Media Influences: An Inconvenient Truth
Media Influences: An Inconvenient Truth
An Inconvenient Truth is a 2006 documentary film featuring former U.S. Vice President Al Gore (1948–). The film was directed by Davis Guggenheim and won the 2006 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, among other honors. It blends information about Gore's life and career with images of a multimedia talk that Gore has delivered to more than 1,000 audiences in an effort to convince the public that global climate change is real and dangerous.
An Inconvenient Truth became one of the most profitable documentaries ever made, measured in ticket sales. (Gore has donated his own profits to a nonprofit climate group.) Although the film received a lot of attention and praise worldwide, the movie was criticized by doubters of global warming, who claimed the documentary was inaccurate. Most climatologists who have been consulted have defended the film as essentially accurate, though containing some errors and exaggerations.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
As an undergraduate student at Harvard in the 1960s, Al Gore studied under scientist Roger Revelle (1909– 1991). Revelle had been measuring atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the Pacific since 1958. By the time Gore was his student, Revelle had accumulated data showing almost a decade of steadily increasing CO2. The subject of climate change became a lifelong interest for Gore. As a U.S. senator in the late 1970s, Gore arranged the first congressional hearings on global warming. Later, he developed a slideshow describing the reality of global warming and delivered the talk to audiences around the world.
From 1993 to 2001, Gore was vice president of the United States. During that time he sought, without success, to get the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (a treaty committing developed nations to limit their greenhouse-gas emissions). After his narrow defeat by George W. Bush in the presidential race of 2000, Gore began giving his multimedia talk again. In 2004, movie producers saw Gore's slideshow and contacted him and director Guggenheim about the possibility of making a film.
An Inconvenient Truth presents evidence from scientific studies of climate and weather performed over the last few decades. It argues that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is greater than it has been for 650,000 years; that the warmth of Earth's climate today is unprecedented over at least the last 1,000 years; that human beings are the cause of both the carbon dioxide and the warming; that global warming is likely to cause a wide range of disruptions including increased extinctions, extreme weather, flooding, disease, and drought; and that humans should take immediate action to reduce future climate change.
Impacts and Issues
Skeptics of climate change have accused the Gore film of being systematically misleading as well as citing flawed evidence. Chaired by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a politician known for his insistence that human-caused climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works issued a press release on June 27, 2006. The release quoted scientist Bob Carter of James Cook University in Australia as saying that “Gore's circumstantial arguments are so weak that they are pathetic. It is simply incredible that they, and his film, are commanding public attention.”
Gore's use of the famous “hockey stick” graph— showing relatively stable temperatures for the last 1,000 years ending in a sudden spike or jump in the last century—has also been criticized. Inhofe's committee said
the graph had been “discredited” and was “broken.” A review by a team of U.S. government mathematicians (the Wegman committee) has faulted the statistical mathematics used to produce the hockey stick graph. However, the validity of its overall shape was affirmed by the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 in a book-length review of the scientific evidence and also by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 (Physical Science Basis, p. 467). Both noted that climate reconstructions using several independent sources of evidence have all produced similar results, although uncertainties are greater for centuries prior to AD 1600 and especially AD 900.
Several climate-skeptic groups have produced ads or films in response to the Gore film. These include ads by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (partly funded by the oil company ExxonMobil) and a British answer film titled The Great Global Warming Swindle (2007).
Despite vigorous criticism from persons contesting the reality or urgency of climate change, the film has been widely praised and well-received by the public and by most scientists. The Associated Press surveyed more than 100 climate scientists and found that all 19 who had actually seen An Inconvenient Truth at that time rated it as essentially accurate. William Schlesinger, dean of the Nicholas School of Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, said that Gore “got all the important material and got it right.” According to professional climatologists writing on the Web site RealClimate.org in January 2007, Gore's film “provides an accurate, engaging, accessible, thought-provoking and (at times) even humorous introduction to one of the most important scientific issues of our time.” The film inspired many people to want to do something to alleviate global warming and increased public awareness of the reality of climate change. As of late 2007, it was the fourth-most-viewed documentary in history, judging by ticket sales.
In 2006, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) was offered 50,000 free copies of An Inconvenient Truth for classroom use, but declined them. Film co-producer Laurie David claimed that a representative of the group wrote to her that accepting the DVDs would impose “unnecessary risk” on the group's fund-raising campaign, especially with regard to “certain targeted supporters.” The NSTA's supporters, David said, include the oil company ExxonMobil, well-known for funding climate-change denial. According to the British Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national science academy, ExxonMobil has given millions of dollars to climate-change denial groups. The NSTA defended its action on the grounds that it was not motivated by fear of ExxonMobil's response, but by its policy of never distributing unsolicited materials to its members.
In February 2007, the British government announced that it would send a copy of An Inconvenient Truth to every secondary school in the United Kingdom. The proposal was taken to court by opponents of the film. Although the British judge who decided the case believed that some of the statements made in the film were “alarmist,” he ruled that the government distribution program could go forward because the film was “substantially founded upon scientific research and fact” (quoted by CNN, October 12, 2007).
In October 2007, An Inconvenient Truth received renewed attention when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Gore and to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for their work in educating the world about global climate change.
WORDS TO KNOW
ATMOSPHERIC CO2: Carbon dioxide (CO2) that is found in the atmosphere. As of mid 2007, the concentration of atmospheric CO2 was about 383 parts per million (ppm) (i.e., 383 molecules of CO2 for every 1 million molecules of air, about 0.0383% of the atmosphere), an increase of 36% from its pre-industrial value of 280 ppm.
GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.
HOCKEY STICK GRAPH: A chart of global average air temperatures indicating that recent climate warming is unprecedented for at least the last 1,000 that years or so. Critics argued that the graph was flawed and misleading, but in 2006, after a careful review of the evidence, the National Academy of Sciences affirmed that the graph is essentially accurate, though its shape is less certain for earlier dates.
KYOTO PROTOCOL: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.
SKEPTICISM : Doubt about the truth of a claim. Skepticism, as opposed to denialism, may have a reasonable basis: in fact, skepticism is essential to the scientific process of discovering new knowledge, in which claims are carefully tested before being accepted as correct.
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