February 2010

“Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame.” So opined Mark Lynas, a journalist and environmental activist, writing in the Guardian. But Copenhagen was just the tip of the melting iceberg, to borrow a figure of speech. It has been followed by further embarrassing revelations that the predicted disappearance of Himalayan glaciers was based on contrived data.

Is all of this news necessarily a bad thing? I do not think so, and in fact I would argue that Copenhagen’s failure may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It may in fact save the world from misdirecting billions of dollars that could be better spent on developing alternative energy sources. The current controversy goes deeper than a few errant emails or some hastily published reports that were not properly reviewed, but whether or not the evidence actually supports the thesis proposed. Some of the most solid (literally!) evidence does not.

These temperatures on display are taken from ice-core samples. They are not subject to the speculations of computer modelling, but are hard empirical data. Ice-core samples may not be the whole picture, but they are far more reliable than tree-rings, and go further back in time. Here is the famous ‘hockey stick’ graph (published first by Michael Mann, currently under investigation at Penn State for his part in the infamous CRU email fiasco) that was featured in Al Gore’s movie and slide show An Inconvenient Truth:

Certainly from this one graph it looks as if global warming is happening, doesn’t it? And for many people 1400 AD looks like an impressive starting point to consider. But 1400 AD is yesterday in terms of human history, and further look back reveals something quite different:

If we go back to 800 AD we can see clearly that the ‘hockey stick’ has been cherry picked to avoid what is called the Medieval Warming Period, a time in which Greenland lived up to its name and wine was cultivated in England. From this graph the present warming trend looks relatively insignificant, a full degree colder even at present from the highs of 1050 AD. However, the next graph is even more telling:

From this graph we can see that in 1200 BC, round about the time Athens was putting the boots to Troy, the world was much warmer than it is at present. Not only Greece, but Babylon, Egypt, China, India and Israel were all establishing or had established vibrant and growing cultures. It was certainly not a catastrophe, or anything near it, in fact it was a time of cultural flowering. Note too from this graph that the temperatures of the last 1,000 years, even including the last 30 years of warming – which incidentally have only produced a 0.3 degree rise in ice-core temperatures – are trending down, not up. We are still one degree colder than 1050 AD and 2 1/2 degrees colder than 1200 BC. Does this trend hold up the further back we go?

Yes, it does. Looking at the last 10,000 years, the temperature has been pretty consistently warmer than it is at present, and the ‘alarming’ rise in present temperatures disappears into insignificance. Even the rapid rise in temperatures can be seen as a normal pattern of development in the earth’s fluctuating temperature, and quite clearly not a result of anything that we are doing. But the truly sobering graph is the one that shows the last 50,000 years.

From this graph it is pointedly clear that the last 10,000 years on the planet, a period roughly coinciding with the earliest records of civilization on earth, are a rare and perhaps fleeting moment of warmth in an earth that had been chillingly void of heat for millennia. Readers will take from this what they may, but I think it is clear that the current flap over the doctoring of data over Global Warming may be seen in retrospect as a step away from a serious miscalculation of climate trends. No one shivering in Europe’s worst winter storms in decades is thinking of global warming at the moment, I assure you!

Canadian James Cameron gave up engineering in Ontario to drive a truck in L.A. so he could have a chance to flog his scripts and become a screen writer. That must have been a huge gamble. But nothing compared to the professional and financial risk he took by putting all of his eggs in a basket called Avatar and launching it into the ether.

Already the most successful movie maker in history – his previous blockbuster Titanic earned him $115 million – he staked it all and a whole lot more on Avatar, which cost $300 million to make. In the process he invented the cameras that allowed him to shoot in 2D and 3D simultaneously, technology that he is now in a position to lease out to others.

But Avatar is not all about technology. Like any good artisan, Cameron’s control over the process is so thorough that he doesn’t have to dwell on it or impress you with it. Throughout the entire film there was really only one object that was thrown “at” the audience (a gas canister). The rest of the 3D stuff is so organic and natural you almost don’t know that it is there. Cameron says of his own work, “My approach to 3-D is in a way quite conservative. We’re making a two-and-a-half-hour-plus film and I don’t want to assault the eye every five seconds. I want it to be comfortable. I want you to forget after a few minutes that you are really watching 3-D and just have it operate at a subliminal, subconscious level. That’s the key to great 3-D and it makes the audience feel like real participants in what’s going on.”

What is going on is hugely enjoyable. Cameron has a beautiful imagination, and he allows it free reign in this entrancing movie. I don’t think I have so willingly and wholeheartedly entered into a fantasy world since Dorothy landed in Oz, which incidentally is Cameron’s favourite movie. Yes, Avatar is derivative in that it relies on so much of what has gone before; we have seen the monster-men machines in Matrix and the mythological beasts in Narnia. But Cameron has taken all of these elements and woven them seamlessly into his vision of an alien world. You cannot escape the impression that with this film movie-making is evolving to a new level. This will be undoubtedly be the benchmark for all future blockbusters. Mr. Cameron, you are no longer in Kansas, or even Kapuskasing anymore!

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