COMMENTARY: Gore’s Nobel Enterprise

Al’s Win Earns Plaudits (Unless You"re a Climate Naysayer or British Judge)

Al Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to fight global warming, to the consternation of right wing pundits and bloggers.© Inconvenient Truth

Everybody loves Al Gore this week, after he shared the Nobel Peace Prize on October 12 with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The United Nations Environmental Programme calls Gore a "Champion of the Earth" for "making environmental protection a pillar of his public service and for educating the world on the dangers posed by rising greenhouse gas emissions."

The World Resources Institute noted that Gore is a board member. "What Al [notice the familiar address] has done in the last two years has helped change the tide of history on the defining issue of our time," said WRI’s Jonathan Lash. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee noted that he’s also a former member of their club. "I remember a young, gutsy Congressman who criticized the Reagan administration for ignoring the effects of greenhouse gases," said Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

The Sierra Club’s executive director, Carl Pope, had high praise, too. "Vice President Gore is, quite simply, the indispensable player in the drama of mankind’s encounter with the possibility of destroying the climactic balance within which our civilization emerged and developed. Once, when I was particularly frustrated by challenges I faced in my job, Gore heard me out and replied, "Never, ever give up." That would seem to be his motto, as reflected in the thousands of speeches he has delivered, the Live Earth concert he built from scratch, the nay-saying he has endured, the movement he inspired."

Some speculated that Gore’s winning the prize would make him more likely to run for president. DraftGore.com, which claims to have gathered 167,000 petition signatures for that purpose, is openly speculating about it. Capitol Hill blogger Brent Budowsky opined, "In my view, never before in memory have the man, the moment and the magic come together as they come together for Al Gore in 2008." And he said that before Gore won!

But not everybody is popping the champagne corks. Climate naysayers the Heartland Institute and JunkScience.com had sour takes on this unwanted outcome. The latter said that Gore should win "The Nobel Prize for Propaganda." And interestingly enough, both these groups hung their opposition on the slenderest of reeds: A British High Court ruling declaring that there are factual errors in An Inconvenient Truth. The problem is that many of Justice Michael Burton’s cited "errors," in a ruling delivered October 10, are speculation from a non-scientist.

In a remarkable commitment, An Inconvenient Truth has been distributed to every state secondary school in the UK. The case was brought by a truck driver, Stuart Dimmock, who doesn’t want his kids seeing the film there.

Justice Burton, in his ruling, calls Truth "a powerful, dramatically presented and highly professionally produced film," built around "the charismatic presence of the ex-Vice President, Al Gore
" But he has problems with some of the specifics, and he helped draft a clarifying "Guidance Note" declaring that the film "promotes partisan political views" and suggesting that teaching staff "offer students a balanced presentation of opposing views." With all that in place the film can be shown. In a highly unusual move not likely to be seen in a U.S. court ruling, Judge Burton takes it upon himself to enumerate the film’s deficiencies and, without citing many specifics or sources, take Gore to task for failing to make his case. But many of his so-called "errors" are in at least partial error themselves.

Among Justice Burton’s points about the film are these:

Some say Gore over-dramatized the plight of polar bears in his film.© Inconvenient Truth

"The melting of ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica, raising sea level seven meters, will occur "only after, and over millennia"

"It’s untrue that low-lying Pacific atolls have been evacuated because of global warming

"Gore is wrong in stating that polar bears have drowned after swimming up to 60 miles through open water to find ice

"Coral bleaching is caused by over-fishing and polluting, not just climate change

"There is "insufficient evidence" to ascribe Hurricane Katrina to global warming

We asked Ross Gelbspan, the respected former Boston Globe editor and author of two pioneering climate books, The Heat is On and Boiling Point, to take a look at the judge’s ruling. Here’s his report:

Justice Burton would do well to stick to points of law. I have no doubt he has a well-deserved reputation for his expertise in jurisprudence. As a self-appointed climate scientist, however, he is jeopardizing the credibility and respect of the very legal system which provides him his platform. A few examples:

Justice Burton’s characterization of Gore’s "alarmist" concerns about Greenland illustrates his lack of knowledge of the current state of the science. While scientists initially projected that Greenland (and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet) may be gone in a millennium, recent measurements indicate that the melting of Greenland could put London "under water" in 50 years, according to the journal Science. Measurements from space last year concluded that the rate of ice melt in Greenland over the last two years is five times more rapid than it was two years earlier. "What’s happening in Greenland now shows that the glaciers can apparently hit a climate threshold and disintegrate rapidly, not at all like a giant ice cube," said Gordon Hamilton, a Greenland ice expert at the University of Maine. In January, William Krabill, leader of a NASA team that probed glacier dynamics with lasers and radar, concluded: the pace of glaciers sliding into the sea along Greenland’s southwestern coast "is speeding like gangbusters this year."

Tuvalu:

While the entire population of Tuvalu has not yet emigrated, a number of residents of the low-lying island have already moved to New Zealand and other places. As early as 2000, the government of New Zealand offered to accept 3,000 residents of the island nation. As the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported in 2001: "A diaspora has begun. The Tuvaluan people must build new lives in a new land. Australia and New Zealand have begun to take in refugees, who must adjust to the cultures surrounding them." As a former president of Tuvalu, Leo Falcam, declared, "Climate change is nothing less than a form of slow death." Gore overstated the numbers of islanders participating in the migration when he said "all [inhabitants] have had to evacuate"—but make no mistake: The displacement, migration and loss of the islanders" homeland is happening now.

Coral:

Jim Maragos, a coral reef biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu, has studied corals surrounding the Hawaiian Islands chain and U.S. territories in the Pacific. "At all of our refuges in the remote Pacific Islands over the last 20 years, there’s been at least some coral bleaching," he said. "These are places that have no people. There’s no other excuses except for that there was warm temperatures. So we know that warm temperatures caused it."

Polar Bears:

In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore may, or may not, have over-dramatized the plight of polar bears when he declared that they are drowning because of thinning ice and more open water in the Arctic. The same can not be said of the U.S. Geological Survey, which predicted in September that the entire polar bear population of Alaska may be extinct in the next 43 years because of global warming.

Katrina:

When the judge declared there is "insufficient evidence" to ascribe the destructiveness of Hurricane Katrina to global warming, he was contradicting a number of peer-reviewed scientific studies. To cite three: In early 2005, a team of scientists reported in the journal Science that "a warming signal has penetrated into the world’s oceans over the past 40 years. The signal is complex, with a vertical structure that varies widely by ocean; it cannot be explained by natural internal climate variability or solar and volcanic forcing, but is well simulated by two anthropogenically forced climate models." A second study by Kerry Emanuel at MIT, found that tropical storms had become 50 percent more powerful in the past 30 years due, primarily, to rising sea surface temperatures. A third peer-reviewed study, conducted by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, found that while the number of north Atlantic hurricanes had remained relatively constant over the previous 30 years, the proportion that attained Category 5 strength had doubled. In other words, the extraordinarily warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2005 were directly responsible for the size and strength of Hurricane Katrina.

Two final points—which depart from the area of climate science.

Justice Burton’s ruling arises from his sympathy with Stuart Dimmock who does not want his children to be subjected to An Inconvenient Truth in their classroom. As a parent, I am saddened by Mr. Dimmock’s inability to trust his own children’s ability to think for themselves. It must be frightening as a parent not to have enough respect for the intelligence of his children to trust that their good judgment could survive exposure to this—or any other film (especially if the viewing were augmented by discussions with teachers, parents and friends). As a young man I recall seeing films by Nazi-era German filmmakers which portrayed Adolph Hitler as a hero. The films did not, however, pervert my understanding of history.

A second point arises not from parental concerns but from concerns about the suppression of information — regardless of its validity. Our most cherished system of democracy depends for its vitality on the lifeblood of free information. When such information is suppressed or held beyond the reach of citizens of any age, it is usually a harbinger of some form of totalitarian behavior. (Obviously, I am excluding clearly proscribed areas of information which is, for example, classified, obscene or flagrantly defamatory.) For a court to uphold the suppression of information—whether or not it contains a political agenda—is a very frightening portent. If An Inconvenient Truth can be legally suppressed, I worry deeply about the fate of future communications from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.S. President George W. Bush or, for that matter, any civic-minded citizen who feels compelled to express opinions. This is less a harbinger of what the environmental writer, Rachel Carson, called "Silent Spring." It is much more a harbinger of the kind of deafening silence that marked Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and today’s Taliban-run madrassas. It is not a promising omen for democracy.

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