AS EX-VICE PRESIDENT IS PRAISED FOR RAISING AWARENESS, SOME CALL HIS WORK ALARMISM
Article Launched: 03/19/2007 01:33:00 AM PDT
Hollywood has a thing for Al Gore and his three-alarm film on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which won an Academy Award for best documentary. So do many environmentalists, who praise him as a visionary, and many scientists, who laud him for raising public awareness of climate change.
But part of his scientific audience is uneasy. In talks, articles and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Gore’s central points are exaggerated or erroneous. They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism.
“I don’t want to pick on Al Gore,” Don Easterbrook, an emeritus professor of geology at Western Washington University, told hundreds of experts at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. “But there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing, and we have to temper that with real data.”
Gore, in an e-mail exchange about the critics, said his work made “the most important and salient points” about climate change, if not “some nuances and distinctions” scientists might want. “The degree of scientific consensus on global warming has never been stronger,” he said, adding, “I am trying to communicate the essence of it in the lay language that I understand.”
From politics to science
Although Gore is not a scientist, he does rely heavily on the authority of science in “An Inconvenient Truth,” which is why scientists are sensitive to its details and claims.
Criticisms of Gore have come not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists like Easterbrook, who told his peers that he had no political ax to grind. A few see natural variation as more central to global warming than heat-trapping gases. Many appear to occupy a middle ground in the climate debate, seeing human activity as a serious threat but challenging what they call the extremism of skeptics and zealots.
Kevin Vranes, a climatologist at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, said he sensed a growing backlash against exaggeration. While praising Gore for “getting the message out,” Vranes questioned whether his presentations were “overselling our certainty about knowing the future.”
Typically, the concern is not over the existence of climate change, or the idea that the human production of heat-trapping gases is partly or largely to blame for the globe’s recent warming. The question is whether Gore has gone beyond the scientific evidence.
“He’s a very polarizing figure in the science community,” said Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental scientist who is a colleague of Vranes at the University of Colorado center. “Very quickly, these discussions turn from the issue to the person and become a referendum on Mr. Gore.”
“An Inconvenient Truth,” directed by Davis Guggenheim, was released in May and took in more than $46 million, making it one of the top-grossing documentaries. The companion book by Gore quickly became a bestseller, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times’ list.
Support from scientists
Gore depicted a future in which temperatures soar, ice sheets melt, seas rise, hurricanes batter the coasts and people die en masse. “Unless we act boldly,” he wrote, “our world will undergo a string of terrible catastrophes.”
He clearly has supporters among leading scientists, who commend his popularizations and call his science basically sound. In December, he spoke in San Francisco to the American Geophysical Union and got a reception fit for a rock star from thousands of people in attendance.
“He has credibility in this community,” said Tim Killeen, the group’s president and director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a top group studying climate change. “There’s no question he’s read a lot and is able to respond in a very effective way.”
Some backers concede minor inaccuracies but see them as reasonable for a politician. James Hansen, an environmental scientist, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a top adviser to Gore, said, “Al does an exceptionally good job of seeing the forest for the trees,” adding that Gore often did so “better than scientists.”
Still, Hansen said, the former vice president’s work may hold “imperfections” and “technical flaws.” He pointed to hurricanes, an icon for Gore, who highlights the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and cites research suggesting that global warming will cause both storm frequency and deadliness to rise. This past Atlantic season produced fewer hurricanes than forecasters predicted (five vs. nine), and none hit the United States.
“We need to be more careful in describing the hurricane story than he is,” Hansen said of Gore. “On the other hand, he has the bottom line right: Most storms, at least those driven by the latent heat of vaporization, will tend to be stronger, or have the potential to be stronger, in a warmer climate.”
Revisions to text, slides
In his e-mail message, Gore defended his work as fundamentally accurate. “Of course,” he said, “there will always be questions around the edges of the science, and we have to rely upon the scientific community to continue to ask and to challenge and to answer those questions.”
He said “not every single adviser” agreed with him on every point, “but we do agree on the fundamentals” – that warming is real and caused by humans.
Gore added that he perceived no general backlash among scientists against his work. “I have received a great deal of positive feedback,” he said. “I have also received comments about items that should be changed, and I have updated the book and slide show to reflect these comments.” He gave no specifics on which points he had revised.
He said that after 30 years of trying to communicate the dangers of global warming, “I think that I’m finally getting a little better at it.”
While reviewers tended to praise the book and movie, vocal skeptics of global warming protested almost immediately. Richard Lindzen, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, who has long expressed skepticism about dire climate predictions, accused Gore in the Wall Street Journal of “shrill alarmism.”
Some of Gore’s centrist detractors point to a report last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. body that studies global warming. The panel went further than before in saying that humans were the main cause of the globe’s warming since 1950, part of Gore’s message that few scientists dispute. But it also portrayed climate change as a slow-motion process.
It estimated that the world’s seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches – down from earlier estimates. Gore, citing no particular time frame, envisions rises of up to 20 feet and depicts parts of New York, Florida and other heavily populated areas as sinking beneath the waves, implying, that inundation is imminent.
Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician and political scientist in Denmark long skeptical of catastrophic global warming, said in a syndicated article that the panel, unlike Gore, had refrained from scaremongering. “Climate change is a real and serious problem” that calls for careful analysis and sound policy, Lomborg said. “The cacophony of screaming does not help,” he added.
So, too, a report in June by the National Academies seemed to contradict Gore’s portrayal of recent temperatures as the highest in the past millennium. Instead, the report said, current highs appeared unrivaled since only 1600, the tail end of a temperature rise known as the medieval warm period.
Roy Spencer, a climatologist at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, said on a blog that Gore’s film did “indeed do a pretty good job of presenting the most dire scenarios.” The June report, he added, shows “that all we really know is that we are warmer now than we were during the last 400 years.”