Who would’ve thought that the stars of last weekend’s big movies would’ve been an animated car and Al Gore? You can just see Jay Leno salivating at the comparison. But we live in funny times.
Gore’s movie, of course, is An Inconvenient Truth — essentially a PowerPoint presentation illustrating how climate change is pushing us toward world destruction. Using a series of clever diagrams and alarming photographs of receding glaciers, dry lakebeds, and flooded cities, Gore — belying his reputation for stiffness — personably sums up current science on global warming (see accompanying box). On the strength of rave reviews the documentary has done well in its first week nationwide at 122 theaters; tomorrow it is scheduled for even wider release.
But not everyone is enamored with An Inconvenient Truth. The right-wing blogosphere has lit up with complaints about Gore’s movie, including a number of sites that offer “fact checks” that purport to debunk the movie (which in the film he is careful to point out do not originate with himself but rather peer-reviewed scientific studies). And conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard and the National Review have run articles in recent months arguing that global warming has been hyped every which way since Sunday; that it’s just a smorgasbord of inaccuracies, falsehoods, exaggerations, and alarmism.
But here in Santa Barbara An Inconvenient Truth has struck a chord with audiences, according to Bruce Corwin, head of Metropolitan Theatres. At a Saturday evening screening the theater was full but not packed; still, Santa Barbara beat the national box office average for the film — $12,000 — by a good $7,000. For reference, Cars did $15,000.
Ice Capades So it should come as no surprise that Santa Barbara was among the cities chosen by the ultra-conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute for a May national advertising campaign that called into question global warming. The ads target one of the most dramatic points made in An Inconvenient Truth: that the Antarctic ice sheet is melting, causing ocean levels to rise. CEI contends this is just a normal, non-threatening fluctuation of nature, ending the commercial with the punch line: “You call it carbon dioxide pollution. We call it life.”
• The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases — which
cause global warming — are significantly higher than they have been
at any other point in the last 650,000 years.
• Eight of the hottest 10 years in recorded history have occurred since 1996, and 2005 was the hottest yet.
• The Arctic is melting. There was 20 percent less ice there than normal last summer. This is a mutually reinforcing phenomenon: Ice caps reflect the heat of the sun, and as they melt they leave the ocean to absorb the heat they once bounced back into space. According to a research team from the University of Colorado, at the current rate of melt, the Arctic will be completely ice-free by 2050.
• 2005 was the stormiest year on record, and according to a recent study by Georgia Tech, Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, which are powered by warm ocean water, have almost doubled in the last 30 years.
• In December, the global ocean circulatory system, which is known as the conveyer belt, was found to have shifted dramatically, with a 30 percent reduction of the northward flow of warm water from the Gulf Stream over the last decade. Based on historic geologic and paleoclimatic evidence, this development could have immense consequences for global weather patterns.
• According to the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S., and the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, human activity is helping to cause these developments.
In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore shows film footage of glaciers crashing into the sea as he quotes from a recent study published in the leading journal Science. It found that the frozen continent is losing as much as 36 cubic miles of ice per year off its coastal areas, a trend unambiguously linked to global warming. If the West Antarctic ice sheet, or the Greenland ice sheet (which another scientific study has shown to be melting), were to disappear completely, it would cause the ocean to rise and cover much of the world’s low-lying land, including large areas of Florida and Manhattan. As for Santa Barbara, we could be looking at a new beachfront — right around Anapamu Street. CEI, which is funded in part by ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, disputes this, pointing instead to another Science study by Curt Davis, a professor at the University of Missouri. It reveals that the ice sheet in the Antarctic interior is actually gaining ice. If Antarctica is melting, the ads asked, how do we account for the fact that its interior is actually thickening?
Reached by phone, Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at CEI, defended the commercial. “The public debate on global warming is skewed in favor of alarmism, because the media only picks up on research that has alarmist implications,” he said. “So we contrast the coverage of studies that say the ice sheet in Greenland or Antarctica is melting with the complete lack of coverage of intellectually respectable studies in the same publications that say that the ice sheet is thickening in Greenland and thickening in Antarctica.”
‘We need an energy bill that
- President Bush, September 23, 2002, Trenton, New Jersey
So what does Professor Davis think about this interpretation of his work? He’s not happy. “It’s a gross misinterpretation,” Davis said. He pointed out that, first, his study was only of the East Antarctic interior — not the whole interior of Antarctica, as the ad implied. Second, he cited the Science study which found that huge chunks of ice are breaking off Antarctica’s coast. And third, “My study finding that the interior part of the ice sheet is growing is actually a predicted consequence of global warming. … A warmer atmosphere absorbs more moisture from the surrounding ocean, and if there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, then the climate models predict it will precipitate at a greater rate.” He continued. “So in the interior, since there’s no surface melting whatsoever, when you have greater precipitation the net effect is an increase in the interiors of the ice sheet.”
Almost all attacks against the dangers of global warming charge that the media does not report the whole range of studies, focusing only on ones with negative findings. Two comprehensive surveys, published in the journals Science and Global Environmental Change, respectively, attempted to see if that was in fact true. Both found no evidence to support the charge. The first was a survey of every peer-reviewed study published in a major scientific journal in the last 10 years that focused on global warming. Of the 928 the author found, not a single one disputed that humans are causing the earth’s climate to warm, and that the warming could have serious consequences for the living earth. The second study was of news articles published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal from 1988 to 2002. Of a sampling of 636 articles, 53 percent presented both sides of the “debate,” and 36 percent presented both sides with an emphasis on the position that human activity is warming the world’s climate.
The Tipping Point “The idea that the reporting has to be ‘evenhanded’ about the issue [from a scientific standpoint] can give a hugely inaccurate impression, as though there’s some kind of serious divide within the scientific community,” said UCSB professor Oran Young, of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. But while there may be a “vast preponderance” of data that global warming is occurring and is dangerous, as Curt Davis points out, and while there may be an equally thorough scientific consensus on the issue, as Young emphasizes, both men agree that there are still many questions within the scientific community about exactly where we stand now, and where we’ll stand in decades to come. Though some scientists believe we have already moved beyond a “tipping point” — after which the most egregious effects of global warming will be irreversible — others, such as James Hansen, the lead climate scientist at NASA and one of the first people to warn about global warming, think there is still time to mitigate the damage. According to Hansen, who famously laid out his opinion in a speech last December, we have 10 years to reduce greenhouse gases before the tipping point is reached.
‘If we are saying that the loss of
species in and of itself is inherently bad — I don’t think we know
enough about how the world works to say that.’
- Interior Department Assistant Secretary Craig Manson, appointed by President Bush to position overseeing the Endangered Species Act, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 12, 2003.
In Young’s view — and in Gore’s too, at least based on what he says in An Inconvenient Truth — Hansen is correct. “We cannot stop the actual changing in the character of the Earth’s climate — that’s already happening,” Young said. “But on the other hand, it would make a huge, huge difference if we could act now to limit ultimate concentrations of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to something on the order of twice pre-industrial levels. And that is just possible.” Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere were about 270 parts per million (ppm). The world is now at about 380 ppm. The general scientific consensus is that we probably can’t prevent it from hitting about 550 ppm. But, as Young says, if we can prevent it from going beyond that point, it will seriously slow global warming.
If You Save It … The big question, then, is how can we accomplish that slowing? Gore proposes a number of steps to stanch carbon emissions. They range from using fluorescent light bulbs, to keeping your tires inflated, to using less hot water.
Myron Ebell isn’t buying it. “If you look at the things that [Gore] says we should be doing to address global warming, they’re all very easy, change your lifestyle a little bit [types of things] — turn off the light when you leave the room, get a car that gets better mileage, etc. Yet, if you look at what would actually be needed [to accomplish the carbon reduction goal Gore espouses], it would be a wrenching transformation of society. It would essentially require an authoritarian government that tells people how much energy they can use.”
So, is the call for fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid automobiles like the Prius really just a series of platitudes? “Obviously just turning off the lights and buying Energy Star washing machines isn’t going to do it,” Oran Young said. “But the argument is: You have to start somewhere.” Still, Young agrees that a personal, grassroots initiative is not going to have the same kind of influence as broad-based political action. One way to see why is to look at China and India. Neither is part of the Kyoto Treaty, the world’s first multi-national agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The reason for their exemption is in part because they are presumed not to have the economic wherewithal to uphold the treaty’s mandates, and because Kyoto would place an unfair burden on them by refusing them the opportunity to get rich off cheap fossil fuel, which most everyone else who’s signed the treaty has done.
The problem is that China and India are both currently experiencing periods of explosive economic and population growth — both are essentially having their own industrial revolutions — and with that growth comes a huge increase in demand for fossil fuels for cars, household appliances, office buildings, and other first-world accoutrements. And the populations of both countries — separately — are already much larger than the populations of the U.S. or Europe. As a consequence, their carbon emissions will soon be quite impressive. The Bush administration, which along with Australia is the only major industrialized power not to have signed Kyoto, has used the China-India issue to justify its decision, saying that it would put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage if it had to adhere to environmental standards that China and India are exempt from. Also, the administration says, making the changes necessary to adhere to Kyoto would be prohibitively expensive. As Bush said, in reference to Kyoto, just after he took office in 2000: “I will explain as clearly as I can, today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy. … That’s my priority. I’m worried about the economy.”
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid But not everyone agrees that the economic consequences of combating global warming are as grave as the president makes them out to be. Many economists believe that even a very strong program to reduce emissions would have only modest effects on economic growth. And alternative energy research and development would offer new jobs. Moreover, they point out, the economic consequences of ignoring global warming could end up being vastly disproportionate to the amount of money it would cost to slow it down. According to insurance-industry figures, the combined catastrophic losses in the United States in 2005 was $57 billion, $30 billion more than in 2004, the year of the four Florida hurricanes. A straight line can’t be drawn from New Orleans to global warming, but there is extensive evidence that the two are connected. And hurricanes are only one possible consequence of global warming; rises in world sea levels have the potential to be vastly more devastating.
‘First, we would not accept a
treaty that would not have been ratified, nor a treaty that I
thought made sense for the country.’
- President Bush on the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty, Washington Post, April 24, 2001.
As for China and India, Young — whose area of expertise is environmental policy — is both pointed and optimistic. “First, we have to consider the moral aspect of this issue. Unless those who are fundamentally responsible for the problem take the initiative, there’s no reasonable expectation that the Chinas and Indias of this world will join in.” Under this matrix, the U.S., with less than 5 percent of the human population of the world and approximately a quarter of all the greenhouse-gas emissions, would seem to bear a heavy responsibility. But for Young, all is not bleak. He pointed out that when the world dealt with the hole in the ozone in the 1980s and ’90s, it was a very similar situation to the one now facing us with global warming. A multinational agreement was hammered out to reduce the use of chemicals — like aerosol — that contributed to the hole, and developing countries were exempt for a phase-in period of 10 years. And, in the interim grace period, the major Western nations created a fund to help them stop using the chemicals. This is exactly the model, Young said, that should be used to integrate countries like China and India in the fight against global warming.
The issue, then, seems to be one of political will, and part of the problem is that four-year electoral cycles do not lend themselves to expensive political investments in such long-term issues as global warming, which, for now at least, seems relatively nebulous to most Americans. The Bush administration has been hinting that it’s becoming more engaged in climate change issues, but actual change has not yet materialized. Bush’s voluntary carbon-reduction policy, which essentially encourages American industry to altruistically cut its carbon dioxide production, has been ineffectual. And he has encouraged Americans to “explore” alternative energy sources, but has consistently opposed taxes, regulations, and mandatory caps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Flubbergasted In the meantime, a series of embarrassing revelations about the administration’s approach to global warming have been made public. These include a leaked memo to Bush written by Frank Luntz, a pollster hired to package the administration’s global warming policy. In the memo, Luntz advised Bush not to use the phrase “global warming” because it has “catastrophic connotations,” and instead to emphasize the statement that there is no consensus among scientists about the issue. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly,” Luntz wrote. More embarrassing still was the revelation that Philip Cooney, Bush’s chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and a former lobbyist for the oil industry, removed or edited descriptions of climate research, already approved by government scientists and their supervisors, in ways that played down links between carbon emissions and global warming. Advising Cooney on how to adjust the material was none other than CEI’s Myron Ebell. And finally, there was James Hansen’s accusation that the administration, following his comments about global warming, had tried to censor him.
And there remains the question of the president’s actual understanding of global warming as a problem. Rebel-in-Chief, a new book about Bush by Fred Barnes, the executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, says that the president fundamentally doesn’t accept that global warming exists, and was reinforced in that belief by a private meeting not with any scientists but rather with novelist Michael Crichton, whose novel State of Fear posits that global warming is a scam by grant-seeking pseudo-scientists.
‘Natural gas is hemispheric. I
like to call it hemispheric in nature because it is a product that
we can find in our neighborhoods.’
- President Bush, Austin, Texas, December 20, 2000.
Yet, as An Inconvenient Truth makes clear, a broad, ground-level political movement to recognize the dangers posed by global warming is now stirring. Cities and states across the country have instated Kyoto-type measures related to greenhouse-gas emissions. In this regard, California has taken the lead. We have the most stringent greenhouse-gas-emission reduction plan of any state in the country, and last weekend Arnold Schwarzenegger joined a bi-partisan group of western governors in formally acknowledging that greenhouse-gas emissions are dangerously rising (California’s emission standards are somewhat mitigated by the fact that we have the largest population in the country. As a result, we emit the second highest amount of greenhouse gas, behind only Texas). As for Santa Barbara, in April Mayor Marty Blum signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Change Agreement, in which cities across the country have agreed to take action to curb emissions. And Santa Barbara is about to conduct an inventory of county greenhouse emissions, the first step in a larger move to prevent global warming.
Such forethought seems likely to serve Santa Barbara well. One of the potential consequences of global warming is a major disruption of the Gulf Stream, the Atlantic Ocean current that in large part determines weather patterns in the U.S. and Europe. The last time there was a warming period like the one we are now beginning to experience was about 12,700 years ago. That period, called the Younger Dryas event, paradoxically saw an Arctic climate descend on Europe — there were icebergs in Portugal; Scotland was under an estimated 10 thousand feet of ice — and massive drought spread over Asia and Africa. What happened in the lovely, sunny land that is now Santa Barbara? We had a climate roughly equivalent to present-day Juneau, Alaska.
Snow volleyball, anyone?