Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth movie review

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 5:02 PM GMT on June 19, 2006

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Al Gore's global warming movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," aims to call attention to the dangers society faces from climate change, and suggests urgent actions that need to be taken immediately. It is based on a slide show on climate Gore has presented to audiences worldwide over 1000 times in the past 15 years, but it is not purely a documentary. Gore's movie is an advocacy piece that is part documentary, part biography, and part campaign ad. I'll discuss all three of these aspects below. In brief, Al Gore has the right idea--climate change is an urgent issue that requires immediate action, and his thoughtful movie is a welcome addition to the usual array of mindless Hollywood summer fare. However, the movie has flaws. The presentation of the science is good, but not great--I rate it B minus. The excessive details on Al Gore's life make the movie too long, and his insistence on using the movie as something of a campaign ad detracts from its message.

An Inconvenient Truth as a biography of Al Gore
The creators of the movie presumably thought that simply presenting Gore's slide show would be too dull, so they decided to give the movie some human interest by interweaving a biography of Al Gore's life. Al Gore has led an interesting life, but "interesting" and "Al Gore" are not words one can often put together. As my daughter noted in her movie review yesterday, Al Gore is boring, and the 20 minutes or so of biography presented in An Inconvenient Truth is too much for a movie that is 1 hour and 36 minutes long. For example, I didn't really need to see the road where Al Gore totaled his car when he was 14 years old, or a replay of his loss in the 2000 election. On the other hand, some details of his past were interesting and relevant, such as the fact that he took college courses in the late 1960s from Harvard's Dr. Roger Revelle. Revelle and Dr. Charles Keeling were the pioneers in measurements of atmospheric CO2, and thus Gore got a very early exposure to the now infamous "Keeling Curve" (Figure 1), showing the build-up of atmospheric CO2. This early exposure to the significant impact humans were having on the atmosphere deeply affected Gore, and in the movie he details efforts he made to call attention to the issue long before most people had heard of it, back in the 1970s and 80s. Gore's slide show appropriately displays many graphs of the Keeling Curve, as it is probably the most important and most famous finding in climate change science.


Figure 1. The Keeling Curve is a record of CO2 measurements taken at he top of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii since 1958.

The science of An Inconvenient Truth
The science presented is mostly good, and at times compelling, but there are a few errors and one major distortion of the truth. Gore does an excellent job focusing on the most important issues, and usually presents them with a minimum of hype and distortion. The only exception to this comes in his treatment of global warming and extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

Basic global warming science
Gore begins the science part of his talk with a very easy to understand presentation on the basics of how the greenhouse effect works. His speech is clear, the graphics top notch, and he spices it up with a hilarious two-minute cartoon depicting roughneck global warming gases preventing poor Mr. Sunbeam from escaping Earth's atmosphere. Gore addresses the argument of skeptics who claim that the Earth is too big for humans to affect by showing Space Shuttle photos of how thin the atmosphere really is compared to the vast bulk of our planet. "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being thickened by huge quantities of carbon dioxide," he asserts, which is not correct. The build-up of CO2 has virtually no effect on the density or thickness of Earth's atmosphere. The correct thing to say would have been, "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being made more opaque to the transmission of infrared radiation (heat) by huge quantities of carbon dioxide."

Glaciers
Gore shows an impressive series of "then and now" images documenting the widespread retreat of many glaciers over the past century. Most dramatically, he shows Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, whose 11,000 year-old glaciers are almost gone. While not all the world's glaciers have retreated in the past century, Gore's presentation is an effective and reasonable way to show how global warming has affected the majority of the world's glaciers. Greenhouse skeptics, including Michael Crichton in his State of Fear book, are fond of bashing those who use Mt. Kilimanjaro as a poster child for demonstrating global warming. They cite scientific research showing that the glacial retreat on Mt. Kilimanjaro is due to drying of the atmosphere, not global warming. However, as discussed at great length in a realclimate.org post, the research which supposedly supports the skeptics' claims has been widely misquoted and misinterpreted, and much of Kilimanjaro's melting can indeed be ascribed to warming of the atmosphere since 1960.

Gore does an excellent job discussing the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica. Again, Gore's graphics are superb, and he does a nice job narrating. He shows animations of what a 20-foot rise in sea level would do to Manhattan, Florida, India, and China. A 20-foot sea level rise is what we expect if all of Greenland or all of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt. Such a 20-foot rise is not expected by 2100, and it would have been appropriate for Gore to acknowledge that the consensus of climate scientists--as published in the most recent report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)--is that sea level is likely to rise between 4 and 35 inches, with a central value of 19 inches, by 2100. He should have also mentioned that temperatures in Greenland in the 1930s were about as warm as today's temperatures, so the current melting of Greenland's glaciers does have historical precedent. Nevertheless, the risk of a catastrophic melting and break-up of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets is very real, when we consider that sea level before the most recent ice age was 15 feet higher than it is now. Gore is right to draw attention to what might happen if sea level rose 20 feet.

Drought and heat waves
An excellent discussion of the most serious climate change issue our generation is likely to face, the threat of increased drought and reduced water supplies, is presented. Gore makes reference to the extreme heat wave that affected Europe during the summer of 2004, and I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future.

Hurricanes and severe weather
The biggest failure in the movie's presentation of science comes in the discussion hurricanes and severe weather events. The devastation wrought by Katrina is used to very dramatic effect to warn of the dangers climate change presents. We are told that Katrina grew "stronger and stronger and stronger" as it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico that were heated up by global warming. We are told that global warming is increasing the intensity of hurricanes, but not provided information on the great amount of uncertainty and vigorous scientific debate on this issue. Graphs showing recent record insurance losses from natural disasters are presented, but no mention is made of how increasing population and insistence on building in vulnerable areas are the predominant factors causing recent high insurance claims from disasters such as Katrina. Gore points to some unprecedented events in 2004 as evidence of increasing severe weather events worldwide--the record 10 typhoons in Japan, the most tornadoes ever in the U.S., and the appearance of Brazil's first hurricane ever. However, examples of this kind are meaningless. No single weather event, or unconnected series of severe weather events such as Gore presents, are indicative of climate change. In particular, the IPCC has not found any evidence that climate change has increased tornado frequency, or is likely to. Gore doesn't mention the unusually quiet tornado season of 2005, when for the first time ever, no tornadoes were reported in Oklahoma in the month of May.

Other science
Gore presents many other important aspects of climate change, including the threat of abrupt climate change leading to a shut-off of the Gulf Stream current, the increase in damaging insect infestations and tropical diseases, loss of coral reefs, loss of ice in the polar ice cap, and melting of permafrost in the Arctic. With the possible exception of his treatment of the spread of tropical diseases, all of these issues were presented with sound science.

An Inconvenient Truth as a campaign ad
Gore has repeatedly said that he has no intention of running for president again, and that this movie was created as part of his life-long passion to protect the environment. Gore undoubtedly does care very deeply about the planet, but this movie very much looks like a campaign ad. We are shown many scenes of Gore being applauded, Gore traveling the globe to present his slide show, and Gore working to uncover evidence of Republican shenanigans to alter or suppress climate change science. Gore is portrayed as a humble and tireless crusader for good, and if the movie is not intended to promote his political ambitions, it is certainly intended to benefit the Democratic Party. All this gets in the way of the movie's central message.

Conclusion
At the end of the movie, we are presented with the same image that Gore started the movie with, that of a beautiful river in the wilderness. Throughout the movie, Gore emphasizes how beautiful and special our planet is, and he does an effective job conveying this. He also makes a powerful case that something can and should be done to protect the planet, and it is worth hearing his message, even if the science is flawed and the messenger does get in the way of the message. Overall, the movie rates 2.5 stars--worth seeing, but you might want to wait until the DVD comes out.

At the end of the movie, Gore presents some tips on how everyone can contribute, and points people to his web site, www.climatecrisis.net. However, I would recommend that people who want to get educated about climate change get their information from web sites not associated with a politician; perhaps the least politicized source of information is the latest scientific summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries working under a mandate from the United Nations in the largest peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

Jeff Masters

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378. WSI
8:12 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
ST, you ARE around. I thought you left or something, LOL!

To clarify my point SJ, I am just tired of every wave "developing". Gets a little overdone. Way overdone.

But what do I know. It may be a CAT 1 tomorrow, LOL!
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377. rwdobson
8:06 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
"We evolved as visual creatures and ultimately all learning is, metaphorically, visually linked"

Yes, but your eyes can also deceive you. If you look hard enough at any flare up of t'showers, you'll eventually see a circulation, and the next tropical storm. You need to reference other information, from surface observations to expert analysis to computer models, to help you separate the real potential storms from the everyday rain showers.
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1589
376. STORMTOP
8:08 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
lol you be on alert all you want there will be nothing forming until after the 4th of july and that will give you guys a chance to spend some time with your wives and kids and quit watching those dam computers who have a storm forming everyday...gee get with the program here this is going to be a slow painful hurricane season....StormTop
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375. WSI
8:01 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
"Easy WSI, we are here to talk about that stuff."

Yeah I know that, and it wasn't directed at you. My post was directed at the person who so graciously said we apparently were missing something out there. :) However for those that don't see anything, it shouldn't be said that we are just listening to "big brother". Global warming was the blog topic, and global warming was being discussed, not some wave. :)

I am sure the NHC is talking about, but they also are not expecting much out of it at the moment, else they would have said something.

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374. NAtlanticCyclone
8:02 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
The blobs near Nicaragua and the Bahamas look to be developing quite nicely now and could be developing outflow patterns. We could have a depression within these things within 36 hours and with support from the models the East Coast could be on alert. I know I will.
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373. StormJunkie
7:55 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Easy WSI, we are here to talk about that stuff.

And do you really think that the NHC is not talking about it, or just not to the public yet?
Member Since: August 17, 2005 Posts: 26 Comments: 16607
372. JugheadFL
3:55 PM EDT on June 20, 2006
Link this is interesting!
Member Since: May 17, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 23
371. weatherboyfsu
7:46 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
IKE....It does look like its trying to get its act together......There is some decent fanning in the upperlevels.....
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370. IKE
2:23 PM CDT on June 20, 2006
Latest CMC has a storm east of central Florida in 72 hours. GFS has it going into SC. NOGAPS has it cruising across the northern gulf. UKM has a storm going into SC in 6 days.
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369. IKE
2:21 PM CDT on June 20, 2006
Looks like there is convection around the center of that Bahama low. Looks like it's moving NNE. I guess that trough is pulling it.
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366. IKE
1:53 PM CDT on June 20, 2006
Speaking of capacity..this is off topic..but is Jen Carfago on TWC pregnant???

God shes pretty.
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365. WSI
6:46 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
"And for the people on here that do not want to acknowledge any disturbance without one of their big brothers assurance that something is there can just stay on here and debate global warming that no one has a definitive answer for anyways."

LOL! Well, if the NHC doesn't see it, and Dr. Masters doesn't see it, I would tend to think its not there. By all means though, forecast it, LOL!
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364. AZ
11:43 AM PDT on June 20, 2006
I think it would be Linda Lovelace but I am not sure of her capacity.
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363. PBG00
6:42 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Tornado warning..western Palm Beach County
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361. weatherboyfsu
6:31 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Hey everyone.....If you go to the Colorado state link in the tropical department on here click on the floater and it will bring up the area over the bahamas. There appears to be twist of circulation trying to work. Check it out!


And for the people on here that do not want to acknowledge any disturbance without one of their big brothers assurance that something is there can just stay on here and debate global warming that no one has a definitive answer for anyways.
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359. ForecasterColby
6:37 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
That's not a simple heat transfer, though.
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357. Alec
2:28 PM EDT on June 20, 2006
q=mc(delta T)


and I dont know the thickness!


I really dont know but that's a formula I used in heat transfer problems in chemistry...
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354. cyclonebusted
1:18 PM EST on June 20, 2006
If people didn't want your posts with the links they can just mark them as spam, as this has not been dome means you are in a minority 53rd.
I find posts like yours and the one I'm writing now to be annoying, as they are neither on topic or concerning the weather.

come to my blog here, LOL:

Blog
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353. WSI
6:21 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
My last post must have flew into the vortex, LOL!

Anyway Alec, thanks.

53rd, your last rant was deleted from the blog. So tell me, who is posting messages that people don't want to see?
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352. IKE
1:16 PM CDT on June 20, 2006
If Dr. M didn't think it was right to promote your website, I'm sure he would say something. I admit I get tired of the...come to..such and such website...but I also understand there are new people on here all of the time. This is tropical season and it's when folks will pay attention to this blog.

As far as global warming...I try to skip the posts. I've read enough on it. I believe it is true and that's all I need to read on the subject.
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351. Alec
2:14 PM EDT on June 20, 2006
dont worry about it WSI....if people dont want to see your site then they should IGNORE it!!! I think pop up adds are much worse...
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350. WSI
6:09 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
"Self serving commercialism "

First, its weathercore.com, and I make no money off that site, so commercialism is really the wrong word. You think hours on end given to that site with nothing in return is self serving? LOL!

Get some new material and quit showing your little green monster.

Sorry, I was baited, LOL! Stupidity will usually bring out a response from me though.
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349. Alec
2:03 PM EDT on June 20, 2006
umm 53rd...pardon me but that was a bit "self serving" of you to point them out in bold print
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346. Wombats
5:57 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
sign of things to come sb. what till the conditions are good..
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345. snowboy
5:38 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Folks is it just me or are the tropics really starting to cook - convection everywhere you look!
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344. WhatHurricane
5:33 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Hmm... why are all the GW posts so long?
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343. Wombats
5:41 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
why does that wave look to be moving northward to me?
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340. rwdobson
5:18 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
F5, I think the confounding issues of land use are why a lot of researchers use satellite temperature measurements instead of local monitoring stations.

But it is confusing in Kansas City, because the records go back a long time, but all recent measurements are made in one place, while the older ones in another. The Downtown airport is in a low area, right on the Missouri River, so it tends to get colder on cold nights...but being downtown, it tends to be warmer on summer days.
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1589
339. Levi32
9:17 AM AKDT on June 20, 2006
Yes F5 I understand that. I just want you all to understand when there are complaints posted here, they are well-founded, considering this blog never was a global-warming hive. The topic just seems to swallow everything else up that people try to post about. But I understand this is what Dr. Masters posted about so it is ok to discuss that.

But if I may ask something about the tropics:

Do any of you think there is an LLC forming in this loop? Or is it just an illusion? I can't tell. Link
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26647
338. F5
5:12 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Levi32,

I understand your sentiment. And I concur that there have been a number of times that the GW debate has crept into blog entries Dr. Master's has posted that were not centered around GW. However, he has posted a number of entries on GW and since this one includes a review of An Inconvenient Truth, which is about global warming, the posts seem to be on topic.
336. Levi32
9:08 AM AKDT on June 20, 2006
I don't know, it just seems like fshead's blog was the one for Global Warming debates. We other bloggers used to enjoy using Dr. Master's blog for "weather" purposes. Also the global warming tends to spark many fights, which are not enjoyable at all. Nevertheless, this is the topic Dr. Masters posted, but please keep it down to a low roar, and realize that global warming gets very tiring to the other bloggers who like to use Dr. Master's blog for other subjects.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26647
335. F5
5:06 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
rwdobson,

I can't answer that question. Franky, I'm not sure that it even has to be a major land-use change. From what I've read, even small, subtle changes can affect the local climate enough to introduce bias into the readings. In addition, even moving a monitoring station to a more remote area may not resolve any issues because of the changes that may be occurring even some distance away could have an impact. However, how much bias and any effects it might have had is outside my realm of knowledge.
334. rwdobson
5:02 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
This just in...global climate change falls under the heading of "weather"...and the only thing close to being a tropical cyclone is in the eastern pacific...
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1589
333. rwdobson
4:59 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
but how many stations have seen major land-use changes surrounding them? i guess that is the issue here.

in kansas city the official station went from the downtown airport to an airport well north of town, so that had an effect. however, that happened 35 years ago...and the area immediately surrounding the airport has not had any major changes....

Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1589
332. WSI
4:57 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Umm.. Jeff updated his blog at thet top.. this is what he said...

"The tropics are quiet again today (Tuesday), and expected to remain so until at least Wednesday, so I'll leave this review up until then. I'll be sure to post an update if there's anything worth reporting on."

So I think he doesn't see much out there worth talking about, hence he left the review up. Therefore I think the GW talks can continue, LOL!
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331. F5
4:56 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
rwdobson,

My opinion is that the bias would not be consistent, due to the micro-climatology effects of urbanization and land-use changes. However, I think the point of the article was simply to ensure that such readings either remove an inconsistent bias if it exists or to ensure that the bias is consistent over the long-term.
330. weatherboyfsu
4:52 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
THIS JUST IN!!!!!!!!!!!!

THIS IS A WEATHER BLOG!!!!!!!!!!

The area 300 miles southeast of Miami is starting to look more circular........interesting..........
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329. F5
4:44 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
jeffB,

It's outside of my depth of knowledge (or lack thereof) to comment more fully on the subject. My opinion of the article is that there are ways to combat any inherent bias in such temperature readings. Either through enhanced site selection, or careful filtering of any such bias. For example, if you can conclude that the micro-climatology surrounding the record station includes a .2deg C bias, then you can either remove such bias from the reading, or ensure that over time, the bias does not change and then include the bias in the readings such that they are consistent over the long term.

My opinion is that due to land-use changes and the urbanization of our living areas, bias has crept into the current recordings that was not there previously. I have not read of any studies that have gone back and attempted to either remove the bias or adjust previous records to reflect a consistent record of temperatures at the recording stations.

I'm sure there a lot of people smarter than me who could provide greater insight into this.
328. rwdobson
4:44 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
F5, wouldn't the bias in temperature measurements be a consistent bias...which does not affect the conclusion that temperature is increasing? To invalidate the notion of an increase in temperature, you'd have to show that the bias in the temperature measurements has increased over the last few decades.
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1589

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.