Opinion: An inappropriate truth

Notwithstanding the somewhat tenuous connection between peace and the weather, I was more than happy to see Al Gore scoop this year’s Nobel prize for his tireless efforts to raise awareness of the threat posed by global warming to the future of life on Earth. But, in my view, his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth is totally unsuitable for viewing in schools, and it puzzles me that anyone ever thought otherwise. It’s got nothing to do with last week’s court ruling. While it is certainly unfortunate if the film contains “nine scientific errors,” they are unlikely to register strongly in the minds of children. Most people, while accepting the judge’s clarifications, will see them as essentially nit-picking. No, the problem with An Inconvenient Truth in the context of schooling, is that it is so clearly and overtly political in character.

The first of many side-swipes at the Bush administration comes seven minutes into the film. Then, after about half an hour, we are treated to a reprise of the farcical 2000 presidential election. We see Gore making his final concession speech – “While I strongly disagree with the [Supreme] Court’s decision, I accept it.” The clear implication is that he was robbed. Further on, we see clips of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, indulging in a spot of climate change denial. Republican Senator James Inhofe suggests that the threat of global warming might be, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” These guys are the baddies, make no mistake about it. The Philip Cooney affair – where scientific research papers were doctored by a White House official connected to the oil industry – is covered in some detail, again placing the administration in a very poor light.

Not that I’m complaining, you understand. In fact I rather wish that Gore had hit out harder against the persistent foot-dragging of George W Bush over the environment. He might, for instance, have followed the example of Malcolm Bruce who, reacting to the news in 2001 that America was to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, said of the President, “Not content with killing Texas prisoners by lethal injection, he now wants to kill thousands or even millions around the world by lethal pollution.” Now that’s more like it! On the 2000 election, it’s a moot point whether or not Bush “stole” it, but I can’t help wishing that Gore could have prevailed instead, whether by fair means or foul. As the late Robin Cook observed in his 2003 resignation speech, “If the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore had been elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops.” What followed has been a tragedy of epic proportions.

But none of this makes Gore’s film any more appropriate to the classroom, which ought to be a place for learning established truths, not for imbibing political propaganda. In fact when it comes to the issue of climate change, there seems to have been a general failure in our discourse to separate the science from the politics. Science is concerned only with comprehending the natural world – this is where the consensus on global warming indisputably lies. But in the political arena, there are no right or wrong answers. Instead, politics is all about negotiation, compromise, and judging what might be a realistic objective under the circumstances. Screening An Inconvenient Truth in schools as part of a government-sponsored programme is simply wrong, and given that teachers are now obliged to hand out Mr Justice Burton’s corrective crib-sheet to accompany the film, a confused and mixed message is likely to result – a gift to the so-called “sceptics.”

This all reminds me of an earlier incident involving the BBC and its proposed “Planet Relief” jamboree, which was scheduled for transmission in January 2008. Newsnight editor Peter Barron was the first to state the obvious when he pointed out that it is, “not the corporation’s job to save the planet.” The plan was subsequently (and mercifully) dropped, but to some, the BBC was guilty of a feeble capitulation. Christopher Huhne, normally of sound judgement, was reported to have said that, “accusing the BBC of campaigning on such an undisputed threat is like suggesting it should be even-handed between criminals and their victims.” Well no Chris, it’s really just to be clear about what the BBC is for, and what it is not for. If the corporation really wishes to play its part in saving the planet, then why not make its own documentary Can We Save Planet Earth? freely available to schools? Unlike An Inconvenient Truth, Sir David Attenborough’s film is both meticulously accurate and apolitical, while still conveying the message loud and clear.

One final observation. As you will know, the extent to which religion influences public life troubles me greatly, one of the worst examples being the teaching of creationism in some of our City Academies. This ongoing educational travesty seems to provoke precious little agitation from Liberal Democrats – indeed whenever I mention the topic, I find that I am more likely to be branded “illiberal,” than I am to be encouraged. So I would just like to say two things: Firstly, that if liberalism entails that we should be relaxed about having our children taught demonstrable falsehoods in school, then I don’t want to be a liberal. But more to the point, I do hope that no-one is seriously expecting any child who may have had their respect for science so fatally undermined, to accept the scientific consensus on climate change.

It’s time to join up all the dots.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Martin Land 22nd Oct '07 - 8:50am

    As usual the Tories know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  • Letters From A Tory 22nd Oct '07 - 8:27am

    Taxpayers money shouldn’t be used to send round a film to every school in the country – surely more important films have been made that never got anywhere near schools?

    If schools want to buy it and show it to their pupils, that’s fine, but I don’t see why I should pay for it.

  • Grammar Police 22nd Oct '07 - 10:41am

    I completely agree with Laurence on this –
    given that teachers are now obliged to hand out Mr Justice Burton’s corrective crib-sheet to accompany the film, a confused and mixed message is likely to result – a gift to the so-called “sceptics.”
    He also indirectly raises one of the key problems with the academies scheme for me. What kind of person wants to pay a couple of million to run a school? Either someone who wants to make money from it or someone who’s got an agenda to push – neither of which seems to me to be a good qualification for running a school.

  • Tristan Mills wrtote: “as JS Mill warned, a state run education system is bound to be used for propaganda.”

    And I suppose there is no propaganda at Eton, Ampleforth and the King Fahd Academy?

    It is interesting to see that the case for the reality of climate change is now so strong that the US military industrial petrochemical complex is propagating climate change denial only through proxies, witting and unwitting (Peter Hitchens, Melanie Phillips, Lyndon LaRouche, David Icke, etc).

  • Neither Sir David Attenborough or his films are apolitical: that both are rooted in solid method only reinforces their inability to be subordinated to another cause or manipulated to any other purpose.

    He is what he is: he is a model liberal.

  • Bonkalot Jones 22nd Oct '07 - 2:42pm

    Does this mean that Liberals will now be espousing Nuclear Power, which James Lovelock assures us is the one great hope we have for avoiding meltdown from man made global warming ?

    I await your response with interest ?

  • Abolishing nuclear power and nuclear weapons are idealistic positions, whereas the reality is we have them and we have a systemic dependence on them – Pandora’s box has been opened.
    The challenge is to find ways to be able to do without them in order that practice can match our philosophy, in the meantime we must try to make them as safe and as sustainable as our science and politics allows.

  • I cannot see that there is a realistic alternative to the civil use of nuclear power.

    Unless we want to continue burning fossil fuels imported from unstable parts of the world. Until they run out, that is.

    Nuclear power stations are small and compact, and they don’t have chimneys. Those who don’t believe me should walk along Sizewell Beach and see for themselves.

    The technology has come a long way since Chernobyl.
    Importing gas from Putin’s Russia is far more dangerous, and expensive in the long run.

  • I agree that the current situation doesn’t allow for nuclear power to be abolished, but to become overly dependent on any single source, however reputable or reliable, is guaranteed to store up problems for the future.

    Like with all political issues, unless we have realistic choices we will be unable to say no to all sorts of damaging and harmful side-effects that come as by-products of what we originally sought.

    The present government has failed to provide a framework coherent enough for better and more viable solutions to be offered – this is an area where the LibDems have much to contribute.

  • Anyone who thinks wind turbines are an acceptable feature of the rural landscape should look at the following view of Astrain, Navarra, a Basque village whose setting has been blighted by the Spanish state.


  • Hi Joe, yes, the debate over energy shouldn’t descend into simplistic ‘this or that’ oppositions, but I don’t think I propounded rejecting anything out of hand – in fact I think I was saying the right thing to do is to keep our options open so that we are able to make the best possible choice – the best solution is always the most positive of the alternatives.

    If it comes down to making a decision over which is the lesser of two evils then our politics has failed: Labour has made this the choice, which is why Labour has failed, while the Conservatives don’t propose doing anything differently, which is why they are wrong.

    Where energy is concerned less waste in production and less waste in usage will mean a cleaner environment and a more effective market bringing the power to consumers.

    Carbon neutrality is like borrowing over the course of an economic cycle, it is imperative that the shared situation doesn’t spiral into unmanagable chaos where untold damage looms.

    Thus: a balanced portfolio of sources enables industrial specialisation to be competitive and flexible while eliminating any diplomatic, market or geo-politic repurcussions over supply instability.

    Where the debate has skirted around without fully addressing is in the area of renewables. There is massive potential here in a rapidly developing sector with new technologies, which will be a bedrock of science and employment for forthcoming generations.
    But the market for renewables is not fully open, free or fair – I recently investigated installing various forms of home microgeneration, but the government control of regulation and electricity resale prices made it more of a disincentive!

    Meanwhile I still have to boil my kettle somehow.

    Perhaps you were ascribing to me the ideals I was criticising?

  • Kevin O'Connor 23rd Oct '07 - 12:28pm

    Having had the misfortune to see the first hour of Al Gore’s film before giving up, I think the main reason not to show it in schools is that it is so damned boring. We need something to get children fired up about making a difference on climate change and Al Gore’s philosophical musings really won’t help.

  • About the Florida situation in the 2000 election: Gore proved he was incapable of preventing his own defeat as he was outmanouveured at every step of the way, which suggests he would have made a weaker president than Bush has made.

    If you want to hypothesise about how the dramatic events would have altered the policy direction an invasion of Iraq by Gore would definitely have turned out differently, though I don’t see him avoiding it, not as Laurence recalls Robin Cook thought he would.

    Gore is lauded now because he hasn’t been tested and judged according to the plight of his leadership, which has the consequence of allowing muddled thinkers to dole out their fancy awards to memorialise their wishful thinking – but was it really a lucky escape for us and him?

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