Global warming: time for a heated debate
Al Gore's dogmatic documentary An Inconvenient Truth embodies the worst possible response to climate change.
In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore presents himself as prophet rather than politician. The former American vice-president uses the documentary to preach what he believes is the only legitimate view on climate change. He implies that anyone who deviates from The Truth According to Gore is – literally – corrupt, insane or possibly hates their children.
Gore’s gospel on global warming rests on two related key claims. On the science he says the debate about humanity’s impact on the climate is over: ‘The scientific consensus is that we are causing global warming.’ To the extent there are any heretics, he argues that they are either the oil industry’s paid lackeys or its stooges in the Bush administration.
His second claim is that climate change is a moral rather than a political issue. By this he means that there is no room for debate about solutions to the problem. The only appropriate measures involve curbing emissions of greenhouse gases and reducing the human impact on the planet. The credits at the end of the film are interspersed with suggestions for human action, including driving less, recycling more and using less hot water. Those who want to know more are referred to www.ClimateCrisis.net. The backing track to this peculiar ending is Melissa Etheridge’s ‘I need to wake up’.
The documentary is built around a slide show on climate change that Gore has given over a thousand times to audiences around the world. It includes images of lines on graphs rising precipitously, huge chunks of ice crashing off melting glaciers, drowning polar bears, and floods obliterating some of the world’s largest urban centres. There are also interludes on Gore’s life story, including his son being seriously injured in a car crash, his sister dying of lung cancer, and the failed presidential bid in 2000. The purpose of these biographical elements seems to be to show how The Truth was gradually revealed to Gore.
He certainly has no doubts about his own importance. The trailer for the documentary states: ‘If you love the planet, if you love your children, you have to see this film.’ (1) Presumably those who fail to watch the movie are, at the very least, guilty of not loving their children. It does not specify what should be done to those who watch the film and disagree with it, but, given Gore’s intolerance to criticism, they must be risking eternal damnation.
Unfortunately for Gore there are good reasons to question the fundamental tenets of his faith. His account of the scientific consensus on climate change is willfully misleading. There is much about the science that is still debated and much that is simply not yet known. To the extent that there are problems caused by climate change there are other strategies to deal with it besides his favoured approach of mitigation.
Gore presents his arguments as thoroughly grounded in science. He quotes an extensive study of peer-reviewed journal articles on climate changes, which concluded that global warming is happening and humanity has played a role in creating it. In the film Gore refers to those who disagree with this view as ‘so-called sceptics’ – although if they are not genuine sceptics it is unclear what he is suggesting. In an interview in Metro, a free London newspaper, he went even further, actually questioning the sanity of those who take a different view: ‘Fifteen per cent of the population believe the Moon landing was actually staged in a movie lot in Arizona and somewhat fewer still believe the Earth is flat. I think they all get together with the global warming deniers on a Saturday night and party.’ (2)
Yet the apparent scientific consensus behind Gore’s approach is based on a sneaky statistical sleight of hand. Although scientists generally agree that the Earth is warming, and humans have had an influence, there is a lot more to climate science than this insight.
Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out that some arguments have never been widely contested: the Earth’s average temperature has risen by about 0.6 degrees Celsius over the past century, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen substantially, and such carbon dioxide can act as a greenhouse gas (3). But many of the more specific points on climate change are still the subjects of debate, and many others are simply not yet understood. As Lindzen argues, we do not yet understand the natural variability of climate change so it is hard to properly assess the human contribution to warming. The Earth’s climate is an immensely complex system.
Gore takes a worst-case scenario on climate change – to support his argument that if we do not curb emissions immediately we will suffer a catastrophic crisis – and presents it as the scientific consensus. For example, Lindzen points out, in contradiction to Gore, that ‘the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940, that icebergs have been known since time immemorial; that the evidence so far suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually growing on average’ (4). Many other of Gore’s specific claims on climate change are also contested (5).
But even if climate change is a serious threat to humanity, it does not follow that Gore’s approach is the only possible solution, let alone the best. On the negative side, curbing carbon emissions, sometimes referred to as mitigation, has substantial disadvantages. Since fossil fuels are still by far the cheapest and most widely available form of energy, cutting back on emissions is likely to have severe economic consequences. Over time it is likely this technology will improve and others will play a larger role, but until this happens curbing emissions could damage existing economic capacity. It is even more of a problem for developing countries, since it makes it harder for them to industrialise.
Gore caricatures such concerns in An Inconvenient Truth as a love of money. He shows a picture of gold bars and says there should be no choice between them and ‘the entire planet’. Members of the privileged elite such as Gore often seem to find it easy to decry affluence – he is the son of a senator, attended an elite private school and went on to Harvard. But for literally billions of people, economic growth is essential if they are to achieve a decent standard of living.
Fortunately, mitigation is not the only possible way of responding to climate change. Another possible response is adaptation. This can involve such measures as building modern flood defences, constructing new buildings away from areas at or below sea level, and developing new types of crops. Given that climate change is a relatively long-term process there are all sorts of measures that could be taken to adapt to its effects.
More ambitiously there is the possibility of geo-engineering. As Joe Kaplinsky has argued previously on spiked, weather modification was considered a possibility by many scientists in the years after the Second World War: ‘There have been a number of proposals put forward for climate engineering. The simplest idea is to inject dust into the upper atmosphere using artillery shells or aircraft. The dust would then scatter some of the sun’s rays back into space, cooling off the Earth. Another proposal is to add iron to the oceans, which would suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by encouraging algae to grow.’ (6) Sadly, such proposals, let alone even more high technology ones, have generally not been pursued as a result of hostility by environmentalists (7). It is ironic that environmentalists, who claim to be concerned about the impact of climate change on humanity, stand in the way of such solutions.
Gore, unfortunately, is not a prophet in the wilderness. Many of the few remaining politicians and media outlets that once expressed scepticism about curbing carbon emissions – mainly conservatives – are joining the consensus. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s Republican governor, has come round to Gore’s way of thinking. California has become the first American state to legislate for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (8). In France, President Jacques Chirac is supporting a ‘solidarity tax’ to be levied on air travellers (9). And in Germany the conservatives and Greens have joined forces to run Frankfurt’s local government (10). In Britain, the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, has adopted the slogan ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ and has visited the Arctic to see the impact of climate change. Even The Economist, which for a long time took a sceptical line on climate change, has modified its stance (11).
Now more than ever there is a need for a genuine debate on climate change. Climate scientists should be free to do research without interference or misrepresentation by politicians. It is an immensely complicated field which should conform to the highest possible scientific standards. Meanwhile, the role for politicians should be to debate the best possible policy responses to climate change. Such initiatives need to take into account the costs of mitigation and the possibilities of other approaches to dealing with global warming. The dogmatic attitude embodied in An Inconvenient Truth is the biggest obstacle to finding a solution to the problem.
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(1) The trailer for An Inconvenient Truth can be viewed here
(2) Graeme Green, ‘60 second interview’, Metro, 15 September 2006
(3) Richard S Lindzen, ‘There is no “consensus” on global warming’, Wall Street Journal, 26 June 2006
(4) Richard S Lindzen, ‘There is no “consensus” on global warming’, Wall Street Journal, 26 June 2006
(5) See, for example, Global Warming FAQ (pdf), from the Competitive Enterprise Institute
(6) See Bring back the weathermen, by Joe Kaplinsky
(7) William J Broad, How to cool a planet (maybe), New York Times, 27 June 2006; for an example of an environmentalist response to such proposals see George Monbiot, We can’t reverse global warming by triggering another catastrophe, Guardian, 29 August 2006
(8) ‘Doing it their way’, The Economist, 7 September 2006
(9) Emily Flynn Vencat, Forces of nature, Newsweek international edition, 14 August 2006
(10) Emily Flynn Vencat, Forces of nature, Newsweek international edition, 14 August 2006
(11) The heat is on, The Economist, 7 September 2006; among the honourable exceptions taking a different line are the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank, and South Park, which ruthlessly lampooned An Inconvenient Truth in its episode on ManBearPig