NY Times article on Gore leaves out inconvenient truths

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN & ROB DIETZ

In a March 13 article headlined "From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype," New York Times science writer William J. Broad reported on criticism of former Vice President Al Gore's portrayal of the threat of global warming in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth by citing scientists who "argue that some of Mr. Gore's central points are exaggerated and erroneous." Broad wrote that "scientists are sensitive to [the film's] details and claims" and that Gore has received criticism not "only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists." But of the sources cited in the article, at least four have records of misinformation on the issue. Though three of these were identified as skeptics or as having expressed skepticism, in all four cases, their past statements or studies questioning global warming theory have been debunked or discredited by the scientific community -- which Broad did not report.

Richard Lindzen

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Lindzen was identified in the article as a scientist "who has long expressed skepticism about dire climate predictions." But the article failed to mention that Lindzen has previously appeared on talk shows to contradict the consensus on global warming and has falsely claimed that "there is no agreement that the warming we've seen is due to man." Lindzen has also understated the extent of warming that has occurred and the level of scientific certainty that man has contributed to that warming. Indeed, during a May 26, 2006, appearance on CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck, he agreed with Beck's false claim that in the last century "temperatures here in America" are "pretty much flat," responding: "Well, yes, as far as we can tell."

Bjørn Lomborg

The Times article cited Bjørn Lomborg, the associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, as someone who has been "long skeptical of catastrophic global warming." But Broad did not report that in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, September 2001), Lomborg purported to conduct a "non-partisan analysis" of environmental data in the hope of offering the public and policymakers a guide for "clear-headed prioritization of resources to tackle real, not imagined, problems." His conclusion was that the concerns of scientists regarding the world's environmental problems -- including global warming -- were universally overblown. But in January 2002, Scientific American ran a series of articles from four well-known environmental specialists that lambasted Lomborg's book for "egregious distortions," "elementary blunders of quantitative manipulation and presentation that no self-respecting statistician ought to commit," and sections that were "poorly researched and ... rife with careless mistakes."

A backgrounder by the Union of Concerned Scientists similarly reported that Lomborg's findings and methodology "fails to meet basic standards of credible scientific analysis."

Roy Spencer

The article further cited Roy Spencer, who was identified only as "a climatologist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville." But the article did not note that Spencer co-authored a 2003 global warming study with John Christy, the director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Their report, which concluded that the troposphere had not warmed in recent decades, was ultimately found to have significant errors. As the Times itself reported on August 12, 2005, when their miscalculations were taken into account, the data used in their study actually showed warming in the troposphere.

Spencer has ties to the George C. Marshall Institute, which Congressional Quarterly has described as "a Washington-based think tank supported by industry and conservative foundations that focuses primarily on trying to debunk global warming as a threat." Beyond his criticism of global warming theory, Spencer has also taken up another cause that places him well outside the scientific mainstream -- his view that "intelligent design, as a theory of origins, is no more religious, and no less scientific, than evolutionism."

Benny J. Peiser

In his article, Broad cited Benny J. Peiser, "a social anthropologist in Britain," as having "challenged the claim of scientific consensus with examples of pointed disagreement." Peiser was quoted saying, "Hardly a week goes by ... without a new research paper that questions part or even some basics of climate change theory." But Peiser previously made identical remarks after acknowledging that he does not "doubt that the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact." In an October 2006 letter to the Australian media analysis organization Media Watch, Peiser wrote:

I do not think anyone is questioning that we are in a period of global warming. Neither do I doubt that the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact. However, this majority consensus is far from unanimous.

Despite all claims to the contrary, there is a small community of sceptical researchers that remains extremely active. Hardly a week goes by without a new research paper that questions part or even some basics of climate change theory. ... Undoubtedly, sceptical scientists are a small minority. But as long as the possible impacts of global warming remain uncertain, the public is justified to keep an open mind.

Further, as blogger Tim Lambert noted, in 2004, University of California professor Naomi Oreskes studied "a sample of 928 papers in refereed scientific journals and found that not one disagreed with the scientific consensus: that humans are responsible for most of the warming in the last few decades." Her findings were published in the December 2004 edition of Science magazine. Subsequently, Peiser took exception to Oreskes findings and, in an unpublished letter to Science, claimed that 34 papers in the database Oreskes used "reject or doubt the view that human activities are the main drivers of the [sic] 'the observed warming over the last 50 years'." Lambert stated in response: "It was obvious that there was only paper [sic] in his list that rejected the consensus and not only was that paper not peer-reviewed it was from the AAPG (American Association of Petroleum Geologists)." In his subsequent letter to Media Watch, Peiser admitted that "some of the abstracts that I included in the 34 'reject or doubt' category are very ambiguous and should not have been included."

From the Times article:

Although Mr. 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 Mr. Gore have come not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists like Dr. Easterbook, 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 both skeptics and zealots.

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 Mr. Gore's central points are exaggerated and erroneous. They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism.

"I don't want to pick on Al Gore," Don J. 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."

Mr. 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."

Although Mr. 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 Mr. Gore have come not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists like Dr. Easterbook, 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 both skeptics and zealots.

[...]

While reviewers tended to praise the book and movie, vocal skeptics of global warming protested almost immediately. Richard S. 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 Mr. Gore in The Wall Street Journal of "shrill alarmism."

Some of Mr. Gore's centrist detractors point to a report last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that studies global warming. The panel went further than ever before in saying that humans were the main cause of the globe's warming since 1950, part of Mr. 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. Mr. 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, at least visually, 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 Mr. Gore, had refrained from scaremongering. "Climate change is a real and serious problem" that calls for careful analysis and sound policy, Dr. Lomborg said. "The cacophony of screaming," he added, "does not help."

So too, a report last June by the National Academies seemed to contradict Mr. 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 Mr. Gore's film did "indeed do a pretty good job of presenting the most dire scenarios." But 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."

Other critics have zeroed in on Mr. Gore's claim that the energy industry ran a "disinformation campaign" that produced false discord on global warming. The truth, he said, was that virtually all unbiased scientists agreed that humans were the main culprits. But Benny J. Peiser, a social anthropologist in Britain who runs the Cambridge-Conference Network, or CCNet, an Internet newsletter on climate change and natural disasters, challenged the claim of scientific consensus with examples of pointed disagreement.

"Hardly a week goes by," Dr. Peiser said, "without a new research paper that questions part or even some basics of climate change theory," including some reports that offer alternatives to human activity for global warming.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
Network/Outlet
The New York Times
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