An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming

In his book An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming, Al Gore simplifies the language of his award-winning 2006 book, but not its arguments and contentions. The book is a young-reader’s guide to the global warming crisis, distilling the original book down to its essence. In the first chapter “Our Changing Planet,” Gore opens by discussing the majesty and wonder of Earth, accompanied with a photograph taken by the Apollo 8 spacecraft (“Earth Rise”). Segueing into other photographs of the Earth, including a composite picture called a projection, Gore succeeds in relating a sense of wonder to the reader.

The first chapter is simple, but deceptively so. Gore wants to set the stage for everything that will follow, subtly commenting that his overarching message is as simple as the aims of the chapter itself. By using simple photographs like “Earth Rise,” he allows images of our planet—as viewed from outer space—to speak for themselves. It underscores everything about Gore’s position and marks a dramatic shift in the way the world sees itself. According to Gore, “[w]e saw its beauty in a new way,” which signals a shift in global attitudes toward the environment and our planet’s place in the universe (2007).

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This chapter is central to the power of Gore’s book and puts everything into context for readers like me. It shows us that Earth is (all at once) precious, lonely, and altogether beautiful. The benefit of this chapter lies in the fact that Gore does not push any agendas or messages; he simply uses photographs and sparse text to present a simple view of Earth. He reminds us that the world is still capable of being seen in new ways, just as it was in 1968 through the “Earth Rise” photograph. Our attitudes and our actions can always change, Gore suggests, and we need to be mindful of what is at stake. In simply recognizing the sheer beauty and wonder of our planet, seeing its diverse landscapes, continents, and weather, we can find our salvation.

“A Silent Alarm,” the second chapter, establishes the cautionary aspects explored later in the book. By building upon the first chapter’s focus on the preciousness of our planet, Gore makes clear that humanity’s presence has its consequences. Gore quotes his friend, the late Carl Sagan to paint a startling portrait of just how precious our atmosphere is: “If you had a globe covered with a coat of varnish, the thickness of that varnish would be about the same” as the atmosphere (Gore 2007, p. 18). Establishing the thinness of the atmosphere allows Gore to rest his argument on just how delicate the balance of our natural order is.

Gore covers, at length, the rise of greenhouse gases across the planet as well as their effect on the atmosphere. He charges carbon dioxide with having the most profound effect, arguing that cutting down on the use of fossil fuels is key to averting crisis. He does an excellent job explaining the complex science behind the production of greenhouse gases, thoroughly exploring how they contribute to the phenomenon of global warming. Gore makes his central thesis here: temperatures of the Earth’s atmosphere and the oceans are steadily warming, which is similar to saying that our planet has a fever.

He points toward the work of his former teacher and mentor Dr. Roger Revelle (who is quoted often in An Inconvenient Truth). According to Gore, it was Revelle was claimed that carbon dioxide can be measured. Having started to do so in 1958, Revelle discovered a disturbing pattern: over a half-century, carbon dioxide is constantly on the rise. Gore then goes on to explain the rising and falling pattern of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, attributing it to the seasons: leaves come out and absorb carbon dioxide; leaves fall and breathe it out.

In many ways, the benefit of this chapter is that we see Earth as a living, breathing thing. We come to understand the nature of things around us because Gore does a good job of portraying the Earth as alive. It adds a sense of immediacy and provides a sense of context. Gore settles on mountains in the third chapter, focusing on dramatic evidence to support his argument that global warming is a real phenomenon. He uses dramatic photographic comparisons to demonstrate the drastic changes Earth is undergoing. Mount Kilimanjaro (the snowy setting of Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro) and Glacier National Park have been reduced to vast, snowless expanses of rock. The photographs Gore uses to emphasize his points are striking, if not entirely sad.

“Almost all of the mountain glaciers in the world are now melting, many of them quite rapidly,” Gore says—a statement accompanied by a glacier in Patagonia that is clearly coming apart. He next moves to the Himalayas, using a massive map to show how the glaciers there have been most affected by global warming. Here, Gore steps up the urgency of his argument, citing his biggest statistic yet: “If these glaciers disappear, within the next half-century, 2.6 billion of the world’s people may well face a very serious drinking water shortage” . Unless we respond, the world will change rapidly.

Gore argues that greenhouse gases are more than responsible for the global disappearance of glaciers, stating that glacial ice is the easiest barometer from which to gauge the effects of global warming. In fact, the ice-core data is staggering, plotted out in several persuasive graphs that clearly show how the global temperature has risen steadily since 1860. A map of the United States showing record-breaking temperatures in 2005 suggests that things are only getting worse.

With this chapter, Gore dismisses the skeptics who think global warming is a natural phenomenon, not something we are responsible for. At the same time, he manages to show that Earth is under siege—its pain manifested in rising temperatures, severe weather, and disappearing glaciers. Gore all but makes a global call to action here, using disturbing evidence as a means to spur action.

“Hurricane Watch” follows Gore’s earlier observation that warmer temperatures mean warmer oceans—in this case, warmer water also begets more frequent, more destructive hurricanes. Gore also contends that hurricanes are appearing in places that they never did before, such as the South Atlantic. From hurricanes to tornadoes, the weather on Earth is getting fiercer. In fact, Gore states that “[t]here were so many tropical storms and hurricanes in 2005 that we ran out of names for them” (2007 p. 65).

 Gore then chronicles the destruction wielded by Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into New Orleans in 2005. The hurricane charged across Florida and gorged itself on the “unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico” (Gore 2007, p. 68). In essence, global warming ushered the storm into a set of perfect conditions for a historic storm. Interestingly, Gore doesn’t linger on the human stories left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. Instead, he keeps to the facts and statistics of the storm. In some ways, by giving short shrift to the stories that rose from the storm’s aftermath, Gore makes the subtle (and chilling) claim that Katrina might not be a one-time event. With rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns, Katrina could be the first of many storms of gargantuan proportions.

This chapter’s benefit is that it gives us a glimpse into not only what triggered Katrina, but our own complicity in the storm. Gore never says it but, by the chapter’s end, he has led us there: we may have been responsible for Hurricane Katrina. It is a consequence that we can avoid, but will certainly endure again, if the rise in greenhouse gases in not curbed.

The fifth chapter (“Extremely Wet, Extremely Dry”) shifts the attention away from the United States to give a more global perspective on other natural disasters that occurred in the summer of 2005. Gore cites instances in India, Switzerland, and China where floods ravaged the cities, killing thousands in the process. The accompanying photographs are as shocking as any taken in the aftermath of Katrina: thousands of commuters wading through knee-high lakes of water flooding the streets of Mumbai, India; a drought-stricken road walked by boys in China. Gore uses the two photographs to contrast one another, contending that “[g]lobal warming relocates rainfall so that certain places experience unusual dry spells” (Gore 2007, p. 75).

Gore employs a map that marks areas of the world experiencing increased precipitation as well as those experiencing decreased. He points toward areas in western Africa that are enduring some of the worst droughts ever recorded, threatening the growth of crops and the sustainability of life there. The chapter then uses Lake Chad in central Africa to further prove his claims that the world is experiencing a teetering shift in weather patterns. Lake Chad, Gore says, was once the sixth largest lake in the world (p. 78). However, the change in rainfall and the impact of human use has caused Lake Chad to shrink twenty times over. This disappearance has not just had a profound ecological impact, but it has affected relationships between the neighboring countries that depend upon Lake Chad—not to mention the fishing and farming industries in Africa. Wherever the blame resides, Gore argues that there is a lesson here: we need to understand how climate change works.

The chapter succeeds in extending the list of consequences to the global stage, showing that severe, shifting weather is not confined to the United States. On the contrary, Gore provides a convincing argument that our entire world is under siege. The sixth chapter relocates Gore’s examination of global warming to the North Pole, which he calls “extremely vulnerable” (2007, p. 81). Gore points out that the Arctic ice cap is very thin (ten feet thick, on average), which means that the ice shelves there are all at risk. With rising temperatures, the ice shelves can (and have) break off from the coastlines. Normally, the polar ice caps reflect most of the sunlight back toward the atmosphere; however, with pockets of water exposed due to the fractured ice shelves, the water absorbs most of the direct sunlight, causing the caps to vanish faster and faster.

Gore calls this “a dangerous situation” (2007, p. 84) due to the fact that the ice shelves play a vital role in keeping the planet cool. Without them, life on Earth becomes threatened in ways scientists had never anticipated. Through radar maps, Gore shows frozen tundras across the world that are thawing at unexpectedly fast rates. He uses Siberia as his primary example, stating that the carbon locked in the ice might escape if the ice melts. A rapid escape of carbon into the atmosphere “would be an ecological disaster” (Gore 2007, p. 91), causing monumental changes in the shape of the world’s weather.

This chapter follows suit with the previous chapter, providing startling evidence that our long-held beliefs and trust in an ecological status quo are unfounded. From Alaskan trees that can no longer remain rooted in permafrost to a number of collapsed buildings in Siberia, there exist an alarming number of signs—all of which point toward mounting, potential disaster. The major benefit of this chapter lies in the fact that Gore challenges what we understand and know about areas such as the North Pole. In much the same way he used before-and-after photographs of Mount Kilimanjaro to show dramatic changes in areas that should otherwise be “unchanged,” Gore uses melting in the North Pole and in Siberia to say that the Earth is giving us plenty of warning signs.

The seventh chapter retreats to the South Pole in order to show that both poles are threatened by global warming. In “The Ends of the Earth,” Gore paints a stark portrait of Antarctica, which he calls “the closest thing to another planet we can experience on this one” (2007, p. 92). Much colder than the Arctic, Antarctica is also characterized as a frozen wasteland, almost completely bereft of life.

 Here, just like the North Pole, things are changing. Gore uses a diagram to show the Antarctic Peninsula and all the ice shelves that have collapsed along it. Ice that rises “as high as a seventy-story skyscraper” (Gore 2007, p. 96) is now tumbling down, breaking free from a shelf that has remained intact for centuries. He cites the Larsen-B ice shelf as the most dramatic, if not disturbing evidence of global warming. 150 miles long and 30 miles wide, the shelf broke apart in a matter of days.

More than the North Pole, the South Pole seems to be undergoing such sharp changes in size and character that global warming is not even a question. In the face of evidence such as the Larsen-B ice shelf and a photo of an ever-disappearing Antarctica, it is hard to question whether global warming exists or not. Gore follows this up with three maps of Greenland—in 1992, 2002, and 2005—to show the increase in thawing coastlines.

Gore discusses two personal trips he took to Greenland, using first-hand accounts of the meltwater cascading off the ice sheets. He claims that the running water is only serving to destabilize the glaciers and coasts even further, virtually dooming the ice to break apart even faster. Startlingly, Gore says that while the melting and fracturing of the ice has happened in the past, it has never happened all year round, as it does now. This chapter makes clear that the world’s two polar ice caps are vanishing before our eyes, quietly threatening our survival with each passing day.

 “A New Atlas?”, the eighth chapter, takes a different tact than the other chapters in the book. Photographs take precedence over words here; however, it does not diminish the power of Gore’s argument. If nothing else, Gore lets the images speak for themselves and the effect is jarring. Gore posits that should Greenland or the West Antarctic ice shelves melt into the sea, water levels across the world would be affected. In fact, Gore estimates that the water levels could rise as much as 18 to 20 feet (2007, p. 109). He even cites instances where this has already occurred, claiming several Pacific island nations that have either been drowned or submerged entirely.

In the span of the next eight pages, Gore serves up some of his most convincing evidence yet: photographs that simulate the flooding of the southern tip of Florida, the disappearance of Amsterdam, the submerging of Bangladesh, and the sight of the World Trade Center memorial completely underwater.

This chapter, while slight, manages to evoke some of the strongest feelings yet in Gore’s book. By using satellite photos to show what could happen should the polar ice caps melt, the visual evidence becomes indelible. Gore does very little than present the facts in this chapter, yet he almost says more here than he has in the whole book. This chapter drives Gore’s suppositions home, foretelling the ultimate consequences of our inaction and making a compelling statement about global warming’s impact on the world.

 The images are alternately chilling, sad, and terrifying. Gore plays upon our knowledge of geography and, in the last image, our feelings about 9/11. This chapter could very well be the most important of the entire book, saying so much with so few words.

In the chapter “Deep Trouble,” Gore uses an elaborate diagram to demonstrate how the world’s climate functions as a sort of engine. With blue and red lines, he shows how heat is redistributed from the equator and back to the poles. The currents of ocean water are all linked “in a big loop called the Global Conveyor Belt”. Should global warming impact the temperatures of the oceans (which it already is), the conveyor belt may stop moving, causing the oceans to become disconnected from one another. According to Gore, some waters of the world would become too hot while others too cold.

He also lists coral reefs and the algae zooxanthellae (“zooks”) as being threatened by the shift in ocean currents. Coral reefs, Gore contends, “are as important to ocean species as rainforests are to land species” (2007, p. 120). However, they are being systematically killed off, coming under fire from dynamite fishing and higher acid contents in the ocean.

With rising temperatures, the coral is becoming bleached, signaling that they are dying off. Gore argues that the link between global warming and this bleaching of coral was not widely accepted by scientists; instead, it is now taken as gospel by virtually every scientist on the planet. Unfortunately, the beauty and vitality of the coral reefs are being wiped clean by ever-rising temperatures.

The benefit of this chapter is to show that razing rainforests isn’t the only problem we face in light of global warming. The underwater world is just as prone to pollution and higher temperatures, dying out in its own terrifying way. Gore uses coral reefs as an example because they are vital to life underwater but they are also classically beautiful; by using photographs of bleached-white coral, Gore provides a stark contrast with the vibrant fields of greenish-blue coral we are used to seeing.

The tenth chapter, “Hazardous to Your Health,” focuses upon oceanic “dead zones,” which are areas where the water does not have enough oxygen to support life. As discussed in the previous chapter, the loss of algae is a major contributor to the dead zones of the ocean. Gore claims that algae blooms are also responsible for the lack of oxygen. Algae blooms are toxic, having been “fed by the pollution … on the shore” (Gore 2007, p. 124). They are growing to sizes never seen before as well as popping up in places they should not.

Toxicity is not limited to the water, however. With an ever-warming climate comes disease and disease-carrying species, such as mosquitoes, tsetse flies, and lice. Gore says that “the world of germs and viruses is less threatening to human beings when there are colder nights and colder winters” (2007, p. 127). Cold temperatures generally neutralizes germs. However, rising temperatures contribute the proliferation of diseases ranging from malaria to encephalitis, West Nile to yellow fever.

 With two particularly alarming diagrams, Gore shows that the spread of diseases has changed dramatically over the years. The first diagram shows that, prior to 1970, mosquitoes were kept at lower elevations due to the colder temperatures, therefore limiting mosquito-based diseases to lower altitudes. However, increased temperatures at higher altitudes have allowed, if not invited, mosquitoes to migrate there. In the second diagram, Gore shows the westward spread of the West Nile virus, which made an alarming sweep from New England in 1999 to the Pacific coastline in 2003. In a matter of four years, the disease had made its way across the entire continent.

As people are naturally fearful of disease, this chapter plays upon those fears, providing frightening evidence that diseases can find new homes, not to mention the possibility that new diseases may root themselves virtually anywhere on the globe. In “Off Balance,” Gore examines the dynamic changes the Earth’s seasons are experiencing. He claims that “[i]n some places, the length of the days and the temperature are getting out of synch” (Gore 2007, p. 130). With the help of two sets of diagrams marking bird arrivals, bird hatchings, and caterpillar hatchings, Gore shows that climate imbalances are throwing the seasons and migration/hatching patterns into chaos.

It all comes to perfect timing, Gore argues, but global warming has confused the natural balance of things, especially since caterpillars are a natural source of food for chicks. While birds still arrive in April, the hatching of caterpillars is peaking two weeks early. As a result, it is becoming more difficult for mother birds to locate food for their babies. Similarly, global warming in the American West has disrupted the winters—so much so that the lack of cold weather does not help curb the spread of the pine beetle, a destructive insect that lay eggs in pine trees. With fewer days of frost, the pine beetles are spreading more than ever before (Gore 2007, p. 132). Conversely, in the wake of global warming, many species are facing extinction instead of proliferation, ranging from geese to lemurs, whales to penguins.

 Gore points his finger at a marriage of two reasons: global warming and what humans have done to the areas where these creatures live. He cites the example of cutting down trees in the Amazon rain forest. In doing so, we destroy natural habitats and drives species to unexpected, not naturally-selected extinction. At the same time, the dead trees release a staggering amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Calling this a “spiraling cycle of destruction” (2007, p. 135), Gore makes some of his boldest claims with this chapter. This chapter’s major benefit is that it clearly depicts the vicious circle that threatens countless species across the world.

 The “collision course” in the twelfth chapter’s title refers to the collision between our growing civilization and the planet itself. Gore claims that our pollution of the planet, accompanied by a disturbing photograph of a refuse dump in Mexico City, is a “natural” product of overpopulation and overcrowding. With a skyrocketing world population, Gore notes that, by 2050, over nine billion people will walk the planet. While he calls this a “success story,” it is clearly a double-edged sword. We cannot help but have a greater impact on the world and environment around us. Gore says “[w]e have a moral obligation to take into account this dramatic charge in terms of how we treat this planet” , using a chart to further show the spike in population growth throughout history.

Citing exploding populations in places like Tokyo, where the metropolitan areas have swelled to over 35 million, Gore discusses the greater demands a larger population places on the world. These demands include “food, shelter, water, and energy”  and, consequently, impose an ever-greater demand on our natural resources. Using photographs depicting clear cutting near Forks, Washington and logging in Brazil, Gore makes a more-than-convincing argument that we are doing irreparable harm to the planet. He points toward the Amazon rainforest as the place most in jeopardy, as it covers 2.5 million miles (Gore 2007, p. 145). This deforestation accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s carbon dioxide, though it is also troubling since the trees’ ability to breathe in the carbon dioxide are no longer there—the trees are gone forever.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of this chapter is to show different countries’ attitudes toward ecology, with a two-page spread featuring the differences between Haiti and Dominican Republic, the latter of which has taken steps to ensure the protection of their forests whereas Haiti’s government has all but encouraged the widespread stripping of their natural resources.

In the thirteenth chapter, “Technology’s Side Effects,” Gore notes that “technology has improved people’s lives in many ways” (2007, p. 149), though he charges the world with improper use of it. He cites irrigation as an example of technological achievement, though he mentions how the former Soviet Union inexplicably diverted two central Asian rivers to irrigate cotton fields. The result, as revealed by a disturbingly bleak photograph of fishing boats beached on a sandy wasteland that used to be the Aral Sea, is just one of many such examples of how we misuse and mismanage technology.

Gore laments the strip-mining of copper as well as the testing of nuclear bombs for wartime, maintaining that “the most technologically advanced countries have the greatest obligation to use technology wisely” (2007, p. 156). However, this is not the case. In his most caustic claim yet, he claims that the United States, arguably the “best-known for technological might” is most culpable for contributing to the rise of global warming.

By emitting more greenhouse gases than any other country on the face of the planet, the United States overshadows all others by a wide margin. Gore uses a map that shows continents in relative size to the amount of global warming they contribute to the world at large. The United States and Europe are closest in high amounts of global warming contribution, while Australia, Canada, and Africa are the lowest.

Gore’s graphic makes clear that the United States takes the highest toll on the world, serving as a reminder to all readers our responsibility with technology. This chapter’s major benefit is that it shows how countries similar in stature and size to the United States do not put out the same amount of greenhouse gases. However, it is worth noting that the use of size overshadows the use of color, which marks those countries that are developed and those that are industrialized or developing.

The fourteenth chapter introduces another danger related to global warming: special-interest groups who take it upon themselves to spread disinformation, with the primary goal being to confuse the general populace. Gore cites advertisements from the 1960s that promote smoking, one of which is included in the book. He says that “[t]he tobacco industry [created] a ‘disinformation’ campaign to confuse people and make them doubt the facts” (Gore 2007, p. 158). He draws a parallel between tobacco disinformation in the 1960s to contemporary special-interest groups adamantly arguing that there is no phenomenon known as global warming.

“Scientists are in almost complete agreement about the causes of global warming” (Gore 2007, p. 160), showing the startling difference between peer-reviewed articles regarding climate change and articles published by the mainstream media. In the case of peer-reviewed articles, there is (literally) zero doubt among scientists in regards to the existence of global warming; however, in the case of mainstream media, 53% of the published articles doubt the cause and existence of global warming.

Gore considers that many companies that are largely responsible for global warming pollution have their own interests at heart. In turn, they pressure the government “to let them conduct business as usual” (Gore 2007, p. 161). He claims that the disparity between the self-interest groups and the work of scientists gives rise to the unfair sense that there is an actual debate regarding the existence of global warming.

He next cites Philip Cooney, an oil lobbyist who was appointed to a position within the White House in order to dictate environmental policy. In 2005, he censored a memo from the EPA that stated, unequivocally, that global warming is a real phenomenon. Incensed by this fact, Gore suggests that special interests are the real danger to the environment. This chapter is beneficial in that it makes us all mindful of where our information comes from—not simply about global warming. We must self-review the information we read, Gore contends, and be wary of groups whose task is to cloud reality. The truth will bear itself out in time, like smoking, but Gore wants us to distinguish now between fact and fiction.

The final chapter surrounds Gore’s claim that “an astonishing number of people go straight from denial to despair, without pausing at the step in between” (2007, p. 166). He argues that global warming is a phenomenon we can do something about. More and more, businesses are taking the right steps and measures toward curbing the spread of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Gore also notes that new technologies are emerging that combat global warming, which he details throughout the course of this chapter. In many ways, this chapter serves as the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.

From solar panels to geothermal power stations, fluorescent light bulbs to green roofs, the technology exists to filter pollutants and provide renewable energy. Hybrid cars and hydrogen fuel-cell buses are also listed, showing a dramatic shift away from our dependence upon fossil fuels in transportation.

Wind power is an area Gore is particularly interested in, mentioning how windmills have been around for ages. Only recently have companies and countries embraced the concept of wind power, however, building immense wind farms, such as the Middelgrunden offshore wind farm depicted in the accompanying photograph. He believes wind power is one of the best, most efficient technologies at our disposal.

Gore’s plan to curb global warming is not detailed, but it is thorough enough and heartfelt. He reminds the reader that things have been done to stem environmental disasters before, detailing how the United States took the lead in reducing the amount of CFCs being released into the atmosphere and destroying the ozone layer. Gore employs a chart that effectively shows “The CFC Success Story,” wherein six companies successfully reduced CFC use over the course of a decade, eradicating its production entirely.

“The climate crisis prevents us with an inconvenient truth,” Gore says (2007, p. 179)—we have to change our lives. We have to do it now. He claims the changes are both small and large, but they are all meant to protect our “pale blue dot” and ensure our overall survival. The chapter emboldens the reader and makes them believe that it is possible to stop the threat of global warming. All is not lost, Gore argues throughout the chapter (as well as the rest of his book). An Inconvenient Truth is not so much a startling account of the ways we have threatened our world, but a global call to do our part, however slight, in delivering a better tomorrow to future generations.

Works Cited

  1. Gore, A 2007, An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming, 2nd edition, Viking, New York, NY.

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