Convenient Fibs about an Underlying Truth: Al Gore’s Tortured Brief on Climate Change’s Causes, Effects, and Solutions


Caleb Stewart Rossiter

(Assistant professor, School of International Service, American University)


October 11, 2006


I teach quantitative methods and modeling for international affairs, which means I teach people how to understand, and then evaluate, the constant barrage of claims about causality that analysts and advocates make with charts, numbers, and mathematical correlations between variables.  What types of economic policies have led to the greatest reduction in poverty rates in African countries?  Which anti-retroviral drug regimen best prolonged the lives of AIDS patients?  The answers are rarely self-evident, and only statistically-complex multivariate modeling allows us to isolate the contribution of each factor, and sneak up on something resembling causality. 


If the researcher is brutally skeptical about all assumptions and so can test them impartially, if the variables are clear and measurable, and if the data are fantastically accurate, one just might be able to identify which combination of characteristics tends to correlate with what type of result, and how sure one can be of these tendencies.  We use the evidence of correlation in these models to sneak up on causation, always mindful that we are describing statistical averages, and not certainties that are always replicated.  For example, my mother is a smoker, and has not a trace of lung cancer, but we know that the difference in cancer rates between large populations of smokers and non-smokers, even after controlling for influences such as income, ethnicity, and exercise, prove to a high degree of certainty that smoking causes lung cancer.  


No topic in international affairs is more in need of this type of analysis than the past and potential impact of industrial emissions and other human activities on the global and local climate.  The term “Global Warming” has come to refer to a four-part belief about this topic:


·        First, there is the belief that the roughly one degree Fahrenheit rise in surface temperature over the past century has been caused primarily by human activities; 

·        Second, there is the belief that this one degree rise is itself the primary cause of many of the recent changes reported for other climate variables, such as decreased ice cover, hotter and higher seas, and more intense and more frequent storms, rains, and droughts, and even of changes in such non-climate variables as the rate of species loss and the speed of the migration of diseases; 

·        Third, there is the belief that much more dramatic increases in temperature, perhaps from three to 15 degrees, will occur in the next century if industrial emissions are not severely limited; and

·        Fourth, there is the belief that dramatically increased temperatures will in turn cause changes in the other climate and non-climate variables that would be catastrophic for human culture.


It should be noted that there is no inherent reason that someone who believes one of the parts of this quartet need believe any of the others, since the four beliefs comprise separate sets of research questions, many of whose answers are not yet clear, that hinge on different physical facts.  For example, there is no reason why the one-degree rise could not be largely natural and the changes in variables still due to it.  Or, the rise could be caused by human activity, but the changes in variables could have come mostly from sources other than the increased heat. 


Similarly, the first two beliefs could be true, but the effects of increased emissions on temperature, or of increased temperature on the other variables, from this point on could be logarithmic rather than linear or exponential.  That is, the response for some variables could be less and less for each unit increase in emissions or temperature.  Only physical measurements, rather than even strongly-confirmed theories and logical deductions from them, can provide answers for these questions, because of dampening, expanding, and interactive effects that become apparent only outside a controlled laboratory.  What we do know of the complexity of both the theory and practice of climate physics makes it extremely unlikely, prima facie, that for all important response variables this quartet of beliefs is either wholly right or wholly wrong.      


            Be that is it may, it seems that most people who speak out on “Global Warming” either believe all of the quartet or none of it.  Perhaps as a result, Americans’ beliefs break down along the lines of political parties, even though, again, there is no logical reason for there to be Democratic and Republican approaches to the complex science involved.  According to a large-sized random sample survey by the Pew Research Center in 2006, more than two times as many Democrats as Republicans (54% to 24%) believe that there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming and that this is mostly due to human activity rather than natural patterns. 


Nothing has brought more public attention to the topic of “Global Warming” in the United States recently than “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film featuring former Vice President Al Gore’s brief for the quartet.  To take advantage of its release last summer, I assigned a viewing of it to my graduate students, and made their final exam an evaluation, using both the tools of logic and the findings of scholarly, quantitative studies, of one of the main claims in the film about the causes, effects, and policy responses to the recent warming. 


            Of course, to give such an assignment, I had to see the movie and read the scholarly literature myself.  Based on the students’ work and my own, I am sorry to report that if Senator Gore were my student, I would have to flunk him.  His polemic violates so many basic rules of logic, and misuses and exaggerates so many studies, that thoughtful viewers may react by rejecting his accurate portrayal of the underlying reality that human-created carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide are indeed important heat-inducing gasses, and by dismissing the imprecise but improving attempts to model the otherwise-unpredictable impact of these agents on climate.  In a nutshell, his convenient fibs discredit an underlying truth and valiant attempts to discern its impact.


Gore emulates the two most misguided practices of mainstream of environmental lobbyists.  He attacks opponents over who funds them and he generates hysteria about isolated events -- Hurricane Katrina, chunks of ice “calving” (dropping off into the sea), ice cover melting on Greenland, Antarctica, and Mount Kilimanjaro, droughts, and the spread of diseases and invasive species -- whose causes are complex and often not mostly related to global or even local temperature.  These violations of the rules of logic (the ad hominem attack, which focuses on who says it rather than what is said, and the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of confusing correlation with causation) are found not just on the “green” side: some of the think-tanks and Members of Congress on the other side of the Global Warming debate consistently characterize their opponents as being bought by research grants, and cite isolated places where temperature is dropping, calm is prevailing, and ice is building, as if that too were proof of some overall trend. 


Just as having intense hurricanes during a period of increased CO2 does not mean that CO2-induced warming is to blame, the existence of hurricanes throughout the ages does not establish that the current intensity is unaffected by human activities.  Science needs to establish a model that predicts expectation levels for intensity before we can discuss the causes of deviations from them.


Consider one of the film’s most dramatic images -- people suffering in the water-filled streets of New Orleans.  There have been a few interesting statistical explorations of hurricane cycles that suggest that hurricane intensity has increased recently in some regions of the world, such as the Caribbean, but these very tentative findings represent much more the beginning than the end of that inquiry.  They are certainly not replicated, and are in fact largely balanced out, by studies of other regions, which suggests in turn that natural causes, latent cycles, and random variation rather than global mean temperature are at play.  In any event, Katrina was not a powerful storm at landfall in the context of 20th century hurricanes, or even the most powerful in the year in which it occurred. 


The cause of the suffering in New Orleans had little to do with the recently-increased warmth of water in the Caribbean, even if one attributes all of that to human-created emissions -- which is probably not the case, given the huge variations and cycles in sea-warming caused by various ocean currents like the Gulf Stream from long before there were factories, cars and emissions.  Katrina was devastating because the lakes and rivers of southern Louisiana were full, and New Orleans is built under sea level.  Period. 


Similar conclusions arise when analyzing Gore’s treatment of ice-calving (a natural process of formation that may be related to increases, not decreases, in ice cover), and Kilimanjaro’s recession (a century-long trend, probably largely related to changes in rainfall, and not temperature).  When he shows what would happen if Greenland’s ice-sheet were to melt away, with the world’s coastal areas submerging under 20 feet of water, he is discussing changes that could take thousands of years at current rates.  His presentation contradicts the mainstream of the modeling collected by his usually-favored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which predicts from one to three feet of rise in the next century.  Again, the degree of melting appears to be a long-term phenomenon rather than a recent response to increased temperature, and is dominated by natural changes in currents and ocean temperatures.  


* * *


Very much like Michael Moore in another “documentary” -- “9/11” -- that mixed bathos, bombast, and balderdash, Gore has erred and exaggerated when he need not.  There is more than enough that is inconveniently true about energy policy to justify dramatic research and subsidy programs for developing alternative fuels and ways to capture the waste from current fuels, but Gore’s misleading claims and his pre-judged policy recommendations of taxing and capping power production to reduce emissions -- which, despite his assurances, could severely cramp global economic growth and its powerful live-saving effects in lower-income countries -- discredit more sensible policy responses.


Some of Gore’s errors are humorous; some are more serious.  Most confirm his reputation, much magnified by Republican attacks and reporters’ investigations during the 2000 presidential election, as someone who can’t resist making a good point better.  Bush strategist Karl Rove, quite a black pot himself for his promotion of the fraudulent war in Iraq, labeled Gore a “serial exaggerator” for such policy claims as having helped create the internet and started the examination of toxic waste sites like Love Canal, and such personal claims as being the model for the hero in Love Story and having his mother sing “Look for the Union Label” to him as a lullaby…when the song wasn’t written until he was 27 years old.  Gore’s defenders have parsed each of the many claims in search of excuses, but even they acknowledge his tendency to stretch it at times.


            Gore starts the film with just a little demagoguery, just a little fib.  He wants to show that scientific consensus can be wrong, which is a strange notion with which to start, since it ironically cuts against his silly and insistent chant throughout the film that such a consensus supports him on his certainty about the quartet of beliefs about the effects of human activities and carbon-based fuels in particular.  He claims that one of his sixth-grade classmates (so this in about 1959 and at the elite St. Albans private school in Washington) was laughed down by the geography teacher for pointing out that the continents look as if they used to “fit together.” 


Now, this is almost certainly a tall tale of the “Union Label” type, and Gore implies as much by continuing with the remark that the teacher became the science adviser to the Bush administration.  Having made a lot of (I hope) humorous points in speeches while running for office, I can tell you that politicians do this kind of stretching all the time to make a simple point more memorable.  Still, we shouldn’t then include yarns about what we remember from when we were 11 in a discussion about policy.  Gore includes this yarn to make the point that “the trouble is what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”  Never could truer words be spoken -- about the certainty he holds for the quartet of beliefs.


In fact, the thought that the continents had drifted apart was one of Benjamin Franklin’s favorite theories, and it became widely accepted in European science shortly after Alfred Wegener published his compendium of identical, widely-flung plants, fossils, rock-types, and coal deposits in 1912.  American geologists resisted it strongly for another 20 years because no mechanism for the drift had been posited, but by the time Gore was in sixth grade, even before the causal mechanism of plate tectonics had been widely validated, most recognized the possibility, if not the certainty, of drift. 


For a geography teacher at St. Albans to have laughed off “Tommy’s” suggestion would probably have meant that she was ignoring the discussion of it in her textbook.  Did Gore go back and check the textbooks and talk to the surviving teachers and students and see if she really said it and meant it the way he remembered it from childhood?  Of course not; it’s just a political tall tale.  Still, this yarn sets the tone for the movie and for the way he continues to present what he calls his “story” on climate change: pick an incident or finding, take it from context, drop the possible uncertainties, present a correlation as a certain cause, and stigmatize anyone who disagrees.


            The moment in the movie that provided the most fun for me was Gore’s chuckling dismissal of anyone who disputes his story, which he also incessantly calls the “scientific consensus.”  He claims that there has not been so much scientific consensus on anything since Newton’s Second Law of Motion.  Now, that is priceless, because as I learned just a few years ago while writing my master’s thesis in mathematics, since the publication of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity in 1905 every physicist has known that Newton’s Second Law, in which the Force needed to accelerate an object is equal to the Mass of the object multiplied by the Acceleration one wishes to produce, is wrong. 


Einstein, with his heartfelt cry of “forgive me, Newton,” showed that the Second Law requires a new term in the denominator, the “Einstein” factor that boosts the force needed to accelerate an object exponentially, and infinitely, as the speed of the mass increases toward the speed of light.  In fact, it is this modification of Newton’s law that led directly to Einstein’s calculation of that most famous relationship in science: a stationary object has a latent Energy equal to its Mass times the square of the Speed of Light. 


Gore’s error about Newton plays a crucial role in perhaps the most misleading scene in the film, one that he words so carefully that it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is being disingenuous.  He displays a gigantic chart showing how concentration levels of CO2 coincide with temperature as it travels up and down 15 degrees every 100,000 years for the past 650,000 years.  These rough changes in global mean temperature are very credible, as opposed to the far finer claims about changes in the years from 1,000 years ago until the advent of precise satellite measurements in the 1980’s.  There is a surreal quality to the intense discussion about the disappearance from IPCC’s charts of a “Medieval warming period” that was similar to our century’s rise in heat and the substitution for it of the dramatic “hockey stick” that shows a flat, rather than oscillating line for the 900 years preceding a now unprecedented jump in the last century.  Accurate measurement of global mean temperature at this level of detail (tenths of a degree) was impossible prior to remote sensing. 


Gore does everything he can to imply that CO2 is causing the 100,000-year cycle of temperature.  He is careful to state that the causes of changes in global mean temperature are “complicated,” but then immediately says that “nothing is more powerful than CO2.”  He invokes poor Tommy again by asking “don’t (CO2 and temperature) fit together?”  Most dramatically, he chooses a scale for representing CO2 that forces him to rise up in a lineman’s bucket over the chart to track the jump in expected CO2 levels for the next century, and then makes it clear that we should conclude that the temperature will continue to follow CO2 up, even though we happen to be at the top of the strong temperature cycle and are clearly about to come down.  (“About” is a relative term here, since it takes 90,000 years for temperature to drop to its low before the usual 10,000-year rebound to today’s peak.) 


A defender of Gore on the website argues that he never actually uses the word “causality,” but that is quibbling with the entire intent of the scene.  Gore points out that the current 10,000-year, 15-degree rise in temperature coincides with a 100 parts per million, or 36 percent rise in concentrations of CO2, and asks whether the projected rise in the next 100 years of another 100 parts per million, or 27 percent, would not have much the same, 15-degree effect on temperature.  The answer to this question is obviously intended to be “yes,” and the reason is obviously intended to be that CO2 drives temperature. 


This is intellectually unconscionable.  What Gore clearly knows, but doesn’t say, is that temperature on these scales is almost certainly driven at its turning points by the 100,000-year Milankovich Cycle, a gradual oscillation in the shape of the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the Sun, with contributions from shorter cycles of the tilt and tip of the Earth.  I say almost certainly because the differences in the radiation delivered to Earth due to the orbital changes do not seem to be large enough to account for the incredible power it would take to reverse the rise or fall of temperature.  This implies that feedback mechanisms are at work that science has not yet uncovered, which is precisely the sort of problem that bedevils attempts to model the climate.  There are mechanisms that currently can only be guessed at that provide various levels of equilibria. 


Milaknovich’s oscillating ellipse is correctly predicted by Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, the latter of which was first confirmed in 1915 by predicting a variation in the ellipse of Mercury that violated Newton’s Second Law.  The point Gore obscures is that near the crucial turning points, CO2 levels are driven by changes in temperature (or perhaps by the changes temperature induces in ocean sinks of CO2), and not the other way around. 


While CO2 is part of the positive feedback mechanism during the rise of temperature, at the important turning points its level is clearly being caused by, rather than causing, temperature change.  This is true both at the low end, as when CO2 increase followed rather than preceded the turn-around in temperature 10,000 years ago, and at the high end where we are now.  During the climb, temperature drives CO2 levels by releasing land and sea-stored CO2, and then CO2 in turn helps drive temperature by the “green-house effect.”  However, when temperature comes back down every 100,000 years, which is precisely the period that Gore is pointing at today in his chart, it is obviously from causes other than CO2, since the high CO2 levels always follow temperature down rather than keep it up.     


* * *


It is on the topic of “scientific consensus,” Newtonian or otherwise, that Gore shows his most troubling side, a robust and aggressive anti-intellectualism that ill fits his coming role as author of a book to be called The Attack on Reason.  It is silly to list scientists who support or don’t support the view that human activities can affect temperature, because there is no scientist who thinks they can’t.  It is silly to take a poll among climate scientists about how much of the one-degree rise in temperature they think has been caused by human activities rather than natural variation, latent cycles, or chaos (and this applies as well to the statisticians who specialize in the mathematical models that try to separate the natural from the human “signal”) because the degree of uncertainty reduces the answer to an educated guess.   Most importantly, there is no such thing as a scientific debate over that complex issue that can be “over” (as Gore and environmental lobbyists have said since 1988, repeatedly), because scientists don’t debate -- they investigate. 


That particles have energy–absorbing spectral lines, and that CO2’s happen to be strong at the very frequencies at which infrared heat radiation leaves the earth, is not in doubt.  That is physics, and can be confirmed in a laboratory.  What is in doubt is how this reality interacts with various parts of climate out in the real world of changing pressure, wind, humidity, solar fluctuation, cloud cover, and ocean absorption.  On long timescales, it is clear that heat-trapping molecules (mostly water vapor, but with about one-third of the effect due to CO2) do raise temperature.  If they didn’t, the Earth would still be at an average of zero degrees, rather than today’s 59 degrees.  On timescales of centuries, though, the question is awash in uncertainty, both in observations and in mathematical modeling of those observations.  These inquiries, as even Gore has said when pressed on why his claims of possible sea-rise are so wildly greater, by a factor of seven, than even the outside range of most modelers, are always going on, properly subjecting findings to questions about assumptions, measurements, interactions, and logic. 


CO2’s current saturation levels in the atmosphere seem to make temperature’s response to it not linear, or steady, but by the square-root, meaning slower than linear.  (Gore misstates the definition of non-linear in the film, saying that it means rapidly increasing.)  For less-abundant but more potent methane, the response is roughly linear.  How will these relationships change at higher concentrations?  How much more CO2 and can the massive and crucial sink of the oceans absorb than its current 50 percent of emissions?  Where will the winds take the excess heat?  Will hotter air lead to a feedback of cooling, as more clouds result from more humidity, and increase the albedo, the share of solar radiation that is reflected before entering the energy balance?  Or will hotter air create enough water vapor, which is the most important greenhouse gas by far, to trap more heat that way than is being reduced by an increased albedo from more clouds?  When all is said and done, what is the most likely temperature response over the next century to various scenarios for industrial emissions?


The models that are used to answer such questions are “in their infancy,” as a balanced presentation of the science of climate change by Oxford physicist Fred Taylor recently concluded.  That is no reason to discard them; in fact it is all the more reason to work on them.  But it is also reason to be cautious with the ranges of response they indicate.  According to the IPCC, model “sensitivity,” or the range of temperature response used by most modelers to represent the effect of a doubling of CO2, has remained at its initial rough estimate of three to eight degrees for the past 25 years.   When the range for a crucial input is roughly equal to the range of predictions based on it, one should be cautious about the using the predictions as the basis for a claim of certainty.


The best estimates of the last century’s mean temperature show how tricky looking for causality between CO2 and temperature can be.  The one-degree rise in temperature emerges from a complex and perhaps chaotic history, with a sharp rise until 1940, before much of today’s increase in CO2, and a cooling trend for 40 years despite massively increased CO2, and a recent resurgence since 1980.  It certainly could be that this pattern represents some complex feedback process that absorbs an increase, rests, and starts up again.  Still, a rise or fall of one degree in 100 years is not at all extraordinary during the current, 10,000-year climb of 15 degrees that is coming to an end.  To say, as Gore does, that in the past decade we have had the hottest year, or ten years, of the past 1,000 years is meaningless as proof of human impact.  Of course at the top of a cycle we have maximum heat, and global means do not change more than a bit of a degree in any year, so once we are in a high period, we get a lot of highs.    


How do the models that predict global warming (or sea-level, or hurricane intensity) work?  The modelers divide the oceans, land, and skies into boxes of varying sizes, and then mathematically estimate what happens in that box to temperature, humidity, wind speed, or energy when natural and external elements enter it.   The smaller the box, the more boxes there must be to represent the globe, and the greater the computing time required to run a model into the past, or the future.  Boxes in the air are usually 250 kilometers in length and width, and one kilometer in height; in the sea, they are somewhat smaller. 


Given these box sizes, obviously these are not models of what happens to individual CO2 molecules after they absorb energy, but rather are parametrized models of average responses.  After the changes are estimated in, say, all the air boxes for one time period, the boxes themselves provide new input to their neighbors for the next time period, and so all the boxes are calculated again.  After a few iterations, the new air boxes help provide the beginnings of a few iterations of the sea boxes, and this process repeats until the desired period, usually the past or future hundred years, is reached.  


The models are misunderstood in large part because they are misrepresented, not by the modelers, who are all too aware of and actively discuss the limitations they are trying to address, but by the IPCC and the leaders of the global warming camp.  For example, the IPCC often says that because it can find no other explanation from its physical variables for the increase in temperature, it must conclude that emissions are responsible.  This is what the eminent MIT climate physicist Richard Lindzen calls a “proof by lassitude.”  As discussed already, there are huge uncertainties and gaps in knowledge about the basic physical properties causing movement of global mean temperature over large temperature ranges.  Why should there not be such uncertainties and gaps for smaller movements?


In addition, the IPCC persistently claims that these models are more valid as representations of the past and predictors of the future than social science models, because they are based on equations of physics rather than on observed correlations.  This claim is simply nonsense, as is made clear in the technical annexes that accompany the IPCC reports.  The dream of modelers of both short-term weather and long-term climate is to make sound predictions just from equations representing the laws of physics, such as the speed with which heat moves at various levels of pressure.  This is a fleeting dream because the probabilities of quantum physics preclude certainty in any physical response at the atomic level, even before one factors in the many interactive combinations of the thousands of important variables that determine temperature, humidity, wind speed, or energy for an atmospheric or ocean box of any size.  


Gore of all people should be sensitive to the role of chance, whether in creating weather in the short-term and then climate in the long-term, or in politics.  The famous truism that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can lead to a hurricane elsewhere appears to have found its political expression in the decision by Palm Beach county in the 2000 presidential election to use a “butterfly” ballot, which places in the middle of the page all the punch choices for two separate columns.  This decision was not extended to the absentee ballot.  The fact that election-day voters in Palm Beach supported Buchanan, whose punch hole appeared quite close to Gore’s, at four times the rate of absentee voters, an aberration not even remotely approached in other counties once their size is accounted for, offers strong support for the hypothesis that the butterfly siphoned off about 2,000 Gore voters to Buchanan, and gave Florida and the White House to Bush.  The hurricane from this butterfly has since been felt in Iraq, since it is unlikely that Gore’s response to the Al Qaeda attacks on American soil in 2001 would have been to invade a country with no hand in the attacks. 


Since the raw equations of physics do not suffice to reproduce the climate record, modelers must observe in the real world, and then replicate in the model, how much impact variables have on each other on average in various interactive combinations, and then factor these results into the mathematics of the model.  Such a result is called a parameter, and it is directly analogous to a coefficient of correlation from social science modeling.  Without parameters, and without a whole lot of “tweaking” to stay within bounds that comport to reality, climate models typically predict far too much heating from human activity, so much so that they are obviously incomplete and even wrong in their physics.  So, the modelers return to the fray, trying to identify more and more variables to include, but this does not always reduce the number of parameters.  In fact, because each new variable needs tweaking to make its physical equations make sense, this usually increases the number of parameters. 


It is a fascinating statistical and logical exercise in curve-fitting, constantly informed by scientists’ new thoughts about factors in climate, but it is not “science” the way that word is commonly understood, and there is no “consensus” about its track record for recreating the past and little certainty about its strength for predicting the future.  The IPCC presents a predicted range of two to 11 degrees increase for the next century under various scenarios of growth, energy policy, and environmental feedbacks.    By now, though, such predictions are almost definitional: they follow from the “sensitivity,” the predicted range of three to eight degrees rise in temperature for a doubling of CO2, which is built into the models from previous studies, and is not actually generated within the final computer run itself. 


None of this is dishonest --- it is how physical and social scientists alike model complex phenomena -- but it is misrepresented.  What it means is that at the greatest value that the modelers believe can reasonably be predicted for the growth of China’s GNP, India’s birth rate, governments’ refusal to promote renewable energy and carbon capture, the oceans’ inability to accept more CO2, and the affect of CO2 on temperature, an 11-degree rise is the greatest possible result.  Similarly, at the lowest value that the modelers believe can reasonably be predicted for all of those variables, two degrees is the smallest possible result.  The midpoint of the scenarios using the midpoint of “sensitivity” results in about a five-degree increase in temperature.  This isn’t really a “business as usual” prediction, because there is no real “business as usual” in economic growth, population, fossil fuel use, and progress in renewable energy over a decade, let alone a century, since change is always occurring and the outcomes can fluctuate wildly.  


Gore takes one of the most exciting mathematical efforts imaginable and reduces it to a simple claim that is surely false, which is that we know with great certainty that the one degree rise in global mean surface temperature over the past 100 years is largely due to human activity, and that a dramatically-escalated rise is in store unless we decrease output of CO2 and methane.  It is not the possibility that is false, but the certainty. 


* * *


The contextual omissions and exaggerations in Gore’s presentation seem to have built up year by year.  He himself says in the film that when he finds a “barrier” to convincing people of his “story,” he works hard to figure out how to “demolish it.”  Here we see starkly the difference between science and lawyering.  Scientists are glad to hear new ideas and dissonant evidence, because investigating them may broaden their understanding of a phenomenon.  If they go in trying to “demolish” rather than test a new perspective they will never have the benefit of its possibilities.  Gore’s caustic dismissal of uncertainty about the quartet of beliefs recalls one of Gore’s old nemeses, Richard Perle, a Pentagon official in the Reagan era who emerged as a leader of Bush administration officials who in the advocating the invasion of Iraq showed no uncertainty in claiming that intelligence information showed that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks and possessed weapons of mass destruction. 


Back in the 1980’s Perle defended his similarly incendiary, and in hindsight similarly incorrect, portrayal of Soviet capabilities and intentions by saying that, “democracies will not sacrifice to protect their security in the absence of a sense of danger.”  With his musings on how disappointed he is that American democracy has not responded to his warnings, Gore seems to be revealing that he thinks that Americans will not sacrifice to guard against the possibility of environmental damage in the absence of a sense of certain disaster.


For a self-proclaimed protector of reason, Gore has a disturbing history of attacking people, rather than evidence.  As a senator he infamously bullied MIT’s Lindzen in hearings, badgering him and claiming for the cameras that he had trapped him into retracting his finding of two years’ before that human influence may not be the dominant cause of recent mean warming.  In fact, it was obvious to observers that all Lindzen was doing was updating data and findings on feedback mechanisms in clouds. 


Even more grotesquely, Gore’s Senate office portrayed his claimed mentor on human-driven increases in atmospheric CO2, Harvard professor Roger Revelle, as senile and manipulated when Revelle disputed Gore’s dire predictions of CO2’s ability to drive up temperature.  Revelle’s co-author, physicist Fred Singer, sued the Harvard professor who assisted Gore’s office in this portrayal, and won a full vindication.  Tellingly, Singer and Lindzen continue to be harassed by environmental lobbyists, who have joined the State of California in asking a federal court to require the surrender of any communications between these scientists and auto companies who are challenging the state’s emission controls.


            This brings up another strange and misleading error in the film.  When Gore says that Revelle “saw where the story was going,” he is implying that Revelle’s story is the same as his own.  He further bemoans the fact that Revelle’s appearance at Gore’s first hearing in the 1980’s did not result in the conversion of the Congress, and the country, to Gore’s belief in the quartet.  However, Revelle’s appearance could not conceivably have led to anybody’s conversion because, as noted above, he studied the effect of human-created CO2 on global levels of CO2, and not its linkage with temperature.  Indeed, it was his published judgment was that there was not enough evidence of a causal link between CO2 and temperature to justify dramatic policy action on emissions that led to the attempt by Gore’s office to smear him. 


Gore portrays scientists who are warning about the dangers of emissions as Churchills sounding a warning of something as dangerous as Nazism.  By analogy, those citizens, legislators, and scientists who do not rally to his banner are dismissed as complacent ostriches, cowardly collaborators, or paid liars.  All this has echoes of the deplorable term the most extreme environmental lobbyists use to describe people who don’t promote the quartet: denialists, a word that until now has been reserved for the kooks who dispute the reality of the Nazi slaughter of millions of civilians from Jewish, Polish Catholic, and other non-Teutonic ethnic groups.  Lest you think this too harsh a critique of Gore’s tactics, consider how pointedly he quotes Upton Sinclair -- “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – and how clearly he identifies the “skeptics” of his quartet of beliefs as heirs to the researchers for tobacco companies who produced studies questioning the link between smoking and cancer. 


This is all very tricky ground for Gore.  He wants to hold the tobacco scientists responsible for his sister’s death from cancer, but his family farmed tobacco, and he voted for tax breaks and price supports for tobacco even after her death.  He wants to blame global warming skeptics for some unspecified but clearly harmful changes he claims to see happening “quickly” on the river near his home in Tennessee after what he says, incorrectly, has been ten thousand years of stability, but for 30 years he leased a zinc mine next to that river in a deal made in 1973 with famed energy mogul Armand Hammer, creating flow-off pollution that at times exceeded permitted levels.  Neither supporting constituents who are tobacco farmers nor making trade-offs in mineral extraction between profit levels and pollution controls is evil, but bitterly attacking others for the same sorts of actions is a bit strange.


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We can see that Gore overstates his case, but it is a compelling case nonetheless.  What should we do with our uncertain knowledge about the effects of the underlying truth, which is that emissions from industrial energy on the scale we observe today could well be driving up temperature, or delaying its natural decline, and so destabilizing other climate variables?  The precautionary principle would encourage us all, consumers, businesses, and governments, to moderate such emissions and seek less potentially dangerous forms of energy. 


On the other hand, the way in which we cut emissions also involves a precautionary principle.  Low-cost energy production is a crucial component of economic growth, particularly in countries that are only now industrializing.  In those countries one can observe a clear, causal connection between wealth and life expectancy.  Increased wealth for poor people and countries permits cleaner water, consistent energy, better education, and better nutrition, all of which combine to reduce mortality rates, especially for infants.  Economic growth doesn’t necessarily have this effect; it can be stolen or hoarded by dictators and a tiny upper class.  However, without economic growth, we would see much lower life expectancy.  Therefore, the precautionary principle also demands that our solutions to the problem of emissions retard economic growth as little as possible.


The Bush administration’s approach has been to promote research on novel ideas for energy production and the sequestration of emissions.  This is perhaps the one area of national security and of environmental policy where Bush has it largely right.  He’s wrong to try to continue American military and economic domination in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, often through alliance with dictators, which only drives resistance to and attacks on the United States, and he’s wrong to ease standards on toxic pollution, such as health-damaging soot and chemical waste.  However, his promotion of research to accelerate the big changes in power production and emission controls that will be required within a century, whether or not fossil fuels increase temperature significantly and dangerously, is a sound response to an uncertain scientific investigation. 


Fossil fuels have played a major role in energy production for only about 200 years, and 100 years from now will have been largely replaced by other forms of energy.  Starting the serious search for economically-viable forms now is a wise investment.  Similarly, finding ways to keep emissions out of the heat cycle is the next logical step in American industry’s generally good record of reducing emissions per unit of production.   Gore points out that on emissions per capita Europe trumps us, but we produce at a higher rate for a world that demands our products, and our level of emissions per unit of output is as good as Europe’s.  At this point, it may not improve rapidly without sequestration, either in land or sea.  Promising technologies exist for both.   


Gore’s policy response, on the other hand, is almost certainly inadequate if the quartet is true.  The Kyoto Treaty is only a first step, so it is not fair to criticize it for leaving out the biggest drivers of projected emission increases, the booming economies of China and India among them.  Obviously, success in developed countries under Kyoto would be used to build pressure for the poorer countries to join in as their income, and life expectancies, rose.  Kyoto’s fatal flaw is not that it only applies to developed countries, but that its caps on emissions for those countries, and presumably for others who may someday join, are too low to slow significantly the growth of concentrations of long-lasting greenhouse gasses.  In addition, Kyoto has enshrined a chimerical method of meeting its standards that allows signatories to meet their targets for reduced emissions by using “carbon trading.”  Gore and other individual citizens have expanded this concept to include “carbon-neutral” living in an energy-intensive modern economy.  Carbon trading is a fraudulent concept if it is not brutally enforced, and a dangerous concept if it is.  The sooner it is exposed and rejected the better. 


Carbon trading, or carbon-neutrality, has many complex layers, but at its heart, it relies on poor people and countries deferring consumption and growth so that rich people and nations can continue to live as they have been.  For example, Holland can help a power plant in Brazil reduce CO2 emissions by providing it with current scrubbing technology, and get a credit toward its Kyoto target of reducing emissions equal to all the CO2 it estimates will be saved over the lifetime of the plant.  Now Holland need not reduce its emissions after all.  Everybody wins, right? 


Well, no.  Brazil continues to increase emissions, because its population and purchasing power continue to grow, so the Dutch-funded savings are quickly replaced.  Yes, there would have been more emissions along the way, but who is to say that Brazil would not have soon moved to the next generation of power plant, which includes better emission controls, without this offset grant?  Who is to say what the effect of the offset will be in 10 years?  If the controls break down, will Holland rush in to fix it, and if it doesn’t, will it lose its credits? 


The concept becomes laughable when individuals purchase credits, as Gore does, to offset their home heating, airline flights, and car rides by funding, say, a non-governmental group in Britain that promises to distribute efficient stoves in the Sudan.  If used widely, these stoves reduce the volume of firewood needed, leaving more trees standing to absorb CO2, but good estimates of how well and how long the stoves will be used, and of the impact of the reduced tree removal on CO2 absorption, will vary wildly.  Who will monitor the reality over a ten-year period, and who will go and collect more money from the purchaser if the projections don’t pan out?  In this form, carbon-trading combines two of the great fantasies of politicians in wealthy countries, which is that they can slow the growth in global mean temperature without damaging their economies, and that they can “make poverty history” in the former colonial world without renouncing their economic domination of it.  (See, on the latter topic, the author’s Poverty in a Time of Empire: Why Foreign Aid Can’t “Make Poverty History,” which can be found at


The reason the fraudulent “carbon-trading” approach to emissions is so popular is that, despite what they say, Kyoto signatories recognize that cutting emissions the old-fashioned way, by taxing them or simply prohibiting them past a set level, is expensive, can dampen economic growth, is politically difficult, and may be too much to pay for the uncertain benefits of addressing an uncertain crisis.  Gore tries to pooh-pooh this concern, jumping non sequitur to a discussion of how American manufacturers of cleaner technology could prosper from Kyoto-induced demand.  Well, they certainly won’t be prospering if they can’t get any energy to do all that manufacturing.


The real issue is whether emissions controls, as required by a Kyoto without offsets, or by California’s new emissions laws, or by the green legislation being promoted in Congress by Representative Waxman and Senator McCain, would reduce economic growth.  Most econometric studies indicate that of course they would, since they lead to taxes and higher prices as the tools to reduce demand for energy.  In a developed country, this leads to minor inconveniences for the wealthy and a bump up in the unemployment and poverty rates; in a poor country, it can be tantamount to stealing years from the lives of children and adults.  Could it be that those who object to Gore’s rush to certain judgment are motivated by more than their salaries?


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