With friends like these: Easterbrook on ‘An Inconvenient Truth’

An Inconvenient TruthGregg Easterbrook offers up a fatuous look at the “moral flaws” of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, laying out a laundry list of quibbles that we’ll undoubtedly be hearing a lot more of in the coming weeks.

What’s interesting is that Easterbrook claims to be glad that a serious-minded movie about global warming will be hitting suburban movie theaters. A former skeptic who now regards the evidence for anthropegenic climate change as persuasive, Easterbrook professes to care quite a bit about the subject.

Of course, not everyone who cares about global warming is required to love An Inconvenient Truth. But the weakness of Easterbrook’s arguments do provide a sad foretaste of what we can expect from critics who don’t care about global warming. Namely, the same bad arguments, with the volume turned up to 11.

Easterbrook starts by recycling a series of lame caricatures of Gore. Gore is boring, professorial, ponderous, insufficiently sexy, etc. He follows up with a series of nitpicks about the science in the movie, essentially accusing Gore of not being boring or professorial enough. He then accuses Gore of indulging in conspiracy theories, because the movie has the temerity to point out that a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute served as chief of staff for Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality. Easterbrook reaches deep into his bag of dismissive stereotypes to label this part of the film “wacky.”

More bizarrely, Easterbrook criticizes the movie for coming to “the right conclusions about the seriousness of global warming,” but then failing to tell moviegoers exactly how to fix the problem. Isn’t launching a massive awareness campaign aimed squarely at mainstream America a pretty good first step? Apparently Easterbrook is still holding out for the after-school special in which Timmy learns that by carpooling to the roller rink, he can help fix a serious issue that affects us all.

But the truly ludicrous stuff comes at the end of the review. First, Easterbrook whips out that hoariest of chestnuts, an accusation of “double standards.” It turns out that Gore and his ilk fly on airplanes and use electricity-sucking laptops in pursuit of their environmental agenda. Quelle horreur! I’m a bit shocked that a Fellow at the Brookings Institute would stoop to such an argument. Look, personal conservation is important, but political activism is far more important. Yes, it would be nice if Laurie David rollerbladed to work, but what does this have to do with the matter at hand? We’re going to be hearing a lot more of this kind of misdirection, and much of it will be flat-out false.

Easterbrook ends with a grand flourish, reminding us that consumption of fossil fuel-based power has contributed enormously to the growth in human welfare over the past century. The true moral failing of the movie, he feels, is that Gore condemns the accumulation of greenhouse gases as “deeply unethical” without sufficiently recognizing just how good fossil fuels have been to us. With this criticism, Easterbrook hopes to inject a note of moral ambiguity into a debate that he views as overly simplistic.

And here he fails. The reason the decisions facing humanity are stark is that the consequences of global warming are stark. We can recognize that fossil fuels have made possible the prosperity of a billion people and simultaneously acknowledge that the next billion are not going to be able to follow the exact same path to wealth. Yes, we may have an ethical obligation to help them find that new path. But Gore is still right. It’s just the have two ethical obligations, rather than one.

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  1. Jim - May 31, 2006

    1. Easterbrook is **exactly** on point when he criticizes some of the sloppier arguments in the movie. One of the first rules of debate is not to pollute a strong argument with weak ones. It’s the OJ trial syndrome – if you have a slam dunk case don’t weaken the unassailable evidence with stuff that is easily proven wrong or is ambiguous.

    This is a big problem with the climate change movement – a tendency to exaggerate existing evidence ["NY 20 ft under water"] or focus on issues where the evidence is weak or non-existent ["polar bears going extinct"]. Why give your enemies this type of ammunition?

    Rememember, OJ walked.

    2. The hypocrisy of dilettante activists on private jets is screamingly obvious. Again, why give the opposition this type of ammunition? Your argument above amounts to: hey let the middle class and poor shoulder the inconvenience and expense of switching off hydrocarbons while the rich don’t even have to pretend to be affected. The problem is not much will happen with poster children like Ms David leading the charge, because no-one will sign up for it. Amazing you can’t see that.

  2. Reed Braman - May 31, 2006

    I kind of agree. It’s the whole role model syndrome and the “why should I do anything (make any sacrifices) if he’s not” attitude. I’d like to think that we (as a society) can be above that but the sad truth is that we’re not.
    That’s not to say that this a terrible movie and everything Al says is discreditted. I think it’s a huge step and it’s helping to draw more and more attention to the issue.
    Boy, this fence is pretty comfortable.

  3. Chris - May 31, 2006

    In response to Jim and Reed’s very reasonable points above, it should be noted that Gore is purchasing carbon offsets to make the movie and related promotional tour carbon neutral. I’m surprised that TerraPass didn’t comment on this, but that should alleviate charges of a ‘double-standard’. Unfortunately, this question is not well-addressed on the website set up for the movie, and misinformation has a way of propagating itself.

  4. Adam - May 31, 2006

    These comments raise an interesting issue. Just as we wouldn’t want to reflexively dismiss the message of An Inconvenient Truth because it mixes up a few minor particulars, we also wouldn’t want to reflexively defend the movie’s errors simply because we happen to agree with the message.

    And let’s make no mistake: a 90-minute fact-laden presentation that dives deeply into a technical topic and attempts to explain it to a lay audience is going to contain errors, or at the very least points that experts can quibble over.

    So the question is, at what point do those errors become significant enough that they undermine the movie itself? And does Gore’s movie cross that point?

    The answer, in a word, is no. Scientists who have viewed the movie have endorsed the science. Yes, they raise objections to various minor elements of the film (the relationship between CO2 and invasive plant species, the effect of the U.S. Clean Air Act on ice core samples, etc.), but on the whole they approve of the science and the sweep of the argument made.

    So, no, Easterbrook is not on point. In general, this is the way that global warming deniers always press their case. They pick on one specific piece of evidence, or they raise questions about a single minor phenomenon. The population of polar bears in one region of Canada has been growing? Global warming must be a hoax!

    But the burden of proof is not on global warming activists to construct a case that is so logically unassailable and perfect in every detail that it crushes all possible opposition. Rather, the standard of proof is to create an evidence-based and overwhelming case that climate change is linked to manmade emissions. By all accounts that is what Gore has done.

    Regarding the charge of hypocrisy, this is a standard talking point for those who wish to distract from the issue at hand, and it isn’t worth responding to. If Gore were piloting a fleet of Hummers around the globe while imploring everyone else to ride bicycles, that would be one thing. But he’s not. If Gore needs to fly on planes to raise awareness for global warming, more power to him.

    The funny thing about this line of criticism is that you know there’s no way Gore could possibly appease his critics. If he threw away his car and moved into a yurt powered by solar energy, he’d be a wild-eyed hippie, an ostentatious and overprivileged enviro, or an out-of-touch nag like Jimmy Carter with his sweater. There’s no winning this game, and no reason to play.

  5. Anonymous - June 19, 2006

    I totally agree with you Adam!
    By the way, beyond all this environment thing, I come to think that we’ll hardly keep up if we don’t do something with the global population issue as well. Each 20 minutes, we add on the earth’s shoulders more than 3500 MORE people (our global population grows 93 millions more each year…). How are we suppposed to reduce our emmissions enough to “offset” that additional number of humans; I wonder.
    I think it’s time that every government in the world (at least, those being part of the United Nations) put up incentives in the form of taxes and/or subventions to help keep the number of children per family around say an average of two. Some might brandish the fact that we’ll destroy the economy doing that but making my researches have proven the opposite. It’s just the same fear that some have regarding environmental protection.

  6. MM - June 21, 2006

    Bravo Adam.
    Jim-I thought the film was comprehensive and didn’t in any way focus on weak or exaggerated arguments.
    There are lots of mainstream sources who have reported the plight of the polar bears. Here’s one by that liberal rag, the Discovery channel, where it explains how scientists think polar bears may be turning to cannibalism because longer seasons without ice keep them from getting to their natural food.
    http://dsc.discovery.com/news/ap/20060612/polarbears_ani.html?source=rss
    Plus, the film didn’t focus on the polar bears- it mentioned them. It also didn’t focus on NYC being under water, but added that this could happen if global sea levels rose due to a loss of the ice in the Arctic and Antarctica.
    It is an impossibility to think that people with a vested interest in the status quo, like the oil and gas lobbies and the people that do their bidding will suddenly say “Gee Gore is right, we are causing global warming.” Thus, these red herring arguments will always exist as they did with big tobacco. The idea is to start a grassroots effort to discredit the disinformation campaign and for that Gore did an excellent job. Everything each of us does makes a difference.
    PS: you can sign the People’s Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol @
    http://kyotoandbeyond.org .

  7. Mike - June 22, 2006

    Many of the comments posted have valid points. The main flaws in the movie and the point it tries ti make is that it makes some claims that are a little shakey from a scientific standpoint and alarmist in there tone. I agree that Al Gore is a poor poster child due to his long history of the use of PRIVATE jets and his past history. You can’t make a movie by rollerblading around, but you can by using public transportation. Few thinking individuals dismiss global climate change. I could care about the polar bears. I am more concerned about the people in places that will become deserts and tundra. I don’t think it is a slam dunk as to how much we as humanity are affecting this change. I think it is a bit pompus of us to take ourselves this seriously. But if you do attribute this condition to GHG then you also must admit that Kyoto, while a good starting point, is flawwed due to it excluding developing nation. By 2050 China and India will pass the US in emissions. In short I admire the thought and drive behind the movie but feel that we need more logic and the inclusion of the rest of the world, (developing nations), to make it effective.

  8. Barbara - June 25, 2006

    BRAVO, Anonymous! The bottom line on this issue is over population and until we stop applauding mothers with 10 children and giving tax breaks for each child born, this issue will not go away. Unfortunately, next to acknowledging that the factory farming of animals is a major contributor to environmental pollution, enforcing birth control is probably too hot for anyone to handle.

  9. Claire - June 26, 2006

    I also believe zero to negative population growth is a desireable goal. However, if anyone believes applause and tax breaks are behind the number of children a family has, they are sadly mistaken. It has been widely found that the best birth control is an educated female workforce. As educational attainment (economic potential) of women increases, the number of children born decreases.

  10. Anonymous - June 28, 2006

    Barbara is correct, not Clare. I know too many semi-affluent and mid-to lower-mid income couples with 4 children. A significant number of people do not know the perils of overpopulation or dont care. It is up to government officials to lay the ground rules.

  11. Claire - June 30, 2006

    Anecdotal evidence regarding personal acquaintances is an insufficient argument to support statements about national or global trends. A more rigorous approach shows that with increasing educational attainment– especially for women, there is a reduction in family size. The age of marriage is delayed, the age when the first child is born is also delayed, and there are sufficient resources to obtain birth control and the education to use it. Resources to ensure the survival of children encourage having fewer of them. There is also an understanding that fewer children allow more resources to be devoted to each individual child.

  12. John D. - July 13, 2006

    The developed world already has sustained population growth (Europe and developed Asia 2 and that’s mostly due to recent immigrants). Jim and Carol Thompson are not destroying the planet by raising 3 successful, educated children (they’re helping Social Security!). Telling people how many children they should have is the last thing govts should do. Arguments like these are why GHG can’t make any headway into non-liberal circles: why the heck are we talking about this? Do I have to buy this argument to believe that human activity is more than 1% responsible for global warming?

  13. John D. - July 13, 2006

    Darn HTML tags… Meant to say that dev. Europe and Asia have less than 2 kids per woman (which is negative) while the US has only slightly more than 2 (mostly due to immigrants.

  14. Kent - January 12, 2007

    I enjoyed the movie, I was deeply moved by the seriousness and possibly immediate urgency of the issue, and I was even more moved by the powerful theme song “I Need To Wake Up”– in fact, I was ready to run out and buy copies of the movie for everyone I know, plus a copy for every congressman, plus ride my bike everywhere (with kids in tow), and maybe even hold my breath a lot to reduce my personal CO2 emissions!

    Then I reviewed some of the negative criticisms of the movie, including possible exaggerations of the urgency and potential consequences, and now I’m not sure what I as one lone person can do that will really matter. We all damage and pollute the planet every day to some degree as a side-effect of everything we do to live and improve our lives. The answer we must agree on is how much damage per year is acceptable, and then hold ourselves to that limit, either by reducing our polluting activities or increasing our offsetting activities, or both.

    I plan to drive a family van about 700 miles per month on average this year, and maybe travel on an airliner 4000 miles roundtrip too (an airliner that is going to pollute about the same whether I’m on board or not). If this is too much consumption, then I’d love to know the lower carbon footprint target I really need to hit to do my part. Maybe the government could calculate this, then add a $4/gallon pollution tax to gasoline, but give people a $4 discount voucher for the first 500 gallons they burn annually (which is no penalty for small consumption), $3 off on the next 100 gallons, $2 off on the next 100, and no discount after that.

    I also plan to plant about 12 trees, to help clean the air. If I should plant more trees instead, then knowing what that higher number should be would help. I don’t mind cutting back and riding my bike, within the diminishing returns benefit curve– I just don’t want to cut back beyond the point where the real benefits are proportionate to the sacrifice and it really matters. Some clear solid research about the ideal personal pollution targets for average people to shoot for would be helpful.

    Al Gore could probably travel over 10 million pollution-generating miles per year, and the result on the environment would be way better than carbon neutral, if his doing so results in 250 million other people cutting back by a cumulative total of 250 billion miles! Sometimes, to get people to be quiet and listen to your speech (or to play basketball), you have to do the opposite action yourself temporarily, and say “Please don’t talk, because I am talking and giving a speech now” (or wear a coach’s whistle on the sidelines, and NOT play basketball yourself while coaching and telling others to play). This is not hypocrisy– it is simply legitimately having a different function as the speaker and leader than the audience has at that time. I don’t know Al, but I have a sense that in his personal non-traveling off-hours, he acts consistently with his message; that is the true and fair test of hypocrisy or integrity.

  15. Adam Stein - January 13, 2007

    Hi Kent,
    You ask an interesting question, but I’m not sure it’s really answerable with a single, fixed number. The fact is that getting our personal carbon footprints down to a sustainable level requires structural changes beyond just what any of can hope to achieve through personal conservation. To take one obvious example, it’s not just how much electricity you use that matters, it’s also how clean that electricity is.
    So perhaps the most appropriate answer is that you should do all you reasonably can to conserve, and strive for continual improvements over time. You should also consider offsetting what you can’t conserve, and you should absolutely make your opinions known to elected representatives, which is one of the single best ways that we as individuals can make a difference.
    – Adam

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