Inconvenient truths (for Al Gore and the rest of the planet)

The truth behind Gore's extraordinary documentary about the perils of global warming is that he might have become President had he campaigned in office. Geoffrey Lean traces the conversion of one man, his country and a reluctant world
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The Independent Online

Suddenly global warming has come in from the cold. A potent combination of startling natural events, growing public pressure, and pioneering political commitments has brought it storming up the agenda.

Even many of the previously sceptical are now convinced. For example, who would have thought the leader of the Conservative Party would become Britain's most potent champion of radical action to combat climate change, or that he would share platforms with the leader of Friends of the Earth?

And who would have imagined Arnold Schwarzenegger - famous as for his devotion to the Humvee, the greatest of the gas guzzlers - would defy his party, as Governor of California, to drive through the world's most ambitious programme for cutting the pollution that causes global warming?

And as we report (right), even the "Toxic Texan" himself - President George W Bush, who set out to kill the Kyoto Protocol and all international attempts to tackle the problem - is laying the ground for a U-turn.

These dramatic changes of heart are not happening among scientists. There has long been more unanimity in the scientific community about the reality of global warming than over any other environmental issue I have known; a recent survey of 928 scientific papers found not a single one that dissented.

Nor are they occurring in public opinion, which is becoming steadily more convinced, and alarmed - even in the United States. A recent CBS/New York Times poll shows that four in every five Americans (including three out of every five Republicans) believe it is a serious, or very serious, threat - and that three-quarters of Americans (and more than half of Republicans) insist that action must be taken to counter it "right away."

No, it has been the political and media establishments that have lagged behind, both here and in the United States. A survey of US media articles, in contrast with the one on scientific papers, found a majority cast doubt on the reality of global warming. Even here, climate change sceptics are two a penny in Islington, if almost impossible to find in the laboratory.

Though Tony Blair has made much of his praiseworthy achievement in putting the issue at the top of the agenda of last year's G8 summit, emissions of carbon dioxide have actually risen since Labour came to power. But now the born-again conversions are coming faster than at a revivalist rally.

Last week The Economist - bible of businessmen and right-of-centre politicians on both sides of the Atlantic - abandoned years of lordly scepticism to call on President Bush to lead the way in taking action.

And on Friday, Gerard Baker - a columnist on The Times much admired by Rupert Murdoch - confessing his own scepticism, concluded, "the only prudent course is to act now to reduce emissions...". The old man's youngest son, James, chief executive of BSkyB, is already on board, pressing for change like an old green campaigner.

And talking of conversions, how about this? An alliance of US Envangelical Christians - God gave humanity dominion to exploit nature as it wished - is calling for action in climate change as "a moral and spiritual issue". The catalyst for much of this is an unlikely box-office success, with an even less likely star. An Inconvenient Truth, fronted by former vice-president Al Gore, which was released in Britain on Friday, has already become the third most-seen documentary in US film history; it has even overtaken Truth or Dare (aka In Bed With Madonna).

So far, some 2.3 million Americans have gone to see a two-hour illustrated lecture by a man with a reputation as one of the most wooden politicians ever to run for public office.

Most have been blown away. Partly by Gore, who is warm, human, witty, at times moving, and who gives the best explanation of the issue I have seen. Partly by some spectacular photography and some stunning graphics. But mostly by the compelling evidence he presents.

Gore worries why politicians and governments have been so slow. Such was his "faith in the democratic system", he says, that he thought the mere emergence of the facts would be enough to spark a "sea-change in Congress.

He comes to a somewhat charitable conclusion: "If an issue is not on the tip of their constituents' tongues it is easy for them to ignore it". But there is a hole at heart of the argument, a huge opportunity missed, for Gore tells us nothing of his failure when he himself was in power.

He tells us how he was one of the first people to become concerned about global warming, as a university student taught by one of the scientists who first identified what was happening. And he recounts how he held Congressional hearings on the issue and ran for President partly to highlight it.

But he glosses over his own time in office, when he was put in charge of environmental policy by President Clinton. Even then, the US dragged its feet in the climate negotiations. Worse, its carbon dioxide emissions shot up far faster than at any time in modern history - by 15 per cent, compared to just 1.65 per cent during the Toxic Texan's first term.

If Gore had stuck to his principles, however, he would almost certainly now have been President; Ralph Nader would not - and could not - have run against him on a green ticket, so denying him Florida.

His friends say that he has figured this out, and he has certainly worked his penance - trudging round the country to give the lecture now featured in the film at least a thousand times.

But it is important that he comes clean. Not just for the cause of truth he espouses, but because a new generation of politicians - including David Cameron - are making the issue their own. Who better to teach them about the difficulties they may face in office, and about the costs - both to themselves and the world - of failing to implement their beliefs?

THE GREENERATI

Celebs unite to celebrate 30 years of the first 'green magazine';

Leading lights from the UK's 'greenerati' gathered yesterday to mark four decades of organic magazine 'Resurgence'. One of the first green publications in Britain, the magazine was originally a product of Sixties counter-culture and a voice in the wilderness. Not any more. A 'Who's Who' of the green world, including Anita Roddick, Annie Lennox, Jonathon Poritt and editor Satish Kumar, gathered in Oxford yesterday to celebrate the continued existence of 'Resurgence'. Among the invited:

ZAC GOLDSMITH, the Conservative's new green champion and multi-millionaire owner of rival magazine 'The Ecologist', made his apologies for not attending due to a funeral. Mr Goldsmith, along with Prince Charles and Jonathan Dimbleby, has become a regular contributor to the publication.

SATISH KUMAR joined a wandering brotherhood of Jain monks in India at the age of nine before he became a campaigner in his late teens for the land reforms of Mahatma Gandhi. Kumar moved to Britain in 1973 and became editor of 'Resurgence' where he has remained for more than 30 years. Since then he founded the Small School for secondary pupils in an isolated Devon village. He also runs seminars for corporations on "greening the boardroom". Corporate types get up early, meditate, farm the land and listen to philosophy. Mr Kumar reportedly embarrasses businessmen by bursting into high-pitched song, crying "The earth is beautiful".

DAME ANITA RODDICK attempted to meld environmentally conscious consumerism and corporate responsibility by founding the Body Shop chain in 1976. The activist, who studied natural skin care from the inhabitants of Iceland and Polynesia, only offered 30 products in her first store but they were all sold in recyclable containers. In little more than a decade, her business was worth £60m a year and today the chain operates in 50 countries. Roddick has written articles for 'Resurgence' with titles such as: "A Revolution In Kindness, "Infinite Injustice" and "What My Garden Means To Me."

ANNIE LENNOX has been awarded the title campaigner of the year by the charity Make Poverty History and has a record of using her success to promote green causes. The musician has been an activist for Greenpeace and Amnesty International, with a world tour in 1999 featuring lyrics in support of those organisations from the Eurythmics album 'Peace'. She has also leant her name to the 'Stop Esso' campaign, an alliance of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and People & Planet. The campaign urges the public to boycott the company, calling it the world's leading global- warming villain.

SARA PARKIN founded Forum for the Future, an organisation dedicated to working for sustainable living, with Jonathon Porritt a decade ago. Parkin has been a writer and broadcaster on environment and sustainability issues for more than 35 years and designed the Forum's masters course in sustainable development. The campaigner, who sits on the boards of the Environment Agency of England and Wales, was awarded an OBE in 2001 for services to education and sustainable development.

Tom Anderson

Five Earth-shattering events

How global warming is changing the Earth now, and over the next 10 years;

Monsoons in Britain?

One day this year, Mumbai in India suffered a record 37ins of rainfall in just 24 hours - the most severe example so far of how downpours become greater and more intense in a warmer world. Monsoon-type rainfall is even coming to Britain, according to research at Newcastle University; some parts of the country - such as Scotland and the North-east - are regularly doused with a foot of rain over 10 days. The water cannot be absorbed into the ground and runs off it, causing floods.

Deserts spread to Europe

Deserts are spreading, even up into southern Europe. Desertification is a serious problem in Spain and scientists fear the Sahara could leap the Straits of Gibraltar. The jet streams, giant rivers of air high above the earth, which mark the edge of the tropics, are moving towards the poles. The areas just outside them contain many of the great deserts; these are also expected to move pole-wards as the earth heats up.

Drowning polar bears

For the first time, polar bears have been found drowned in the Arctic, as receding ice defeats even their prodigious swimming powers. The UN Environment Programme estimates summer ice has shrunk by more than a quarter in the past 50 years, and the rate of decline is quickening; last year an area the size of Texas disappeared, leaving the ice too far from land for the bears to swim to safely.It also deprives them of their food since they can only catch seals when their prey surfaces through cracks and holes in the ice.

The snows of Mount Kilimanjaro

Hemingway's snows - one of the wonders of the natural world - will soon be as dead as the old man himself. More than 80 per cent of them have melted away; the picture on the right shows Kilimanjaro 10 years ago, the one on the left how it looks today. Within 20 years the snow will all have gone, for the first time in 100,000 years - and, as the world continues to heat up, it will not come back. Glaciers are melting worldwide; even in Tibet, on the very roof of the world, they are being reduced by half every decade.

Barn owls in the Arctic

Barn owls, robins, hornets and other temperate species are arriving in the Arctic for the first time. This is rendering the Inuit, literally, lost for words, as they have no names for them in their language, though they have 1,000 words for reindeer. Salmon and cod are also turning up, and farmers in Greenland have started growing cauliflower, and Chinese cabbage. And the Inuit have started embracing air-conditioning, after a heatwave last summer sent temperatures soaring into the low 30s centigrade in northern Canada.

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