By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, May 22, 2006
Liberals famously love John McCain, but that's not the weirdest political coupling. The oil industry and its Republican allies are rooting for Al Gore, albeit unintentionally.
Gore stars in a movie that opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. The film features the once and maybe future presidential candidate lecturing about climate change: There are charts, bullet points and diagrams; there are maps of ocean currents and endless iceberg pictures. It's hard to say which menaces the nation more: movie stars who go into politics or politicians who go into movies.
Ordinarily this film would never have been made, let alone scheduled for release in hundreds of theaters. But President Bush and the congressional Republicans have created a Ross Perot moment: a hunger for a leader with diagrams and charts, for a nerd who lays out basic facts ignored by blinkered government. By their contempt for expert opinion on everything from Iraqi reconstruction to the cost of their tax cuts, Republicans have turned Diagram Gore into a hero. By their serial dishonesty, Republicans have created a market for "An Inconvenient Truth" -- the title of Gore's movie.
Republican dishonesty reaches its extreme on the issue of global warming. Yes, climate science is complex, and nobody can forecast the earth's temperature with complete confidence. But the fact that scientists don't know everything isn't a license to ignore what they do know: that the earth is warming, glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising at an accelerating pace -- and that these changes are driven at least partly by fossil-fuel consumption. The U.S. National Academies have confirmed this; their foreign counterparts have confirmed this; and so has the world's top authority on the subject, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . None of this is controversial.
Except among Republicans. Candidate Bush acknowledged that climate change was a problem; once elected he denied it; then he denied the denial but refused to let his administration do anything about climate. Lately he has talked about ridding the nation of its oil addiction, but that's because oil finances Arab extremism. Bush has been silent on the link between oil and global warming.
Meanwhile, others have been vocal. James Inhofe, the Republican who ironically chairs the Senate environment committee, has described global warming as the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." He avoids scientists who might put him right: His star witness at a hearing last year was Michael Crichton, a science-fiction novelist.
Then there is Conrad Burns, a Republican senator from Montana. "You remember the ice age?" he asked Environment and Energy Daily this month. "It's been warming ever since, and there ain't anything we can do to stop it."
Every quote like this plays into Gore's hands, turning his statements of scientific conventional wisdom into heroic actions. But the Republicans and their allies don't see what they're doing. Last week, in anticipation of Gore's movie launch, conservatives unleashed two TV ads on what they called "the alleged global warming crisis."
The ads are the work of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a group backed by the oil industry that supplies the anti-scientific crowd with arguments. "Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life," both scripts conclude, as the camera homes in on a girl with a dandelion. The ads' main scientific contention is that the talk of melting ice caps is all wrong: "Greenland's glaciers are growing, not melting."
Well, the most authoritative and up-to-date statement on climate science is contained in a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that is circulating in draft form. According to scientists who have seen it, Chapter Four says: "Taken together, the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking." As to the possibility that the melting of some ice caps is offset by the growth of others, the draft also says: "Thickening in central regions of Greenland is more than offset by increased melting near the coast."
In other words, the ads are nonsense. So are some of the assertions on the CEI Web site. The group suggests, for example, that polar bears have nothing to fear from the melting of their habitat. But the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment , a top-notch peer-reviewed source on this subject, has something different to say: "the reduction in sea ice is very likely to have devastating consequences for polar bears."
Six years ago, Bush narrowly defeated Gore, apparently because voters thought he'd be a nicer guy to have a beer with. But after years of governmental bungling, of willful indifference to truth, the national mood seems to be changing. Voters have seen that nice guys can screw up. And technocrats with diagrams and charts have never seemed so interesting.