An Inconvenient Truth

One simple statement: you MUST see this film. Don’t take my word for it. Take those of hundreds of critics and film reviewers who have praised the film and its moral imperative so far:

In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.” [Roger Ebert, on the Chicago Sun Times]

If you see only one movie this year, make it An Inconvenient Truth. It may not be the year’s best movie, or its most entertaining, but it’s certainly the most terrifyingly crucial.” [Jeffrey M. Anderson, on Combustible Celluloid]

Every man, woman and child in the country should see this film, if necessary at the point of a gun.” [Philip French, on the Guardian Unlimited]

There is no controversy about these facts – says a persuasive Al Gore, who dominates the exactly 100′ of film – out of 925 recent articles in peer-review scientific journals about global warming, there was no disagreement. Zero“. These figures are the result, he adds, of a disinformation campaign started in the 1990s by the energy industries to “reposition global warming as a debate“, the same strategy used for years by the defenders of the tobacco industry. Well, there is at least one “scientist” who raised his voice against what appeared to be this universal consent: Bjørn Lomborg in his now-famous The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press – 2001). Despite the attempt by Scientific American, back in January 2002, to bring to the public attention his dubious research methodologies, in Science Defends itself Against the Skeptical Environmentalist, and notwithstanding the case brought against him by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DSCD), echoed by a petition signed by 308 Danish academics, Lomborg remains one of the most-frequently cited sources for any policy-maker unwilling to take action on global warming. And many are just ready to jump at this opportunity.

It it sad that such fools are still given the opportunity to address audiences in respected venues such as the RSA in London. In the light of the monolithic points made by An Inconvenient Truth, Lomborg’s suggestion to save the money we would spend on climate change and use it instead to provide clean drinking water, sanitation, basic healthcare and education to the world’s entire population – he’s now changed his mind and agrees global warming is actually happening and is caused by us – eerily reminds me of the Titanic’s orchestra still playing while the ship disappeared into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. It is as miopic as it is useless, and clearly ignores the fact that on such issues donor countries have systematically failed to meet their pledged promises. In fact, we’d soon end up with a US president saying that it is his moral imperative to use that money to provide jobs to US citizens, while in the meantime millions of poeple worldwide are being displaced by the rising sea levels.

Which brings me to the topic of moral stances vs. global governance, something I am becoming more interested in since reading David Held’s collection of essays Debating Globalization, originally written for OpenDemocracy’s forum on this topic. Gore rightly points out that global warming is not a political issue: it’s a moral issue. He isn’t talking as a Democrat (although he doesn’t shy away from displaying his contempt for the current US administration), he’s talking as a human being, as a global citizen of the planet. The solutions he offers are super-partes, not to be taken as a manifesto, clearly addressed to the vastest possible audience, from big corporations to concerned individuals. So why is it taking so long to take collective action on global warming?

First of all, there is no effective global governance institution capable of raising to the challenge. The UN, delegitimized and disempowered by the recent post 9/11 events, will hardly survive the next few years even without picking a fight with some national government. And anyway, as pointed out previously, the UN isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, which are nation states defending their national interests. If it actually started defending the world’s interests, it would probably collapse on itself. We need to re-think the systems that define our global governance from scratch, and in particular we need to identify a global “policeman” who will enforce these collective decisions. Unfortunately, this means attacking the legitimacy of the nation state (although not the local or regional democratic structures, on the contrary), with the mass-hysterical consequences we have already witnessed, especially in the UK.

Secondly, we live in a world dominated by a political generation – and I mean this worldwide, with very few exceptions – unequipped to deal with this unprecedented challenge we are facing. In a poignant moment of the film, Gore explains how he tried for years to bring to the attention of the US Congress the issue of climate change. His hearings were met with short-sighted sneers: politicians chose to defend their constituencies’s interests (hence their own) despite the mountain of evidence brought to their attention. “I used to believe in our system“, he concludes laconically, implying that this is no longer the case. And if a former Vice-President of the biggest democracy in the world states this matter-of-factly in front of million of viewers, we are in real trouble.

The truth is that most of our political elites are incapable of rising to the challenge posed by global warming. With their obstinate indifference and pseudo-scientific approach – sadly famous the example of US Senator James M. Inhofe, who used Sci-fi novelist Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park memory rather than accredited academics to back his policy statements during a Senate hearing on climate change, which he described as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”) – they are threatening the very credibility and legitimacy of our democratic institutions. This leaves us with this difficult and frightening moral imperative: if we cannot save our planet through the democratic channels we have inerited from our fathers, we urgently have to find some new ones to supplant them before it’s too late.

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2 responses to “An Inconvenient Truth

  1. While generally I agree with your post, you are unhappy with the RSA’s decision to offer a platform to Bjorn Lomborg. Let me explain:

    1) the RSA has its own Programme which, among various environmental initiatives, includes a major project to introduce personal carbon trading (which was cited as an interesting project at this week’s Labour Party conference by the cabinet minister responsible, who urged everyone to get involved with it). Our coporate view is that climate change is happening, that it is exacerbated by human activity, and that we support the findings of the Intergovernmental Conference.

    2) for 250 years the RSA has offered platforms to people with challenging views. This does not mean we necessarily endorse them. Equally, we impose some limits on that offer – so that, for example, we do not offer platforms to fascists. This is a judgement call, but one that I’m confident we make reasonably well.

    3) the Lomborg event was part of a series of three called “Iconoclasts” in partnership with BBC Radio 4. The purpose of the series was to offer three different controversial figures the opportunity to state their case, and then to offer half a dozen experts the opportunity to challenge them. In this way, an audience would have a reasonable chance of understanding both the iconoclast’s position and why it was controversial. My view, having both sat through the event and listened to the Radio 4 edited version, is that Lomborg’s ideas were exposed as shallow and unsupportable.

    But for me the question is more immediate: What’s the alternative? Not offer him a challenging platform and, instead, leave him to make unchallenged speeches and proclamations? Pretend that there are no climate change deniers, or people who argue that we should not address this issue, or bodies funded by special interests who pay huge amounts of cash to introduce unscientific nonsense into the public space? On this basis, should Al Gore not have included footage of the US Senator who states that climate change “may well be the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the American people” – because, after all, that’s giving him a platform?

    I dunno, I’ve always struggled with the practical limitations one should impose on freedom of speech. Do we really want to go too far down that route? And shouldn’t the RSA (which has been offering platforms to controversial people for more than two centuries), and other bodies like us, ensure that alternative perspectives are raised and debated? After all, two decades ago anyone arguing for “equality of opportunity” in this country was treated as a member of the so-called “Loony Left”: should we not have offered those people platforms? Or should we have waited until their views became respectable? I mentioned that we do not offer platforms to racists, but at times in our history we would have done – because those views were, if never “respectable”, then accepted as part of the mainstream. Damnit, we were even involved in slavery (most famously we sought to improve nutrition for slaves by transplanting breadfruit to the plantations in the West Indies – Captain Bligh was trying to do so when he had the Mutiny on the Bounty). At the same time we offered platforms to the abolitionists, who were well outside the mainstream. And, more recently, the Oxford English Dictionary states that the first recorded use of the word “sustainable” in its environmental sense is in the RSA Journal – again, us offering a platform to someone well outside of mainstream thinking.

    Are these false parallels? Should I, in fact, regard Lomborg as the equivalent of a pro-slaver in a world which is now dominated by abolitionist thinking? As I have written, it seems to me that he further undermined his position from our platform, and I am content with that position.

    I’ve expressed how difficult I find these judgements, so let me end with a challenge. If you think it wrong to have given him a platform, can you tell me, exactly, how I can decide who should or should not be offered a platform? What rules should I use? All contributions gratefully received…

    Sorry to have kidnapped your blog for a corporate defence.

  2. Easy: whoever agrees with me, can speak at the RSA…!

    Jokes aside, you have a really valuable point when you say the RSA should be open – as it has always been – to diverse and challenging views. I totally endorse this, and I’d give my life for the freedom of saying what I think. My concern – if you want, frustration – is that Lomborg is hugely discredited by the academic/scientific community (not by the mainstream media or by the political establishment, however). His research methodology is extremely dubious and his findings in sharp contrast to the mainstream scientific body. Here is not someone who expresses an opinion in a social field – where the boundaries of free-speech are clearly more blurred – but someone who uses the label of science to add credibility to some pretty serious claims, which have political, not just scientific implications.

    So the crucial difference here is that we’re not talking about expressing political opinions, but scientific findings. This is where I think you need to be very careful, because an audience will react very differently to the statement of a politician vs the one of a scientist. Some of the worst horrors in human history have been perpetrated in the name of science, when in fact there was nothing scientific about them. And people went along, because “if a scientist says so, it must be right”. This is what has happened with Lomborg. He built his reputation not in science labs and specialised conference halls, but through the media, of which he is clearly a skilled manipulator. So the real question you should be asking yourself – in my humble opinion – is not “which are the boundaries of free speech“, but rather “what safeguards do we have to prevent modern Troyan horses entering our walls“?

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