May 29, 2006

Wired Al Gore

Al Gore will never change, that much is clear. An Inconvenient Truth might be his vehicle for change, but the man himself, don't you worry he's as awkward as ever. A couple minutes into his sold out and Wired sponsored appearance at Town Hall in Manhattan and his hand was already deep in his pocket. It didn't leave for about half the speech. Several presidential campaigns, eight years as vice president and who knows how much overpriced public speaking tutorials and he's still making one of the most basic mistakes in the game. If he hasn't learned now well it's way too late isn't it?

Of course there were moments in his talk where he turned it on, the passion leaked through. He'll never stop coming off like an android, but at least at times he comes off like an android modeled after Bill Clinton, which puts him on par with a decent human public speaker. But Gore has always been able to turn it on every once in a while, it's the consistency that kills him, and it always will.

What was disappointing about the Wired event was that Gore got up and gave a short stump speech rather than the semi legendary slide show that served as the inspiration for An Inconvenient Truth. If Gore is serious about running for president in 2008, and as hard as he dodges the issue, one can't escape the feeling that he'd like to, then he's going to need to figure out a new way to campaign. A slide show is different pubic speaking artform than a straight speech and it's one where you just might be able to get away with sticking you hand in your pocket. Would have been interesting to see him getting busy with the real thing rather than sticking to his old failed forms.

The really radical campaign form though is the movie, which I haven't seen yet, but it's good to see the left finally embrace Hollywood the way Hollywood has always embraced the left. At the same time though, watching the trailer, seeing Gore and the producers talk, and reading the Wired cover story on Gore I can't help feeling like what they are trying to do is duplicate what Bush, Cheney and Rove have mastered, selling fear to the American people. Rather than selling mythical weapons of mass destruction, it's the hypothetical rising water mass of global warming that's the product being pitched. There is none Rove's masterful soft sell though, it's straight Chicken Little the sky is falling hyperbole. I haven't seen the full flick yet, but right now it's getting set up like it's this summer's disaster flick, with Al Gore playing Tom Hanks role. If nothing else it'll be an interesting lesson in propaganda.

After Gore gave his brief speech, the somewhat odd main event began, Gore, the scientist Jim Hansen, and in true Hollywood fashion, two of the movies producers took the stage for a panel discussion moderated by the excellent John Hockenberry. It filled me with fear alright, although I'm not sure it was the type the producers were after. Fright number one was how little these people were actually doing to help the environment beyond their media presence. Gore claims he's "carbon neutral" whatever that means, probably something to do with his android operating system. The rest? Apparently they've changed their lightbulbs and maybe installing solar panels, but not yet. I was sort of dreading one of them answering "I drive a Prius", and thankfully it didn't happen. Except now I'm wondering if they actually do, or if these people are cruising around Hollywood in gas guzzling limos par the course.

In the end though it was Hansen who really scared me. In response to an audience question about scientific disagreements on the threat of global warming, Hansen could only respond "all scientists agree". Now this may well be true or at least close to true, but I have no way of verifying that based on the information Hansen presented. In other words he offered up the most unscientific of all arguments, one that breaks down to "trust me, I'm an expert." And it is at exactly this point that scientists start functioning exactly like priests. Good science requires not just a discovery process, but a communications process. No matter how sound the research methods might be, if the results are dictated to public they can no longer be viewed as being scientific and instead become propaganda. That leaves us, the general public holding the bag as the Hollywood producers and oil company greenwashers wage a PR war over what we are doing to the planet.

Now let me make it explicitly clear that I have absolutely no affinity for the people out there denying the possibility of global warming on a corporate dime. But I do have a serious skepticism of anyone out there claiming they can predict the future the way Hansen and Gore make like they can. That the risk of global warming exists and is very real seems pretty clear. And if such a risk exists we very much need to be dealing with it. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen, or really happening the way some think it is. In the end one question stays persistent as I watch, listen are read about global warming, is the earth really so fragile that we as mere humans can have such a great impact? Could all the fear and paranoia over what we are doing to the planet really just some overblown hubris, an exaggerated sense of our powers to both create and destroy in a global level? Not an easy question to answer, but it isn't exactly hard to imagine why Gore, the man who arguably has come the closest in the world to holding incredible power without ever actually having any, might just have a distorted sense of what an individual can do.

Posted by Abe at May 29, 2006 12:56 PM


This is the worst thing I've read about An Inconvenient Truth & global warming.

[editors note: that's funny cause it's kind of hard to be the worst post about something when it's not about that subject, and this post is very explicitly not about An Inconvient Truth. In any case if you want your stuff published here, than please try not to be both anonymous and an asshole at the same time, one or the other works, but both is pushing it...]

Love you site, but I think you're being a little unfair to Gore here. I've seen him speak in person too--this would have been about a year ago--and came a way a bit dissapointed. I'd read transcripts of some speeches he'd given recently that were quite striking, impassioned pieces of rhetoric and I was expecting more of the same. Instead, he seemed tepid and uninspired. Perhaps, contra your suggestion, consitency is a problem for Gore. At any rate, I think you do him (and his film) a disservice by labeling it--sight unseen--propoganda. The fallacy here is an assumed equivalence between Bush's framing of the threat of terrorism and Gore's framing of the threat of global warming. Certainly, both men have issued dire warnings, but what if that's where the semblance ends? After all, there is a clear consensus among scientists that we are seeing increased glacial melt at levels above any natural cyclical patterns and there is a consensus about the consequences of this glaical retreat. In other words, reputable climate scientists are saying "you should be worried". How is this propoganda? What's more, it's not just how Gore and Bush frame their issues, but how they suggest we deal with them. Do you think Bush's policies (the Iraq war, for example) are a sensible response to the threat of terrorism? In contrast, Gore's policy recomendations seem a pretty sound course of action. And let's face it, you can make snide remarks that Gore isn't doing anything "personally" to help the problem (just as CEI did a few days ago), except for the fact that he is: he's crafting policy (sign onto Kyoto, start reducing emmissions, offer incentives for technology that meets our needs while reducing carbon emmissions) and seeking to increase awareness about the problem. Had he become president, no doubt he'd have done even more than that. You use the idea of carbon neutrality to trot out the old "Gore is a robot" meme, which had whiskers on it two elections ago, but concepts like carbon neutrality and carbon offsets actually do a very real, specific meaning.
"Could all the fear and paranoia over what we are doing to the planet really just some overblown hubris, an exaggerated sense of our powers to both create and destroy in a global level? [...] Gore, the man who arguably has come the closest in the world to holding incredible power without ever actually having any, might just have a distorted sense of what an individual can do." This is a pretty little idea, and has a nice symmetry to it, but that's all. The damadging effects of global warming are real and they're already happening. Your question has been asked and answered, and the scientific consensus is that the answer is "no", as in "no it's not just overblown hubris". Hubris, I would suggest, is taking money from oil companies and going on TV in the guise on an informed, impartial observer to attack Gore personally. Hubris is maintining, in the face of all available evidence, that global warming isn't real, or if it is, that it has no consequences simply because it is to your personal benefit to do so. And to a much lesser extent, hubris is using the lamness of a couple movie producers speaking extemporaneously as a means to draw the whole concept of global warming into doubt.

"In the end one question stays persistent as I watch, listen and read about global warming, is the earth really so fragile that we as mere humans can have such a great impact?"


The real question isn't about the Earth's "fragility" but whether or not the projected climate changes will be so disruptive patterns of life established over centuries are threatened.

If, for example, extremes ("extremes" when compared to what's gone before) of hot and cold and atmospheric disturbances such as hurricanes become the new norm we'll be hard pressed to quickly adapt current systems - and our civilization is, in a big way, a collection of systems - to these harsher conditions.

So people who say "Save the Earth" and similar slogans are missing the mark. It may be human civilization that's in need of saving. Short of a planet killing asteroid or the sun's supernova death the Earth will endure.

Very well put James, and yes it's probably a bit unfair to label the film propaganda without seeing it yet. But at the same time both Gore and the producers made it rather clear that they are out too use the mechanisms of Hollywood to scare people about global warming, and I have a hard time as not reading that as propaganda. I guess I should clarify that while I'm not for it per se I don't really inflect the same level of negativity into the term "propaganda" that many people do. I see it as something as a necessary evil. If you are pushing an agenda via the media as Gore very explicitly is, than it's pretty impossible to avoid propaganda as the message will inherently be distorted by the medium.

I really need to reiterate on "all scientist's agreeing" too it seems. I can't dispute that statement, maybe they really do all agree, maybe they don't. But as a statement it's completely anti-scientific. It's a bit of rhetorical bullying that I can't put up with and it has nothing to do with the scientific method. It invokes authority to avoid discussion, and it forces the facts out of the picture. Hopefully the film corrects this sort of mistake, and keeps the argument on a factual level, but the trailer, and the marketing campaign as well, very explicitly do not. Did you catch that "pledge" campaign to view the film, that's not science that's a tactic borrowed from the religious right. I'm a pragmatist at heart, so if that's what it takes to win, so be it, but it still won't still well with me.

I'm curious as to why I keep getting flack for pointing out that Gore is still making the exact same mistakes he made in 2000. There is a draft Gore movement afoot and because of that it seems rather pertinent to me to point out that this isn't the "new" Al Gore, merely a repackaged same old Al Gore. Maybe that packaging, with all it's Hollywood professionalism makes the difference, maybe it doesn't...

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