This is a text I wrote this summer, yielding to the friendly pressures around me, and circulated to them. Since i am still getting questions on this on an almost daily basis, I figure I would diffuse it here.
After much lagging behind my duties as your official natural disaster and weatherman, I finally got around to watch the now celebrated documentary
on Al Gore’s crusade against global warming. Since so many of my friends were waiting for a grain of salt from their home climatologist, here is my take on it.
Without further ado, the punchline is that, by and large, Gore’s got it right. In fact, so many of the ideas presented there are in such striking agreement with my own thinking on the subject, that I am beginning to think that Mr Gore has been rummaging through by drawers to read my notes. Or could it just be common sense ?
I am not going to paraphrase the whole movie, but a few things inspired a comment or two. It’s pretty long, but hopefully there are enough anchors that you can navigate all right.
The “skeptics” have long argued that a good reason for sitting on our hands and burn oil while we leisurely watch the Earth change is that “global warming is not a fact”, and that there is yet “no scientific consensus” backing the claim that “human activities are beginning to have a discernible warming effect on Earth’s climate, and are very likely the cause of the observed warming of the past 50 years”.
Of course that’s plain propaganda. More consensus around a scientific issue is, in fact, pretty hard to come by…. Accordingly, Gore cites a study by science historian Naomi Oreskes, which shows rather eloquently that out of 928 abstracts from the “Climate” literature between 1983-1993, *not a single one of them* disagreed with the aforementioned statement.
He brushed over it a little quickly, but I thought some of you might like to read it more in-depths, which you can do here.
Where consensus is most definitely *not* apparent is in newspapers like the Financial Times (who is always a lagging behind The Economist for everything else than stock exchange statistics), whose motivation has hardly ever been scientific truth, or minor newspapers around the country, whose science writers have as much qualification about climatology as I do on topics such as Chinese philosophy, Samoan hip-hop, or Zulu music theory.
Go figure why the same newspapers tend to endorse creationism as a valid alternative to evolutionary biology.
- “ It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it” (Upton Sinclair).
What is interesting about this quote is that its used on both sides of the public debate. I have even heard some people tell me, with a straight face, that it is the reason why climate scientists work to support the consensus position stated earlier : they get paid for that. If I am to believe such commendable sources as Michael Crichton
our system of self-perpetuating grants from governmental agency is the reason why James Hansen
draws logical inferences the way he does.
Well, my lovelies, this remarkably candid statement ignores two essential points :
- Quoting the man whose main contribution to paleontology is Jurassic Park at the same level as a recipient of the Revelle medal is the climatological equivalent of quoting Martha Stewart on Federal interest rates. True, Martha Stewart is arguably good at what she does – but we can all agree that what she does is rather removed from monetary policy. Chrichton is undoubtedly a successful fiction writer : quoting him as an authority on climate is plainly laughable ; read on if you want to know precisely why.
- If venality were the only reason why we moneyless scientists back the consensus, all of us would have long betrayed this meaningless, hippy, green cause to go work for oil companies, who pay much more handsomely. Oddly enough, their science staff or affiliates claim (e.g. here) “human-induced global temperature influence is a supposition that can be neither proved nor disproved” . Surprise, surprise…
Whose salary depends on not understanding 1+1=2? You judge.
Here and there, the director errs for a little while on a melodramatic subject, which I could have lived without. One such moments narrates the death of Gore’s older sister, Nancy, succumbed to her unrestrained tobacco addiction. This lead Gore’s father, struck by sorrow, to stop growing the crop in their Tennessee farm. The example illustrates how knowledge of the consequences of some human activities can cause a reasoned change in the way those activities are carried out, in spite of immediate financial rewards (tobacco=$$).
Despite the death of what looked like an honorable woman, I had to repress an ironical smile : for a while now, I had been thinking about the following analogy : Burning fossil fuel is a lot like smoking ; almost every user now knows that it’s bad for them and their entourage, but do you think that would be enough to make them stop ?
We are addicted to our fossil-fuel-intensive lifestyle in a similar way that smokers are addicted to soiling their lungs with smoke. And unfortunately, we haven’t found a magical formula to convince people to quit smoking (for their own good), no matter how harsh the public health advertising campaigns. Perhaps it is because, in both cases, there is a tremendous financial consortium benefiting from the addiction, which isn’t easing the case. But mostly it is about an all too familiar human weakness when it comes to taking long-term decisions in apparent contradiction with our immediate notion of well-being.
For what it’s worth, one thing that really helped me quit smoking was – you will never believe it – the NYC smoking ban in bars and restaurants.
Hum… regulation… could that be the way forward with greenhouse gas emissions ? Libertarians and partisans of savage economic laisser-faire will tell you “get the hell out of here !”, but hey, the result is here : despite all my initial protestations, I’m not smoking anymore. And you can’t blame a shivering, “knee-jerk democrat” for this piece of legislation, it came from GOP’s Mayor Bloomberg himself. An inspiration for other Republican leaders armed with common sense ?
- Not bad for a politician !
The slideshow that Al Gore is using as his main communication tool is a carefully crafted flow of relevant and well-explained scientific data, theories, and model results, which I had very little qualms about, surprisingly enough. I have to report that Gore did his homework like a real good boy.
I am surprised because most politicians who take on to discuss the subject regularly make an ass of themselves. I could cite a great number of boring examples, but I can’t resist giving the best critique of all. (disclaimer : I am aware that Will Ferrell is not an elected US official. He just happens to be more like Bush than Bush himself when he wants to ;-). Seriously, one day I’ll get to document a real list. For now we can have a little bit of a laugh.
As a scientist, my duty is to give a critical appraisal of Gore’s mastery of the subject. I have to say that he is sometimes a little shaky on labeling the axes of his plots ; at times, he tends to conveniently forget to mention some known uncertainties ; and he falls into the trap of blaming the Younger Dryas on some meltwater-induced shutdown of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation, which I think is a theory deemed to oblivion within 10 years, besides the fact that it doesn’t help his argument al all. But he is not alone in that mistake, and this petty detail shall not deter us from my main point : overall, these minor flaws do not undermine the cogency of his message. He makes an excellent job of presenting well-established, overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic global warming, both scientifically correct and visually striking ; he does the same with its ecological and societal consequences ; and most remarkably, he presents credible alternatives to the current situation.
Full marks, as far as this scientist is concerned.
It is often all too easy for the “skeptics” to dismiss any action taken on the reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and methane, chiefly) , because it’s “bad for business”. And God knows we can’t allow that. Oh no. Whatever we do, and even if Florida becomes a giant swamp scattered with a handful of crooked trees periodically swept away by category 6 hurricanes, we can’t possibly harm next trimester’s earnings of such and such outdated industrial juggernaut. That would upset stockholders, detract investors, cause various aches on the board of directors, and more generally spread a foul smell everywhere. God knows we can’t allow that to happen. Next trimester is immensely more important than the next generation, you liberal fuckhead. Besides, who needs a planet to live on next century as long as we can do business next week ?
This view is only valid in a world where invention, creativity and scientific progress are repressed, and where all we do is stupidly consume the way we have for the past few industrial revolutions.
But there is a much more exciting way forward. Yes, I actually said “exciting”, because I think now is a turning point for mankind, and if we rise up to the challenge of sustaining the livelihood of more than 10 billion human beings on our planet without entirely destroying it (and ourselves), we will have effectively reached a long sought-after maturity.
Oil, coal and gas have been fueling our economic development for a while, starting from a time when, truthfully, we could not have anticipated their negative impacts. Now that we are aware of the latter, don’t we have a moral imperative to do something about it ?
Unfortunately, moral imperatives are an undervalued currency, these days.
Well, how about financial incentives ? It’s getting increasingly costly to extract oil, both in terms of drilling, and dealing all its geopolitical consequences. Read Sonia Shah’s excellent book if you don’t believe me. The latest industrial revolution is running out of steam in the Western World, which is losing is technological advantage to China, mainly. We could use something new.
It is my personal view of economic prosperity that since the Middle Ages it has occurred primarily in times of :
a) peace and political stability (even better, democracy).
b) discoveries of natural resources or technological innovations.
Well, now that we see the limits of our natural resources, why not put our brains to work and innovate ? Perfect existing technology (most of it is already here) to satisfy our energy needs, take a leadership in tomorrrow’s technologies (before China does), and solve a lot of middle-Eastern geopolitical problems all at the same time ?
No, it’s not liberal propaganda – I’ve actually heard Gov. George Pataki (R, NY) say this. All these issues are deeply interconnected : if the US and the EU can lead the way to a society that continues living in comfortable abundance, but little waste ; with clean energies and no dependence on Middle-Eastern oil fields ; then it will pave the way to a sustainable economic growth worldwide, powered by innovation and a wise use of natural resources. It will give an incentive to China and India not to “develop” as foolishly as we have. Saudi Arabia and Iran will have a lot less money to fund islamic terrorism. (There would not be a Ben Laden if it were not for oil money).
It’s all tied up in the climate knot.
Gore does a wonderful job of illustrating that turning our minds to solving environmental problems is not only necessary, but promises to be lucrative. It is not even a question : the next industrial revolution *has* to address sustainable development, otherwise, we as an organized society will surely decay. Note that I am not taking a catastrophist view here. I am merely stating the obvious : what is not sustainable will not last forever.
Contrary to what most oil hunks are saying, sustainable development does not have to be to our economic detriment, but just the opposite. I only takes a mild amount of visionary power to see this. You can read it in quite a few places, here for instance
You knew that money was green . Now you shall think that green means money.
I have only one serious reservation about Gore being the standard-bearer of the green revolution : the fact that he used to sport the Democrats’ banner at the nation’s second rank, is in my opinion a serious disservice to the cause. He is way too blue to be credible as pure green. Don’t get me wrong : everyone should think green – the blues and the reds alike.
But in Gore’s case, it then becomes all too easy for the “skeptics” to lazily waive a hand and dismiss established facts as “liberal propaganda”, instead of looking at the truth eye to eye. We don’t need to preach to the choir – we need to convince everyone, and that’s where Gore’s democratic heritage can hurt.
More subtly, almost all media coverage I have read on the movie – even liberal media – never fails to ask whether it is a not-so-subtle message that Al Gore is back on the campaign trail. Instead of asking : “So what can I do about my energy consumption ?”, the burning question is on everyone’s lips : “Is he going to run for office in 2008 ?”. He claims that he isn’t, but the doubt is seeded in everyone’s mind that he can’t possibly be crusading for the Earth from the goodness of his heart. I personally think he is, but hey, what do I know about politics ?
On the other hand, with all their purported legitimacy, scientists haven’t been very good, thus far, at changing the minds of the American people. As a former vice-President, Gore knows all too well that “an administration does not take an issue seriously unless it is on the tip of the tongue of its constituents”. Scientists haven’t been able to get there, therefore Gore is embarking on the climate crusade.
Well, he may not be my ideal climate spokesperson, but we badly need one. I think i’ll follow him on that. Will you ?
E.N., August 2006