As the controversy over The Da Vinci Code makes clear, a vast majority of Americans—among them our president—regard the divinity of Jesus as a fact, not a theory. So what’s a theory? Global warming, of course. And it’s a theory that needs more study, preferably carried out by the unbiased scientists at ExxonMobil and their past or future colleagues in the Bush White House.
On the other hand, someone who would treat as fact the self-serving yammerings of Al Gore must be an environmentalist wacko, right? So let’s have a good laugh at An Inconvenient Truth, a feature-length lecture directed by Davis Guggenheim (there’s a limousine-liberal name for you!) in which the failed presidential candidate (lampooned a few weeks ago on the libertarian-tinged South Park, where he raved about a creature called “ManBearPig”) drones on about cracking ice shelves and disappearing permafrost and soaring temperatures and rising sea levels. It’s obviously just a tedious, 96-minute presidential-campaign commercial, right?
That, in any event, is how much of the mainstream media is likely to characterize this new documentary of Gore and his traveling global-warming slide show: Anything else would invite charges of liberal bias. But the fact is—the fact is—that only a brainwashed audience (and their brainwashers) could portray anything in An Inconvenient Truth as even remotely controversial. Gore has all the graphs and charts and time-lapsed photographs and peer-reviewed scientific studies he needs to underscore his message about where the planet is heading—and sooner than we think. So be afraid. Be very afraid.
In An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim weaves together the ex-vice-president’s speeches before a series of packed houses all over the United States and abroad. Casually dressed, Gore is less stiff than during his last presidential run, and he has learned not to drone. But he is still clearly in his element as a pedant. After introducing himself as the former next president of the United States (a joke that made at least one viewer wince at the thought of what might have been), he shows an image of the planet as it looked in the first pictures taken from space. Then he shows a picture of the planet as it looks now. Then he graphs the differences to show the acceleration of global warming. He debunks the theory that these changes are “cyclical”: Scientists have studied all the environmental cycles since the last Ice Age, he says. These are off the charts.
Guggenheim puts Gore on a pedestal, no doubt. There are biographical interpolations in which Gore discusses the death of his sister from lung cancer and the near-death of his son, and they’re extremely moving. But they do edge the film a little closer to the realm of campaign biographies. That said, his spiritual journey is a great deal more compelling—and transparent—than George W. Bush’s supposed revelation after decades of alcoholism and (alleged) drug abuse. Gore has real gravitas now, and not just because he has gained a bit of weight.
It’s worth dwelling on the mocking responses to Gore and his book Earth in the Balance (and, for that matter, to my friend Bill McKibben’s seminal The End of Nature in the late eighties) because everything Gore is saying should be old, old news. But the people on the other side will do and say anything. Perhaps the most amazing statistic in An Inconvenient Truth is that of 900-plus peer-reviewed studies in recognized journals, not one has challenged the idea of global warming, whereas more than 53 percent of articles in the mainstream media have presented it as a theory or been careful to include the demurrals of a tiny handful of bought-and-paid-for scientists or politicians. In the course of Gore’s lecture tour comes the unsurprising news that Bush aide Philip Cooney routinely red-penciled the conclusions of impartial government scientists; when exposed, he resigned and took a job with ExxonMobil.
But it won’t be long, Gore suggests, before other industries find it in their economic interest to sound the global-warming alarm. The insurance industry will have to pay for all the damage from hurricanes and floods as a consequence of Gulfstream disruptions. The auto industry will register that unless it makes cars more fuel-efficient, it won’t be able to sell them to anyone but Americans. There’s no spinning the images he presents of earth’s dwindling ice caps or, more poetically, the absence of snow on Kilimanjaro.
An Inconvenient Truth is one of the most realistic documentaries I’ve ever seen—and, dry as it is, one of the most devastating in its implications. See it with your kids—and watch closely to see who attacks it and on what grounds. I differ with Gore only on his optimism. “Political will is a renewable resource,” he says. There’s no accounting for people’s nutty faith.