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An Inconvenient Truth

Does this hurricane make me look fat? Al Gore in 'An Inconvenient Truth'In Davis Guggenheim’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, a high-angle shot of George W. Bush is followed by a shot of Al Gore looking down out of an airplane window. The juxtaposition delivers a subtle but forceful message: Al Gore is God, gazing in harsh judgment on this Republican president.

You might quibble with my decision to focus on these two, seemingly throwaway images when the movie itself is dominated by Gore’s lecture on global warming. But this shot pairing is symptomatic; An Inconvenient Truth pretends to be about global warming, but it’s mostly a vanity project, a propaganda film supporting the future candidacy (or canonization) of Al Gore. This is a political document masquerading as altruism, an attempt to position the former vice president at the forefront of the environmental issue in spite of the Clinton-Gore administration’s mixed record. And it’s working.

The lecture begins with a joke: “I’m Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States.” This is meant as a self-effacing ice-breaker, but the way anything begins tells you a great deal about what it is. In this case, the start of the lecture should be a warning that An Inconvenient Truth is about Al Gore as much as it’s about an environmental crisis.

In his lecture, Gore refers regularly to this person or that person as his “friend,” and in hushed tones during lecture interludes, he re-tells the familiar stories of his son’s near-fatal accident and his sister’s death from lung cancer. He confides to the world that his 1988 presidential candidacy was partly about raising awareness of the environment, suggesting that he never expected to win. (How noble.) An Inconvenient Truth is the continuation of the at-least-15-year-old campaign to de-robot-icize the image of Al Gore.

I’m not nitpicking as a way of hiding my political agenda. (Perhaps I just have a problem with self-righteous liberals in documentary films.) I’m a lefty who thinks that automobiles ought to be subjected to an inefficiency tax — say, 1 percent for every highway-mile-per-gallon less than 35. So if you want to buy an SUV that gets 15 miles per gallon on the highway, it’ll cost you an extra 20 percent of the purchase price in an inefficiency tax.

You’re free to disagree with my idea, but it’s more of a specific remedy than the movie proposes. Gore and Guggenheim pile on the evidence for climate change ad nauseam, to the point that they almost forget to tell the audience that they can do something about it.

It’s not that Gore and Guggenheim aren’t convincing. There are isolated moments when skeptics and critical thinkers will say, “Yes, but what about ... ,” but the accumulation of information is compelling, frightening, and sad.

Yet they don’t know when to stop, and the growing mountain of charts and maps and statistics becomes overwhelming and tiresome.

That might be more acceptable if Gore were responding to critics of global-warming science, but the former vice president doesn’t even address people who claim that climate change isn’t a problem, referring to them in a mocking tone as “so-called skeptics.” It’s a sly tactic, winking at the audience and telling it that no sensible person puts any stock in what they say anyway.

Really? Considering the gulf Gore cites between the scientific literature and the public perception about (and media portrayal of) climate change, those are exactly the people he ought to be trying to debunk through direct confrontation, instead of merely dismissing them by implication as he does here.

Yet even if Gore convinces everybody who sees the movie that global warming is a serious problem, he’s winning the wrong battle. If we’re fighting about whether global warming is caused by humans, or whether it’s part of some natural cycle, or whether it places humanity in imminent danger, then we’re not discussing the range of possible remedies — the best way to address the problem.

People want to know what they can do, but the movie’s call to action comes during the end credits; it desperately needs to be more than a postscript.

And the larger issue — one that Gore barely addresses — is public policy related to the environment, particularly United States public policy.

Here Gore acts downright naïve, willfully ignoring the complex realities of lawmaking and regulation-writing in favor of easy jabs at big business. At one point in his lecture, Gore compares the mileage performance of automobiles made by U.S. manufacturers to cars made by foreign automakers. Then he shows their financial performance. American companies lag behind in both areas.

It’s effective but cheap; it should be obvious to the sentient that there’s no cause-and-effect relationship between the two, and it’s doubtful there’s even a correlation. It’s that type of glib presentation that undermines Gore’s message; he pretends that environmental policy exists in a vacuum and has no repercussions for business or the lives of consumers or workers.

The reality is that in policy terms, what’s good for the environment needs to balanced against consumer behavior and economic considerations. The politicians and big businesses that oppose policies meant to repair or mitigate environmental damage don’t do so because they’re evil; they see the laws or regulations as threats to their livelihoods or constituencies. Environmental stewardship almost always carries a cost — whether it’s jobs in the auto industry or the price of automobiles — and that cost must be considered alongside the benefit.

Gore would tell us that cost is now irrelevant, that we’ve reached a crisis point and must take action. And he might be right. But what action? The former vice president suggests that we ought to increase automobile efficiency, but how high? How soon? What else do we need to do in terms of policy? You won’t find the answers in An Inconvenient Truth.

There’s a simple reason that Gore’s lecture and the movie don’t endorse specific solutions: Even when people agree on a problem, the policy options can be divisive. And debating remedies won’t get Al Gore elected or into heaven or give him whatever approval he desperately seems to want.

It might, instead, actually help to solve the problem.

My aim isn’t to mock and discredit An Inconvenient Truth because I disagree with it. I want to knock it down because it nakedly promotes Al Gore instead of working to slow down or eliminate global warming. Climate change is indeed important, and it deserves a better movie than this.

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