Acknowledging the “Inconvenient Truth”

Vanessa Persico

The Environmental Studies Department teamed up with Colgate Activities Board (CAB), Take Two and Amnesty International last week to provide two showings of Al Gore’s global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, as well as a panel discussion on the film.

The panelists, who spoke before a packed Multi-Purpose Room in the African, Latin, Asian and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center on Friday, offered several different perspectives on the documentary as well as on global warming itself.

Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Geography Adam Burnett had not seen the documentary before last week’s screenings.

“[Global warming] involves hot physical processes and societal processes,” Burnett said. “The climate change/global warming issue is particularly politicized right now.”

Burnett said that his research on lake-effect snow yielded results that may seem counterintuitive: higher global temperatures actually correlate with greater lake-effect snowfall in this region.

Associate Professor of Geology Amy Leventer’s research centers on tiny fossil algae found in the Antarctic, which, she said, is a pretty small focus with pretty big implications: the more fossils she finds in a given underwater area, the more light that must have been allowed through to the water and the less ice that must have been present on the surface. More recent rock layers have shown an increase in these algae fossils.

An Inconvenient Truth helped Leventer to put her microscope-based research back into perspective as part of a much larger issue.

“Look at the history of climate,” Leventer said, “And see that what’s happening right now is very, very out of the ordinary.”

Professor of Economics and Director of Environmental Studies Bob Turner said that Gore’s film avoided the important question of what specifically should be done about global warming. He outlined three “inconvenient truths” that the film did not cover.

One of Professor Turner’s “inconvenient truths” called the United States’ refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol “completely understandable” from an economic standpoint, stating that the situation was not at all analogous to the ozone-centered Montreal Protocol.

A second “inconvenient truth” Turner stated was that the U.S. could probably withstand climate change better than any other country in the world but is least prepared to deal with the kind of economic wounds that Kyoto would have inflicted. Additionally, he said that Gore pointed the finger at the wrong culprit.

“It’s not President Bush, it’s not big oil companies, it’s ‘we, the people,'” Turner said.

Turner’s third “inconvenient truth” was that the responsibility to make a change does not fall on individuals alone.

“We need collective action,” he said. “It’s not an individual, moral problem.”

Leventer disagreed with Turner’s indictment of Kyoto, saying, “The problem with climate change is we can set something in motion that we can’t turn around.”

The panelists discussed whether immediate, sweeping action was necessary, as opposed to gradual cutbacks in deforestation and fossil fuel emissions over, say, the next 20 years.

Turner said that a slow but steady progression of cutbacks would be equivalent in benefit to, and dramatically less expensive and disruptive than, a major motion to replace our resources with more “green” options as soon as possible.

The trouble is, the panelists said, deciding exactly when it will be too late to make a change that will have any sort of positive impact.

“The costs [of climate change] are not so great now,” Burnett said, “But when do the costs become so great?” He referenced the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina just over a year ago in the Gulf region. Burnett said that the “nonlinearity” of the global warming trend, with large increases and spikes every so often, is what distresses him. “Be prepared for variability,” he said.

When the panel opened the floor for questions, senior Don Boyajian responded to Turner’s call for “we, the people” to take control.

“Where do we start addressing lifestyle change?” he asked. “I don’t see enough discussion about that.”

Burnett emphasized that there is a great deal of debate going on right now about what would and would not work. Leventer said that she has found it to be different among researchers in the Antarctic region.

“We’re all in agreement,” she said, “And we’re all astonished that nothing is being done.”