Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Can Al Gore Catalyze a Climate Change Policy Shift? The New York Times Thinks So

Events such as Chernobyl, Bhopal, Three Mile Island, 9/11/2001 focus attention on an issue that people in their busy day to day lives may not have thought much about. Media coverage keeps the story "in the news" and it becomes cheaper for readers to become educated about the issue. Such educated voters may demand new regulation to reduce the likelihood of risks posed by the events listed above.

This logic chain suggests that a silver lining of nasty events is to help build policy coalitions who demand new regulatory action. People who want to minimize the risk of climate change face the challenge that there has not been "one" event that captures the world's imagination such as a "ozone hole". There have certainly been "events" such as melting ice caps and hot January days but reasonable people can convince themselves that these are "flukes" rather than forshadowing signs of future bigger problems if we don't act today.

In the absence of "real" catalytic events, policy advocates such as Al Gore are trying to use different media (film, books) to motivate and educate the public. I'm guessing that he has Rachel Carson's Silen Spring on the brain as his model for how to motivate a sleepy public.

The New York Times reviewer believes that Gore has achieved his goal. As I blogged recently, he faces a price discrimination problem. He really should give this book and the movie away for free or better pay conservatives to go see his movie and read his book. If he charges $10 for a movie ticket then his film will self select people who don't need to be convinced on this issue.

If you are Hilary Clinton's key staff member, how do you react to this media blitz? Will she make climate change a big part of her 2008 run?


May 23, 2006
Books of The Times | 'An Inconvenient Truth'
Al Gore Revisits Global Warming, With Passionate Warnings and Pictures
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

Lately, global warming seems to be tiptoeing toward a tipping point in the public consciousness. There has been broad agreement over the fundamentals of global warming in mainstream scientific circles for some time now. And despite efforts by the Bush administration to shrug it off as an incremental threat best dealt with through voluntary emissions controls and technological innovation, the issue has been making inroads in the collective imagination, spurred by new scientific reports pointing to rising temperatures around the world and melting ice fields in Greenland and Antarctica. A year ago, the National Academy of Sciences joined similar groups from other countries in calling for prompt action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A Time magazine cover story in April declared that "the climate is crashing and global warming is to blame," noting that a new Time/ABC News/Stanford University poll showed that 87 percent of respondents believe the government should encourage or require a lowering of power-plant emissions. That same month, a U.S. News & World Report article noted that dozens of evangelical leaders had called for federal legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and that "a growing number of investors are pushing for change from the business community" as well. And even Hollywood movies like the kiddie cartoon "Ice Age: The Meltdown" and the much sillier disaster epic "The Day After Tomorrow" take climate change as a narrative premise.

Enter — or rather, re-enter — Al Gore, former vice president, former Democratic candidate for president and longtime champion of the environment, who helped to organize the first Congressional hearings on global warming several decades ago.

Fourteen years ago, during the 1992 campaign, the current president's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, dismissed Mr. Gore as "Ozone Man" — if the Clinton-Gore ticket were elected, he suggested, "we'll be up to our neck in owls and out of work for every American" — but with the emerging consensus on global warming today, Mr. Gore's passionate warnings about climate change seem increasingly prescient. He has revived the slide presentation about global warming that he first began giving in 1990 and taken that slide show on the road, and he has now turned that presentation into a book and a documentary film, both called "An Inconvenient Truth." The movie (which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday) shows a focused and accessible Gore — "a funnier, more relaxed and sympathetic character" than he was as a candidate, said The Observer, the British newspaper — and has revived talk in some circles of another possible Gore run for the White House.

As for the book, its roots as a slide show are very much in evidence. It does not pretend to grapple with climate change with the sort of minute detail and analysis displayed by three books on the subject that came out earlier this spring ("The Winds of Change" by Eugene Linden, "The Weather Makers" by Tim Flannery and "Field Notes From a Catastrophe" by Elizabeth Kolbert), and yet as a user-friendly introduction to global warming and a succinct summary of many of the central arguments laid out in those other volumes, "An Inconvenient Truth" is lucid, harrowing and bluntly effective.

Like Mr. Gore's 1992 book "Earth in the Balance," this volume displays an earnest, teacherly tone, but it's largely free of the New Age psychobabble and A-student grandiosity that rumbled through that earlier book. The author's wonky fascination with policy minutiae has been tamed in these pages, and his love of charts and graphs has been put to good use. Whereas the charts in "Earth in the Balance" tended to make the reader's eyes glaze over, the ones here clearly illustrate the human-caused rise in carbon dioxide levels in recent years, the simultaneous rise in Northern Hemisphere temperatures and the correlation between the two. Mr. Gore points out that 20 of the 21 hottest years measured "have occurred within the last 25 years," adding that the hottest year yet was 2005 — a year in which "more than 200 cities and towns" in the Western United States set all-time heat records.

As for the volume's copious photos, they too serve to underscore important points. We see Mount Kilimanjaro in the process of losing its famous snows over three and a half decades, and Glacier National Park its glaciers in a similar period of time. There are satellite images of an ice shelf in Antarctica (previously thought to be stable for another 100 years) breaking up within the astonishing period of 35 days, and photos that show a healthy, Kodachrome-bright coral reef, juxtaposed with photos of a dying coral reef that has been bleached by hotter ocean waters.

Pausing now and then to offer personal asides, Mr. Gore methodically lays out the probable consequences of rising temperatures: powerful and more destructive hurricanes fueled by warmer ocean waters (2005, the year of Katrina, was not just a record year for hurricanes but also saw unusual flooding in places like Europe and China); increased soil moisture evaporation, which means drier land, less productive agriculture and more fires; and melting ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, which would lead to rising ocean levels, which in turn would endanger low-lying regions of the world from southern Florida to large portions of the Netherlands.

Mr. Gore does a cogent job of explaining how global warming can disrupt delicate ecological balances, resulting in the spread of pests (like the pine beetle, whose migration used to be slowed by colder winters), increases in the range of disease vectors (including mosquitoes, ticks and fleas), and the extinction of a growing number of species.

Already, he claims, a study shows that "polar bears have been drowning in significant numbers" as melting Arctic ice forces them to swim longer and longer distances, while other studies indicate that the population of Emperor penguins "has declined by an estimated 70 percent over the past 50 years."

The book contains some oversimplifications. While Mr. Gore observes that the United States is currently responsible for more greenhouse gas pollution than South America, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Japan and Asia combined, he underplays the daunting increase in emissions that a rapidly growing China will produce in the next several decades. And in an effort to communicate the message that something can still be done about global warming, he resorts, in the book's closing pages, to some corny invocations of America's can-do, put-a-man-on-the-moon spirit.

For the most part, however, Mr. Gore's stripped-down narrative emphasizes facts over emotion, common sense over portentous predictions — an approach that proves considerably more persuasive than the more alarmist one assumed, say, by Tim Flannery in "The Weather Makers." Mr. Gore shows why environmental health and a healthy economy do not constitute mutually exclusive choices, and he enumerates practical steps that can be taken to reduce carbon emissions to a point below 1970's levels.

Mr. Gore, who once wrote an introduction to an edition of Rachel Carson's classic "Silent Spring" (the 1962 book that not only alerted readers to the dangers of pesticides, but is also credited with spurring the modern environmental movement), isn't a scientist like Carson and doesn't possess her literary gifts; he writes, rather, as a popularizer of other people's research and ideas. But in this multimedia day of shorter attention spans and high-profile authors, "An Inconvenient Truth" (the book and the movie) could play a similar role in galvanizing public opinion about a real and present danger. It could goad the public into reading more scholarly books on the subject, and it might even push awareness of global warming to a real tipping point — and beyond.

2 comments :

wom said...

Global warming is an inevitable process. The Earth goes through a cyclical process in which it cools (hence the ice age) then warms up again over and over again. It’s similar to that of the polarization and reverse polarization of the Earth’s core except that magnetic field does so more rapidly.

I think all the finger point should stop whether it’s being directed towards big oil or world governments. If people are pointlessly worried, engineers at car manufacturing companies are already working on methods in reduction emissions period from automobiles. We may be accelerating it but we're not the cause.

There are millions of different factors contributing to why CO2 levels are so high, it's not just emission. For example, rapid urbanization causes deforestation and that leads to less plants absorbing CO2 gas.

ChinaLawBlog said...

I have heard Gore holds up China as having better emission standards than the United States. This is a joke.

China is an environmental disaster and it is not because of its laws. It is because of the lack of enforcement of the laws. China’s care emission laws may be better than the United States’, but that is basically irrelevant because there are a huge number of cars there whose emissions would probably not meet anyone’s standards.