The former US vice president has taken up cudgels on behalf of the Earth by spreading awareness about the 'burning' global issue of global warming. In this second part of a three-part series, Sourya Biswas talks about the efforts of a leader who continues to battle the vested interests in his own country in his crusade to ensure survival for future generations of mankind.
For former US Vice President Al Gore, the topic of global warming was no passing fancy, nor the efforts to educate people about it merely the post-retirement meanderings of a former politician. He became interested in the subject when he took a course at Harvard University with Professor Roger Revelle, one of the first scientists to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
As a member of the House of Representatives, he held the first congressional hearing on the subject in the U.S. and subsequently wrote a book in 1992, Earth in the Balance, which became a New York Times-bestseller. His interest did not flag in the following years, when as Vice-President he pushed for a carbon tax to modify incentives to reduce fossil fuel consumption, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He was also actively involved in drafting the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the Senate, fearing a competitive disadvantage with the developing nations like India and China, who were not bound by the norms, did not ratify this. What many fail to realise, or perhaps consciously ignore, is that even after implementing Kyoto Protocol norms, the carbon footprint per capita would be thrice for the US than it is for India. Currently, it is twenty times as much.
After his defeat in the 2000 presidential election by George W. Bush, Gore returned his focus to the topic. He edited and adapted a slide show he had compiled years earlier, and began featuring the slide show in multimedia presentations on global warming across the U.S. and around the world.
One of the major blockbusters of the summer of 2004 was the Dennis Qaid-starrer Day After Tomorrow. With cutting-edge special effects, it presented an apocalyptic world beset by a massive ice age brought about by global warming. The film, with its depiction of fleeing Americans taking refuge in poorer Mexico, quite in contrast to the current immigrant influx, did create some ripples. Al Gore had presented his aforementioned slide show at the New York premiere of the film, where it was seen by producers Lawrence Bender and Laurie David. They were inspired enough to bring on board director Davis Guggenheim to make a movie out of it.
The film nearly follows the slide show, with Gore's presentation interspersed with important events in his life like his education, his sister's death from lung-cancer and the almost-fatal accident met by his son. In the slide show Gore reviews the scientific opinion on climate change, discusses the politics and economics of global warming, and describes the consequences he believes global climate change will produce if the amount of anthropogenic greenhouse gases is not significantly reduced in the very near future. An important segment of the film deals with his examination of the annual temperature and carbon dioxide levels for the past 650,000 years in Antarctic ice core samples.
Now, what are ice core samples? An ice core sample is a cylindrical section of snow and ice over many years that have re-crystallised and have trapped air bubbles from previous time periods. The composition of these ice cores, especially the presence of hydrogen and oxygen isotopes, provides a picture of the climate at the time. The shortest time period, which can be accurately distinguished from such a sample, depends on the amount of annual snowfall, and reduces with depth as the ice compacts under the weight of layers accumulating on top of it. Upper layers of ice in a core correspond to a single year or sometimes a single season. Deeper into the ice the layers become compressed and indistinguishable. An ice core is collected by drilling down into an ice sheet and scooping up the relevant material.
Gore concludes on an optimistic note, saying that the current precarious situation can be reversed by cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions and planting more vegetation to consume the existing carbon dioxide. Gore exhorts his viewers to be pro-active in learning how they can help in such efforts.
A scientific documentary has value only if it is supported by impeccable scientific evidence; therefore, in such a divisive and inflammatory subject, ''absence of proof'' may actually be construed as ''proof of absence''. To that effect, Gore substantiates his claim of the human hand behind global warming with several documented, scientific details.
1. The Keeling Curve, measuring carbon dioxide from the Mauna Loa Observatory.
Increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide as measured at the observatory
2. The retreat of numerous glaciers is shown in before-and-after photographs.
Grinnell Glacier in 1938, 1981, 1998 and 2005 respectively
3. Temperature record since 1880 showing that the ten hottest years ever measured in this atmospheric record have all occurred in the last fourteen years.
Temperature graph recorded by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Of course, as with many pioneering efforts, ''An Inconvenient Truth'' has its fair share of detractors, mostly from the conservative side of the political jungle. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, who chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, had declared, "Global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people". His scathing comment appears in the film. If the truth had been so easy to accept, the film may well have left the word ''Inconvenient'' out of its name.
That the film has garnered mass acceptance is underlined by the various awards it has won, most notably the 2006 Academy Award for Documentary Feature and Best Original Song for Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up". The bouquets only got heavier when Al Gore received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for ''his wide-reaching efforts to draw the world's attention to the dangers of global warming''. The prestigious prize was awarded on 10th December 2007 at Oslo, Norway.
Of course, certain ''knowledgeable'' world leaders like U.S. President George W. Bush and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard have expressed doubts over the film's veracity. With Howard's exit from office, Australia has changed its stance towards global warming and has taken steps to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. This leaves the US in the unenviable position of being the only industrialised nation to be out of the loop.
However, the world can take encouragement from the fact that the scientific community recognises the threat of global warming, and The Inconvenient Truth has received overwhelming response from the young generation throughout the world – the same young people who will decide what the future will be.
>> Global warming: time is running out (Part 3)
>> The Fragile Earth – Life in the balance (Part 1)