There's a movie teaser line that you may have seen recently, that goes like this: "What if you had to tell someone the most important thing in the world, but you knew they'd never believe you?" The answer is "I'd try." The teaser's actually for another movie, but that's the story that's told in the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth": it starts with a man who, after talking with scientists and senators, can't get anyone to listen to what he thinks is the most important thing in the world. It comes out on DVD today.
The scariest horror film of 2006 was a documentary.
The first thing everyone wants to know, or at least to argue about, is whether Al Gore has his facts straight. The short answer is yes, he does. There are minor errors. They don't detract from Gore's main point, on which the scientific debate has ended.
And the main point is scary, and almost too big to think about or talk about. The earth is warming, because of us. Sometime in the next hundred years, our environment is going to change in big ways. We can't predict it with much accuracy yet, but the best estimates we have are that it's going to be -- measured in lives and dollars -- really bad.
In a way this film isn't really about that story. It's about a man telling that story -- someone who, after suffering a bit of a setback, asked himself, well, what can I do now? What's important to me? How do I want to spend my time?
What's important is a question a lot of nerds may be familiar with. We like to talk about important things. But how do you respond when you try to say something serious and the cool kids laugh at you? What do you do, when you put yourself out there, try to engage people's minds, and instead they make fun of your clothes?
The good news for anyone who's had a prom invitation rejected is that people can come back from worse disasters. His presidential bid didn't go so well in 2000. Gore had given talks on global warming before; after he was forcibly retired from public service, he took a Powerbook and Keynote on the road, sharpening and expanding his slideshow talk in airports and hotels.
Half of the film is that talk, and it's an engrossing talk. There are charts and diagrams and footnoted stats (and a Futurama clip) and it's about as fun as numbers and chemicals get. Turns out Al Gore has a sly sense of humor (but not a nasty one -- the film's only two political nudges are pretty gentle). Unless you're a climate scientist you'll probably learn something too.
But the other half, interwoven with the lectures, is a man picking up the pieces and rediscovering something important in his life, a message that he has to tell. That succeeds as a film.
And Gore's lecture succeeded too. Somehow, I'm not sure how, this documentary changed the way Americans look at global warming. In early 2006, global warming was still seen as one of those things that may be true or may not. Pundits were fairly evenly divided and both positions were routinely heard. It's now late 2006 and the debate has moved from "is global warming happening?" to "it's happening, we've caused it, and what if anything should we do about it?"
Most of the warming-deniers left are the real extremists out in Rush Limbaugh territory. We're not yet all the way to a serious, scientifically-informed debate, but somehow, overnight, this film pulled most of the fence-sitters over to where the scientists were years ago.
As for actually fixing global warming, it will take a miracle. Maybe two miracles. I think in the next few decades we're going to need to start an Apollo moonshot-type miracle of technology and engineering to beat back the greenhouse effect. Nanorobots. Reflective dust in the stratosphere. Giant mirrors at the Lagrange point. Bioengineered plankton to sink carbon or change the oceans' albedo. Something. That's just a guess.
But meanwhile, though we hope someone can build us an airbag before we crash the car into the tree, that doesn't absolve us from stepping on the brakes. Right now, we need a change in attitude, in our community and our politics, to start slowing the damage we're doing every day to our grandchildren's Earth -- to buy them time, and give them more options. The only way that happens is when the governments of industrialized and developing nations decide this is a priority.
And the only way that happens is for people everywhere to stop listening to the cool kids and, once again, pay attention to the nerds.