Tuesday, August 29, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore is a recovering politician. It’s a joke he must made a thousand time since he lost the 2000 US Presidential election, and I heard him crack it three times in Edinburgh this week alone. Politicians at this level have to develop a capacity to repeat themselves almost indefinitely without getting bored by the sound of their own voice.
Gore has been repeating himself on the threat of climate change for thirty years and many of his critics say he has bored for the world. But it’s beyond a joke now. This deeply serious politician, one of the most intelligent and persuasive I have ever met, has dedicated the remainder of his political career to repeating an argument he has been consistently making since he entered Congress in 1976. Namely, that man-made climate change poses the most serious challenge to mankind since the last Ice Age ten thousand years ago.
So, what’s new you say? Heard it all before a thousand times. What more is there to be said? Well, that was my attitude before I saw Al Gore’s film “ An Inconvenient Truth” and had the opportunity to question him about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Indeed, I had rather suspected that Gore’s climate change offensive might merely be a convenient platform on which to launch a Presidential campaign for 2008. But his film convinced me otherwise.
“An Inconvenient Truth” could become the most influential documentary in history. It is already the third largest grossing documentary of all time. All the more surprising then that it isn’t really a film at all, but a lecture - an illustrated talk. A summation of the state of scientific knowledge on climate change and our role in it. This is not just another polemic about man’s destruction of the planet. The very sobriety of its delivery is what makes it sensational.
And it poses this question: How is it that there can be an historic consensus among the world’s scientists about the nature of the problem, and yet such resistance to it by the US political establishment - both Democrat and Republican? Why isn’t this the paramount issue not just of this forthcoming Presidential election campaign, but of the last one and the one before that?
. The National Academies of Science of all the industrialised countries, including India and China, all agree that we are changing the climate in a potentially catastrophic manner. The United Nations Climate Change Panel is unanimous as are US Nobel Prize in all relevant fields. A random survey by the University of California at San Diego of all peer-reviewed scientific papers on climate change published in scientific journals over the last decade discovered there is simply no significant disagreement with the fundamental science.
Of course, it’s the same in Britain. Yet here we are, continuing to pursue policies which pump ever greater amounts of C02 into the environment, through wasteful industrial processes, poor insulation and transport policies which favour the car and the plane Yesterday, it was reported in the Times that the government’s chief transport adviser, Sir Rod Eddington, is to reject a new fast rail line between Glasgow and London on grounds of cost. Cost to the planet clearly didn’t enter into his calculations Both the Strategic Rail Authority and Network Rail have argued that the British rail network is already at capacity and cannot meet the existing demand, let alone future growth.
So, why is this? The answer most people give is the dominance of corporate interests in the corridors of power. Sir Rod is, surprise surprise, a former chief of British Airways. Certainly, the influence of the oil lobby in the US Republican Party is a major cause of the failure of the Bush administration to recognise the seriousness of the problem, or even recognise its existence.
However, private companies aren’t stupid. They have scientists who advise them on the state of the planet and many of them realise that their own bottom line is in danger if climate change isn’t addressed. In June, 14 of the UK’s largest firms, including Shell, Tesco, B&Q and Standard Chartered Bank, lobbied Downing St to demand tougher action on greenhouse emissions. Wall Mart has unilaterally introduced a zero emissions policy. Even the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, we hear, has been persuaded.
And still nothing happens. Except that he British government casually admits that we have failed to meet out climate change targets set after Kyoto. America never had any, and the growth economies of the world, China and India, with a third of the world’s population, have embarked upon industrial booms which, if unchecked, will quintuple the current unsustainable levels of C0z in the atmosphere within a generation.
It’s not as if we don’t have alternatives to fossil fuels - they’re all around us, in the wind, tides, solar rays. “An Inconvenient Truth” is actually a very positive film which argues that even with existing technologies we could reduce CO2 emissions to 1970 levels within about 20 years - and boost the world economy doing it.
Al Gore blames the frogs. If you boil them slowly enough, frogs don’t notice they are being cooked until it’s too late, and that he thinks is what is happening to humanity. We need shocks to bring it home. But while I don’t disagree with that, I feel there is more to it. After all, it is only a year since Hurricane Katrina showed the devastating impact of warming oceans when it destroyed half of old New Orleans. Look at the pictures of disappearing glaciers, heat waves in Europe and England, and the evidence of drought and desertification across Africa and the Middle East.
It’s at this stage that you start to wonder if there is some kind of death wish gripping humanity, so wilful is the resistance to doing something about this extinction level event. It defies logic, reason. Al Gore concedes is that rationality - or rather a failure of it - is the heart of this problem. We literally have stopped thinking straight.
Half a century of political spin, anti-science quackery, religious and spiritual fads and declining standards in schools have undermined the status of the scienctific view of the world. People have started believing in anything. In America, creationism is taught in schools as being ‘equally valid’ as evolution. Look at our celebrity culture, where obscure pop singers are given more prominence in obituary columns than leading scientists.
This is taking us a long way from the practical issue of what to do about climate change, into what are issues of epistemology and ethics. But I make no apologies for that. Some things are too serious to simplify, even if there is no space here to explore the complexity.
But here's one simple thought: you simply have to see this film. Everyone has to. And Al Gore had better not get himself assassinated.

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