Monday, September 11, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth: My thoughts

Well it was an unseasonably cold September evening in Sydney as we shivered and shuffled our way up Oxford St to the cinema and I couldn’t help but think "Bring on global warming".

Just kidding.

We had booked tickets for the sneak preview but we needn’t have – there were not a lot of people there. But then again, it was cold, it was a Friday night and we were there to watch a documentary on climate change. Anyway, we were excited. We purchased our choc tops, which seemed to be melting faster than when I was a kid, and settled in to enjoy – if that’s the right word – An Inconvenient Truth.

Ninety minutes later, our reactions were mixed. I found it pretty riveting, but of course I’m very interested in climate change and - more importantly - I'm a sucker for diagrams, charts and graphs. My girlfriend, Cat, found the presentation staid and she almost nodded off a couple of times. The presentation was unusual, even for a documentary. It really is a talk by Al Gore on climate change, albeit mixed with some spectacular footage and some very convincing and illuminating visual explanations of the science. No-one else gets interviewed or really speaks in the movie. That does give it a kind of one-sided feeling, even though the facts that Gore is presenting are mostly indisputable.

Gore is engaging though and he lays out a convincing argument. He explains the link between carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperatures, shows that current carbon dioxide concentrations are unprecedented and tells us the impacts that that will have. He gives the opponents’ arguments short shrift and I sometimes think this is a problem.

For example, I watched the ABC’s At the Movies show (for those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s a chatty film review show usually in the form of a discussion between the two engaging hosts, and they had this to say after watching the film:

MARGARET: David, it's done very lucidly, the graphics are great, you know, if this is fact, then it's pretty scary. But what I want to know is, you know, if there is doubt about what Gore is claiming...

DAVID: Well, some people have attacked the film.

MARGARET: Right, well, I mean surely it's possible to set up a body that doesn't have any vested interest in either outcome, you know, that just wants to know the truth and finding out what the truth is. I mean, it can't be a scientific stretch to discover whether we're losing the polar ice caps…

I actually think we owe it to our kids and our grandkids to find out the truth, and, you know, I mean a lot of money ought to be put into finding out the truth of this situation. I mean, it's very easy to get people's gander up with a documentary like this, and I think it's been very well done, but, the truth of the situation is significant, and that's what this documentary ought to do. It ought to galvanise people in power to discovering the truth.

That discussion riled me when I saw it because, of course, exactly such a body does exist – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and it has answered most of the big questions. But after seeing the movie, I can understand why Margaret said this.

I think the problem is this. The science behind climate change is not highly disputed. There’s a lot of uncertainty at the margins about exactly what’s likely to occur, what the impacts will be, etc, but the basic concept has essentially unanimous support among serious climate scientists. (If I can attempt to summarise that basic concept, it’s that we are substantially increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere above historical levels and that this will result in a rise in average global temperatures and a massive range of impacts on climate (that will vary from place to place) including higher temperatures in some places, lower temperatures in others, more rainfall in some places, lower rainfall in others and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – droughts, floods, fires – pretty much everywhere.)

The science behind climate change is not highly disputed, so Gore doesn't present a dispute, but climate change is highly disputed in the popular media. So when Al Gore presents one version of a debate which rages in the media, the natural question is ‘Well, what’s the other side of the story?’. That question is asked, I think, because people are used to social documentaries that concentrate on conflict – where people from two very different viewpoints are interviewed and their opposing views and stories presented. Documentaries do this because they want to appear to be balanced (though they rarely are) and perhaps more so because playing up the conflict creates drama and interest.

When that format is absent from a movie, I think people naturally ask whether they’re being told the whole truth. I guess it’s also because climate change science is presented popularly as much more controversial than it truly is. I would have liked to see Gore engage some of the main opposing arguments a little more - even if they don't truly deserve airtime.

Anyway, I think this is an important and compelling film. I’d recommend you see it – and take any sceptical friends with you. It certainly gets people thinking and talking about the issues. Our Saturday night was spent talking climate change, Kyoto and politics until the early hours of Sunday morning – not the usual Saturday night fare.

By the way, Al Gore is being interviewed tonight (Monday) on Enough Rope on ABC.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Greenhouse update

I've been meaning to post some stuff on carbon emissions trading as I've been slowly wading through the Australian States' and Territories' discussion paper on a national emissions trading scheme.

Meanwhile, California is going it alone in the US with a bold-sounding scheme to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. It doesn't seem that there's much detail in the scheme just yet so it will be interesting to see how it develops and how it affects other jurisdictions.

In the meantime, I can recommend two new Australian blogs that are examining these issues: carbonsink and Burrows: Reduce CO2 emissions. They have some good pieces on the Australian politician posturing on climate change, Peak Oil, the power of markets, Tim Flannery, Al Gore, the California scheme, climate sceptics and using algae to capture CO2.

Law firm Blake Dawson Waldron produces a good regular update on Greenhouse issues from a legal and regulatory perspective and the August edition (pdf) has just come out. It includes a good summary of the main features of the proposed Australian national emissions trading scheme.