Al Gore’s movie

by Eric Steig

Along with various Seattle business and community leaders, city planners and politicians, a large group of scientists from the University of Washington got a chance to preview the new film, An Inconvenient Truth, last week. The film is about Al Gore’s efforts to educate the public about global warming, with the goal of creating the political will necessary for the United States to take the lead in efforts to lower global carbon emissions. It is an inspiring film, and is decidedly non-partisan in its outlook (though there are a few subtle references to the Bush administration’s lack of leadership on this and other environmental issues).

Since Gore is rumored to be a fan of RealClimate, we thought it appropriate to give our first impressions.

Much of the footage in Inconvenient Truth is of Al Gore giving a slideshow on the science of global warming. Sound boring? Well, yes, a little. But it is a very good slide show, in the vein of Carl Sagan (lots of beautiful imagery, and some very slick graphics and digital animation). And it is interspersed with personal reflections from Gore that add a very nice human element. Gore in the classroom in 1968, listening to the great geochemist Roger Revelle describe the first few years of data on carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere. Gore on the family farm, talking about his father’s tobacco business, and how he shut it down when his daughter (Al Gore’s sister) got lung cancer. Gore on the campaign trail, and his disappointment at the Supreme Court decision. This isn’t the “wooden” Gore of the 2000 campgain; he is clearly in his element here, talking about something he has cared deeply about for over 30 years.

How well does the film handle the science? Admirably, I thought. It is remarkably up to date, with reference to some of the very latest research. Discussion of recent changes in Antarctica and Greenland are expertly laid out. He also does a very good job in talking about the relationship between sea surface temperature and hurricane intensity. As one might expect, he uses the Katrina disaster to underscore the point that climate change may have serious impacts on society, but he doesn’t highlight the connection any more than is appropriate (see our post on this, here).

There are a few scientific errors that are important in the film. At one point Gore claims that you can see the aerosol concentrations in Antarctic ice cores change “in just two years”, due to the U.S. Clean Air Act. You can’t see dust and aerosols at all in Antarctic cores — not with the naked eye — and I’m skeptical you can definitively point to the influence of the Clean Air Act. I was left wondering whether Gore got this notion, and I hope he’ll correct it in future versions of his slideshow. Another complaint is the juxtaposition of an image relating to CO2 emissions and an image illustrating invasive plant species. This is misleading; the problem of invasive species is predominantly due to land use change and importation, not to “global warming”. Still, these are rather minor errors. It is true that the effect of reduced leaded gasoline use in the U.S. does clearly show up in Greenland ice cores; and it is also certainly true that climate change could exacerbate the problem of invasive species.

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