August 9, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Filed under: Climate Politics

It’s the rare bestseller that commits factual suicide in its first pages, but Al Gore has managed this feat in a big way in An Inconvenient Truth.

An Inconvenient Truth is mostly a picture book (or a movie) with screaming, large-fonted text superimposed to make sure we get the point—mankind is ruining the Earth. Everything bad, and nothing good—floods, sea level rise, drought, famine, disease, tornadoes, hurricanes, and fire, destruction etc.—are all caused by anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide.

Where’s the picture demonstrating that fossil-fuel powered societies have doubled life expectancy in the last 100 years. Where’s the amber waves of grain, pumped up in part by atmospheric carbon dioxide? Or, perhaps too close to home, where are all the plump Americans, because food is no longer a limiting resource?

Instead, picture after well-crafted picture provides the backdrop to Gore’s frightful but droning text (or speech, in the movie). Each page is slick and deliberate. Each is perfectly airbrushed climate porn with a Hollywood twist. “Twist” in the sense that truth becomes an inconvenience, right from the get-go.

After a couple of intro pages of Gore leads with a photograph of the earth hanging in space beyond the edge of the moon. This photo is famously known as Earth Rise, and was taken by the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 as they orbited the moon on December 24, 1969. After just completing their third time around (the 3-man Apollo 8 crew made a total of ten revolutions around the moon), as commander Frank Borman was maneuvering the capsule, Bill Anders glimpsed the earth emerging from behind the limb of the moon. The astronauts grabbed the nearest camera and took a couple of snapshots (on film) of the scene. These were developed and famously published after the astronauts returned to earth several days later. On their 9th time around the moon, the astronauts appeared worldwide on live TV for about 20 minutes during which time they broadcast images taken from a video camera they had pointed out the window and Bill Anders gave some commentary as to what they were seeing. The broadcast started out with a brief shot of the earth from space, and then focused on the surface of the moon below. As the broadcast ended and lunar sunrise approached, the astronauts took turns reading from the book of Genesis. Bill Anders, who had been providing the commentary began, “In the beginning…,” after reading a few lines, he passed the microphone to Jim Lovell, who read a few more lines, and then Frank Borman finished up the passage and signed off with “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth.” One more revolution later and the crew of Apollo 8 headed home.

But, Gore, in his overprinted text, embellished this truth. Why? An Inconvenient Truth is to climate change as Gore is to the internet and “Love Story”—grains of fact built into mountains of illusion.
Here is Gore’s text that is superimposed on the photograph of Earth Rise—the earth rising over the horizontal lunar horizon (from pages 12-13 of An Inconvenient Truth):

This is the first picture most of us ever saw of the earth from space. It was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission, the first of the Apollo missions that left the confines of near-Earth orbit and circled the Moon scouting for landing sites before Apollo 11 touched down the following summer.

The vessel went around the far side of the Moon and lost radio contact, as expected. Inevitably, even though everyone understood the reason for the protracted silence, it was a time of great suspense. Then, as radio contact was reestablished, the crew looked up and saw this spectacular sight.

While the crew watched the Earth emerging from the dark void of space, the mission commander, Frank Borman, read from the book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.”

One of the astronauts aboard, a rookie named Bill Anders, snapped this picture and it became known as Earth Rise. The image exploded into the consciousness of humankind. In fact, within two years of this picture being taken, the modern environmental movement was born. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Natural Environmental Policy Act, and the first Earth Day all came within a few years of this picture being seen for the first time.

The day after it was taken, on Christmas Day, 1968, Archibald MacLeish wrote:

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that ethereal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.”

The following is the timeline of what really happened in space as Apollo 8 went into orbit around the moon according to the full transcripts of the flight journal of the mission, available at NASA’s website, (which make for quite interesting reading for you space buffs out there).

At 68 hours, 58 minutes, 45 seconds into the mission, ground control in Houston lost contact with Apollo 8, as scheduled, as it went around the backside of the moon for the first time. A little over a half-hour later (at about 069:33:44), contact is reestablished between the ground and Apollo 8. This loss of signal occurs every couple of hours as the spacecraft dips behind the moon. On the fourth time around (about 075:47:30 into the mission), the astronauts catch site of the earth rising over the limb of the moon and take several pictures of it, including the one that serves as the back drop to Gore’s passage above. The original pictures were taken in the orientation seen by the astronauts as they were in an equatorial orbit around the moon—the limb of the moon was vertical and the earth appeared to be coming out from left to right. To make the scene seem more familiar, it is often rotated 90 degrees so that the earth appears to be rising over the horizontal lunar horizon. This is the orientation Gore chose to use for setting his scene. After nearly 12 more hours, and 5 more orbits of the moon later, the images from the TV camera on-board pointing out the window are broadcast on live TV back on earth with astronaut Bill Anders describing what was being seen. Initially there is a video of the earth in space. It appears briefly and it is not very clear what it is, the Public Affairs Officer from Houston says (085:44:00) “We’re theorizing here that that bright spot in the top left side of your picture is the Earth. That’s not very clear.” Seconds thereafter, the astronauts switch the video feed to the camera pointing at the lunar surface. After describing what they’re seeing out the window for the next 20 or so minutes, finally as lunar sunrise approaches, they start the recitation of Genesis. (086:06:56). Astronaut Bill Anders (not Gore’s Frank Borman) begins reading, “In the beginning…”. Anders reads several lines, the Jim Lovell takes a turn, and finally Borman reads the last few lines and signs the broadcast off.

So, in what took place as disparate events over the course of some19 hours, Gore managed to portray as a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, which ultimately begot the Environmental Movement. Where’s the evidence? Great Hollywood-style scene direction of a moment in history that just didn’t exist.

A virtual repeat plays out on the very next double page (pages 14-15 of An Inconvenient Truth). This time the backdrop is a photograph of the fully-illuminated Earth, captured by the crew of Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission, as they looked homeward on their way to the moon.

Here is how Gore directs the scene:

This is the last picture of our planet taken by a human being from space. It was taken in December 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission—the last Apollo mission—from a point halfway between the Earth and the Moon.

What makes this image so extraordinary is that it’s the only photo that we have of the Earth from space taken when the Sun was directly behind the spacecraft.

Just as eclipses of the Sun occur only on those rare occasions when the Earth and the Sun and the Moon are positioned along a straight line, this was the only time during the four-year series of Apollo missions when the sun was lined up almost directly behind the Moon while the spacecraft was making its journey. So the Earth, instead of being partly shrouded in darkness, appears fully illuminated.

For this reason, this image has become the most commonly published photograph in all of history. No other image comes close. In fact, 99 times out of 100, when you see a picture of Earth, this is the picture you are seeing.

Since when is this “the last picture of our planet taken by a human being from space”? Hundreds of people that have gone into space since the last Apollo mission, including 6 more that are scheduled to leave on the next Shuttle mission in a few weeks. Between them, they have taken thousands of photos. And what about Gore’s contention that “What makes this image so extraordinary is that it’s the only photo that we have of the Earth from space taken when the Sun was directly behind the spacecraft.” The only one? For another, taken 5 years earlier from NASA satellite ATS-III, see here. And for one taken less than 1 hour ago, go here. If it is not full illuminated, just wait until about 3pm EST and refresh the page—these full-disk GOES images are taken every hour and have been produced for more than 30 years! And as far as being the most commonly published photograph in history by a wide margin, a Google search of “most reproduced photograph” overwhelmingly points to the photo of the flag being raised over Iwo Jima.

How inconvenient.

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