Three minutes. That’s how long it took for the ticket sales website of the University of Toronto to crash after it received 23,000 hits from would-be buyers of tickets to a recent forum on global warming presented by a certain former U.S. Vice-President.
In what seems more like a rock concert tour by U2 or the Rolling Stones, Al Gore has spent a good part of the last few years travelling the world, warning millions about the dangers of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Academy award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, directed by David Guggenheim, showcases Gore’s strong understanding of the issue. The film is almost as much about the life of the former Vice-President as it is about global warming, but it does lay out the evidence – extremely convincing evidence – about the science of climate change.
For most of the film, Gore stands in front of a giant screen illustrating graphs, charts and pictures of receding ice caps and drought-filled landscapes to prove his point. He speaks to a crowd of a few hundred people, giving a presentation that, as he says in the film, he has done “at least a thousand times.”
An Inconvenient Truth is now the third highest grossing documentary in the United States of all time, and its companion book, authored by Gore, has been on the paperback non-fiction New York Times bestseller list since June 2006.
Hypocrisy or Oversight?
It makes one wonder what might have happened if he had won the 2000 Presidential election (well, actually, he did win the election). Let me rephrase that. It makes one wonder what might have happened if the Republican-dominated Supreme Court didn’t steal the White House for George Bush. What would a President Gore be doing for the environment today?
Looking at his record as Vice-President from 1993 to 2001, not much.
Greenhouse gases increased almost nine percent during those eight years in office, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Although both Clinton and Gore promised the labour movement and American working-class voters environmental sustainability and “fair trade” during the 1992 Presidential campaign, things changed very quickly when they rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress less than a year after being inaugurated.
This, along with other corporate trade agreements passed by the Clinton-Gore White House, helped create an ecological race to the bottom where businesses could move industries to regions (like Mexico) with weak environmental laws and enforcement – while destroying tens of thousands of well-paying, unionized jobs in the process.
The Clinton-Gore team also continued the government’s policy of corporate welfare for the big polluters, subsidizing GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the fossil fuel and atomic power corporations with taxpayer-funded, multi-billion dollar subsidies. Although promising to provide financial support for alternative fuel sources, it was peanuts in comparison.
The Administration also weakened the EPA’s ability to clean up rivers, lakes and bays contaminated with toxic waste, reduced the fees that pesticide manufacturers had to pay the EPA for its pesticide safety programs, refused to have the Army Corps of Engineers implement section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which protects wetlands, and worked to include nuclear power as a “renewable energy source” under environmental treaties.
“Again, the rhetoric is there,” says Ralph Nader in one online article, “but when the follow-through is needed, the budgets approved, the political will expended, Gore never challenges the despoilers, developers, and polluters.”
And then there’s Kyoto.
Although Gore participated in the Kyoto Accord negotiations in the late 1990s, it was never ratified by the White House, and both himself and President Clinton argued that it would never be ratified until developing nations like China and India came onboard with the agreement. As Gore told CNN in December 1997: “As we said from the very beginning, we will not submit this agreement for ratification until key developing nations participate in this effort.”
Sound familiar? It should, because it’s the exact same argument currently being put forth by the Bush Administration to justify its own opposition to the treaty.
Having said all this, it’s important to give credit where credit is due, and Al Gore deserves some. Just compare him to preceding U.S. Vice-Presidents. What have Dan Quayle, George Bush Sr. and Walter Mondale done for the planet lately? Raising awareness about the environment – or any other important issue, for that matter – isn’t easy when most American political leaders and the media are so obsessed with war.
Although Gore certainly isn’t the only one to sound the alarm. Environmentalists and scientists have been talking about climate change for more than two decades, only to be labelled as radicals or weirdos by the “liberal” media and other sources of conventional wisdom. “I’ve seen scientists,” says Gore in the film. “who were persecuted, ridiculed, deprived of jobs and income simply because the facts they discovered led them to an inconvenient truth.”
Throughout the documentary, Gore also takes the viewer through a macabre of terrifying scientific data. The ten hottest years in recorded history have all occurred in the last fourteen, with the hottest being 2005, while CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels, and therefore temperatures, are expected in increase radically over the next fifty years. This will lead to melting ice caps at the poles since water absorbs 90% of sunlight (and ice only 10%), creating an exponential effect where more water (instead of ice) will absorb more heat, leading to fewer ice caps, and therefore more water and rising sea levels.
But don’t tell this to the big oil companies or large manufacturers. They’ve been questioning the data on climate change for years, channelling millions of dollars into well-funded, right-wing think tanks that churn out loads of media-friendly rants denouncing the overwhelming scientific evidence. As Gore quotes from Upton Sinclair in the film: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
The Elephant(s) in the Room
Yet there’s another major issue that Gore ignores throughout the film and even environmentalists today fail to mention: even if all the scientific data on climate change is incorrect, even if greenhouse gases aren’t increasing global temperatures, even if the world doesn’t experience rising sea levels over the next 100 years, the things that pump man-made CO2 into the atmosphere (fossil fuels, automobiles, industry, and other usual culprits) are the same entities that also heave millions of tonnes of deadly pollutants into the sky, including carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and other particulates.
Even by conservative estimates, more than 70,000 Americans die every year from sickness and disease resulting from air pollution, which effects especially seniors and people with respiratory illnesses (and what have seniors ever done except suffer through the Great Depression, defeat fascism and Stalinism, develop labour unions, build the civil rights movement and create the welfare state?). The World Health Organization puts the yearly death toll from pollution at 4.6 million.
It’s all still killing us, even if Manhattan and Holland don’t sink under the Atlantic Ocean, Siberia and the Prairies don’t turn into deserts, and the Antarctic doesn’t split in half. The sources of climate change and air pollution are one and the same.
We all know what has to be done to reverse this trend: use renewable energy (such as wind, solar, and geo-thermal), buy foods and other basic goods from local markets, toss SUV’s and other eco-wasting automobiles into the consumption wastebin of history, use public transportation, phase out the burning of fossil fuels, and of course, conserve energy as much as possible in everyday life.
But even these fail to challenge the corporate structures that give rise to the inequitable and environmentally-unsustainable use of energy in the first place. Why would a fossil fuel-based energy company want to become environmentally-sound? What’s their incentive to do so? Shareholders and executives certainly don’t want to, as it would certainly drown their bottom lines in losses and debt.
This is where economic democracy becomes a necessity. Control of major industries like energy, transportation, manufacturing and even farming must be transferred from shareholders and their short-term profit needs to working people and society as a whole, taking into consideration social ownership, large-scale investments into sustainable forms of energy, democratic and participatory forms of administration, smaller-scale and locally-based development, safe working conditions, and energy sustainability and equity.
You won’t hear about economic democracy from Al Gore, and you shouldn’t expect to. It’s the other inconvenient truth that people will have to take seriously if we are ever to stop air pollution, climate change, and the destruction of life on earth.