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Climate Emergency

Former U.S. vice president Al Gore stumps for the environment

4 min read

Two and a half years ago, in the company of a professor of atmospheric sciences, I went to see the former U.S. senator and vice president deliver the lecture that is the basis of his film, An Inconvenient Truth . It was classic Al Gore. He did the best job of presenting and illustrating the basics of global warming that we had ever seen. But he delivered the talk on what was more or less the coldest day of that winter in New York City, making him the butt of jokes by late-night television chat-show hosts.

The filmed version of the talk, which Gore has now delivered—by his reckoning—close to 1000 times, opened in the United States on 25May, and it has something of the same odd combination of Gore’s professorial brilliance and political clumsiness, only more so. The talk itself and the illustrations are even better—so good, indeed, that they should not be missed, whether you look at them in the film or in the companion book now on sale: An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It .

But it wouldn’t do to just film a 1â''hour lecture for a movie intended to be shown in commercial theaters. So the segments of the talk are interspersed with vignettes and reflections from Gore’s personal life, which inevitably will strike many viewers as self-serving or just irritating.

That’s too bad, because Gore’s message and the evidence he musters to support it deserve to be seen and heard by all. The lecture treats every crucially important aspect of climate change and in almost every case hits the nail right on the head.

Questions Gore answers include how we know what the earth’s climate was like going back 650 000 years and how we know just how much greenhouse gas concentrations have increased. He explains the empirically proven direct relationship between carbon dioxide levels and temperatures and shows that levels of that gas in the atmosphere today are unprecedented. He also discusses the sharply higher atmospheric and oceanic temperatures of recent years and the increased ferocity of hurricanes and prevalence of droughts. The film illustrates how the possible breakup of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets would affect the world’s sea levels, and it covers the pernicious roles of coal and oil and the potentially benign impacts of green technologies.

Gore presents what is probably the most important set of facts about global warming with especially dramatic effect. Standing in front of a chart showing the lockstep relationship between carbon dioxide and temperatures through the most recent ice ages—a chart that’s arguably the most important scientific diagram produced since Watson and Crick’s double helix—Gore steps into a cherry picker and has himself rise with the curve showing the CO 2 levels as they are projected out to the end of this century.

The message he is driving home is this: the magnitude of the increase in greenhouse gas levels since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been about as great as the magnitude of the gas level changes associated with the onset and termination of ice ages. If business continues as usual, the level will rise by at least that magnitude again by midcentury—from about 375 parts per million today to more than 600 ppm.

Gore’s treatment of coal, the traditional lifeblood of the region he once represented as a senator from Tennessee, is more elliptical. He opens the subject not in Tennessee or West Virginia but in China, albeit noting that the United States also still relies heavily on this old-fashioned fuel. But Gore does not mention that the United States produces more than half its electricity from coal, that coal accounts for more than 40percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and that pollutants from its combustion account for an estimated 30000 U.S. deaths each year.

Instead he seems to change the subject to talk about population, old habits and new technology, and denial—but it’s still really all about coal. Gore comes to rest with his sister Nancy, who died of lung cancer. He talks about how when she started smoking at age 16, the tobacco industry was spending millions of dollars to spread the lie that scientists didn’t really know what the health effects of tobacco were. He mentions that his father, also a distinguished senator and a Tennessee farmer, stopped growing tobacco.

The message is implicit but clear. But though he clearly implies that fossil fuels are an addiction and that their effects could destroy much of what we hold dear, Gore does not tell us as a practical matter how we can break that addiction. He decries the laxity of U.S. fuel efficiency standards for automotive vehicles, and he quotes experts saying we already have all the technology we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but he does not say how much we need to reduce them or which technologies will work best. (For that discussion, read my book, which makes a case for a stiff carbon tax and a deliberate shutdown of the country’s dirtiest coal plants.)

But if you’re still not convinced that global warming is the most urgent and important problem facing the world today, see Al Gore’s film, or if you just can’t stand the man, read his book.

About the Author

William Sweet, senior news editor of IEEE Spectrum, is the author of Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy (Columbia University Press, 2006).

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