Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth.
The story is straightforward enough. The AP contacted more than 100 top climatologists by e-mail and phone (including some skeptics). Of that 100, 19 had seen Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, and were willing to talk to the news agency. Borenstein compiled their reactions and reported that the nation’s top climate scientists were giving the film "five stars for accuracy." The scientists who had seen it, the report said, "had the same general impression: Gore conveyed the science correctly: The world is getting hotter and it is a manmade catastrophe-in-the-making caused by the burning of fossil fuels."
It’s not surprising that the climate skeptics (who’ve been itching to get in a shot at the increasingly successful documentary) would fire off a salvo. But the one we received came on the stationery of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Under the provocative headline "AP Incorrectly Claims Scientists Praise Gore’s Movie," the release claimed that the agency "chose to ignore the scores of scientists who have harshly criticized the science presented" in the film. The release goes on to attempt to discredit Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Group, for his "reported sponsorship by the left-leaning Packard Foundation." It further challenges Corell’s credibility by stating that he watched the film at a private screening arranged by Gore himself.
The AP fired back with its own release, claiming that its methodology "was simple, straightforward and clean: We contacted more than 100 of the nation’s top climate researchers, including those who have been vocal skeptics of climate change theory. But we quoted only climate scientists who had actually viewed the documentary or read the book upon which it was based. As we learned in the course of our reporting—and as our story noted—most scientists have not seen the movie or read the book. And those who had seen it or read it were generally positive toward Gore’s scientific presentation.
"The Senate Committee Majority’s press release was headlined "AP INCORRECTLY CLAIMS SCIENTISTS PRAISE GORE’S MOVIE." That headline is wrong: The story was completely accurate and met AP’s high standards in every way."
Marc Morano, a spokesperson for the Senate majority on the Environment and Public Works committee, responded that "our headline dealt with their misleading headline." He added, "Seth Borenstein cannot be proud of that article; it won’t be included in his clip file when he goes for a promotion. He didn’t get the goods, and he could have done much, much better." Morano also denied, however, that the press release was "an official government action," implying subpoenas or hearings. "This was not from a senator, but from the Republican majority," Morano said. "It’s up to others to decide if it was unusual or not. I’d be surprised if there was no precedent, because many congressional committees are highly partisan and political."
But the release specifically asked, "in the interest of full disclosure," for the AP to release the names of the 100 scientists contacted, and the 19 who filled in Borenstein’s e-mailed list of questions. Coming from a Senate committee, such a request, official or not, might have some intimidating power.
Borenstein, through his membership in the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and elsewhere, has a long history of arguing passionately for fair and balanced reporting. Perry Beeman, environmental reporter at the Des Moines Register and president of SEJ, comments: "My understanding is that Seth Borenstein gave more than 100 prominent global warming scientists the opportunity to comment on Gore’s movie. That sample included at least seven that many would consider contrarian because they have not signed on to the concept that global warming is occurring. None of those seven had seen the movie or read the book, and so didn’t comment."
Beeman added, "Seth Borenstein is one of the most respected and meticulous of the reporters covering environmental issues. His work not only has won many awards, but has also served as a model for reporters in this industry. Mr. Borenstein simply does not do stories without file cabinets full of carefully kept notes and recordings of well-thought out interviews, or in this case a well-crafted tool that gave these scientists an opportunity to comment. It’s unusual, to say the least, for a Senate committee to comment on the work of an individual reporter. And I’m not sure what to make of that."
The AP story quickly became a free-fire zone, with liberal blogs and skeptics taking part. Into the fray leaped TCS Daily, which provides a forum for climate skeptics at www.tcsdaily.com. Among TCS" sponsors, according to its website, are the American Beverage Association, ExxonMobil, Freddie Mac, General Motors Corporation, Gilead Sciences, McDonalds and Merck. TCS "believe[s] strongly in the power of free markets, open societies and individual human ingenuity to raise living standards and improve lives."
TCS said the skeptics had been unfairly "muzzled." It produced an array of them, almost all with long records of climate change denial. Dr. Robert Balling, Jr. of Arizona State, for instance, is author (with another leading climate skeptic, Patrick Michaels) of The Satanic Gases, published by the libertarian Cato Institute. Says Balling, "He [Gore] blames global warming for the eventual disappearance of the famous snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro. A bigger culprit is a decline in atmospheric moisture." In Satanic Gases, he dismisses concerns about climate change. "Global warming?" he asks. "Get over it." Gore comes under fire for declaring that the study of climate change should be NASA’s number one priority.
Balling has many problems with the movie. A TCS essay by him also attempts to discredit the so-called "hockey stick" that shows a steep rise in global temperature since the fossil fuel era began, and denies any connection between climate change and increased hurricane, tornado and flood activity. He also claims that even if the U.S. could reduce its global warming emissions to 1970 levels it wouldn’t matter because India and China are ramping up their emissions. "Even if the Kyoto Protocol could be fully implemented to honor the opening of this movie, the globe would be spared no more than a few hundredths of a degree of warming," he says. The implication seems to be we should accommodate, rather than fight, climate change.
Also taking shots was Dr. Roy Spencer, an atmospheric research scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Spencer says that Borenstein contacted his colleague John Christy, who also serves as Alabama’s state climatologist. But since Christy hadn’t seen the movie he referred the AP reporter to Spencer. "I think I should have been contac
ted," Spencer told E Magazine. "I would wager that none of the 19 interviewed were climate skeptics, and if they were, Borenstein ignored their input."
What would Spencer have said if he was contacted? It’s interesting to note that both he and the other skeptic E talked with had mixed reactions to An Inconvenient Truth. Asked if the film was scientifically accurate, Spencer said, "Partly yes and partly no. His explanation of global warming theory was very good. He correctly showed that the planet is warmer now than it has been in hundreds of years. But Gore said "thousands," and the National Academy of Sciences report says we know only that it is warmer than any time in the last 400 years. Gore repeatedly buys into the most catastrophic views and presents them as fact. And he incorrectly makes it appear as if extreme weather is increasing with global warming."
But many scientists do believe that hurricane strength is affected by warmer water. Does Gore’s film go beyond that? "He shows all these things that happen naturally, ice calving off and falling into the ocean, for instance, droughts and floods—and implies that it is all related to global warming," Spencer said. He also claimed that only two of the five scientists interviewed in Borenstein’s piece were actually climate scientists.
Yet another skeptic Joseph D"Aleo, a former professor of meteorology and climatology at Lyndon State College in Vermont, says, "I was not contacted, and I think I should have been." D"Aleo says the science in the film "was generally correct but seriously incomplete. The greenhouse effect is certainly real, and is why we can exist on the planet. We’d be an iceball in space if it wasn’t for that effect. I think that climate change is having some effect on global temperatures, but it’s small." D"Aleo says we’re seriously discounting the effect of population growth, which fuels urbanization and thus the spread of concrete and the "heat island effect" observed in many cities. "The additional warming from larger populations gets baked into the data," he said.
The Senate release is long on character assassination. In addition to smearing Robert Corell, it also quotes some very strong words from Professor Bob Carter of the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University in Australia. Gore, says Carter, "is an embarrassment to U.S. science and its many fine practitioners, a lot of whom know (but feel unable to state publicly) that his propaganda crusade is mostly based on junk science." That would be news to the 19 quoted in Borenstein’s article, who generally expressed admiration for the film’s scientific grounding.
It’s not a stretch to wonder if Corell (whose name was misspelled in the Senate press release) might now worry about his access to future federal funding, despite Morano’s denial of any actual U.S. government action. "I"m amazed at how thorough and accurate [the film was]," Corell told the AP. "After the presentation I said, "Al, I’m absolutely blown away. There are a lot of details you could get wrong
I could find no error."
And Corell should know, since he has impeccable credentials. In addition to serving as chair of the steering committee for the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (an international effort to assess the effects of climate variability, climate change and ultra-violet increases in the Arctic), he has also served as a senior policy fellow with the American Meteorological Society, and as a senior research fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He is also a former assistant director for geosciences at the National Science Foundation, and a former professor at the University of New Hampshire. But according to the Republican majority on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, when Al Gore says jump, Corell says "how high?" Attempts to reach Dr. Corell for comment were unavailing.
Readers can see for themselves if AP’s "bias and methodology" should be questioned. Here are the questions Borenstein provided to the 100 climate scientists:
1. Did you read the book, see the movie, both or neither? And did you consult with Vice President Gore on it?
2. What is your general impression of the movie/book as it relates to just the science?
3. Was it an accurate portrayal of the science as you know it?
4. Was anything inaccurate. If so what?
5. Was anything over-hyped, over-dramaticized or taken out-of-context? If so, what?
6. Did it portray the consensus of scientists accurately? If not, how so?
7. Did it portray the issue of global warming and hurricanes accurately? If so, how so? If not, how not?
8. Have you read the Crichton book? If so, how would you compare the way the two handled and portrayed the science of global warming?
9. Do you think viewers/readers will take home an accurate perception of climate change and the science of climate change? And what is that perception they should take home?
10. What did you think of the movie from a non-science perspective?
Jim Motavalli is editor of E.
Paul Gleason provided research assistance for this story.
The Senate press release: www.epw.senate.gov/pressitem.cfm?party=rep&id=257909
An Inconvenient Truth