Volume 76, Number 5 | June 21 - 27 2006

Talking Point

A convenient excuse, but the wrong kind of green

By Jessica Dheere

Waiting for the audience to clear out of the showing of “Inconvenient Truth” before ours, my friend Mike read a New York Post story about the global-warming movie and the truths Al Gore supposedly did not illuminate. One of these so-called truths, according to the Post, was a study published in the journal Science titled “Recent Ice-Sheet Growth in Interior in Greenland.” How serious could global warming be, the writer argued, if ice sheets in Greenland were growing?

After the movie, we all agreed that Gore made a forceful case that climate change is a real and present danger, but Mike, despite having seen the former vice president’s host of sourced charts and comparative photographs, still played devil’s advocate. He brought up the reference to the Science article again.

Disturbed by his doubt, I searched online for the study, found the e-mail address of its lead author, Ola Johannessen, and asked him if he realized that journalists were trying to disprove the existence of global warming by using his article as proof that Gore’s assertions were not only alarmist but false. Johannessen unequivocally replied, “They have misused my paper.” Essentially, the ice-sheet growth is an indication, not a refutation of global warming.

Troubling as such half-truth journalism is for its lack of rigor and disingenuousness, what’s more upsetting is how hard it is to counter. It seeds doubt everywhere, corrupting especially that which most makes us human, our ability to care. There wasn’t a picture or table or bar chart, I thought, that would convince my friend that global warming exists. Why such willful ignorance? What does he or anyone have to lose anyway by acknowledging that global warming is happening and, if unchecked, will force us to alter the way we live? Where is the shame in owning up to our contribution to the condition if we resolve to reverse it? Even if the scientists’ conclusions were flawed, would it matter? Isn’t an environment in equilibrium of benefit to all?

The economy, of course, is the convenient excuse.

In “Scare of the Century,” the cover story of the June 5 issue of the National Review, which is actually the source the Post article cited — like Mike, the Post reporter apparently didn’t see the need to consult the Science article or its author — Jason Lee Steorts reports that, according to the Energy Information Administration, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol “would cost the American economy $300 billion to $400 billion a year.” Steorts neglects to explain how such figures are calculated.

Similarly, National Review Online editor at large Jonah Goldberg, wrote on April 21 that “reducing global carbon-dioxide emissions to 60 percent of 1990 levels before 2050, while China, India, and (hopefully) Africa modernize, is inconceivable, ill-conceived and also immoral because it would consign generations to poverty.” He ends the editorial, unfortunately, before he has a chance to tell us exactly how or why this will happen or why these developing regions won’t leapfrog — as they have with communications technologies — from rudimentary industrial technologies to environmentally conscious ones. That would be an interesting article to read.

The idea that protecting the environment will cost us dearly is reminiscent of another chapter in history. In England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the economy provided a most convenient excuse for the perpetuation of the slave trade. In his National Book Award-nominated “Bury the Chains,” journalist and historian Adam Hochschild quotes one trader’s sentiments that the slave trade was “ ‘the foundation of our commerce, the support of our colonies, the life of our navigation, and first cause of our national industry and riches.’ The thought that anyone might want to ban this lucrative business,” writes Hochschild, “was inconceivable.” For 50 years, even when the abolitionists’ proposal to end the slave trade passed the House of Commons, the House of Lords, many of whom owned or had interests in the sugar plantations that profited from forced labor, rejected the idea. The chief concern was that without the slave trade, the British economy would collapse. Ultimately, the moral argument prevailed. And the economy, as we now know, didn’t sputter and die. Even if it had, would that really have been incentive enough to reinstate the institution?

What we do about global warming is a similarly moral issue. Rising sea levels threaten to inundate coastal lands. Hurricanes like Katrina can wipe out whole cities. Droughts induced by climate change lead to famine. And as we learned after the 2004 tsunami and Katrina, the populations most affected by such events, whatever these events’ causes, are already the ones most at risk.

Recognizing global warming as a moral issue requires us to slow and stop it, whatever the cost. It is, as Gore says, a matter of survival. What good are the gold bars on one side of the scale, he asks in the movie, if you don’t have the planet on the other? “It’s a false choice,” he says. The more radical abolitionists, who fought for emancipation and not just the end to the trade itself, understood this, too. What do freedom and democracy mean to us, they wondered, if they are not extended to everyone?

The truth is that the global warming debate isn’t about global warming at all. As with the half-century of debate about the slave trade in England, there was never any question as to its justness. Even as the Church of England ran a huge plantation in Barbados, its leader knew it was an abomination. “I have long wondered & lamented,” wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury, “that the Negroes in our plantations decrease, & new Supplies become necessary continually. Surely this proceeds from some Defect, both of Humanity, & even of good policy.” It wasn’t that slave traders and plantation owners didn’t know better, that civilization hadn’t come that far. It was a matter of preserving the status quo to avoid having to do two admittedly difficult things: 1) find a more honorable — and perhaps more difficult — way of making a living, and 2) take responsibility for the evils already perpetrated. The second is undoubtedly harder to undertake than the first, but as long as we delay doing the first, we don’t have to consider the second.

Our environment may not speak for itself, but anyone who has seen Edward Burtynsky’s monumental photographs of mine tailings, computer-motherboard mountains, and tire piles knows not only that the environment bleeds and chokes, but also that our addictions — our plastic bottles, our single-occupant cars, our air conditioners that cool us to temperatures in summer that chill us in winter — scar and smother it. It’s time that we admit, as addicts must, that we are predisposed to self-destruction, that we live in a state of denial about the damage we do because it is too painful to accept that we are capable of doing it. That we have done it. And then we have to engage in small acts of faith by taking steps, such as those proposed in the credits of “An Inconvenient Truth” to change it. We may not have the foresight to know how every effort will turn out, but knowing that we are trying to take the right action will make our lives, inner and outer, more peaceful and, quite possibly, more prosperous. After all, isn’t maintaining a hospitable environment a more efficient proposition than managing a hostile one?

It is worth remembering, too, that the earth — unlike the economy — is not of our invention. It governs us, we do not govern it. We must stop balancing our predictions of what will befall the earth if we do nothing with what will befall the economy if we do something. Otherwise, we will calculate and reason ourselves to death.

Dheere is a freelance writer and master’s degree candidate in media studies at New School University

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