since the end of the last Ice Age. We know now, with certainty, that this is not true. One major example of this occurred with the transformation of the Sahara. At the end of the last Ice Age, the world’s largest desert was green, covered with vegetation, rivers, and large lakes. From Nature [excerpt below]:
Paleoclimate and archaeological evidence tells us that, 11,000-5,000 years ago, the Earth’s slow orbital ‘wobble’ transformed today’s Sahara desert to a land covered with vegetation and lakes.
The Earth’s axial rotation is perturbed by gravitational interactions with the moon and the more massive planets that together induce periodic changes in the Earth’s orbit, including a 100,000 year cycle in the shape of the orbit (eccentricity), a 41,000 year cycle in the tilt of the Earth’s axis (obliquity) and a 20,000-year cycle in the “wobble” — much like a top wobbles — of the Earth’s axis (precession). All three of orbital cycles — called Milankovitch cycles — impact African climate on long geologic timescales, but the cycle with the most influence on the rains in Africa is the “wobble” cycle, precession. The main climatic effect of precession is to shift the season when the Earth has its closest pass to the Sun (perihelion) — the so-called precession of the equinoxes. Today, perihelion occurs in northern hemisphere winter but at 10,000 years ago (half of a precession cycle) it occurred in northern hemisphere summer, and summer radiation over North Africa was about 7% higher than it is today (Berger, 1988; Kutzbach, 1981) (Figure 2a).
This change is the most dramatic change to the earth’s climate and topography, since the end of the last Ice Age, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the actions of mankind. It seem unreasonable, in a discussion about climate change, not to even mention the role of Earth’s orbital wobble. Did the loss of this green, lush, vegetation, and the rivers and lakes that accompanied them, spanning an area the size of the United States, impact global CO2 levels? Almost certainly. The loss of vegetation and surface water over an area that size almost certainly led to a decrease in the amount of CO2 being converted into oxygen.
Another example of the documentary painting an inaccurate picture of the Earth’s climate since the end of the last Ice Age, concerns the melting of the Ice Caps. While it may be true that human emissions of CO2 have sped up the melting of the ice caps, it is also true that the ice caps have been steadily melting for 11,000 years. An Inconvenient Truth presents an image of a stable ice shelf, from the end of the last Ice Age until man’s recent intervention over the last century, but that is simply inaccurate. For example, three thousand years after the end of the most recent ice age, the continuously melting ice caps produced the Storegga Slide. From wiki:
The three Storegga Slides (Norwegian: Storeggaraset) are amongst the largest known submarine landslides. They occurred at the edge of Norway’s continental shelf in the Norwegian Sea, approximately 6225–6170 BCE. The collapse involved an estimated 290 km (180 mi) length of coastal shelf, with a total volume of 3,500 km3 (840 cu mi) of debris, which caused a paleotsunami in the North Atlantic Ocean.
There are no serious arguments currently that the ice shelf off of the coast of Norway fell into the sea because of anything that man was doing. Thus, we must assume that the climate of the earth was changing – and the ice caps were melting – irrespective of humanity. The slide played a key role in the submerging of of Doggerland, the land bridge between what is now the United Kingdom and mainland Europe.
In addition, while the documentary showcases the melting of Antarctica’s western ice shelf, we now know the eastern side of that shelf is growing at a faster pace than the losses. That does not fit the narrative and indicates that the uinform scientific establishment might need to recalibrate their uniform view.
Since the release of the documentary, earth experienced eight cooler years, from 2015 until 2022. This happened despite no decrease in CO2 levels. Does that call into question the purported correlation between CO2 and temperature? For some, the answer is yes. Others however argue that this short-term cooling is explainable, and does not undermine the argument for longer term warming. On that front, time will tell.
On the subject of longer term warming, another counter to the narrative of the documentary is that it focuses too much on the temperature data collected over the last century, and not enough on longer term temperature variance. The idea is that just because temperatures have climbed since the 1970s does not mean they have climbed in a meaningful way relative to the history of human life on earth.
The upward swing on those graphs, in the present, certainly seems a lot less scary than the upward angle taken in Al Gore’s slideshow. The earlier warm period, such as the Medieval one, must have occurred without the benefit of increased man-made CO2 (or at least without that on the current scale.) Does that all into question the link between CO2 and temperature? For some it does, and for others, no.
As a human being, concerned about this issue, being reliably informed is an increasingly difficult endeavor. It is difficult to have faith in the validity of the science if you read the social media accounts of the scientists behind the data, and see that they are displaying obvious bias. Just as much as a fossil fuel company might bias the research done by the scientists that they fund, so too might the government bureaucracy bias other scientists with how research grants are disseminated. The whole discussion is unfortunately part of a political struggle. An Inconvenient Truth certainly played a role in changing the climate of the science discussion. Gore not only fails to give a proper voice to the other side of the discussion, his documentary seems to blame Republicans for the lack of response to a catastrophe that he compares to the rise of Nazi Germany. Predictably, in the almost two decades since the film, the conversation has become increasingly polluted with partisanship.
Most of us are not climate scientists, thus we end up being herded into one direction, or another, depending on either our political affiliation or having lived long enough to develop anecdotal expertise. I confess a concern that Gore is right on the subject matter and that his failure to make the argument well actually created the opposition that will eventually doom us. However, I take some solace in the knowledge that the world’s leading climate activists, including former Vice President Gore, do not behave as though they are worried that doom is imminent. A lifestyle of jet-setting around the world, maintaining gigantic personal carbon footprints, and living on coasts does not communicate sincere worry. When the hole was forming in the ozone layer, unlike with the current crisis, everyone involved responded with seriousness, and a few decades later, that hole is apparently healing.
Perhaps the hope that should accompany An Inconvenient Truth is that if or when the world starts acting as though this is an actual problem, and not something to use for personal financial gain and political leverage, there will still be time to act. If on the other hand, we learn that there is no significant link between CO2 levels and global temperatures, hopefully we can celebrate together having not destroyed too many lives and too much prosperity in the interim. Either way, while we wait to learn the answer, we are left with the thought that Gore gives when the documentary begins:
“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”