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Al Gore Discusses "An Inconvenient Truth"

Environmentalist Al Gore talks about his new movie.

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Former Vice President Al Gore is back in the news with his documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, in which he travels the world presenting a slide show about global climate change. He also wrote a companion book of the same title (Rodale). Gore spoke with SMITHSONIAN about global warming, glacial melting and Russell Crowe.

Are you happy with the way the film has been received?

I couldn't be happier with the fact that it’s been extremely well reviewed, and I'm happy because it improves the chance for the movie to find its audience and to reach more people in a shorter period of time. [But] when a respected scientist writes a technical review saying "he got the science right"—that’s what thrills me.

What did you do to make sure you got the science right?

For 30 years now, one of the roles that I have played is to talk extensively with the scientific experts and gain their trust and confidence to the point where they're willing to spend the time to get me as up to speed as a layperson can get up to speed and then allow me to ask them questions such as, "Forget what you think you can get through the scientific publication process in the next two years. Tell me what your gut feeling is." I translate those gut feelings into plain English and take it back to them and let them privately vet it...[to] get it both communicable to the average person like me and to retain the integrity of the scientific analysis.

Some critics are skeptical of the 20-foot rise in sea levels that you predict. Is this just the worst-case scenario?

Not at all. The worst-case scenario is 140 feet, although that would be far, far into the future. There are two wild cards: one is Greenland, the other is West Antarctica. Greenland is the wilder of the two wild cards.... It's undergoing a radical discontinuity, it seems, both with a rapid increase in the [glacial] melt rate and with other developments that are quite concerning. For example, they have for the last 10 or 15 years been following the emergence of these icequakes. Icequakes are like earthquakes. They're now being picked up by seismometers all over the world, and in 1993 I believe there were 7. In 1999 that doubled to—if I'm not mistaken—14. Last year there were 30. And with these icequakes doubling twice in little more than a decade, there is growing concern. Here's the other thing: [the collapse of Antarctica's Larsen B ice shelf] was quite a significant event because the scientists that specialize in such things were genuinely forced to go back and examine what it was about their models that led them to radically [overestimate] the amount of time it would take an ice shelf like that to break up. They retrofitted into their models one new understanding that came out of that event, and that is what happens when you have surface melting resulting in pooling on the top of a large, thick ice shelf. The prior understanding had been that the water sinks down into the mass of the ice and refreezes. In this case they found that instead of refreezing it tunneled and left the ice like Swiss cheese, metaphorically, and vulnerable to a sudden breakup. It broke up in 35 days, and in fact the majority broke up in only two days. Now they see the same tunneling phenomena on Greenland. When I ask off the record, "Give me some time frames here, how realistic is it that we could see a catastrophic breakup and melting in Greenland in this century?" they cannot rule that out and privately will not.

Are the scientists being overly cautious?

No. They just do what scientists do and be very circumspect. If you have a curve of possibilities and the evidence points toward the more extreme end of the curve, if you're a scientist you're going to want extra levels of confidence before you go out and say, "This is more likely than I thought." I do not say in either the movie or the book what time frame ought to be placed on [glacial melting]. But it is not impossible that that could happen in a much shorter time frame than they are now saying. And I've excluded from my presentation a lot of more extreme predictions.

Has the media moved beyond the idea of global warming as a controversial theory?

I think for the time being that's past us. There is now a brand-new focus on the science. But I have seen periods similar to this, when there was a flurry of concern and focus and then it dissipated. It's partly due to the nature of the crisis. The time scale during which it unfolds is shockingly swift in geological time, and even in the context of a single life span, but in the six-hour news cycle it could still be displaced by other earthshaking events, such as Russell Crowe throwing a telephone at a hotel concierge or Britney Spears having a baby.

How do you keep the issue alive?

Tipper and I are devoting 100 percent of [our] profits from the movie and the book to a new bipartisan educational campaign that will run advertising and will be a presence in the mass media, to continue lifting this urgent crisis up for people to see and focus on.

People still think of you as the former Democratic presidential candidate—how do you get away from the idea of global warming as a Liberal issue?

It is for that reason that I am not even on the board of this new group. It's co-chaired by Ted Roosevelt IV, a Republican investment banker and a prominent Republican environmental leader, and Larry Schweiger, who is head of the National Wildlife Federation. His group is the most bipartisan in its membership—lots of hunters and fishermen for example. People on the board include [members of the Reagan and the first Bush administrations]. The Alliance for Climate Protection is determinedly bipartisan and nonpartisan, and its founding principles preclude any endorsement of specific legislation or candidates—it's focused purely and simply on public education and awareness.

Coming Soon: Stay tuned for Smithsonian.com's 'Focus on the Environment,' featuring the tropical cloud forest, "green" plastic, the most livable cities and more!

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About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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