An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car?

In Review

I finally got around to seeing An Inconvenient Truth before press time. If you, like me, have been telling yourself you don’t need to see it because you know all that stuff already, go see it anyway. I got a few important things out of it.

One of those things is that Al Gore is as tempting a subject for hagiography as any living American politician. Watching the movie, I was tempted to forget the former vice president’s betrayal of the families in East Liverpool, Ohio, whom Gore had promised to protect from a hazardous waste incinerator, a promise broken not long after the inauguration in 1993. Or the Clinton administration’s rollover on Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards in that same year, which certainly put us further behind the climate goals spelled out in the movie. Or that administration’s unnecessarily generous subsequent compromise with the timber industry over old-growth logging, Option Nine, which helped speed the degradation of forests that could have been sequestering carbon. And there’s always the example of Gore benefiting his family oil stock portfolio by pushing the sale of oil drilling rights on arguably sacred land in the Elk Hills of California.

At one point during the Clinton-Gore years, Earth Island’s David Brower suggested to Gore that he ought to read his own book.

Vice Presidents in the pre-Cheney era were often relatively powerless, so it might be unfair to lay all the Clinton administration’s environmental gaffes at Gore’s feet. Still, it’s possible that a fair accounting might assign Gore responsibility for a significant amount of governmentally driven damage to the Earth’s climate. Perhaps even as much as a hundredth that done by the Bush administration from 2001–2004. An honest documentary would have at least mentioned those gaffes.

movie poster photo; smokestacks with a hurricane gyre emerging from them, words: an inconvenient truth, a global warning

But what the heck, it’s a campaign movie first and foremost, campaigning both to get people to wake up to the danger climate change poses (and the spuriousness of the manufactured controversy over what is, increasingly, unanimous scientific thinking) and to put pressure on the Bush administration as well.

And it’s a damn good campaign movie. It’s been jokingly referred to as the “highest-grossing PowerPoint presentation in history,” and that joke has some merit. The filmmakers do their best to leaven the statistics, as engaging as they are, with profiles of the former vice president as he strides around his family farm, meets with young activists, and – in an oddly compelling bit of cinema verite – working on the PowerPoint presentation on which the movie hangs.

If there was anyone in the audience who believed the Election 2000 caricature of Al Gore as a wooden, lifeless mannequin, they had doubtless changed their minds by the time they left. Gore comes across as lively and funny. If the rumbling about this being an electoral campaign film are true as well, Karl Rove will have his work cut out for him trying to cast Gore as a robot again. I suspect Rove might not be up to that task: The conservative response to An Inconvenient Truth has been limited to an amateurish Flash video satire blaming penguins for global warming, and going on to declare Gore a penguin.

Incidentally, I saw the movie in one of those theaters that show commercials before the feature. There were two commercials shown before our screening. The first was an ad for Chevron. The second was an ad for General Motors. There was a little hissing. The only more ironic placement possible for a General Motors theater ad would have been at showings of Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine’s documentary.

In 1990, General Motors began promoting an all-electric car, at first burdened with the amusingly ill-considered name the “Impact,” at auto shows and trade conventions. The first consumer models, hastily renamed the EV1, were leased to the public in 1996. The cars were sleek, reached speeds of 80 miles per hour readily, and had an effective range between recharges of about 70 to 90 miles. To drivers accustomed to getting 300 or so miles from a tank of gas that range may seem low, but given that EV1 owners could recharge their cars at home each night and that most driving in the US consists of commuting to and from work and shopping, 70 miles is more than adequate for most people’s daily lives. As actor/activist Ed Begley Jr. says in the movie, “the electric vehicle is not for everybody. It can only meet the needs of 90 percent of the population.”

That’s not to say that the electric car fans portrayed in Who Killed The Electric Car? represent 90 percent of the population. The filmmakers portray the lives of a handful of apparently quite affluent Angelenos, a double-digit percentage of them celebrities. Aside from Begley, there’s Baywatch actress Alexandra Paul, Austin Powers model Colette Divine, Peter Horton, clips of Tom Hanks singing the praises of his electric car on Leno, and a pre-disgrace Mel Gibson decked out in a Saddam-in-the-foxhole beard. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking the EV1 a play toy of the LA elítes for that reason alone, if not for the fact that the EV1 was not sold but leased, an option generally not exercised by the less-than-affluent. And it’s true: The EV1 needed more public demand before it was manufactured in quantities sufficient for the price to come down.

Unfortunately, that demand never had a chance to coalesce: General Motors canceled the leases on all EV1s and repossessed them, despite pleas from fans to allow their sale. GM even went so far as to refuse payment in full for the cars.

Why would a corporation refuse to sell a lucrative item to ready consumers? The film explores the reasons for this odd, counterintuitive corporate behavior on the part of GM and several other companies with their respective electric vehicles. A major contender for blame is the alleged collusion among auto manufacturers and the California Air Resources Board, which – at the urging of the car companies – basically rescinded its requirements for zero-emissions vehicles in the state of California, which had prompted development of the electric cars in the first place.

The film has holes, mainly centered around the aforementioned class issues. The largest such hole concerned what electric car critics refer to as the “long tailpipe” issue: as electricity must be generated to power the cars, and the majority of electricity in the US is generated by burning coal, don’t electric cars just take the exhaust out of the drivers’ lungs and put it in someone else’s? This allegation is more troubling given the distinct lack of affluence among people living near coal-fired power plants. The filmmakers state that electric vehicles are still more efficient than gasoline engines on a pollution per mile basis, but they don’t provide the evidence to back up that claim. Even if true, is it ethical to pollute poor neighborhoods so that affluent Angelenos can salve their environmental consciences? A straighter answer would have been appreciated. The filmmakers do mention alternatives for the less-affluent, including an $8,000 electric car conversion for your old gasoline junker.

Or you could just ride a bike.

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