An Inconvenient Truth movie poster designed by The Ant Farm.
An Inconvenient Truth movie poster designed by The Ant Farm.

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "An Inconvenient Truth"

May 2, 2008


In 2007 Al Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Nobel Committee cited Gore's longstanding commitment to raising public awareness of global warming and of the changes needed to prevent it from worsening. His most well-known work to date on these issues is this film.

Gore has been an environmental activist for decades. He became convinced of the reality of climate change during his college days in the 1960s and organized the first Congressional hearings on global warming in 1976. Since 1990 he has been giving a slideshow on global warming to audiences around the world, and much of An Inconvenient Truth is footage of the most recent incarnation of his presentation. This sounds like a recipe for boredom, but in fact the movie is gripping. The graphics are sophisticated, the images terrifying, and Gore makes the mass of facts and statistics meaningful and dramatic. To lighten the grim mood, he cracks jokes and even uses cartoons from time to time to illustrate scientific concepts.

Gore also uses his human side to bring the points home. Deftly interweaving his own personal and political history, he describes the events in his life that led him to care so deeply about the issue and then links them to the bigger picture. For example, he relates how his family didn't stop growing tobacco until after his older sister's death in 1984 from lung cancer, and explains how this helped him understand the human tendency to resist changing one's habits until something goes terribly wrong. "It's human nature to take time to connect the dots," he says, "but eventually there's a day of reckoning."

After over an hour of apocalyptic images, the film ends on a rousing and hopeful note. "We already know everything we need to know to solve this problem," declares Gore. "We have everything we need except political will—and that's a renewable resource." Calling this the "moral issue of our time," Gore says that Americans have risen to the occasion before and they can do so again. In sum, the solutions he proposes are to emit less greenhouse gases by saving energy, and to absorb more gases by planting trees and vegetation. He ends by calling on the audience to learn more about ways to help.

Is the Film Partisan?

Gore stresses that the issue of global warming is not and should not be treated as a partisan one, yet he cannot resist making cutting remarks about the Bush administration from time to time, some joking, some very serious. For example, he discusses Philip Cooney, formerly chief of staff to President Bush's Council on Environmental Quality and, before that, a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, who resigned in 2005 after it was revealed that he had edited government reports on climate change, downplaying the role of carbon dioxide emissions.

Nevertheless, although some may disagree with the science and/or resent Gore's comments about the Republicans, no one could mistake this film for a partisan polemic. Gore is passionate to convince everyone of whatever political stripe that we are witnessing a global catastrophe in the making. It can be averted, he argues, but only through collective action, on both the personal and political level.

The U.S. and the Kyoto Protocol

As Vice-President, Gore successfully advocated for the implementation of a carbon tax, but he failed to persuade the Senate to agree to ratify the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 1997. The sticking point, then as now, was that there were no binding targets and requirements for developing nations to reduce emissions, combined with fears about the effect on the U.S. economy. In 1998, Gore signed the Protocol as a symbolic gesture. At present the U.S. remains a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol but the signature alone remains symbolic, as the Protocol is non-binding on the U.S. unless ratified. As of November 2007, 174 countries and other government entities had ratified the Protocol. Among them are 137 developing countries, including China and India, but these developing nations have no obligation beyond monitoring and reporting emissions.

Reactions to the Film

The reaction of climate scientists to the film has been mixed. The majority of them believe that the human contribution to global warming is significant and therefore many endorse the film, although with varying degrees of qualification. Some point to minor errors, such as Gore's claim that the effects of the U.S. Clean Air Act, as registered in aerosol concentrations in Antarctic ice cores, are visible to the naked eye (they are not), but they underscore that such errors take nothing away from the film's main conclusions.

Others have expressed concern over what they see as 'alarmist' elements of the film, such as its portrayal of future coastal flooding due to the melting of Greenland as something "impending." Scientists estimate that if carbon dioxide emissions continue at their current rate, it would take at least 500 to 1000 years for Greenland to completely melt.

Nevertheless, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), by 2080 sea level could rise from 9 to 48 cm in a 'Low Emissions Scenario' and from 16 to 69 cm in a 'High Emissions Scenario.' The IPCC confirms that sea level rise is already affecting coastal ecosystems, including coral reefs, mangroves and salt-marshes. Two uninhabited Pacific islands have already disappeared and others are becoming uninhabitable (see Sea Level Rise by the World Wildlife Fund.)

A relatively small group of climate scientists disputes that human activities contribute in any significant way to global warming. This group, naturally, rejects the main conclusions of the film.

For more on scientists' views of the film and negative reactions from global warming skeptics (some funded by oil companies), read "Did Al Get the Science Right?, June 2006.

In addition to the Oscar, the film won a number of other awards. As of June 3, 2007, it had grossed over $24 million in the U.S. and over $49 million worldwide, making it the fourth-highest-grossing documentary in the U.S. to date.

Not all politicians around the world were positive about the film, however, and in some areas there has been controversy about showing it in schools.

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. Do you find this film convincing, and if so, will you take action in any way to help reduce emissions? If you don't agree with the film's conclusions, what are your reasons?

2. Gore declares that there is a moral imperative to act to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. He suggests that the moral imperative derives from a duty we have to leave to future generations a planet as habitable as the one we inherited from our ancestors. What is the exact nature of this duty?

3. A principal reason that the U.S. government gave for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol was that it would harm the U.S. economy. For example, legislative measures requiring power plants to substantially increase their use of renewable energy sources could result in many workers losing their jobs, as well as increasing consumer prices. Gore insists that the economy versus the planet is a false choice. Do you agree? Amidst fears of job loss and recession and without absolute consensus in the scientific community as to the role of carbon dioxide emissions in global warming, let alone popular consensus, how can such legislative measures be justified?

4. Another reason that the U.S. has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol is that it does not require other big polluters, such as China and India, to reduce their emissions. A chart in the film shows the U.S. as having the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world—more than five times the global average—and another shows the U.S. as being the greatest overall contributor to global warming. Today the U.S. still has the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world, but China is now the biggest emitter overall. According to a report by the Netherlands Environmental Agency, China’s CO2 emissions surpassed those of the USA by 8 percent in 2006.

5. However, part of the explanation for the rise of emissions in countries such as China, is that along with outsourcing jobs, the developed world is also outsourcing polluting industries to countries with lower pollution (and safety) standards. Given their high per capita emissions, does the U.S. and the rest of the developed world have an obligation to reduce emissions more rapidly than developing countries? What are some ways that it can help China, India, and the rest of the developing world to reduce their emissions?

6. One of the reasons for global warming, says Gore, is the continuing population explosion, which is projected to reach over 9 billion by 2050. What steps, if any, should the United States and other countries be taking to stabilize population growth?

7. Gore reports that in a survey of over 900 peer-reviewed articles on global warming published in respected scientific journals, not one denied that global warming is occurring or that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is its most likely cause. On the other hand, in a survey of articles on global warming in the U.S. popular press, over 50 percent questioned global warming or the role played by carbon dioxide emissions. In light of this, can the general public be faulted for not doing more to reverse the trend of global warming? Can policymakers? Have popular attitudes changed since the film was made? On this point, what do you make of the 2007 findings of

8. What do you think would be the most effective ways to collectively reduce emissions?

Carnegie Council Resources

Climate Change and New Security Issues H.E. Dr. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, President of Iceland H.E. Dr. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, President of Iceland, discusses how Iceland has successfully reduced its use of oil and coal, and how the fate of nations large and small is being affected by climate change. (Public Affairs Talk, April 2008) Human Rights Versus Emissions Rights: Climate Justice and the Equitable Distribution of Ecological Space Tim Hayward, University of Edinburgh Arguing that issues of both emissions and subsistence should be comprehended within a single framework of justice, the proposal here is that this broader framework be developed by reference to the idea of "ecological space." (Ethics & International Affairs, Winter 2007)

The Global Warming Tragedy and the Dangerous Illusion of the Kyoto Protocol Stephen M. Gardiner, University of Washington Gardiner insists that the Kyoto agreement, far from being too demanding, does too little to protect future generations. (Ethics & International Affairs, Winter 2004)

The Ethics of Climate Change and the Global Economy Joel Rosenthal, Carnegie Council; Matthew Taylor, RSA Rosenthal and Taylor engage in a dialogue about the responsibilities of individual consumers and governments in limiting the effects of climate change. (Online conversation, July 2007)

One World: The Ethics of Globalization Peter Singer, Princeton University If we agree with the notion of a global community, then we must extend our concepts of justice, fairness, and equity beyond national borders by supporting measures to decrease global warming and to increase foreign aid, argues Singer. (Public Affairs Talk, October 2002)

Outside Links

Official Site for AIT

An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It A book to tie in with the film.

Calculate your Carbon Footprint Find out how much CO2 you emit and make a change to reduce your impact.

The Global Warming Debate

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate Andrew E. Dessler, Edward A. Parson (Cambridge University Press, 2006) The authors survey and explain the the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change, including the remaining scientific uncertainties about the phenomenon, and discuss the many dimensions of the climate change policy debate.

Winning and Losing the Global Warming Debate Roger A. Pielke, Jr., National Center for Atmospheric Research; Daniel Sarewitz, Columbia University From the standpoint of the policy debate, believers in the serious threat posed by human-caused climate change have won; but from the standpoint of the science debate, they have lost; and from the standpoint of current and future impacts of climate change, there are only losers. "Shooting Down the Enemies of Progress" Tony Gilland Book review: An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming by Nigel Lawson and The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability by Austin Williams Environmentalists argue that the debate about global warming is over we now have no choice but to rein in development and shrink the 'human footprint'. Two powerful new books beg to differ.

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