Saturday, October 13, 2007

Al Gore's crimes

Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Aieee! It burns! The shrieks of pain from the starboard side of the blogosphere have been making me feel as tingly-warm as a sadist with a riding crop. You can almost hear the simultaneous stamping of armies of tiny feet as the Right shifts its attentions away from 12-year-old Graeme Frost (except for Stalkin' Malkin, who just can't let go) and at least picks on someone its own size for a change.

Several simultaneous lines of attack are already in evidence:

1) Gore has been found to have exaggerated in the past;
2) The Nobel Peace Prize is meaningless anyway (and so, for good measure, is the Literature Prize: who reads William Faulkner and Seamus Heaney? Never heard of them);
3) A British judge has found errors and inaccuracies in his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth. Give back that Oscar,!

I'm not going to touch (1) and (2). I'm not certain what relevance they have to serious discussion of Gore's achievement or of the quality of his environmental work. But (3) merits a closer look.

Here's the judgement, helpfully posted by a grungy
front site for Big Oil and Big Tobacco. (H/t Bruce Rheinstein.)

And here is what has been reported. Variations of this may be found all over the internet, and enshrined in various jeering posts on the right side of the blogosphere.

So let's have a close peek at the judgement, arising from an action by a right-wing party operative who brought the case under the 1996 Education Act (Sections 406 and 407). The point at issue was whether An Inconvenient Truth, distributed to all UK secondary schools by the government, constituted "political indoctrination" under the law.

Much has been made of the guidance notes that the judge was reported to have insisted be created to accompany the film. It turns out that there were always guidance notes, on a website to which the teachers showing the film were directed. The judge conceded that this had led to appropriate in-school discussions of global warming, but he was of the opinion that these notes should accompany the course pack in hard copy. And he agreed with the plaintiff that these notes should include reference to nine "errors" (the quotation marks are the judge's, not mine) that had been identified in the course of the film.

Before getting into the substance of these errors, however, we should note two matters of interest. First, the judge found that the film "is substantially founded upon scientific research and fact...." He quotes the lawyer for the defence, Mr. Chamberlain:

"The Film advances four main scientific hypotheses, each
of which is very well supported by research published in
respected, peer-reviewed journals and accords with the
latest conclusions of the IPCC:

(1) global average temperatures have been rising
significantly over the past half century and are likely to
continue to rise (“climate change”);
(2) climate change is mainly attributable to man-made
emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide
(“greenhouse gases”);
(3) climate change will, if unchecked, have significant
adverse effects on the world and its populations; and
(4) there are measures which individuals and
governments can take which will help to reduce climate
change or mitigate its effects."

These propositions, Mr Chamberlain submits (and I accept), are supported by a vast quantity of research published in peer-reviewed journals worldwide and by the great majority of the world’s climate scientists. [emphasis mine--DD]

And the judge notes further on that the lawyer for the plaintiff, Mr. Downes, "was prepared to accept that the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report represented the present scientific consensus." Indeed, where Gore comes in for criticism is in his alleged departures from that scientific consensus. As for global warming deniers, the judge cites an earlier court judgment: "[T]he High Court has made clear the law does not require teaching staff to adopt a position of neutrality between views which accord with the great majority of scientific opinion and those which do not."

So far, then, there is not a lot of aid or comfort here for the deniers, to put it mildly. But little of this has filtered into the media, and none has made it into the right-wing cheering section of the blogosphere. The focus instead has been upon the nine "errors." So let's have a look at them:

"Error" 1: "Sea level rise of up to 20 feet (7 metres) will be caused by melting of either West Antarctica or Greenland in the near future."

But the passage from the film to which he refers says absolutely nothing about "the near future." It simply refers to what the results of the melting of these ice-masses would be. So the judge's statement that this constitutes "alarmism" is not founded. It is the judge's inference that Gore "suggests" this will happen in "the near future," but nowhere in the film is this stated.

"Error 2": "Low lying inhabited Pacific atolls are being inundated because of anthropogenic global warming."

The judge takes issue with the following: "In scene 20, Mr. Gore states 'that’s why the citizens of these Pacific nations have all had to evacuate to New Zealand.' There is no evidence of any such evacuation having yet happened."

Well, not so fast. The citizens of Tuvalu are already beginning to emigrate to New Zealand as their island sinks into the Pacific. Resettlement of the entire population is envisioned by the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. (The Maldives are also under threat, although, unlike the Tuvaluans, the population has no immediate place to flee.) The Tech Central Station deniers, of course, claim that the sea level isn't rising at all, and that misuse of the land is responsible for the Tuvaluans' troubles. They quote a Tuvaluan official:

An environmental official of Tuvalu, Elisala Pita, is concerned with the alarmism of western eco-imperialists. In an interview in the Canadian Globe and Mail on November 24, Pita says that, "This [coastal] erosion is caused by man-made infrastructure. Tuvalu is being used for the issue of climate change. People are telling all these lies, just using Tuvalu to prove their point. No island is sinking. Tuvalu is not sinking. It is still floating."

How very odd. At almost exactly the same time, the government of Tuvalu announced its intention to sue the US and Australia because of their contributions to global warming.

In other words, Gore was not entirely accurate--but not all that inaccurate either.

"Error" 3: "Shutting down of the 'Ocean Conveyor.'"

This is the Meridional Overturning Circulation, which is actually slowing down significantly--by 30%
between 1957 and 2004. The judge is right to state that the IPCC does not predict a complete shut-down in this century. But Gore doesn't actually say that it will happen either: he does suggest that the melting of the Greenland ice-cap is something to worry about. This is hardly political indoctrination.

"Error 4": "Direct coincidence between rise in CO2 in the atmosphere and in temperature, by reference to two graphs."

Gore makes this claim, the judge says, by means of ridiculing those who are sceptical of a correlation between increasing levels of CO2 and rising temperatures. "Although there is general scientific agreement that there is a connection," says the judge, "the two graphs do not establish what Mr Gore asserts."

In other words, Gore was wrong to assert (if he did so, indirectly) that the connection is an exact fit, but
right to assert that a connection exists.

"Error 5": "The snows of Kilimanjaro."

The judge says there is insufficient evidence that the retreating of the snow on this mountain is due to androgenic global warming. He may, indeed, be correct: two researchers who do support the notion that global warming is causing glacier melt-offs believe that the Kilimanjaro snow cap is melting for other reasons. But this would appear to be anything but a settled question, as reported in the Christian Science Monitor:
"Regardless of what may have triggered the glacier's shrinkage, researchers say global warming is a plausible, if not fully verified, reason for its accelerating disappearance."

So Gore is overstating the case, but there is indeed a case.

"Error 6": "Lake Chad etc."

The drying up of Lake Chad, once the sixth-largest lake in the world, is quite probably due to factors other than global warming. This is a bona fide error on Gore's part.

"Error 7": "Hurricane Katrina."

The judge says that there is insufficient evidence to blame Hurricane Katrina on global warming. He is right: this is only one event. However, there is strong evidence that a a rise in greenhouse gases leads to an increase in ocean temperatures, and that the latter increases the destructiveness of hurricanes.

Gore, therefore, is wrong on the particular point, but, on the evidence, right on the implied general one.

"Error 8": "Death of polar bears."

The judge is sceptical of the claim that global warming causes the drowning of polar bears, as the film asserts. The only deaths of polar bears before him was a report of four drownings after a storm. But there is more to it. The Wall Street Journal reports that the population of polar bears in western Hudson's Bay
dropped by 22%, from 1,194 in 1987 to 935 in 2004. An unusually large number of bears has congregated along the Beaufort Sea beaches between Alaska and the Canadian border due to melting ice, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Again, if Gore is wrong about observed drownings [and he is on pretty firm ground here--DD], he is clearly correct that polar bears are suffering the effects of global warming. The judge is simply quibbling here.

"Error 9": "Coral reefs."

The judge is sceptical that coral reefs are bleaching due to global warming, but
he doesn't actually say Gore is wrong on this matter at all. He cites the IPCC to the effect that separating climate change from other factors such as overfishing and pollution is "difficult." But that's not the same thing. In fact in this instance it is the judge himself who is plainly wrong, if he is actually suggesting that other factors could be responsible for the bleaching all by themselves. The bleaching of coral reefs due to rising ocean temperatures caused by global warming is undisputed. One for Mr. Gore.

So let's sum up. The judgement, trumpeted by the "climate sceptics," is unfriendly to their position. The IPCC, ridiculed by the sceptics, serves as the judge's point of reference. His criticisms of the film, when examined, amount to mere nit-picking, and are not always right. An Inconvenient Truth remains standing, barely a scratch on it.

So keep the Oscar, Al, and congratulations on the Nobel. Your film will continue to raise popular consciousness about global warming. And for the petrochemical industry and its flat-earther political shills, this is all too damned inconvenient. Hence the screaming: try not to enjoy it.

UPDATE: (October 14) More discussion of Gore's "errors" here. H/t Chet Scoville. And of dim-witted journalistic hackery here.

UPPERDATE: (October 14) And who funded the UK court battle against the distribution of Gore's film? Why...I'm shocked, I tell you!

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