Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Flag of inconvenience

Al Gore lost the presidency in 2000 by the narrowest possible margin. 5-4 was the margin of the third decision of the US Supreme Court to ban alternative means of counting the vote after issuing a more decisive 7-2 to stop the recount in Florida. George W Bush was declared president of the US by judicial decree. Gore said he didn't agree with the decision but said he would accept. The US legal world breathed a sigh of relief he didn’t take it to the World Court with Inauguration Day looming.

But having now watched “An Inconvenient Truth,” its possible to believe it may have been the best thing to happen to him. For, instead of being a probable lame duck president, he is now able to fulfil his destiny: Al Gore, the Cassandra of climate change. What Cassandra predicted to Troy was true but inconvenient. Gore faces similar problems with his message. Bush in office had no such scruples about showing who he really belonged to. He quickly burst out of his Trojan horse and repudiated Kyoto. The Bush camp's goal was to unleash production not impede it and his energy policy was painstakingly written under the guiding hand of the oil and gas majors.

Gore went home and licked his wounds. He began by dusting off an old powerpoint presentation on climate change issues. He prettied it up and did his research. He used his name and fame as the man who used to be the next president to take this on the lecture circuit. On stage Gore was good. He was relaxed and funny, and importantly, master of his brief. He wooed audience after audience. In 2004 producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender were agog after seeing the Hollywood climate change blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow and then hearing Gore’s presentation in quick succession. They immediate saw the value in making a film version of Gore’s speech. They contacted filmmaker Davis Guggenheim about the idea of turning the presentation into a movie. Guggenheim had justifiable misgivings. How do you make a film about a slide show? But he took on the challenge and turned into a narrative about Al Gore's life. The result was “An Inconvenient Truth”. The movie opened in May 2006 and is already the third-highest grossing documentary ever in the US.

Albert Arnold Gore Jr was born in 1948 in Washington DC to an overachieving family. His father Albert Snr was a tobacco farmer who became a senator for Tennessee. His mother Pauline was the daughter of a Tennessee store manager who rose through a world of men to manage a Washington law firm in the 1970s. Al enrolled in Harvard in 1965. It was here where he first heard of global warming. He attended a course run by Professor Roger Revelle. Revelle was one of the earliest scientists to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He co-authored a paper that suggested the Earth's oceans would absorb excess carbon dioxide generated by humanity at a much slower rate than previously predicted. The results indicated human gas emissions might create a "greenhouse effect" that would cause the planet to warm up over time. He did forward predictions into the 1980s and 1990s which showed pretty much what happened.

Gore actively sought out service in Vietnam and was there in the Nixon years as the war was becoming more unpopular in the US. He quit law school in 1976 to run for the US House of Representatives in Tennessee. He was elected and eventually ran for a Senate seat in 1984. When he was elected to Congress, he initiated the first congressional hearing on the subject of global warming. In 1988 his public profile shot up when he ran as an outsider for the Democratic presidential nomination. He used his Tennesse background to good advantage with a good early showing in the south but was forced to drop out after a heavy defeat in the crucial New York primary. The exposure was valuable and many saw him as a likely candidate for 1992. However one year later, his 6-year old son Albert was seriously injured when hit by a car. Gore, who was with his son at the time of the accident, spent many weeks by his son's bedside. The time away from politics made Gore re-evaluate his priorities. He became convinced that the environment was the biggest problem facing the world. His 1992 book “Earth in the Balance” became a best-seller. That same year Bill Clinton made Gore his surprise choice running mate for the presidential campaign. Al Gore was inaugurated as the 45th Vice President of the United States on January 20, 1993. Its difficult to know what to make of Gore as VP. Much of his work was behind the scenes and he was never part of Clinton's inner trusted circle. Gore claims it was him who strongly pushed for, and got, US approval of the Kyoto Treaty.

In the documentary, Gore comes across as a knowledgable and engaging presenter with a good line in self-deprecating humour. The thought constantly occurred while watching the film: where was this person hiding during the insipid 2000 election campaign? Clearly the spin doctors and media agents and minders that managed that campaign would have been trying to hose down suspicions of his liberal credentials in the Southern heartlands but perhaps they may have been better served in letting him off the leash. Especially as he had already proven himself a winner in the south. In An Inconvenient Truth Gore shows mastery of the data that invites respect and a passion that was rarely hinted at during his time in high office.

Perhaps most illuminating among the data Gore presented was a contrast between the conclusions of peer-reviewed scientific papers and general opinion on the subject of global warming. The sample size of the scientific data was over 900 papers (about 10% of the total papers on the topic). The view was unanimous among the scientists that global warming is a direct result of human-caused CO2 emissions. There was 0% disagreement. He then compared this against the media reports in the same period. The sample size here was around 600 articles. Whereas the scientists were in agreement, some 58% of the articles from the commentariat cast doubt on the existence of human-caused global warming.

How come such a large disconnect between the scientists and the commentariat? I believe the problem is an ethical one. The scientific papers are all rigorously checked by a peer-reviewed panel before the data is allowed into print. No such checking mechanism exists in the popular press and the writers are playing more towards their publication owners than any public interest.

There is clearly much vested interest in fomenting public doubt in an area where the hard data of science is pointing a very accusing finger. The US oil, gas and car manufacturing industries with the support of the Bush administration are doing all in their power to deny, doubt and prevaricate and use the power of the media to spread their mixed message. Chomsky and Herman showed how this is done in "Manufacturing Consent" with the highly-skewed media coverage of the Central American troubles of the 1980s (an analysis of data from New York Times and other influential newspapers showed Sandanista Nicaragua received inverse positive coverage to the pro-American dictatorships of El Salvador & Guatemala).

Australia too is finding climate change truths inconvenient. No-one wants to rock the resources boom by pointing out consequences. Federal Resources Minister Ian MacFarlane dismissed the documentary by saying "Al Gore is just here to sell movie tickets" (interview on ABC radio 11/09/06). The Australian newspaper is regularly sceptical about global warming in its editorials and op-ed pieces.

Global warming is the single-most important issue on the planet and needs to be reported as such. The new generation of journalists should remember the first clause of their own MEAA code of ethics: "Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply." The huge gulf between science and opinion in the reporting of global warming would suggest there is a lot of room for improvement in that score.

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