Economics, Energy and the Environment

Maybe Gore Still Needs to Thaw

Al Gore seems to have thawed out from the deep freeze that descended over Copenhagen in early December. In light of the embarrassing failure of the Copenhagen climate summit, the string of scientific blunders issued by the UN’S Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the scandalous behavior revealed in the Climategate documents, a well-grounded person might sound a little penitent. But not Al Gore.

In his Sunday op-ed in the New York Times, he has retained all of the chastising charm for which he is known. The Times was careful to edit out the sighs and the huffs, but you can still sense the presence of the irritated schoolmarm in the prose.

The point of the piece—of course—is that none of the trivialities about the crumbling credibility of the leading authorities and their demonstrated tendency to mislead the public do anything to weaken the absolutely certain scientific case that we are catastrophically warming the planet, and have to do something drastic—NOW.

So does he offer us new, improved scientific data? No. We get a summary of the same stuff my first grader tells me when I’m using too much hot water in the shower:

Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate: man-made global-warming pollution traps heat from the sun and increases atmospheric temperatures. These pollutants—especially carbon dioxide—have been increasing rapidly with the growth in the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and forests, and temperatures have increased over the same period. Almost all of the ice-covered regions of the Earth are melting—and seas are rising. Hurricanes are predicted to grow stronger and more destructive, though their number is expected to decrease. Droughts are getting longer and deeper in many mid-continent regions, even as the severity of flooding increases. The seasonal predictability of rainfall and temperatures is being disrupted, posing serious threats to agriculture. The rate of species extinction is accelerating to dangerous levels.

The first sentence confuses a hypothesis for a “finding.” The second sentence describes a mere correlation that no one disputes. The rest of the sentences are either highly debatable, false, or predictions rather than evidence.

But his argument really gets interesting when he challenges the rumor-spreading like wildfire among the lumpen proletariat—that the global temperature hasn’t much changed in the last ten years. Watch closely:

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.

This sentence is a gem. Notice first the term of art, “since modern records have been kept.” The writer hopes you’ll read: “the hottest decade ever,” but that’s not what it says. It basically says it’s the hottest decade in the last century and a half or so. But if he had said that, every attentive reader would have said: What about the decades prior to that? Was it hotter or colder then? And that’s just the sort of denialist reasoning Gore wants to prevent.

But I’m swatting at flies here. The truly stunning feature of the sentence is its use of logic. He’s trying to refute the claim that there’s been no warming in the last decade by claiming that … the last decade has been really hot. But, of course, even if the surface temperature had been a few million degrees during the last decade (that’s roughly the temperature Gore recently thought obtained a few miles below the Earth’s surface), that wouldn’t mean it had gotten hotter in the last decade. A pedantic logician would note that being hot and getting hotter are two different properties.

Perhaps the most significant revelation in Gore’s piece, however, is that he doesn’t realize that the rhetorical context of the debate has changed. Maybe he still needs to thaw out.

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