Cool It

In 2006 Al Gore received international acclaim and a Nobel Peace Prize for his PowerPoint presentation turned documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.  The film was a gripping, entertaining, and compelling explanation of the causes and consequences of global warming.  It grossed $49 million and won an Oscar for Best Documentary.  For many of us, it was the first time that we really took global warming seriously.  Personally, it was the first time that I feared for what kind of world my children would inherit from me.  The picture he painted was stark.  If we continued on our course of carbon emissions and environmental irresponsibility, the Earth’s climate would buckle under the weight of our own carelessness — glaciers would disappear, cataclysmic storms would increase in frequency and severity, thousands of animals would become extinct, ocean levels would rise and threaten coastal populations, and fresh water supplies would be cut in half.  The movie called us to action.  It called us to take personal responsibility for our own carbon footprint but also to change our policies at a national and international level.  This truly had to be a global effort.  In early 2007, Al Gore appeared before Congress and petitioned for an immediate freeze of carbon emissions.  He further advocated for a 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.  His petition was met with skepticism and disbelief.  Congress was unmoved.  His call to proactively and collectively protect the Earth’s climate became more than inconvenient; it became impossible given America’s current political climate.

I understand that most issues get manipulated for political profit, one way or the other.  But, I was shocked by how many Americans simply did not and do not believe in man-made global climate change.  I am amazed that this issue has become such a sharply-divided litmus test for one’s political affiliation.  It strikes me that those who reject man-made climate change do so based on their utter distrust of scientific fact.  It seems that we live in a culture where we simply don’t know what or whom to trust, anymore.  We don’t trust scientific research because we simply believe that it can be manipulated by whomever is funding the project.  We have seen the tobacco industry commission “scientific” studies that demonstrate the health benefits of smoking.  We have seen the Food and Drug Administration repeatedly “get it wrong” when approving products that have turned out to have serious health risks for Americans.  We have seen scientific research used as a tool by both sides in the intelligent design/evolution debate to mock and deride the other.  To many, it feels as if scientific research is simply a tool in the hands of a strong interest group to promote their own self-serving agenda.  Therefore, when a Democrat offers strong, straight-forward evidence of global warming, many Republicans reject it out of hand.  The science of the argument does not persuade them — they distrust the messenger too much.

And so, each time there is a push to rein in carbon emissions in Congress, the same political fight rears its ugly head again.  As noted by our technical editor, Elton Conrady, in a previous article on Media Rostra, a recent EPA ruling proposes to cut carbon emissions emitted by newly-constructed power plants by 50%. Compared to Al Gore’s suggestion of an immediate carbon freeze, a 50% reduction in carbon emissions on new power plants could be considered quite reasonable.  Some advocacy groups were disappointed that the ruling made no attempt to limit emissions from existing plants, but applying the ruling to existing power plants would undoubtedly require costly retrofitting of equipment.  Unsurprisingly, push-back from within the coal industry has been considerable and many Republicans simply denied that carbon emissions contributed to global warming.  A Fox News article entitled: “Study Refutes Manmade Warming” was published during this time period.  Despite the fact that the study’s lead author later went on record to say that the study had been misrepresented, the article still contended that climate science did not support reducing global emissions as an effective strategy to curb global warming.  The effect of this politicized debate is revealing.  Recent NPR research found that many people don’t believe in climate change, “because that’s not what they’re hearing on cable TV.”  So, we live in a nation with a distinct disconnect between the scientific community and the average citizens’ views of climate change.  Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate change is a real problem and is caused by humans, many Americans still don’t buy it.  In 2010, the American public was divided in half on whether global warming even existed.  The vast majority of those who believed in it were Democrats.  This polarization is troubling to say the least.

The result of this divide is that even simple steps to limit carbon emissions have been challenged and politicized.  In late 2007, the federal government passed the energy independence and security act of 2007, which required the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs.  This seemed like something simple that the whole country could agree on.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.  It was clear that no new ground had been won when some started calling the law unconstitutional, because they didn’t want the government telling them what light bulbs they could purchase.  By 2010, Republican politicians had even pulled their support for cap & trade, which had previously enjoyed bipartisan support.

Al Gore set out to change people’s minds about global warming.  Ironically, he has become a polarizing figure and, in some ways a distraction, drawing focus from critics on himself rather than his cause.  If you have never seen An Inconvenient Truth, let me encourage you to give it a chance, especially if you subscribe to the theory that climate change is merely a cyclical phenomenon (as Gore makes a very compelling argument against this theory).  While some of the conclusions drawn may pose a worst-case scenario, the majority of his facts and statistics are sound.  If you’ve seen it and still don’t believe Gore’s message, let me ask you to watch one more documentary.

Cool It is a documentary featuring Bjorn Lomborg, author of the 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist.  As you might expect from the title, Lomborg continues to be a very controversial figure in the environmental arena.  He is a definite outsider in the environmental community.  He has been accused of scientific dishonesty by the DCSD and was the subject of Howard Friel’s book, The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming.  The irony is that Lomborg believes in global warming.  This bears repeating.  A man labeled as a liar by the scientific community and is championing the movement against current climate change policy doesn’t dispute the fact that global warming is real, man-made, and getting worse.  What makes Cool It so refreshing is that rather than arguing these facts, Lomborg focuses on the appropriate response to them.  He presents a rational expectation of what to expect as the temperature increases, and what the cost will be.  Next, he explains why our current attempts to decrease warming are failing and why suggested policies such as cap-and-trade won’t work.  In clear and compelling language, he considers the cost and benefit of many different options and explains why spending money to cut carbon returns very little benefit in comparison to investments in health care, education, etc.  He concludes that funding alternative energy research is a much more cost-effective way to find solutions to this problem.

There are two significant criticisms to Lomborg’s message.  The first is that he sugar-coats the impact of climate change.  As opposed to An Inconvenient Truth, which made me want to crawl under a rock, Cool It provides the viewer with a much less severe feeling of dread.  The second is his belief that regulating carbon emissions is a lost cause.  I agree that funding alternative energy research is a better investment.  However, as long as the fossil fuel industries are capable of externalizing costs and ignoring future consequences, there will be little incentive to research alternatives.  That being said, I have more faith in the ability of the energy industry to fund this research in response to regulation than in the willingness of policymakers to increase our national debt in the name of science.

Despite my complaints with Lomborg’s approach, I see great potential in his overall message. The importance of Cool It lies in its ability to facilitate intelligent and rational discussion about climate change.  If anything is to be done about this looming problem, we (or more importantly our elected officials) must stop arguing about it and start solving it.  If the world’s most notable environmental skeptic is willing to have a discussion about how to solve the problem of climate change, maybe the rest of us can agree on a solution.

More than anything, I hope that his documentary will help shift the debate from whether global warming exists to finding the best way to fix the problem.  Partisan hotheads, rest assured, Cool It demonstrates that there is plenty of room for political fights regarding solutions to global warming without distracting debates about its existence.  There will remain plenty of room for the extremes to keep thinking the other side is wrong.  I would laugh, but I honestly believe that this shift might be the key to preserving the delicate climate that is able to sustain the Earth’s population.

Apart from this, there is only one other thing left to be done.  The ending credits of An Inconvenient Truth include this text: “If you believe in prayer, pray that people will find the strength to change.”  If you are a person of faith, and are not praying about this issue, please do.  If you are a Christian and do not believe that climate change is one of God’s priorities, consider Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s response to this attitude in their book The Drama of Scripture:

“Genesis 1:26-28…does understand humankind’s vocation as one of rule or dominion, but it is incorrect to read it as legitimizing a ruthless mastery over nature and exploitation of it. In God’s own creative work, he acts for the good of what he has made and not for his own selfish pleasure…. Above all things, the human caretakers are accountable to the divine creator of the world entrusted to their care.”

About Finley Vinson, Contributor

Finley Vinson is a husband, father, traffic engineer, and die hard documentary film buff. He’s also a bit of a conspiracy theorist. He enjoys history, mountain biking, eggnog, and comedies his wife calls “movies about nothing”. His achievements include an undergraduate degree from Hendrix College, a graduate degree from the University of Arkansas, and personally meeting every princess at disney world. He is passionate about underprivileged children, social injustice, keeping the floor dry during bath time, and Monsanto.