Nobel prizewinner Al Gore and I go back a long way. True, I've only met him once. I shook the hand of the man who used to be the next President of the United States, the latest controversial recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, when his climate-change roadshow came to Cambridge in the UK earlier this year.
I was impressed by his first environment book, written before he was even Vice President. But my optimism turned to dust when he failed to turn his knowledge into action while sharing power with Bill Clinton. Gore claims that he did what he could back then, but when the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated in 1997, Gore dropped by for a few hours and then found something more important to do back home.
Still, I admire his reinvention as a film star with a message. By and large, whatever the British judge Michael Burton said last week, An Inconvenient Truth is backed up by sound science. Gore would probably admit that it contains some fairly substantial simplifications, even occasional over-simplifications. Of course, this is a film made by a politician for a broad audience, not a scientific thesis, but did he exaggerate the science, as the judge alleged?
No, he did not. If the judge wants it, I can give him peer-reviewed science for most of the statements he claimed did not stand up. Twenty-foot sea level rise within a few centuries rather than millennia? Sure—in fact such an extreme and rapid rise is more likely than not if we carry on as we are. People evacuating Pacific atolls? Yes, in fact, they are.
In fact, when I met him, I asked Gore if he felt he hadn’t underplayed some of the more alarming threats, such as the tipping points that could accelerate the pace of destruction beyond anything predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gore felt that he had pulled some punches, and said he did not want to appear overly gloomy. People could take only so much bad news, he said.
If you want scary scientific scenarios for climate change, Gore’s film only scratches the surface.
Should the film be accompanied by a warning when shown in schools, as the judge insisted should happen in the UK? Well, children should be encouraged to question everything they are told. But, in my judgment, Gore’s film is as accurate and free of “oversimplification” as most literature handed out in schools. To single out Gore is pure politics, and the judge should have dismissed the case. Gore is a perennial target on the political right. When I was in Washington earlier this year, mixing with the climate skeptics, I was struck by the fact that they had more or less given up on attacking the science of the IPCC. They saved their toxic rhetoric for Gore.
Gore comes under attack from the environmental community as well. The charge is that he is a grandstander rather than a fighter, a talker rather than a doer. A man who claims passion but has an oddly wooden, unpassionate public persona.
At the end of Gore’s presentation in Cambridge, he put up a picture of the Earth and described how he had nearly lost his son in a road accident, after he let go of his hand while walking down the street.
The son survived. But Gore said he was now driven by a desire not to lose the planet through a similar lapse of care. Mawkish? Perhaps, but I understood what he meant, and it certainly seemed genuinely felt.
Gore is a complex man. But we shouldn’t underestimate him, or his message. It’s the climate, stupid.
Fred Pearce is a former news editor at New Scientist. Currently that magazine's environment and development consultant, he has also written for Audubon, Popular Science, Time, the Boston Globe, and Natural History. His latest book is With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change.