In a May 24 Slate.com article, Gregg Easterbrook baselessly criticized Al Gore's new film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, as factually imprecise and morally careless, but his criticism ignored his history of using distorted scientific research to downplay the threat of global warming.
In his May 24 Slate.com article, "Ask Mr. Science," New Republic senior editor and Brookings Institution visiting fellow Gregg Easterbrook lauded former Vice President Al Gore's new film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, as "worthy in content, admirable in intent, and motivated by the sense of civic responsibility Hollywood on the whole has abandoned," before baselessly assailing the film as factually imprecise and morally careless. Easterbrook criticized Gore's claims that the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica could lead to substantial increases in sea levels, that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing, and that Bush administration officials have attempted to tamper with official reports on the threat posed by climate change. But in each case, Easterbrook's attempt to undermine these claims failed.
Moreover, while Easterbrook conceded in both his Slate.com article and in a New York Times op-ed published the same day that he was once skeptical of global warming, he did not disclose that during these many previous years as an ardent global warming skeptic, he repeatedly distorted scientific research to meet his aims.
Future sea level rises
Easterbrook complained that An Inconvenient Truth's portrayal of the threat posed by global warming "is always worst-case scenario" and that the film "was not scrubbed for factual precision." As an example, he noted that Gore "asserted that a sea-level rise of 20 feet is a realistic short-term prospect":
Gore says the entire Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets could melt rapidly; the film then jumps to animation of Manhattan flooded. Well, all that ice might melt really fast, and a UFO might land in London, too.
Easterbrook contrasted this scenario -- purportedly put forward by Gore as a "realistic short-term prospect" -- with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 2001 estimate that sea levels will rise somewhere between "four to 35 inches in the 21st century." Further, he cited two studies published in the March 24 issue of Science as evidence undermining the probability of an extreme sea level rise:
The most recent major study of ice in the geologic past found that about 130,000 years ago the seas were "several meters above modern levels" and that polar temperatures sufficient to cause a several-meter sea-level rise may eventually result from artificial global warming. The latest major study of austral land ice detected a thawing rate that would add two to three inches to sea level during this century. Such findings are among the arguments that something serious is going on with Earth's climate. But the science-consensus forecast about sea-level rise is plenty bad enough. Why does An Inconvenient Truth use disaster-movie speculation?
But Easterbrook never indicated exactly what about Gore's assertion is factually imprecise. In fact, rather than undermine the possibility that severe rises in sea levels might occur in the future, the Science studies that Easterbrook cited as evidence for his point actually reinforce this scenario. Indeed, the primary author of the first study, University of Arizona professor Jonathan Overpeck, has emphasized that temperatures are, during the 21st century, projected to reach the level experienced in the Last InterGlacial (LIG) period (approximately 130,000 years ago). According to his research, severe melting occurred in Greenland and Antarctica during the LIG, resulting in sea level increases of as much as 20 feet. From a March 23 University of Arizona news article on Overpeck's findings:
"This is a real eye-opener set of results," said study co-author Jonathan T. Overpeck of The University of Arizona in Tucson. "The last time the Arctic was significantly warmer than present day, the Greenland Ice Sheet melted back the equivalent of two to three meters (about six to ten feet) of sea level."
The ice sheets are melting already. The new research suggests the melting could accelerate, thereby raising sea level as fast, or faster, than three feet (about one meter) of sea level rise per century.
Although ice sheet disintegration and the subsequent sea level rise lags behind rising temperatures, the process will become irreversible sometime in the second half of the 21st century, Overpeck said, "unless something is done to dramatically reduce human emissions of greenhouse gas pollution.
"We need to start serious measures to reduce greenhouse gases within the next decade. If we don't do something soon, we're committed to four-to-six meters (13 to 20 feet) of sea level rise in the future."
Overpeck also pointed out that the ice in Antarctica will not have to melt completely to severely effect sea levels worldwide. Because it rests below sea level and on an unstable foundation, there is a danger of water seeping beneath the West Antarctica Ice Shelf and causing it to collapse, which would result in a sudden rise in sea levels worldwide. From the March 23 article:
"To get rid of Greenland's ice, you have to melt it. In the Antarctic, all you have to do is break up the ice sheet and float it away and that would raise sea level," he [Overpeck] said. "It's just like throwing a bunch of ice cubes into a full glass of water and watching the water spill over the top."
By Easterbrook's standards, Overpeck -- whose report he cited -- appears to be engaging "disaster-movie speculation" as well.
Further, the second study that Easterbrook cited found that Antarctica has actually been melting at a faster rate than that used by the IPCC in determining its sea level projections. The co-authors, University of Colorado professors Isabella Velicogna and John Wahr, found most of the deterioration occurring on the West Antarctica Ice Shelf. As the weblog RealClimate explained:
Velicogna and Wahr use data from the "Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment" (GRACE) satellites to show that the Antarctic ice sheet has been losing mass at a rate of 150 +/- 80 km3 each year since 2002. That's equivalent to about 0.4 mm of sea level rise each year. This is about twice other recent estimates, while IPCC 2001 actually gives negative 0.1 mm/yr.
CO2 and the atmosphere
Easterbrook went on to argue that "some details are off" in Gore's explanation of how greenhouse gases are affecting the atmosphere. Specifically, Easterbrook took issue with Gore's assertion that "the atmosphere is being thickened by huge quantities of carbon dioxide." Easterbrook wrote, "Thickness is not the issue," and proceeded to explain how the molecular makeup of CO2 traps heat, creating the so-called greenhouse effect. Easterbrook concluded, "It is the chemistry of carbon dioxide, not its density, that matters." But to the contrary, both factors matter. While the chemical properties of CO2 are undoubtedly important, so is the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere - the "thicken[ing]" to which Gore refers in both the movie and his book. As Gore notes, scientists have observed a pattern of steadily increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere during the past half-century. Gore also points to the fact that recent studies of data stretching hundreds of thousands of years into the past show a close correlation between increases in CO2 concentration and increases in temperature.
Bush administration officials
Later in the article, Easterbrook characterized Gore's criticism of former Bush administration official Philip Cooney as a "wacky side-trip":
The movie takes a wacky side-trip into a conspiracy theory about Philip Cooney, who was a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and then became chief of staff of George W. Bush's Council on Environmental Quality -- and then got a plush office at ExxonMobil. Gore asserts Cooney was "in charge of environmental policy in the White House," which is nonsense. The EPA administrators, Josh Bolten, Andrew Card, James Connaughton, Mitch Daniels, John Graham, Al Hubbard, and Karl Rove, have been Bush's go-to figures for environment policy; and Connaughton, to whom Cooney reported, is green as can be. Gore implies Cooney's secret mission was to sabotage such efforts as the federal Climate Change Science Program. If so, Cooney better keep his day job, since that program recently declared "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system."
But while Easterbrook dismissed the suggestion that Cooney obstructed the work of the administration's Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) as part of a "conspiracy theory," he failed to note the evidence that Cooney did just that. As The New York Times reported on June 8, 2005, Cooney "repeatedly edited government climate reports [produced by the CCSP] in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming":
In handwritten notes on drafts of several reports issued in 2002 and 2003, the official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors, including some senior Bush administration officials, had already approved. In many cases, the changes appeared in the final reports.
The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties," tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust.
[C]ritics said that while all administrations routinely vetted government reports, scientific content in such reports should be reviewed by scientists. Climate experts and representatives of environmental groups, when shown examples of the revisions, said they illustrated the significant if largely invisible influence of Mr. Cooney and other White House officials with ties to energy industries that have long fought greenhouse-gas restrictions.
Moreover, as proof that Cooney could not have been trying to sabotage the CCSP's efforts, Easterbrook pointed to the office's recent report declaring "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system." But how this exonerates Cooney is unclear, as the report was released on May 2, 2006, while Cooney resigned on June 14, 2005.
In the same passage, Easterbrook claimed that James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), is "as green as can be." In fact, prior to joining the Bush administration in 2001, Connaughton lobbied for the power industry and corporations fighting Superfund cleanup rules. Further, he has helped advance industry interests during his tenure as head of the CEQ, as Outside magazine reported in May 2005:
He is among the most powerful advocates of the administration's 'new environmentalism' -- a sweeping shift away from federal regulations in favor of voluntary and incentive-based initiatives.
Connaughton played a key role in developing the administration's Clear Skies bill, criticized as being blatantly pro-industry because it weakens Clean Air Act pollution-control regulations and does not address carbon dioxide emissions. He also helped the president promote the Healthy Forests Initiative, a management plan hotly contested by environmentalists for easing logging restrictions on federal lands.
Before he joined the White House team in 2001, Connaughton was a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, specializing in environmental law and lobbying to reduce government regulations on behalf of clients such as the Chemical Manufacturers Association of America."
Connaughton's advocacy in favor of voluntary rather than mandatory limits on greenhouse gases has continued. In a May 22 speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Connaughton defended the Bush administration's resistance to mandatory curbs. He said "that the country does not have to regulate such pollutants because it is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent relative to the gross domestic product by 2012," according to a May 26 Washington Post article. The same Post article noted that the Government Accountability Office recently reported various shortcomings in the administration's voluntary approach to reducing industry emissions.
Gore's purported moral carelessness
After lauding Connaughton's purported credentials as an environmentalist, Easterbrook went on to point out that, in one scene from An Inconvenient Truth, Gore is seen boarding an airplane. "If 'really changing our way of life' is imperative, what's Gore doing getting on a jetliner?" Easterbrook asked. "Jets number among the most resource-intensive objects in the world." This observation led him to fault the film for "its carelessness about moral argument." But Easterbrook, in making this accusation, ignored that Gore, his wife Tipper, and the employees of Generation Investment Management, his London-based investment firm, are reportedly extremely conscious of their carbon consumption. From a profile in the May 2006 issue of Wired:
The Gores and all the employees of Generation lead a "carbon-neutral" lifestyle, reducing their energy consumption when possible and purchasing so-called offsets available on newly emerging carbon markets. Gore says he and Tipper regularly calculate their home and business energy use -- including the carbon cost of his prodigious global travel. Then he purchases offsets equal to the amount of carbon emissions they generate. Last year, for example, Gore and Tipper atoned for their estimated 1 million miles in global air travel by giving money to an Indian solar electric company and a Bulgarian hydroelectric project.
Easterbrook's problem with the facts
Easterbrook's baseless accusation of factual imprecision and moral carelessness on Gore's part is ironic given his own record of misleading and false claims regarding climate change. As he noted at the beginning of the May 24 Slate article, he is "someone who has come to the view that greenhouse-effect science is now persuasive." While he offered no details regarding his previous statements on the issue or what caused him to change his mind, he provided further explanation in the Times op-ed published that same day. In that piece, Easterbrook wrote:
As an environmental commentator, I have a long record of opposing alarmism. But based on the data I'm now switching sides regarding global warming, from skeptic to convert.
In a May 2006 working paper released by the Brookings Institution, "Case Closed: The Debate About Global Warming is Over," Easterbrook cited doubts surrounding global warming in the early 1990s and informed readers that, in his book Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (Penguin, 1995), he had "called for more research" on the topic:
When global-warming concerns became widespread, many argued that more scientific research was needed before any policy decisions. This was hardly just the contention of oil-company executives. "There is no evidence yet" of dangerous climate change, the National Academy of Sciences declared in 1991. A 1992 survey of members of the American Geophysical Union and American Meteorological Society, two professional groups of climatologists, found only 17 percent believed there was a sufficient ground to declare an artificial greenhouse effect in progress. In 1993, Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said there exists "a great range of uncertainty" regarding whether the world is warming. My own contrarian 1995 book about environmental issues, A Moment on the Earth, spent 39 pages reviewing the nascent state of climate science and concluded that rising temperatures "might be an omen or might mean nothing." Like others, I called for more research.
That research is now in, and the scientific uncertainty that once justified skepticism has been replaced by near-unanimity among credentialed researchers that an artificially warming world is a real phenomenon posing real danger.
In these recent publications, Easterbrook has presented his former position on global warming as largely based on the absence of scientific consensus at the time. But during the nineties, Easterbrook did not merely claim that "more scientific research was needed," he cited extensive scientific data in an attempt to prove that the concerns surrounding climate change were unfounded, arguments that were thoroughly debunked by the scientific community. For instance, a review of Moment of Earth in the August 1995 issue of Natural History, Pennsylvania State University professor Jack C. Schultz wrote that the book "contains some of the most egregious cases of misunderstood, misstated, misinterpreted, and plainly incorrect 'science' writing I've ever encountered."
Furthermore, in the year following Moment of Earth's publication, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) devoted two reports, totaling more than 180 pages, to debunking and correcting the numerous false claims advanced by Easterbrook in the book (here and here). In the introduction, the report's authors asserted that "his account of environmental issues is replete with errors and misinterpretations of the scientific evidence." They went on to note that Easterbrook's mistakes "are so numerous and so one-sided in their minimization of the seriousness of environmental problems that they must be addressed. Moreover, he has included some assertions in his book after having been warned by technical experts that they were incorrect."
In the section of the report on the chapter of Easterbrook's book devoted to climate change, the EDF corrected 24 "fundamental errors." Moreover, they determined that Easterbrook had distorted the results of a poll taken of scientists on the issue and mischaracterized the positions of the National Academy of Sciences and the IPCC to downplay the growing consensus regarding climate change. From the introduction to this section:
In his chapter on global warming, Easterbrook makes many fundamental errors. He continually confuses global, regional, and local temperature trends, which may differ considerably; he mischaracterizes the results of a poll that was undertaken to determine scientists' views on global warming; and he mistakenly asserts that the sea level has not risen significantly, when it has.
Most flagrantly, however, he erroneously claims that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the two most respected scientific authorities on the subject, have substantially lowered their projections of future warming due to a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, when they have not.
But Easterbrook's Slate article assailing Gore's purported abuse of the facts, his Times op-ed, and his Brookings Institution paper all failed to mention his own record of distorting scientific facts on the subject of global warming.