The current issue of Scientific American features its yearly SA 50 Awards. It awarded Policy Leader of the Year to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore for his work in helping to educate the public about the danger of climate change, focusing on global warming. His efforts have culminated in An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary film (and also a book) that has been praised by both scientists and movie critics. J.R. Minkel and Gary Stix write
It sounds improbable: a documentary film about global warming, starring Vice President Al Gore, has become the third-highest-grossing documentary of all time. After his loss in the 2000 presidential election, Gore began giving a talk on global warming to audiences around the world. An Inconvenient Truth is the film version (also appearing in book form) of his multimedia presentation. Remarkably, its heavy use of PowerPoint slides actually adds to the narrative, which interweaves explanations of climate science with defining episodes from Gore’s life to convey a mix of alarm and hope.
The film is a paragon of clear science communication. It explains the workings of complex physical phenomena, such as the jet stream, while chronicling the reality of glaciers receding and the increase in carbon dioxide emissions and global temperatures. Gore, meanwhile, succeeds in bringing the “moral imperative” of reducing greenhouse gases to a personal level, attempting to convince viewers that their own actions can make a difference.
(continue reading at Scientific American)
Of course, the data supporting global warming are quite well-established now, as this graph from Wikipedia helps to illustrate. Please see their article on global warming for more information. But despite the wealth of evidence, not everyone is convinced. The other day, while browsing blog entries categorized as science here at wordpress.com, I came across a blog entry in which the author apparently discounts global warming, oddly enough, because of the abundant evidence. Without commenting on that logic, I’d like to point out what I thought was the most interesting part of the entry, in which the author speculates why people don’t believe these are random fluctuations (emphasis mine):
…no one ever listens to that theory. Why? Probably because its not as exciting as the end of the world.
This is quite a common perception, and I don’t fault the author for writing it (though I could not resist leaving a comment). It is true that several examples have been cited as possible effects of global warming; for instance, a large outbreak of food poisoning from Vibrio parahaemolyticus (gastroenteritis) in the United States appears to be due to rising ocean temperatures (reference: McLaughlin et al. “Outbreak of Vibrio parahaemolyticus Gastroenteritis Associated with Alaskan Oysters.” New England Journal of Medicine. 353: 1463–1470 — see abstract). However, while the world as we know it may end, other ecological disasters would probably be needed for humanity’s complete eradication. And even if that were to happen, the world itself will go on just fine without us. We’ve only been on Earth for a tiny fraction of its existence—if Earth’s lifetime is one day, then Homo sapiens evolved around 2 seconds ago. Or put another way, dinosaurs were dominant on Earth for some 100 million years; they went extinct 65 million years ago, whereas Homo sapiens originated perhaps a couple hundred millennia ago, making the dinosaurs’ tenure some five hundred times longer. And of course, human civilization is only five thousand years old, only one-fortieth of our existence.
Nicely illustrating this transience is a short film entitled “Das Rad” (The Wheel, in German with English subtitles). It was nominated for best short film in the 2003 Academy Awards. It’s a very creative look at the progress of humanity from the point of view of two rocks on a hillside. It’s quite amusing. The film is approximately eight-and-a-half minutes long. From Google Video: