The Moral Flaws of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth

This is the age of the cliffhanger. It is the age of the plot twist.

It is the age that has taught people to make sense of the world not merely with that time-honored aid—the story—but also with stories that self-consciously mimic the serial workings of television.An Inconvenient Truth spends too little time on what audiences might do about global warming, too much time trying to impress us with the Ask Mr. Science side of Gore’s personality. Fewer details might have made the movie more effective, especially given that some details are off. For instance, Gore spends a while saying Earth’s atmosphere is relatively thin, then somberly declares, “The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being thickened by huge quantities of carbon dioxide.” Thickness is not the issue. Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced by fossil-fuel combustion and forest fires, has molecular bonds that vibrate on the same wavelengths at which infrared energy radiates upward from Earth’s surface; the vibration warms the CO2, trapping heat.

The main atmospheric gas, nitrogen, does not absorb energy on those wavelengths. It is the chemistry of carbon dioxide, not its density, that matters. (See this chemistry page maintained by the carbon dioxide study center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.) Anyway, you don’t really need to know how greenhouse gases function. Why does Gore insist on giving a wrong explanation?The movie takes a wacky side-trip into a conspiracy theory about Philip Cooney, who was a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and then became chief of staff of George W. Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality—and then got a plush office at ExxonMobil. Gore asserts Cooney was “in charge of environmental policy in the White House,” which is nonsense.

The EPA administrators, Josh Bolten, Andrew Card, James Connaughton, Mitch Daniels, John Graham, Al Hubbard, and Karl Rove, have been Bush’s go-to figures for environment policy; and Connaughton, to whom Cooney reported, is green as can be. Gore implies Cooney’s secret mission was to sabotage such efforts as the federal Climate Change Science Program. If so, Cooney better keep his day job, since that program recently declared “clear evidence of human influences on the climate system.”

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