Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Last Sunday night I set my alarm with the intention of braving brisk conditions for an early morning run. It poured for most of the weekend in Sydney and my few attempts at exercise were thwarted with incessant rain and gale force winds. Such was the case yet again on Monday morning! There’s no doubt we’ve had some strange weather of late. The 107.2 millimetres of rain that fell at Observatory Hill last Thursday achieved a new September record (previously set back in 1883) and parts of Sydney received more than their September average in just a few hours. Ironic perhaps that these uncharacteristic weather conditions were the impetus for an indoors Sunday afternoon lesson in global warming courtesy of Al Gore.

An Inconvenient Truth has received widespread attention since its premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Davis Guggenheim and starring former United States Vice President Al Gore, this documentary presents a powerful argument for global warming and its predicted and devastating effects for the earth and human life. Coupling scientific fact with emotive imagery, much of the information is delivered clearly and succinctly via a multimedia presentation given by Gore. The slideshow is interspersed with brief clips that recount personal events in his life and provide some insight into his motivation.

While the film has generally been well received and its message applauded, it has inevitably attracted some criticism. This stems primarily from an established division in scientific opinion. Most scientists are in agreement with Gore, claiming that global warming is real and contributing to extreme weather conditions such as droughts, floods, storms, and the melting of the polar ice caps. Contrary to this argument is a belief in the earth’s natural climate variability and inconclusive evidence for the influence of human activity on climate change. Also in contention is the film’s assertion of scientific consensus. Such are the claims of Richard Lindzen, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who states that `there is no scientific consensus on global warming’. In a recent interview with Fox News, Lindzen claimed that Gore and other global warming scientists had created `a climate of fear’ by exaggerating the facts. I agree with him to some extent on the former point, but this `climate of fear’ seems more than warranted.

Although scientific contention is inevitable, the extent of dissension is an important issue. Opponents of Gore appear to be firmly in the minority. But journalistic standards of fairness and balanced reporting can lead to biased coverage by presenting this scepticism in equal magnitude. A 2004 US study revealed that when it comes to US media coverage of global warming, balanced reporting of both sides of the story can `actually be a form of informational bias’. This is likely to be the case for any expert opposing mainstream opinion. An opinion headline on the front cover of The Australian this week titled `Why Gore is Wrong’ expressed the unpopular albeit scientifically plausible views of Climatologist William Kininmonth. He claims the debate lacks `rational analysis of some scientific facts’ and accuses Gore and others of waging a scare campaign.

Pitting a handful of prominent scientists against each other serves only as a distraction to the facts. The scientific consensus is clearly expressed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and generally supported by climate scientists around the world (see links below). Geochemist Eric Steig of realclimate.org, an objective online commentary that was a recipient of the Scientific American 2005 Science and Technology Web Awards, argues that the science in the film is `remarkably up to date with reference to some of the very latest research’. Despite a few small errors he concludes that Gore, for the most part, got the science right. And he isn’t alone. The Economist, in a special report on climate change, claims that in the past five years, `the science has tended to confirm the idea that something serious is happening’. It maintains that the uncertainty surrounding climate change argues for action, not inaction.

An Inconvenient Truth is a call to action and more significantly, one over which we have some control. Unlike other global threats such as terrorism, we have the resources and ability to make an immediate difference through our everyday actions. These are presented during the credits and include simple methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions: switch to green power, plant more trees, recycle, only use the dishwasher with a full load and use the energy saving setting, support local farmers markets and try to eat organic food, buy recycled paper products, catch public transport, and walk wherever possible. These and other suggestions are outlined at www.climatecrisis.net, along with further information and links.

So take a look and learn how you can make a few simple changes for the sake of our environment. Spread the word and encourage as many people as possible to see this film. And most importantly, continue to educate yourself and others on the topic. Knowledge is the most powerful weapon in any debate. I left the cinema feeling shocked and saddened, but also empowered. I recalled a mantra stuck to my pin board at home - `the moment of power is in the present.’ It has always served me well and more poignantly now than ever. Despite research showing that a 60 per cent cut in Australia’s emissions is compatible with strong economic growth, the issue of climate change policy on the Australian economy persists. In the meantime, take charge! Implementing simple changes such as those mentioned above can only be a good thing for the environment, local communities, and indeed ourselves.


  • New Scientist

  • Real Climate

  • Climate Change Science

  • IPCC

  • Australian Academy of Science

  • The Sydney Morning Herald

  • Spiegel Online