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Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth movie review

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 5:02 PM GMT on June 19, 2006

Al Gore's global warming movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," aims to call attention to the dangers society faces from climate change, and suggests urgent actions that need to be taken immediately. It is based on a slide show on climate Gore has presented to audiences worldwide over 1000 times in the past 15 years, but it is not purely a documentary. Gore's movie is an advocacy piece that is part documentary, part biography, and part campaign ad. I'll discuss all three of these aspects below. In brief, Al Gore has the right idea--climate change is an urgent issue that requires immediate action, and his thoughtful movie is a welcome addition to the usual array of mindless Hollywood summer fare. However, the movie has flaws. The presentation of the science is good, but not great--I rate it B minus. The excessive details on Al Gore's life make the movie too long, and his insistence on using the movie as something of a campaign ad detracts from its message.

An Inconvenient Truth as a biography of Al Gore
The creators of the movie presumably thought that simply presenting Gore's slide show would be too dull, so they decided to give the movie some human interest by interweaving a biography of Al Gore's life. Al Gore has led an interesting life, but "interesting" and "Al Gore" are not words one can often put together. As my daughter noted in her movie review yesterday, Al Gore is boring, and the 20 minutes or so of biography presented in An Inconvenient Truth is too much for a movie that is 1 hour and 36 minutes long. For example, I didn't really need to see the road where Al Gore totaled his car when he was 14 years old, or a replay of his loss in the 2000 election. On the other hand, some details of his past were interesting and relevant, such as the fact that he took college courses in the late 1960s from Harvard's Dr. Roger Revelle. Revelle and Dr. Charles Keeling were the pioneers in measurements of atmospheric CO2, and thus Gore got a very early exposure to the now infamous "Keeling Curve" (Figure 1), showing the build-up of atmospheric CO2. This early exposure to the significant impact humans were having on the atmosphere deeply affected Gore, and in the movie he details efforts he made to call attention to the issue long before most people had heard of it, back in the 1970s and 80s. Gore's slide show appropriately displays many graphs of the Keeling Curve, as it is probably the most important and most famous finding in climate change science.

Figure 1. The Keeling Curve is a record of CO2 measurements taken at he top of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii since 1958.

The science of An Inconvenient Truth
The science presented is mostly good, and at times compelling, but there are a few errors and one major distortion of the truth. Gore does an excellent job focusing on the most important issues, and usually presents them with a minimum of hype and distortion. The only exception to this comes in his treatment of global warming and extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

Basic global warming science
Gore begins the science part of his talk with a very easy to understand presentation on the basics of how the greenhouse effect works. His speech is clear, the graphics top notch, and he spices it up with a hilarious two-minute cartoon depicting roughneck global warming gases preventing poor Mr. Sunbeam from escaping Earth's atmosphere. Gore addresses the argument of skeptics who claim that the Earth is too big for humans to affect by showing Space Shuttle photos of how thin the atmosphere really is compared to the vast bulk of our planet. "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being thickened by huge quantities of carbon dioxide," he asserts, which is not correct. The build-up of CO2 has virtually no effect on the density or thickness of Earth's atmosphere. The correct thing to say would have been, "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being made more opaque to the transmission of infrared radiation (heat) by huge quantities of carbon dioxide."

Gore shows an impressive series of "then and now" images documenting the widespread retreat of many glaciers over the past century. Most dramatically, he shows Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, whose 11,000 year-old glaciers are almost gone. While not all the world's glaciers have retreated in the past century, Gore's presentation is an effective and reasonable way to show how global warming has affected the majority of the world's glaciers. Greenhouse skeptics, including Michael Crichton in his State of Fear book, are fond of bashing those who use Mt. Kilimanjaro as a poster child for demonstrating global warming. They cite scientific research showing that the glacial retreat on Mt. Kilimanjaro is due to drying of the atmosphere, not global warming. However, as discussed at great length in a realclimate.org post, the research which supposedly supports the skeptics' claims has been widely misquoted and misinterpreted, and much of Kilimanjaro's melting can indeed be ascribed to warming of the atmosphere since 1960.

Gore does an excellent job discussing the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica. Again, Gore's graphics are superb, and he does a nice job narrating. He shows animations of what a 20-foot rise in sea level would do to Manhattan, Florida, India, and China. A 20-foot sea level rise is what we expect if all of Greenland or all of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt. Such a 20-foot rise is not expected by 2100, and it would have been appropriate for Gore to acknowledge that the consensus of climate scientists--as published in the most recent report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)--is that sea level is likely to rise between 4 and 35 inches, with a central value of 19 inches, by 2100. He should have also mentioned that temperatures in Greenland in the 1930s were about as warm as today's temperatures, so the current melting of Greenland's glaciers does have historical precedent. Nevertheless, the risk of a catastrophic melting and break-up of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets is very real, when we consider that sea level before the most recent ice age was 15 feet higher than it is now. Gore is right to draw attention to what might happen if sea level rose 20 feet.

Drought and heat waves
An excellent discussion of the most serious climate change issue our generation is likely to face, the threat of increased drought and reduced water supplies, is presented. Gore makes reference to the extreme heat wave that affected Europe during the summer of 2004, and I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future.

Hurricanes and severe weather
The biggest failure in the movie's presentation of science comes in the discussion hurricanes and severe weather events. The devastation wrought by Katrina is used to very dramatic effect to warn of the dangers climate change presents. We are told that Katrina grew "stronger and stronger and stronger" as it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico that were heated up by global warming. We are told that global warming is increasing the intensity of hurricanes, but not provided information on the great amount of uncertainty and vigorous scientific debate on this issue. Graphs showing recent record insurance losses from natural disasters are presented, but no mention is made of how increasing population and insistence on building in vulnerable areas are the predominant factors causing recent high insurance claims from disasters such as Katrina. Gore points to some unprecedented events in 2004 as evidence of increasing severe weather events worldwide--the record 10 typhoons in Japan, the most tornadoes ever in the U.S., and the appearance of Brazil's first hurricane ever. However, examples of this kind are meaningless. No single weather event, or unconnected series of severe weather events such as Gore presents, are indicative of climate change. In particular, the IPCC has not found any evidence that climate change has increased tornado frequency, or is likely to. Gore doesn't mention the unusually quiet tornado season of 2005, when for the first time ever, no tornadoes were reported in Oklahoma in the month of May.

Other science
Gore presents many other important aspects of climate change, including the threat of abrupt climate change leading to a shut-off of the Gulf Stream current, the increase in damaging insect infestations and tropical diseases, loss of coral reefs, loss of ice in the polar ice cap, and melting of permafrost in the Arctic. With the possible exception of his treatment of the spread of tropical diseases, all of these issues were presented with sound science.

An Inconvenient Truth as a campaign ad
Gore has repeatedly said that he has no intention of running for president again, and that this movie was created as part of his life-long passion to protect the environment. Gore undoubtedly does care very deeply about the planet, but this movie very much looks like a campaign ad. We are shown many scenes of Gore being applauded, Gore traveling the globe to present his slide show, and Gore working to uncover evidence of Republican shenanigans to alter or suppress climate change science. Gore is portrayed as a humble and tireless crusader for good, and if the movie is not intended to promote his political ambitions, it is certainly intended to benefit the Democratic Party. All this gets in the way of the movie's central message.

At the end of the movie, we are presented with the same image that Gore started the movie with, that of a beautiful river in the wilderness. Throughout the movie, Gore emphasizes how beautiful and special our planet is, and he does an effective job conveying this. He also makes a powerful case that something can and should be done to protect the planet, and it is worth hearing his message, even if the science is flawed and the messenger does get in the way of the message. Overall, the movie rates 2.5 stars--worth seeing, but you might want to wait until the DVD comes out.

At the end of the movie, Gore presents some tips on how everyone can contribute, and points people to his web site, www.climatecrisis.net. However, I would recommend that people who want to get educated about climate change get their information from web sites not associated with a politician; perhaps the least politicized source of information is the latest scientific summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries working under a mandate from the United Nations in the largest peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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278. NAtlanticCyclone
3:01 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
This system near the Bahamas can very well become Beryl in the upcoming days. I haven't seen anything this well organized since that wave that came off of the African coast a week ago. This will probably develop somewhere off the FLorida's East Coast and go into the Gulf of Mexico due to the Bermuda High's current status and strength. Just my opinion. I will update on the current severe thunderstorm threat later today.
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277. sayhuh
8:50 AM CST on June 20, 2006
MichaelSTL...good feedback. I will look at the SLP to see how that works out ongoing.

Gulf, sorry to rant...I am not sure anyone was calling it a tropical cyclone. [did I miss it if they did?] I think folks were noticing s spin [obvious for any kind of low], but you are right..by defintion, certainly nothing of concern structurally..but a TON of rain!

I personally still think however that this L in TX was the original low from Alberto that got ejected and spun back out SW toward its current location. Again..just my opinion.
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274. Otowngirl
2:40 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Thank you so much to everyone for the help and the website links for models and other sites (i.e., StormJunkie's, etc.). I find Dr. Master's Blog to be a great source of information for those of us who live in weather dominant areas (and anymore most everywhere falls under that umbrella). I also crave to learn more than I know (one meteorology class in college does NOT make me an expert...lol). While I have a natural interest in the weather, it seems important to expand my horizons for information. So quite naturally, Dr. Master's Blog is an excellent launching point. I bookmark all the links folks share and scour them when I have time. I can honestly say I haven't received one link that wasn't worthwhile.

As a true novice I can honestly say that in the spirit of learning, the MORE blogs & websites that USERS of this website can suggest (including their own personal websites), the better!

So again, thanks to everyone who gave me guidance and help. I'm sure that I'll be posting a bit more as the season progresses, especially as I call Orlando home. lol :)

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273. sails1
2:33 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
I am currently in the Dominican Republic on a windsurfing trip till Sat. Conditions are looking better in the Bahamas for a tropical depression to form. What are your thoughts on this developing weather system and will the strong high in the central atlantic drive this system into Florida. I live in Southern FL. Pls let me know you thougths.
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268. Wombats
2:33 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
any predictions on where the bahama system may go? also still showing an area over Houston in the next few days?
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266. StormJunkie
2:31 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Michael, we went over this slp thing last night. The 850mb max usually picks up on potential areas of interest first.


Thanks Thug:)
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264. StormJunkie
2:29 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Several models are hinting at development in the 120+ time frame. Will be something to watch for. That Bahama area is the most interesting area right now though. More wait and see.

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263. StormThug
9:30 AM CDT on June 20, 2006
nice website SJ
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260. 53rdWeatherRECON
2:22 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Shear CurrentlyShear Tendency over past 24hrs
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259. sayhuh
8:04 AM CST on June 20, 2006
Has any one looked at the 850MB 00Z run of the CMC at 132-144hr?


Might have two to watch.

But alas..its all a farce..the models are still out to lunch and ST has advised us not to worry until after the 4th. Party is over everyone ;-(

Posted By: GulfScotsman at 12:27 PM CST on June 19, 2006.
See what I mean Mr. Houstonian. Blogging all over themselves to be first to "name" Beryl out of a rain storm.

Oh..and Gulf..not sure I have seen anyone predict anything from the TX blob..I think I have seen people talk about what kind of system it is, but not seen anyone say it is more than what it is. It is interesting to watch. But of course..its just a rain storm, right? Ask the people in Houston what they think right now about your "rain storm"

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257. WSI
2:22 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
The CMC's main page can be found here.

I have a lot of model links at weathercore.com in the weather model section.
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256. Otowngirl
2:23 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
THANK YOU Michael!!!! :)
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253. Wombats
2:20 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Whats the sheer like in the carib, and gulf these days??
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252. Otowngirl
2:17 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
For those of us still learning the "lingo", could someone please tell me what the "CMC" is and where I can find it?

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251. 53rdWeatherRECON
2:13 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
STORM TOP you are killing yourself again. That "African dust" was there throughout the whole season last year that didn't slow it down one bit.
It is still early for Cape Verde systems to form.
We should only see developement in the carib, and gulf this early in the season (you know that)which if you look in those places today you might not find a TD but some waves are mixing it up.(as previously noted). Shear changes daily and we have seen systems develop in unprescidented conditions this year and last. Just hold on little buddy season's only 20 days old and things could heat up pretty quick. According to the long range CMC we may have 2 tropical systems to watch as early as this weekend.
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250. turtlehurricane
2:04 PM GMT on June 20, 2006

this is somehting
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249. Cavin Rawlins
1:59 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
they said that an upper level feature will form and a surface feature could form below it this weekend.

Sources:Accuweather and The Weather Channel
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248. ProgressivePulse
1:40 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Getting a little saucy over there in the Bahama's.
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245. LakeWorthFinn
1:22 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Thanks ST, was just going to ask about that African dust when saw you post.
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244. PBG00
1:17 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Saw that model this mornin..little worrisome for us...but still early
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242. Cavin Rawlins
1:08 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
my new blog entry
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241. Cavin Rawlins
1:06 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Look at the Bahamas!
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240. sleepy
12:55 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
snowboy-sorry, went to bed (sleepy and all, you know) - I understand it's getting hotter - all i was trying to say about the numbers is that, according to gore's chart, the average daily temperature here in detroit should be, oh, say, about 108 degrees based on the current CO2 levels... i am so not a scientist (obviously) - i am just a pathetic member of the general public trying to understand - i don't take to being spoonfed by people on either side of an issue - so please don't misunderstand and take me for a skeptic with an agenda - that said, please let me rephrase my last post, and i assume someone will let me know if it's incorrect:
hmmm... so, basically, [due to the lag time] by the time we have the the numbers for the charts [to show the proportional relationship between CO2 levels and temperature], there really won't be anyone around to say 'we told you so'.
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239. IKE
12:40 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
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238. disneylogic
12:35 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
Okay. So let's assume global warming is human-caused and all because of CO2 emissions. What do you want us to do about it?

it's straightforward: long term we need to reduce emissions and consumptive behavior. that needs to be facilitated by (1) doing something about reducing energy consumption, including federal demands that miles-per-gallon on all vehicles be increased, (2) pushing towards alternative energy sources, including nuclear, but "forcibly" resolving long-standing roadblocks, including settling the nuclear waste disposal problem, (3) going after stuff like fuel cells with more than token research and development, and (4) replacing our federal income tax with a progressive consumption tax (like Japan's) or a VAT.

that's all, as i said, long term. it won't do anything to begin reducing the damage that's been done for 70-100 years.

short term, we need to act like the threat is as urgent as it actually is, seeing it as the threat to our national economy and security. it would be nice to cooperate internationally on this but, failing that, we need to see our own interests and work to reduce our exposure to the effects of coastal flooding and storms. we need to create federal disincentives for building near the coast, need to build more refineries for gas and oil but do so with strict federal guidance and away from concentrations of existing and away from high risk areas (including geophysical risks, BTW). this will all need cash.

accordingly, we need to reduce the budget of the Department of Defense, especially its weapons programs, mothballing space-based weapons and missile defense, reducing the size of the military, alerting allies they are more on their own for their own defense, and use the savings to make these changes.

i only say the latter because i am a fiscal conservative, and we can't spend what we need to spend to prepare for the consequences of warming without getting it from some where. defense is a pretty big pole in the tent. we can talk about a gasoline tax to help, but i don't like those.

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237. bappit
12:11 PM GMT on June 20, 2006
radikalweather: (yawn) i am awake i am seeing what? dr masters blog? i am seeing right global warming hey guys a hacker entered this blog i can clearly see it!!!


Blame that Masters guy. He started it! Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Did not.
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236. HillsboroughBay
12:05 PM GMT on June 20, 2006

I hope you are correct! We need a big break. These Insurance rates are hideious. What other business can simply try and recoup a bad period's earnings? If the Car Companies & McDonalds tried it we could just NOT BUY. Buy we have no choice with Insurance. The sad part is they had recod profits & totally forget about 20 years of no loss for a customer who paid for that long. 1 Loss & BAM goes the rates for the entire market!

Pray for a quiet season for our region!
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235. IKE
11:51 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
SavannahStrom said..."Say, Dr. Masters... How's about opening a seperate blog about global warming so that we can stay on topic about hurricane season? I'm getting sick of these global warming rants and counter-rants and it seems like they would be best channeled into a sperate thread..."

AMEN!!!! Enough about it. Some believe...some don't. It just goes on and on and on and on.....
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234. goldstein
10:04 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
The article quoteded by Daveg was previously discussed at http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=06/06/14/209235

The article by Harris is a propaganda piece. He works for a PR organization that does considerable business with the energy industry. Also, the canadafreepress.com site is, at least by Canadian standards, a fringe operation.

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233. Trouper415
8:10 AM GMT on June 20, 2006

Its never easy for me to wake up in the morning, knowing that there is hard work ahead, education people about issues that face us today. However I always think of the results that will come about from all this hard, persistant work. Our generation can easily solve these huge issues simply by dedicating time in solving Global Warming. We will have ensured the United States and World economy stength for hundreds of years to come. Strong Communities will be formed spreading propserity to every man, woman, and child living here. We would have ensured our children as beautiful a land as we have experienced, by being more conciencious and efficient with the ways we live. And we would have layed the concrete foundation in battling Global Warming for generations to come, who will live with challenges posed.

As a whole, it is very hard to solve a problem such as Global Warming, simply because we have not faced an issue of such prospective magnitude, leaving us in doubt at times whether it is even worth the effort to solve it. However, the benefits of solving such a collosal problem are even larger than the problem itself. So get out there and start talking to your neighbors, because the two biggest building blocks are education and community!

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232. radikalweather
8:02 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
(yawn) i am awake i am seeing what? dr masters blog? i am seeing right global warming hey guys a hacker entered this blog i can clearly see it!!!
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231. ForecasterColby
7:51 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
Okay. So let's assume global warming is human-caused and all because of CO2 emissions. What do you want us to do about it?

"Any corpratist shills want to start the ant Dr. masters rants? Oh come on, Hannity and Limbaugh - ddi you already forget your pathetic marching orders, neocon pawns?"

Why is it that anyone who disagrees with a liberal is automatically a mindless servant of the republican party? I can understand if you think partisan politics comes into it, but I would say that it does on both sides. Comments like that are really unnessessary and undermine your credibility and that of the point you're trying to make. Remember - most of the country still voted for Bush :)
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230. guygee
7:36 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
Trouper415 - You are absolutely right that we need to try to overcome our apathy and (in my case) cynicism, and try to keep educating everyone to the dangers we face regarding climate change and our unsustainable economy as a whole. I hope I wake up tomorrow with a renewed energy and sense of purpose in doing my part, however large or samll that may be.

Good night to all!
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229. guygee
7:31 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
Since Dr. Jeff set the tone of this blog by discussing climate change, I thought I would offer a cool link to those tired of discussing global warming. It is a BBC transcript on the "Snowball Earth" that is believed to have existed 600 million years ago.

It is an interesting read with interviews with scientists from several disciplines. One of the interviews is with the famous Russian atmospheric scientist Mikhail Budyko. I read one of Budyko's books in the early 1990's and was very impressed. One of his famous predictions was that, if approximately half the Earth was ever covered by ice, then the resulting albedo feedback would result in a permanent "iceball Earth" that would remain stable for nearly the lifetime of the solar system. An interesting part of the transcript linked above involves what he neglected in his calculations, and how the Earth did recover from the worldwide ice age 600 million years ago.

In his book, Budyko also made the prediction that the Earth was only a couple of million years away from a "carbon dioxide death"; becoming a permanent iceball due to the sequestration of carbon in the Earth's crust to the extent that CO2 levels would fall below the level necessary for the atmosphere to retain enough heat necessary to keep water in its liquid state at the Earths surface. His book was written before global warming became a recognized phenomenom, but it was still a very interesting read. So I'll leave here tonight with this link for anyone that loves learning about paleoclimatology.
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228. Trouper415
7:29 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
We, at our current societal standpoint, are far from solving Global Warming and many other issues that face our nation today. Communities must be formed as the various aspects in solving these issues can be spread and learned much easier when this is done.

We should feel blessed to have the means in first recognizing Global Warming, and secondly, having the ability to solve it. We are, or should be in an energy transitional period right now anyways, and the days of cheap oil are over. We must look for new ways to power our homes, cars and economy, not having to rely on expensive fossil fuels anymore to do the work.

For those of you who know the possible situation we are getting ourselves into, I cannot stress more gravely, the importance of education. I meet people everyday who know nothing about Global Warming and its affects on our daily living. We must rise ourselves out from this era of passive activism, and ensure a stable future for our children. Whether your cause be solving Global Warming or not, we find ourselves crossroads. Crossroads that will determine if our generation will carry the torch into the future, shedding the light of prosperity for generations to come, or we simply continue this passive nature, shoving the evergrowing burden on the next generation to set forth on this great land.

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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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