Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Few Unorthodox Thoughts About Al Gore and "An Inconvenient Truth"

I began this blog posting as an e-mail sent off to a group of St. Mark's Episcopal Church people after seeing the film "An Inconvenient Truth" at St. Mark's in October of 2006. Lots of you know I'm a bit better informed that the average St. Mark's member on issues relating to science and technology. Some of you might know I tend to be in favor of work to solve, or at least mitigate, environmental problems.

Two days after seeing "An Inconvenient Truth" I must say my view of the film is more negative than positive. This kind of film might be what is needed to get people to wake up and take action. Still, though, I find
a number of things disturbing. Here are a few of my reactions:

  • Gore repeatedly made use of the words "moral imperative."
    Believe it or not, that kind of thing resonates negatively with
    me. To me, the phrase also says "Shut up and stop thinking.
    Here's the problem and what must be done." I'd be much more
    impressed if Gore had said "We have a problem. Let's see what
    we can do to fix it." That invites participation by all kinds
    of people. It's less judgmental. It's more open and creative.
  • Gore repeatedly referred to "so called skeptics." I'm very
    active in tech circles. Referring to opponents and critics as
    "so called skeptics" is insulting and derogatory. I know some
    people who fit into that category. Believe it or not, the ones
    I know (some reasonably prominent) are not pawns of the oil
    companies. Some of them have been badly burned by certain
    elements of the environmental movement that are perceived, with
    some justification, as pushing environmental concerns as a way
    of getting various kinds of power.
  • Gore said the debate is over. That's not true. Yes, the great
    majority of people who study the atmosphere are in agreement
    that we are experiencing global warming. There is even a
    reasonable amount of agreement that humans are becoming an
    increasingly big contributor to warming. Where the debate
    starts occurring is about how much warming there will be and
    what impact it will have on the planet. Personally, I tend to
    favor erring on the side that we should take stronger measures
    to reduce global warming, but I do know people I respect and
    trust who worry that antiwarming measures will do more harm than
  • Another topic of debate is what to do to reduce human
    contributions toward global warming. I -- and quite a few
    others -- favor moving toward nuclear and solar power. Both are
    environmentally friendlier than carbon based fuels. Thoughtful
    conservation can also play a role.
  • There's a word that keeps popping up with regard to carbon based
    fuels, especially coal. The word is "sequester." I think using
    that word tends toward the dishonest. In our society the only
    other time I've heard that word is with respect to jury trials.
    We sequester a jury for a short time to advance the cause of a
    fair trial. Such action has little impact on the jurors' lives
    and even less on society as a whole -- except, of course, in
    promoting fairer, more honest justice. We will not be
    "sequestering" carbon dioxide. We will be arranging for the
    very long term storage of large amounts of a harmful chemical
    compound. It won't be simple or easy. Last week in the Post I
    read an article about the subject of global warming and
    business. In the article they referred to a pilot project to
    store carbon dioxide by pumping it into the ground next to the
    plant. If we're talking pilot projects, we're saying that a
    solid solution is a ways off. Nuclear and solar are already
    here. France, I believe, gets 70% of its electrical power from
    nuclear. That's a working reality, not a pilot project. What
    about nuclear waste? There's data that suggests that isn't
    quite a big a problem as some people claim. There are multiple
    proposals out there. One, storing waste at Yucca Mountain,
    would be much closer to reality if it weren't for political
  • Gore at one point noted that Chinese cars get twice the gas
    mileage as American ones. I'd like to see an in depth look at
    why that is. Gore didn't say anything about the "why." Some
    people -- even at St. Mark's -- have complained that big trucks
    are more common these days because of demands to carry more and
    more stuff. When I was a child, I rode in cars without even a
    seat belt. Now we demand that children be carried around in car
    seats to protect them. We also spend much more time
    transporting children to various activities. Perhaps the
    Chinese aren't doing such things. I don't know. But I do think
    we should look carefully at the two societies instead of making
    comparisons with the goal of making Americans feel guilty.

These, believe it or not, are just a few quick reactions. Let me repeat
I think we should take measures to address this problem. But it's quite
important that the actions be well researched and thought out. I
personally think "An Inconvenient Truth" is at least as much a call for
learning and dialog as it is for action.

Since writing this e-mail I have had some other thoughts. Al Gore keeps using the word "moral" to describe the kinds of actions he favors. That might sit well with deeply religious Southern Baptists, but it has some pretty negative connotations for a significant portion of the population. This is especially true when he applies that label to his own actions and of people like himself. Global warming is most definitely, at least in part, an engineering challenge. What if engineers come up with solutions that allow us to live better lives while taking better care of the planet? What if some solutions have unacceptable consequences? We could really reduce the human race's impact on the planet by reducing our numbers to, say, 1 billion or even 100 million. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to contemplate how that could be immoral.

Comparing the United States unfavorably to China looks even worse today than it did a year ago. If Gore had compared us to Britain, France, Germany, Canada or some other free, advanced Western nation, he would have earned far more respect from me. But China? This week the Washington Post has had both an editorial and article on China's severe environmental problems. The Economist also has an interesting leader China, Beware that doesn't exactly portray the country as one we should emulate. Articles and editorials such as these give me -- and most reasonable people -- the idea that China is not worth emulating.

Just what is Al Gore thinking?