Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Feeling the heat

It has been what passes for a good summer in Ireland. “Good” in this context means “not raining constantly.” While warm, the temperatures are modest compared to many other parts of the northern hemisphere. But it doesn’t have to be very warm for it to be uncomfortable, when the air is humid, or “close,” as people here say.

The fine weather probably had something to do with falling attendance for some programs toward the end of the recent Galway Film Fleadh—at least at the screenings that I attended. When there is sunshine outdoors, it can be an uphill fight to lure people indoors. Appropriately, one program that did manage to draw a really good crowd in the middle of a bright, warm Saturday was the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Upon the film’s release in the States, it seemed as if every time I read about a screening of the movie in the press, the point of the story was that people were having to brave unseasonably cold weather to get to the cinema. Cold weather for a movie about global warming, get it? The same could easily have been true for a July screening in the west of Ireland. But it wasn’t.

One of the mind games I sometimes play to amuse myself is to pair movies into interesting or ironic double features. A no-brainer pairing for An Inconvenient Truth would be The Day After Tomorrow, the disaster movie from two summers ago, which pretended to be a Hollywood fictionalization of scenarios like the ones in Al Gore’s book and the documentary of which he is the subject. But that double feature would be too obvious. Personally, I think would pair An Inconvenient Truth with 1973’s Westworld.

One of my two readers will have gotten my little joke and may or may not be chuckling at it. The other reader will be scratching his or her head. Westworld was directed by the rather successful novelist/screenwriter/director Michael Crichton, who has been one of the rare prominent voices (especially in the entertainment world) discounting the concern over global warming. I made a passing allusion a half-year ago to Crichton’s assertion that hard-core environmentalism has become a virtual religion. Crichton’s own arguments on the topic can be found, among other places, in the text of a speech he made to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2003 and which, the last time I checked, could be found on his web site. Crichton even went so far to write a novel, published at the end of 2004 and called State of Fear, depicting a massive global warming conspiracy/hoax concocted by scientists and environmentalists. When Hollywood makes a movie of that book, that will be an evening better double feature candidate.

More recently, Crichton and his ideas and their effect on President Bush’s thinking were the subject of a cover article by senior editor Michael Crowley last March in The New Republic. Aping the familiar logo from Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, the cover art depicted Bush as a rampaging dinosaur over the blaring title “Jurassic President.” Crowley’s article observes that Crichton’s entire career has largely been built on stories about scientists nearly doing us all in. He offers a litany of scientific menaces that Crichton has based his writings on: an extraterrestrial virus (The Andromeda Strain), a behavior-modification experiment gone awry (The Terminal Man), malfunctioning robots (Westworld), murder for organ harvesting (Coma) and, of course, dinosaurs resurrected from preserved DNA (Jurassic Park). In later years, Crowley notes, Crichton has switched to more topical themes, like the fear of Japan overtaking the U.S. economically (Rising Sun), false sexual harassment accusations (Disclosure) and the idiocy of the press in the context of airplane safety (Airframe).

But it is State of Fear that seems to have had the most impact on public debate on a real-world issue. After President Bush read it, he had Karl Rove invite Crichton to the White House and met with him for an hour. And Crichton was actually invited to testify before Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about global warming. Crowley notes the irony of this author explaining global warming alarmism as the result of a vast left-wing conspiracy. “This is an odd argument, to say the least,” he writes, “coming from a man who has made tens of millions by scaring America about everything from hideous viruses to killer nanotechnology.”

“And now,” concludes Crowley, “like a mighty t-rex that has escaped from Jurassic Park, Crichton stomps across the public policy landscape, finally claiming the influence he has always sought.”

For the record, I see nothing wrong with someone like Michael Crichton having opinions and expressing them. He has the same right as, say, Al Gore to having ideas on important issues and using whatever soapbox he can manage to get a hold of and proclaim them. If anything, I would be a bit harsher on Gore. After all, Crichton is a mere private citizen, although a very well-known and wealthy one. Gore is a private citizen as well, but he was the second-highest elected official in the country for an eight-year period. He was actually in a position to do something about his ideas. And, to be fair, he did. He went to Kyoto and negotiated with other countries of the world to work out a treaty to deal with climate change. But then his administration declined to submit it to the Senate for approval—in the face of overwhelming opposition. But if the stakes for the planet are truly as high Gore says (and has said for years), shouldn’t he have expended a bit more effort at selling the treaty? Perhaps he figured it would be easier after the 2000 election when, it was entirely reasonable to expect, he would be president. If so, then we have a major object lesson in why you should never put off until tomorrow what you should be trying to do today.

Michael Crichton is not the only writer who thinks that global warming is, if not exactly a non-problem, then not exactly what should be our highest priority for planetary problem solving either. After An Inconvenient Truth premiered at Cannes, there were a slew of columns written (frequently with the word “inconvenient” in the title) pointing out the holes in Gore’s arguments. These conservative opinionaters like to point out that Hollywood liberals like Laurie David, who produced the movie, drive hybrid cars to the airport and then get on their exhaust-spewing private planes. They also point out that there have been massive changes in the earth’s climate going back millions of years before the Industrial Age and that human activity probably makes little difference when weighed against the forces that have been working on the planet for eons. Non-climatologist readers can be forgiven for wondering if Gore and the numerous scientists who see global warming as human-caused and Crichton and conservative pundits are looking at any of the same data. And the general public is not necessarily well served by press coverage of the topic. The media regularly mix up the two separate questions involved here, so that they are often portrayed as a single question. One question is whether the climate is actually getting warmer. The answer to that is fairly straightforward: yes. Although some people argue over how significant the rate of increase actually is. The more crucial question is: is human activity causing or at least contributing to the warming and, more importantly, can a change in human behavior actually slow the rate of warming or perhaps even reverse it?

That question is a bit more controversial, probably because it is harder (actually, impossible) to answer with absolute certainty. Our planet and its atmosphere and climate are incredibly complex. Computer models may look impressive, but has any computer program to date been able to take in every possible factor in the ecosphere? Probably not. That approaches God-like knowledge. Gore’s argument lies primarily in an impressive chart tracking the temperature of the atmosphere and amounts of carbon dioxide in the air. They track very closely. But to keep things simple, Gore doesn’t get into the fact that correlation does not imply cause. That is to say, when two things correlate, you can’t say for sure which thing is causing the other or whether a third agent is causing both or whether it is just some elaborate, complicated coincidence.

But does the fact that we cannot know every pertinent datum about the climate mean that societies should take no action? Of course not. The same situation exists, to some extent or another, with every public issue, but paralysis is almost never the best course. You act on the best understanding you have of things at the time. Perhaps this is where Crichton’s characterization of environmentalism as a faith-based religion is apropos. Taking action to reduce greenhouse gases is, in a way, a bit like prayer. It might make no difference at all, but it certainly can’t hurt (as long as measures aren’t so extreme as to strangle the economy). And, even if it doesn’t solve the problem, there will certainly be side benefits anyway. And there’s even a chance that it could actually make all the difference.

-S.L., 27 July 2006

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