When asked how he dealt with hostile skeptics, Al Gore first advised against returning anger with anger. Then he approvingly noted an instance of biblical zeal: “Jesus takes the jawbone of an ass to clear out the temple.” (Sorry, Al—that was Samson’s tool for killing Philistines. Jesus used a whip in Jerusalem.)
I heard that jumbled Sunday school memory firsthand more than eight years ago, when the former vice president, still basking in his 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and the Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, walked me and a hundred other “people of faith” (among whom I may have been the only evangelical Republican voter) through his famous slideshow. This summer, An Inconvenient Sequel will hit screens around the nation. Judging from the trailer, Gore has grabbed a jawbone and will be swinging wildly.
That is unfortunate. It is always easy to marginalize a wildman and his cause, whether he be Ted Kaczynski or John the Baptist. Gore is on neither of those poles, but his persona has been polarizing enough to help make climate change one of the most politicized topics of the day—turning even “science” itself into something of a wedge issue. On April 22, Earth Day, thousands participated in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., a kind of rainy Woodstock for nerdy liberals where Bill Nye the Science Guy and pugnacious climate scientist Michael Mann were front and center and the White House was in the crosshairs.
Gore’s upcoming film, undoubtedly in production well before November, was likely envisioned initially as a means to elevate climate change on President Hillary Clinton’s priority list. Now, though, the trailer casts Donald J. Trump as the main foil. Gore plays the unfairly maligned but now vindicated hero returning from exile. In typical Gore fashion, however, he simply cannot resist turning a good argument into a grandiose overstatement.
“The most criticized scene in the movie An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore explains over a tense score, “was showing that the combination of sea-level rise and storm surge would flood the 9/11 memorial site. And people said, ‘What a terrible exaggeration!’” Cue video of Superstorm Sandy deluging the place where the twin towers once stood.
That is powerful editing, but poor fact-checking. Gore had argued, not that a storm could temporarily flood the Big Apple, but that Ground Zero would find itself permanently underwater if the massive ice sheets of either Greenland or western Antarctica slid completely into the ocean. That has not happened, but why let facts and transcripts get in the way of a good scare and a fun, if unfounded, I-told-you-so? Ironically, Gore’s approach to the truth seems reminiscent of that of a certain wiretapped Manhattan millionaire, who today occupies the Pennsylvania Avenue address Gore long sought.
“The earth,” Gore has repeatedly told us, “has a fever.” The catastrophic images coming to a theater near you seem now to diagnose that the earth has Ebola. “Fight Like Your World Depends On It” fills the screen. “It is right to save humanity!” exhorts Gore.
Such apocalyptic hyperbole is easy to ignore—especially when the source has flipped on important issues before. Back in 2008, the formerly anti-abortion Gore was not too thrilled when I asked him about his contradictory use of “choose life” language on climate while supporting Roe v. Wade.
Still, one need not be right on everything to be at least partially right on some things. What if, instead of a devastating climate virus, the earth has the equivalent of type-2 diabetes: a slowly building condition brought about by bad habits, something that is serious but potentially manageable? The temperature of the planet is not spiking as many computer models predicted, but the data from the most skeptical sources still show a steady upward trend. Greenhouse gases are, though, on a rocket ride. Even if the climate’s sensitivity to such gases has been overestimated, there is reason to believe that the warming trend will continue and could accelerate if certain feedback loops kick in.
In short, a donut diet is probably not a good idea even if one is merely pre-diabetic. Our industrialized society has been indulging in carbs and carbon for a long time. We have enjoyed the benefits, but the longer we insist on ignoring the costs, the greater the risk of major complications down the line. Continued delay means that the treatment regimens of the future grow more taxing. And in the present, it is ever more tempting to listen to snake-oil salesmen peddling half-truths, proclaiming sugar and CO2 as cure-alls rather than causes for concern.
Messengers matter. Newt Gingrich was once so concerned about the risks of global warming that he wrote a book called A Contract with the Earth and got on the “we can solve it” couch with Nancy Pelosi. In 2008, a then-svelte Mike Huckabee called for a cap on carbon emissions and urged an obese nation to Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork. But as Gore’s bullhorn grew louder and voices like Newt’s and Huck’s went mute, stewarding the atmosphere mattered less and less to many on the right side of politics.
Today, some serious men are still concerned about climate. James Baker was chief of staff and a cabinet secretary for Presidents Reagan and the elder Bush. George Schultz was Reagan’s longtime secretary of state and served in the cabinet for Presidents Nixon and Ford. Neither Baker nor Schultz is raving about the imminent end of the world, but both men think it prudent to take out an “insurance policy” on the atmosphere, as Reagan successfully did for the ozone layer.
Reasonable requests like those of Baker and Schultz can be hard to make out amid a climate cacophony rife with loaded words like “hoax” and “denier.” Gore’s return to the spotlight probably will not help. For many, the fight against climate change has become something of a religious cause, and Gore seems intent on using the jawbone of an ass to clear the floor of all but the purest believers. Unless calmer contenders enter the fray, Gore may succeed as Samson did when he brought down a pagan temple on both his enemies and himself.
John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School in South Korea and serves on the board of directors for the Earth Stewardship Alliance.