Why Al Gore Doesn’t Matter

The first of many reviews planned for ClimateSight!

Climate change skeptics like to imply that Al Gore’s word is all we have going for us. That our faith in the theory is upheld simply because he supports it. That he’s brainwashed us all and we should think for ourselves. If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, go check out some YouTube comments – and even entire videos – dedicated to these concepts.

But the truth is, Al Gore could have never existed and the scientific theory of anthropogenic climate change would be the same as it is today.

Let’s take some time for historical context. The greenhouse effect began to be studied in the late 1800s by Svante Arrhenius. The current theory that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are causing the Earth’s temperature to rise was hypothesized by Guy Callendar in the 1930s. A great historical account of climate science is available to read online here.

The beginnings of the modern-day scientific view were present before Al Gore was even born. The idea that he thought up the whole conspiracy theory quickly falls apart. (But if you’d like a good laugh, check out this April Fool’s article. It made my day.)

Al Gore was educated at Harvard. He was fascinated by courses from Roger Revelle, another climatology pioneer. Before long, though, Gore became interested in politics. He graduated with a BA in government.

Try swaying the minds of every major scientific establishment in the world when the only formal education you have in climatology is a couple of undergraduate courses.

I’m sure Al Gore understands climate change better than most members of the general public. I’m also sure that the folks at national academies of science and organizations such as NASA, all at the top of our credibility spectrum, understand climate change a heck of a lot better than Al Gore. Check out what they’re saying here (thanks to Logical Science, who cited all of the statements so well).

It’s clear that, under our credibility spectrum, Al Gore would fall under the professional. He keeps well up to date with the scientific literature, but is not a scientist himself. He is only slightly more credible than the average person.

And with this context, let’s take a look at An Inconvenient Truth.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – Review

inconvenient truth

This is definitely not an example of scientific literature. It was not intended to be, and should not be taken as such. This is not to say that Gore’s statements about climate change are wrong. His overall message is greatly supported by the scientific community. However, it’s not the kind of text you’d want to cite in a research paper.

It’s clear that the purpose of this documentary was to increase public awareness, not to imitate a science textbook. Taken in that context, An Inconvenient Truth fulfills its purpose tremendously – almost too well, I’d say, as the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear about the theory of climate change is not the IPCC, national academies of science, or university professors, but Al Gore. A lot of people think it’s Al Gore’s problem, and not much else.

And, sadly, if you wanted to take down the scientific side of Gore’s argument, it wouldn’t be too hard.

Early in the film, Al Gore says that we are adding to the greenhouse effect by “thickening” the atmosphere. This is more than just oversimplification. Burning fossil fuels not only increases CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, it decreases O2 concentrations, by attaching one carbon atom to each molecule of oxygen in the combustion process. Read more about this concept here.

We are not “thickening” the atmosphere at all. But someone who watched An Inconvenient Truth could come away with that impression. That person would be very vulnerable to claims such as “Carbon dioxide only makes up 0.04% of the atmosphere.” The relative abundance of a gas in the atmosphere would seem important for its radiative properties, while basic laws of chemistry indicate that it is not.

Luckily, the major misconceptions ended there. However, Al Gore used anecdotal evidence, rather than citing cumulative studies, almost exclusively. For example, he showed pictures of a dozen or so glaciers across the world that were retreating. It couldn’t be too hard to find the same amount of glaciers that were advancing and present them as proof that Gore was wrong. What would be considered appropriate evidence would be a study that examined every major glacier in the world and determined the percentage that were retreating vs advancing.

Al Gore used similar tactics with evidence such as heat waves, hurricanes, and tornadoes. He referred to specific events and/or regional records rather than looking at the processes on a global scale. However, anecdotal evidence is much more compelling to an audience than a bunch of graphs. For the purpose of his documentary, we can probably forgive Gore for that misstep.

There were points in the documentary where it was unclear whether Gore was using a historical event as evidence or as an example of how bad the future could be. For example, when the film examined Hurricane Katrina, it was hard to tell if Gore’s message was, “This was caused by climate change” – which is almost impossible to determine for a specific event; you can’t really prove that it wouldn’t have happened anyway – or “Look at how devastating hurricanes can be – and they could become more frequent.”

The last scientific complaint I have to make against An Inconvenient Truth is the lack of time scale provided. When Al Gore showed how a sea level rise of 20 feet (~7 m) would affect coastlines across the world, he failed to mention that such an event is not expected for another few centuries. In the IPCC 4th report, a rise of 18 to 59 cm is expected by 2100. If we keep going at our current pace, we’ll eventually hit 7 m, but it won’t be in the next few decades, as he seems to imply. I don’t see what the harm would be in telling the audience when the 7 m rise would happen – if anything, it would increas his credibility. The idea of such a catastrophe being 200 years away doesn’t make it any less scary to me. 

That’s the science stuff out of the way. Now let’s look at the real purpose of the film – the implications for policy. Al Gore is probably one of the most experienced people in the world on climate change legislation. He is, after all, a politician, and spent a great deal of his career trying to pass emission targets. Gore provided an especially good argument as to why we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy; how environmental action could actually foster economic growth. Of course, he took as many stabs at the Republican party as he could in this part of the film.

I also enjoyed the “frog in boiling water” metaphor, regarding how a slow change can go unnoticed by the human brain until it’s too late. The psychology of fear and how it relates to climate change is fascinating to me. I’d recommend that you all read this editorial, written by psychologist Dr Daniel Gilbert. (Don’t be put off by the title – it makes more sense after you read the article!)

And, of course, as major climate change legislation has yet to be passed in the States, Gore ended on the note of individual action. The things we’ve all heard before – ride your bike, insulate your attic, get a low-flow showerhead. As important actions as these are to take, realistically, they will not be enough. We need major policy changes if we hope to make any difference in our total emissions. As Thomas Homer-Dixon said, “We’re not going to get there by changing our lightbulbs.”

Overall, I think An Inconvenient Truth fulfilled its purpose, which was to increase public awareness and encourage action. We just need to remember that it was never intended to be a solid source of scientific data.

After all, we have much more than Al Gore on our side.


15 thoughts on “Why Al Gore Doesn’t Matter

  1. I saw your comment on a friend’s blog and checked out your link – this is a very impressive blog =)

    I like your perspective here, and I think it is very important to address these issues as honestly as we can. Scare tactics only work so long as the people don’t understand the truth. This often leads to a result opposite of the intent – peole reject the proposed ideas and seek their own truth, or gravitate to a source that seems more honest and credible.

    I’ll be honest, I am a recent convert to the green revolution. Here in the States, we like to drive big cars and crap like that. My motivation for climate awareness actually stemmed from the politics of oil production. From there, the more I learned about clean renewable energy, the more it made sense. But convincing people that the tried and true and very lucrative oil industry is not good for the earth is a difficult sell, made even more difficult but doomsday theories.

    You have yourself a new reader… I’ll add you on my blogroll. Look forward to future posts!

    • Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you like what I have to say! I recently travelled to the States and was quite disappointed at the lack of sustainability. Check out my post “Undeveloped” for that story. I haven’t been involved in environmental issues for long either – less than two years actually! It’s amazing how dramatically your opinions and practices can change when you get informed.

  2. Thanks for the link to your blog! I agree totally that it is about more than Al Gore – it’s just unfortunate that he has become the ‘poster boy’ for climate change and the ‘whipping boy’ for skeptics.

    Yes, it was primarily aimed at increasing public awareness – the problem with the science of climate change is that it is incredibly complex and therefore rarely gets explained in enough detail by journalists (they just go for the headlines, not the fine detail) – which is one of the reasons some people are highly sceptical.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tracy. You’d probably enjoy my post “Making Up Your Own Science” which speaks about the complexity of climate science and why we can’t rely on our own analysis. Sadly, there are enough paradoxes in climate change (eg temperature and CO2 feed off each other, warming can cause ice sheets to thicken, etc) that it’s very easy for skeptics to tell you half the story and, unless you’re educated in these specific areas, have you believe them. That’s why peer-review is so important.

  3. I agree with your comments regarding Mr. Gore’s documentary. Although his treatment of the science was not anywhere near to being good enough to please me I don’t think that was the biggest problem. The biggest problem was also the biggest asset; that Al Gore is Al Gore. If he had not been the famous politician that he is he would not have had so large a response. Ad hominem attacks on Mr. Gore rampant. That they are besides the point doesn’t stop them from scoring points

    • That’s a great point. The fact that he’s Al Gore means that a good portion of the American population (and Canadian – your elections get more news coverage than ours do) will make a point of disagreeing with everything he has to say. Thanks for reading, I hope you’ll keep coming back.

  4. I agree with your points, and I have mixed feelings about Al Gore’s role in the environmental movement. I think it is great that he has raised awareness about climate change. Even if his documentary exaggerates some, it gives people the important idea that global warming is a very big problem.

    Still, for him to be the face of the American global warming movement puts a political slant on an issue that involves all humans, not just members of a certain party. And there really are people who don’t believe in global warming, just because Al Gore says it exists.

    • A great point. Thanks for coming to read, I hope you’ll keep coming back. I really liked your website, Through a Green Lens. It’s very informative as, here in Canada, we don’t hear a lot about US climate change legislation. It was nice to hear what’s going on. I especially liked your idea that the industry owns the government, not the other way around. Great work you have going on there, keep it up.

  5. Hi, kate, I read this post and your issues on al gore’s statement. I should be agree to Your issues as i think these are having aspect as i think. But there may be other facets of that statement .

    • That’s a very interesting article. The possibility of the human species becoming extinct due to climate change is not as far off as you might expect. Scary stuff.

  6. In defense of Mr. Gore’s movie I would like to make a further point adding some depth to my prior comment. I have watched his film three times. And each and every time (but most strongly the first time) his presentation of the ice core data for temperature and CO2 levels for the last 650,000 odd years was stunning. Particularly when he tacks on the projected CO2 increase. And asks the open ended question of what this means for the future. The values at various points could have been made more clear. I hate graphs which lack an underlying grid and a key for their understanding which is palpably explicit. Also Mr. Gore cuts off the bottom of his scale on the graph. All of this is part of his stage craft. But to me these are quibbles, because it lit a fire under my ass. I had been aware of the issue for quite a long time but it was then that I begain to actually research the question. And that has made all the difference.

    • The purpose of the movie was not to be a source of hard scientific data – it was to create awareness of the issue and generate action. Obviously it has fulfilled that purpose. The problems come when the skeptics pretend it’s supposed to be a scientific source, and they rip it apart quite easily. Keeping context in mind is very important when you evaluate your sources.

      Thanks for your comments and support. Please spread this blog around to others!

  7. bluetwinky says:

    I have watched his film three times. And each and every time (but most strongly the first time) his presentation of the ice core data for temperature and CO2 levels for the last 650,000 odd years was stunning. Particularly when he tacks on the projected CO2 increase. And asks the open ended question of what this means for the future.

    That’s an interesting remark… as it is based on the same misunderstanding that the pseudoskeptics have hooked on to. You see, the current temperature rise and the glacial/interglacial variations are based on entirely different mechanisms. You cannot compare them. You know that of course, and yet…

    According to the glacial/interglacial mechanism, a primary temperature change of 5C causes a CO2 change of around 100 ppm, or half of a doubling, roughly. If you simply, naively invert this ratio and interpret it as a sensitivity (wrong! Booo! VERBOTEN!) you get 10C/doubling, more than three times what we think is the most probable value for the current, anthropogenic mechanism.

    No wonder you were impressed :-) :-(

    I will refrain from drawing any moral lessons from this. Just pointing out that I admire Al Gore very much for what he does. And there just is no way to explain this thing that it is both technically correct and intelligible for the general public. I’m not even sure Al understands it clearly himself…

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