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May 17-23, 2006

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Car Culture

Hot Under the Collar: Facing up to Al Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth'

By Novella Carpenter


Summer movie season is upon us. While many people are hankering to see Tom Cruise do another impossible mission, and others are clamoring for the stupid fun of Nacho Libre, a more somber film should also be a contender for your attention: An Inconvenient Truth. Yes, the Al Gore movie.

Next week, I'll preview all the car-related summer movies that you must see, but I think An Inconvenient Truth warrants its own column. There are no explosions or slapstick routines, but Al Gore plays a role he hasn't played before: human being.

Even though I'll never forgive him for bowing out of the 2000 election recount, I have thought that Al Gore isn't as bad as most politicians. In the movie he's better than usual--gone are his robotic movements, his passionlessness. But what really steals the show is the unquestionable reality of global warming. The threat of nuclear war was the biggest fear for the world at the end of the 20th century; climate change will be the major issue this generation faces.

Though I've barraged you over the years with a dozen antidotes--EVs, biking, hybrids, car share programs, biofuels--perhaps this movie will help change the minds of the majority. Writing in the New Yorker, David Remnick says the movie "is not the most entertaining film of the year. But it might be the most important."

Gore's relationship with global warming began 26 years ago when he held the first congressional hearing on the subject. It was 1980, and Rep. Gore had heard from geophysicist Roger Revelle about the increased carbon dioxide levels due to fossil fuel usage. Revelle was one of the first scientists to alert the U.S. government in the 1960s of the potential issues with excess carbon dioxide. In 1977, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report called "Energy and Climate" that first hinted at global warming.

During the 2000 election, Gore's stance on the existence of global warming was used repeatedly by Bush as a way of painting Gore as a wacky, fringe environmentalist, finally causing the candidate to drop climate change as a major platform issue.

After "losing" the election Gore decided, the movie tells us, to go on the road and campaign about something he was truly passionate about: climate change. While President Bush refused to sign the Kyoto treaty because, he said, "No one can say what a dangerous level of warming is," Al Gore gave slide show after slide show that illustrated the problem of global warming.

An Inconvenient Truth follows that potentially boring plot, but somehow maintains the urgency and drama of a world warming dangerously. At the movie's website, the "Take Action" link invites you to calculate your carbon impact on the world. It reads, "We all contribute to global warming every day. The carbon dioxide you produce by driving your car and leaving the lights on adds up quickly. You may be surprised by how much CO2 you are emitting each year." The series of questions includes what kind of car you drive, how often you drive and how many flights you take. The American average is 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted every year.

I calculated my carbon load and found that I emit 12,000 pounds. And I'm all eco-groovy. What's a person to do? The Gore site recommends paying for your guilt (similar to the TerraPass I reported on a few months ago) by contributing money to offset carbon through investment in wind power or methane plant construction. It also suggests some ways to offset your carbon by using carpools and public transportation. Check your tire pressure. When it's time to buy a new car, get a fuel-efficient one. Telecommute. Fly less.

Of course, there's been a backlash from a right wing that still denies the human impact of global warming. A group called the Competitive Enterprise Institute has unveiled a series of ads that address what they term to be Gore's global warming "alarmism." In one of the spots about carbon dioxide, a woman's soothing voice says, "They call it pollution, we call it life." This is what Gore's been battling this whole time.

An Inconvenient Truth debuts in a few major cities (New York, Los Angeles) on May 24 and should be widely available by June 16. I pledged to see it.


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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.