Al Gore vs. The Aristotelian Method – or The Moral Irrationality Of Climate Scaremongering
The following is my translation of a talk given by Prof Luigi Mariani of the Agrometeorological Research Group, Dept. of Crop Science, University of Milan after a public screening of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, on 23 January in Comano, Italy.
The original text in Italian is available at this link: “Verità, mezze verità e menzogne – Un commento al documentario ‘Una verità scomoda’”
Al Gore vs. The Aristotelian Method – or The Moral Irrationality Of Climate Scaremongering
by Luigi Mariani
As a complete non-expert in the field of documentary movies, my opinion is that Gore is a natural born actor and “An Inconvenient Truth” (AIT, directed by David Guggenheim) such a well-paced work, that it is hard not to feel the involvement.
It places itself half-way between American Graffiti and the classical tale of the romantic hero, seasoned with a moral vision calling at times for a collective sense of responsibility for humankind. It is also full of slogans that sound great. All in all, AIT is a veritable testimony of faith in the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).
AGW is based on the theory that greenhouse gases are the key factor for climatic variability. In particular, according the AGW the rise in temperatures recorded in the past 150 years (after the end of the Little Ice Age) is caused by human emissions into the atmosphere, especially of carbon dioxide. One of the best known champions for AGW is the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Composed of scientists and government representatives, the IPCC supports a human cause for increased temperatures on the basis both of past climates’ reconstructions and of “forecasts” for up to 100 years in the future, made with mathematical models (Global Circulation Models – GCM). What is less widely known is that the IPCC’s is not the only way to take a look at climate (Mariani, 2008). With those premises, let’s analyze Gore’s documentary according to the three Aristotelian techniques (Wollf, 1995), ie logic, dialectic and rhetoric.
Logic (one may say, science) is the rational process reaching “true” conclusions starting from “true” statements and using demonstrations. Dialectic seeks the “truth” starting from conflicting ideas. Rhetoric is the art of persuading an audience of the “truth” an idea. My personal assessment for AIT is as follows: 10% science, 0% dialectic and 90% rhetoric. In other words, it is a well-polished work of propagandistic fiction.
Of science there is not a lot, because Gore is not a scientist and knows simply too little about Atmospheric Physics (even with Keeling in the background, the absence of any experience in actual scientific research is apparent). The sheer number of contradictions in Gore’s charts vs. words makes that all too evident. The graph showing CO2 concentrations over the last 650,000 years (in red) alongside temperatures (in blue) clearly indicates increased CO2 is an effect of warming and not a cause. Temperatures in Switzerland definitely increase but only from 1989: why would the greenhouse effect of CO2 show up only from that date, one wonders? Is there something else, perhaps, underneath Gore’s neat explanations?
I am really impressed by Gore’s light-mindedness in navigating among contradictory data. If he delivered the same ideas around the world in hundreds of speeches, how on Earth can it be possible that not even one person in the attendance has ever made Gore confront his own contradictions? Had he spent at least part of his precious time reading scientific literature or at least opening himself to a frank and open discussion with anybody aware of the complexities of climate science, I am sure he would have presented things in a different way.
Also note how many times Gore pushes on the ethics button, whilst anybody with a different mind on these topic is basically a person of lowly morals (a “skeptic”, a well-paid mouthpiece for Big Oil, etc). That’s why there is no dialectic at all.
What openness to dialogue could be expected from someone convinced of being the depository of an absolute truth? And what science can be done if there is no space for dialectic, and rhetorics is instead sprinkled away freely throughout AIT, even with the empathetic use of a series of private events (such as the emotional life stories of the son and the sister of Gore, and a retelling of his misadventures during the 2000 election?).
With not even an inch of dialectic lightening up AIT’s heavy chains of rhetoric, focusing on the scientific elements of the Gore-Guggenheim documentary becomes more important than ever. In this regard please note that all my comments below are based on data and bibliographical references from the scientific literature to date (January 2009). You may notice how this constrasts with Gore’s assertion that an analysis of over 928 scientific papers in international journals showed exactly 0% of them in disagreement with AGW. It should go without saying that most scientific work concerns limited areas of research. This is the way of science as there has to be a suspension of disbelief in respect of matters that are not covered by the available data. That alone explains why many scientists in their peer-reviewed articles express no actual opinion regarding the whole-planet interdisciplinary topic of research called climate science. And yet their silence is taken as consent.
Still, it is not really that difficult to find peer-reviewed scientific articles critical of AGW, focusing instead on the importance of solar activity (Shaviv, 2005), the role of land use (Pielke et al., 2007) and even the sensitivity of climate to changes in the underlying forcings (Lindzen and Giannitsis, 2002), to mention a few.
Let’s check Gore’s statements against current scientific understanding.
1. The ice cream shown in the cartoon melts not due to global but of urban warming effect (Mariani, 2008). If global temperatures have risen by 0.5C in a century, in a city like Milan they have increased by 2.5C, especially in the minima (at night, during the summer heatwaves, our cities are definitely less comfortable than in the past). So what’d be wrong in fighting urban warming? Is anybody afraid of interfering with “bricks”, since those make up the foundations of our economy?
2. In another animation, greenhouse gases trap the rays of the sun. Now, even if one should not be too picky in adapting science knowledge to the masses, still one should steer clear of anything capable mostly of entrenching further ignorance. The so-called “greenhouse effect” is due to components of atmosphere intercepting longwave radiation emitted from the planetary surface, and partly irradiating it back towards the ground. This is a phenomenon essential for life, contributions to which come from water vapor (55%), clouds (24%) and CO2 (14%) (Mariani, 2008). Considering CO2 alone (Mihre, 1998) and translating its increase in concentration into a rise in temperatures using the Stefan Boltzmann equation, the expected “global warming” will be less than 0.5C between today and the time when CO2 concentration will be double the pre-industrial levels. AGW mathematical models estimate a larger increase on the (unproven) assumption that CO2 increases correspond to great increases in water vapor and decreases in low clouds (and/or increases in high clouds).
3. Gore at one point says that we must get rid of “evil” greenhouse gases. Everybody must be made aware of the fact that CO2 is not a poison, rather it is a major foundation for life itself. Without CO2, there would be no photosynthesis and we would not have much if anything to eat. Vascular plants appeared during the Devonian era, with CO2 levels 20 to 30 times higher than current ones, and yet temperatures were not much different than today’s (Hetherington et al. 2005). And if there was no man at the time to call CO2 as a “cancer on the planet”, could anybody please explain on what grounds Devonian air was the way it was?
4. Gore indicates the melting of the Kilimanjaro glaciers as an unequivocal sign of AGW. However, according to Kaser et al. (2004) ice started declining on the tallest African mountain around 1880, probably because of land use changes (the destruction of forested areas) and a consequent change in available humidity and rainfall patterns.
5. Gore speaks of unprecedented melting of Arctic and Alpine glaciers as a symptom of Global Warming. What should be noted though is that an even more massive melting of Alpine glaciers took place between 7500 and 5500 years ago, during the so-called “postglacial optimum”, and then 1000 years ago, coinciding with the “medieval optimum” (Mariani, 2006). Many current glaciers originated during the “little ice age” period between 1500 and 1850 (Giraudi, 2005).
6. Gore argues that to allow CO2 to increase is deeply immoral. It would be interesting to ask for an opinion on such a claim by a plant of wheat, or a vine.
7. Gore argues that the European heatwave of 2003 is a perfidious effect of AGW and that it is the alarm bell for phenomena increasingly more common in the future. Chase et al (2006) have analyzed the frequency and persistence of major subtropical anticyclonic fronts of the kind that lingered on for much of the the summer in 2003. Their analysis covered 1979-2006 and a latitudinal band between 22° and 80° North. According to their findings similar or greater anomalies than 2003’s happen regularly and there is no significant trend in the annually affected area. What was different in 2003 was the structure of European urban areas, with high-rise buildings of stone and mortar, and very little, often not even properly irrigated green areas (Leroy Ladurie, 2004).
8. Gore mentions Hurricane Katrina as evidence that we are facing an increase in the destructiveness of hurricanes. However, U.S. statistics for 1900-2005 indicate a substantial lack of any trend (Pielke et al., 2008).
9. Gore says that AGW leads to an increase in rainfall and cites as unprecedented example the 930mm that fell upon Mumbai in just 24 hours. This assertion is false as a number of precedents have been recorded for decades (Cati, 1981). Among the highest global pluviometric records during the space of 24 hours: 1168mm in Beguio (Philippines, 14-15 July 1911); 1036mm in Cherrapungi (India, 14 June 1876); 1034mm in Funkiko (Taiwan, 31 August 1911); 975 mm in Thrall (Texas, 9 September 1921); 940 mm in Suva (Fiji, 9 August 1906). In Italy alone: 948 mm in Bolzaneto (Genoa, 7-8 October 1970); 750mm at the Reschenpass (9 October 1936) and 702 mm in Lentini (17 October 1952).
10. Gore talks of unprecedented cases of drowned polar bears. It is just very inconvenient for him to mention that Arctic temperatures reached similar values to present ones in the 1930s, and were higher in at least four occasions since the end of last ice age (Figure 1). If Polar bears survived then, perhaps they are capable of adapting themselves to periods of mild climate
11. Gore fears the spread of tropical diseases like malaria. Would anybody please remind him that in the middle of the “little ice age”, Oliver Cromwell died of malaria in London in 1658, killed by a disease that was endemic in the Thames region (Lamb, 1966). What is keeping Londoners healthy today, temperatures notwithstanding, are health policy measures (Reiter, 2008).
12. Gore talks of an increase in the level of the oceans. In truth, oceans have gone up by 1mm/year between 1900-1951, then decreased by approximately the same yearly amount up to 1980, and are now rising again, still by about 1mm per year (Mornera et al., 2004; Mornera, 2007). That translates in 10 cm in a century, far less than needed for submerging entire regions (such as the Netherlands or Florida, shown in what is a veritable moment of fiction during AIT). Note that even with CO2 levels significantly lower than current ones, abnormally high sea levels happened 125,000 years ago, with up to +6 meters compared to today (IPCC, 2007); 7000 years ago, up to +2 meters (Törnqvist et al., 2004) and 1000 years ago, up to +0.5 meters (Froede, 2002).
13. Gore raises concerns about floods, droughts and storms: computerized GCMs present those scenarios, something in my opinion still all to be proven. However, even taking them as true, don’t they also show temperatures rising more at the Poles than in the tropical regions? And doesn’t that translate into a contraction of the pole-equator thermal gradient, the main trigger of general circulation and energy source for the smaller circulatory structures that make up the weather? One would then expect a reduction in extremes, not an increase.
14. Just to be clear, the father of the theory of continental drift was Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), a meteorologist and a disciple of Koeppen, a great climatologist), not any one of Gore’s classmates. Wegener’s own story (expelled from his University post in Germany as an advocate of a theory considered heresy by most of the “scientific community” in his days) is a clear example of the importance of a free, unimpeded scientific debate for the advancement of knowledge, rather than ever more clumsy attempts at silencing whoever does not follow “scientific consensus”
15. Gore cites Mark Twain “Danger comes not from what we know not, but from what we believe to be true but it is not”. A formidably true sentence if there’s ever been one, and even more so concerning AGW, a field about which there still is so much room for uncertainty, in my opinion. Having read Mark Twain (see for example his story “How the Animals of the Wood Sent Out a Scientific Expedition“) I can imagine how little trust would he put into a “dominant scientific theory” such as AGW.
Last but not least, global warming as such has stopped in 1998 (warmest year ever, with a very strong El Nino phenomenon). Global temperature data similar to 2008’s happened in 1996 (see the satellite MSU data in Figure 2).
Discussion and conclusions
Regarding such a complex system as climate, no serious scientist can claim absolute certainty. Doubt is inevitable, actually functional for the growth of knowledge. Perhaps that is why Guggenheim’s documentary is led by Al Gore, a politician mandated to hide all doubts and trained from an early age into rhetoric as a tool to convince the masses. That is the exact opposite of scientists, trained instead to be wary of any truth and to criticize and verify existing “dominant” theories. Modern science sprung also from the ideas and experiences of Copernicus and Galileo, as recently reiterated by Claude Allègre in a beautiful article published by Le Monde in October 2006 (C. Allègre, 2006). The history of science is like a graveyard of once-popular theories, now outdated, and that more often than not have allowed an increase in the understanding of the world exactly by being proven erroneous.
Let me finish then with the following question: is there an ethical aspect in all of the above? Yes, there is, but not in the sense claimed by Gore and repeatedly reaffirmed by his followers.
When all efforts are concentrated into a single all-pervasive issue, attention is distracted from the real problems, and solution to any of those prevented. Mental energy dissipated in analyzing false concerns is simply not there to confront real ones. As clear an example as any, the attitude after the 2003 European heatwave: having failed to recognize the importance of urban rather than global warming, no measures will be taken to counteract the real cause. For example in Milan (of which Gore is now honorary citizen, by no coincidence (Tiezzi, 2008)), houses are being allowed to rise up by an additional floor, further preventing cooling at night, which means of course that the city will be even more hot in future heatwaves.
AIT offers no science-based evaluation of what issues are really at stake: it is in fact its exact opposite, more likely part of a neo-Apocalyptic mindset that distorts the scale of importance of our issues and is capable of contributing little or nothing to the solution of actual problems currently facing humanity. And it will open up the field to speculators, including (not by chance) the same Big Oil denounced by Gore as guilty of financing the “non-scientists”’ efforts to deny the “Inconvenient Truth”.
Granting the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize together to a politician (Al Gore) and a supposedly scientific organization (the IPCC) has simply reinforced the idea that the IPCC itself and AGW in general are heavily constrained by politics. And for this topic, I refer you to Professor John Christy’s “My Nobel Moment” (2007) article on The Wall Street Journal.
Christy has long worked within the IPCC and his insider’s view is definitely useful to enlighten the issue of AGW.
“…I’m sure the majority (but not all) of my IPCC colleagues cringe when I say this, but I see neither the developing catastrophe nor the smoking gun proving that human activity is to blame for most of the warming we see. Rather, I see a reliance on climate models (useful but never “proof”) and the coincidence that changes in carbon dioxide and global temperatures have loose similarity over time.
There are some of us who remain so humbled by the task of measuring and understanding the extraordinarily complex climate system that we are skeptical of our ability to know what it is doing and why. As we build climate data sets from scratch and look into the guts of the climate system, however, we don’t find the alarmist theory matching observations….
…Mother Nature simply operates at a level of complexity that is, at this point, beyond the mastery of mere mortals (such as scientists) and the tools available to us. As my high-school physics teacher admonished us in those we-shall-conquer-the-world-with-a-slide-rule days, “Begin all of your scientific pronouncements with ‘At our present level of ignorance, we think we know . . .’”
I haven’t seen that type of climate humility lately. Rather I see jump-to-conclusions advocates and, unfortunately, some scientists who see in every weather anomaly the specter of a global-warming apocalypse. Explaining each successive phenomenon as a result of human action gives them comfort and an easy answer…
… California and some Northeastern states have decided to force their residents to buy cars that average 43 miles-per-gallon within the next decade. Even if you applied this law to the entire world, the net effect would reduce projected warming by about 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, an amount so minuscule as to be undetectable. Global temperatures vary more than that from day to day.
Suppose you are very serious about making a dent in carbon emissions and could replace about 10% of the world’s energy sources with non-CO2-emitting nuclear power by 2020 — roughly equivalent to halving U.S. emissions. Based on IPCC-like projections, the required 1,000 new nuclear power plants would slow the warming by about 0.2176 degrees Fahrenheit per century. It’s a dent.
But what is the economic and human price, and what is it worth given the scientific uncertainty?
My experience as a missionary teacher in Africa opened my eyes to this simple fact: Without access to energy, life is brutal and short. The uncertain impacts of global warming far in the future must be weighed against disasters at our doorsteps today. Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus 2004, a cost-benefit analysis of health issues by leading economists (including three Nobelists), calculated that spending on health issues such as micronutrients for children, HIV/AIDS and water purification has benefits 50 to 200 times those of attempting to marginally limit “global warming.”
Given the scientific uncertainty and our relative impotence regarding climate change, the moral imperative here seems clear to me.
Christy’s article’s moral stance is incomparably superior to Gore’s rhetoric-filled documentary. Who in their right mind would ever argue against the necessity of consistently pursuing health policies, water resource management, energy sources’ differentiation, and food security starting from a rational assessment based on available data, instead of Gore’s neo-Apocalyptic grandstanding?
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Figure 1 – Central Greenland temperatures from the end of last ice age to present (Alley, 2000). Four large warm episodes are noticeable: medieval optimum (1), Roman warm period (2), Mycenean warm period (3) and postglacial optimum (4). Last 90 years of data extracted from the GISP2 set by Cuffey and Clow (1997).
Figura 2 – Global temperature measured with the UAH MSU sensors (source: University of Alabama in Huntsville – http://mclean.ch/climate/Tropos_temps.htm)