Friday, May 26, 2006

A Test of Our Character


Gore's Movie
by Paul Krugman

In his new movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore suggests that there are three reasons it's hard to get action on global warming. The first is boiled-frog syndrome: because the effects of greenhouse gases build up gradually, at any given moment it's easier to do nothing. The second is the perception, nurtured by a careful disinformation campaign, that there's still a lot of uncertainty about whether man-made global warming is a serious problem. The third is the belief, again fostered by disinformation, that trying to curb global warming would have devastating economic effects.

I'd add a fourth reason, which I'll talk about in a minute. But first, let's notice that Mr. Gore couldn't have asked for a better illustration of disinformation campaigns than the reaction of energy-industry lobbyists and right-wing media organizations to his film.

The cover story in the current issue of National Review is titled "Scare of the Century." As evidence that global warming isn't really happening, it offers the fact that some Antarctic ice sheets are getting thicker — a point also emphasized in a TV ad by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is partly financed by large oil companies, whose interests it reliably represents.

Curt Davis, a scientist whose work is cited both by the institute and by National Review, has already protested. "These television ads," he declared in a press release, "are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate." He points out that an initial increase in the thickness of Antarctica's interior ice sheets is a predicted consequence of a warming planet, so that his results actually support global warming rather than refuting it.

Even as the usual suspects describe well-founded concerns about global warming as hysteria, they issue hysterical warnings about the economic consequences of environmentalism. "Al Gore's global warming movie: could it destroy the economy?" Fox News asked.

Well, no, it couldn't. There's some dispute among economists over how forcefully we should act to curb greenhouse gases, but there's broad consensus that even a very strong program to reduce emissions would have only modest effects on economic growth. At worst, G.D.P. growth might be, say, one-tenth or two-tenths of a percentage point lower over the next 20 years. And while some industries would lose jobs, others would gain.

Actually, the right's panicky response to Mr. Gore's film is probably a good thing, because it reveals for all to see the dishonesty and fear-mongering on which the opposition to doing something about climate change rests.

But "An Inconvenient Truth" isn't just about global warming, of course. It's also about Mr. Gore. And it is, implicitly, a cautionary tale about what's been wrong with our politics.

Why, after all, was Mr. Gore's popular-vote margin in the 2000 election narrow enough that he could be denied the White House? Any account that neglects the determination of some journalists to make him a figure of ridicule misses a key part of the story. Why were those journalists so determined to jeer Mr. Gore? Because of the very qualities that allowed him to realize the importance of global warming, many years before any other major political figure: his earnestness, and his genuine interest in facts, numbers and serious analysis.

And so the 2000 campaign ended up being about the candidates' clothing, their mannerisms, anything but the issues, on which Mr. Gore had a clear advantage (and about which his opponent was clearly both ill informed and dishonest).

I won't join the sudden surge of speculation about whether "An Inconvenient Truth" will make Mr. Gore a presidential contender. But the film does make a powerful case that Mr. Gore is the sort of person who ought to be running the country.

Since 2000, we've seen what happens when people who aren't interested in the facts, who believe what they want to believe, sit in the White House. Osama bin Laden is still at large, Iraq is a mess, New Orleans is a wreck. And, of course, we've done nothing about global warming.

But can the sort of person who would act on global warming get elected? Are we — by which I mean both the public and the press — ready for political leaders who don't pander, who are willing to talk about complicated issues and call for responsible policies? That's a test of national character. I wonder whether we'll pass.

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