Paul Krugman: Al Gore’s Movie a Test of our Character

A Test of Our Character
Published: May 26, 2006

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.

The Discussion: 12 Comments

I heart Al Gore!

May 26, 2006 @ 12:56 am | Comment

My great fear is that the Democrats will nominate Hillary Clinton and thereby commit suicide. I can just see it all panning out: During the Convention, all the precious “progressives” will coo and croon on and on about how it’s “time for a woman President”…

…but if they nominate Hillary, they won’t get one.

May 26, 2006 @ 9:04 pm | Comment

Ivan, I think you are seriously misreading the sentiments of “progressives” in this case. Progressives are not fans of Hillary Clinton. They dislike her triangulations, and most of all, they dislike her stance on the Iraq war.

Al Gore, on the other hand, is increasingly becoming the “Anti-Hillary,” someone with serious progressive credentials. Plus he has a fair amount of appeal to centrists as well, based on his past associations with the DLC.

I would have to call myself a progressive, politically, and I sure would love to see a woman president. But Hillary Clinton is not the right woman. She’s not the right person, more importantly…

Al Gore, on the other hand, already has my vote, if he does decide to run.

May 27, 2006 @ 1:21 am | Comment

Lisa you might be right. I’ve been away for quite a while. Most of what I remember about public opinion on Hillary goes back to around 1992 when the “feminists” were drooling over her, all repeating the memes about how she’s so brilliant etc etc

Anyway, Gore is Green and so am I. Fingers crossed…

May 27, 2006 @ 1:24 pm | Comment

Do you think the global warming scenario might play better if it were acknowledged that the cause is at least partially, if not mostly natural? It is more than possible that industrialization has exacerbated it, but there is plenty of evidence that it is a natural phenomenom as well. The crisis is the same, but it might better represented without blame. I haven’t seen Gore’s movie — something I will remedy asap.

Just a thought on a sleepless night.

May 27, 2006 @ 4:29 pm | Comment

Ellen, I’ll bet you also believe in “Creation Science.”

May 27, 2006 @ 6:13 pm | Comment

Actually, I retract that last comment. The fantasy Ellen believes in (that we don’t have to change our living arrangements) has been lacerated by Jim Kunstler, in the following article among many others:

“The Suburban Fantasy”, link at:

May 27, 2006 @ 6:25 pm | Comment

I’m going to see the movie at 4 PM today. Granted, I live on the west side of Los Angeles, but the show is already sold out! That’s pretty good for a documentary starring that “boring” Al Gore…

May 28, 2006 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

The one thing that is almost bound to ensure the return of a Republican to the White House in January, 2009 would be the nomination of a “progressive” as the Democratic candidate in 2008.

If Democrats need to learn one thing from the aggregate results of presidential races over the past 50 years is that Republicans get elected – in part – by FUD mongering over the kind of change and havoc a Democratic candidate could wreak on the nation. Give them a progressive Democratic candidate – one whose views do not represent a respectable majority of Americans – and they’ve proven they’d rather vote for people like Dubya the Hun.

If the Democratic party ever hopes to see the inside of the West Wing again, it needs to nominate a candidate that most Americans can see as being representative of their own. For you “progressives” in the audience, that means getting someone who is sympathetic and supportive into office, but possibly not a fellow-traveller.

Have at me, y’all.


May 29, 2006 @ 2:19 am | Comment

Er, what? What are you saying, exactly? Like, who are you suggesting as a candidate?

Say whatever you want, but if you say Joe Lieberman, I personally will come and get medieval on your ass.

May 29, 2006 @ 2:23 am | Comment

Depends on how you define “progressive.” Gore is as middle of the road as they come: he’s the embodiment of traditional liberal American values. Most Americans, believe it or not, care about the environment, and most see iraq as an act of betrayal. Gore may be the Dems’ last hope. He has the experience and credibility, and he’s no radical. Unlike Hillary, his sincerity are not in doubt. Of course, the media will beat up on him like they always have – one of the great sins in modern political history- but he’s finally learned how to deal with their BS. America now deeply regrets what happened in 2000, and would not hesitate, I believe, to vote for Gore if he wins the nomination.

May 29, 2006 @ 2:47 am | Comment

I saw Gore’s movie today. I heart Al Gore! I will work for him in a heartbeat. He comes across as a smart, serious, deeply moral person.

I totally agree with what Richard says above. Most Americans do care about the environment. It’s not a “progressive” – by which I think David means “radical” – issue.

And yes. Al Gore won in 2000. Putting him in the White House at this point is returning him to where he belongs.

May 29, 2006 @ 3:41 am | Comment

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