Climate change: Kilimanjaro weeps

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Originally published in the Toronto Star on July 12, 2006.  As  the ice caps melt on the mountain tops, politics is defeating intelligence in the debate over Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s a quick synopsis of An Inconvenient Truth, the global-warming movie that has ignited a firestorm in the U.S. and inexplicably nothing in Canada Al Gore says that carbon dioxide levels are going through the roof on account of fossil fuel burning. He correlates carbon dioxide levels with hotter temperatures, and calls it “global warming.”

He then claims that global warming is responsible, at least in part, for things like the melting of the snows of Kilimanjaro, the shrinking of the Alpine and Peruvian glaciers, the 1995 collapse of Larsen Ice Shelf B in the Antarctic, the rapid decline of Lake Chad, the melting of Arctic permafrost, the thinning of ice caps at the North Pole, the spread of diseases like SARS and the West Nile viruses and the recent flurry of hurricanes like 2005’s Katrina.

The U.S. right wing has reacted venomously to this movie made by the former Democratic contender for president. On June 27, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works released a statement that included quotes such as, Gore’s “arguments are so weak they are pathetic,” “a propaganda crusade … mostly based on junk science” and “this man is an embarrassment to U.S. science … ”

Step back a moment. First of all, in Canada, can you imagine Environment Canada issuing an official denunciation of a movie? Since when do government members review films? Second, bear in mind the substance of the film. If Gore had declared the end of gravity, or claimed DNA to be optional, he couldn’t have been condemned any more baldly – his critics have exhausted the dictionary of abuse.

Gore acknowledges himself to be merely a messenger. At best, his rendition of the science is correct. At worst, he is selective in his choice of sources.

So as for its accusations of “junk science,” the Senate Committee doth protest a little too much. Furious with the former vice-president, it produced a small but vocal battery of scientists who maintain there is no vigorous, scientific proof of the purportedly cataclysmic effects of global warming.

And those scientists are quite right. They’re also quite dishonest. Even the most zealous of global warming skeptics will admit the modern scientific method requires rigorous, exacting methods of proof that are literally impossible for the climate scientist to attain – ever.

Consider the methodology of the modern experiment. One begins with a hypothesis. Let’s imagine the following bloodthirsty scenario. After a few years of pottering about in my little garden, I begin to suspect that salt kills slugs. One starts with a question – for instance, “Will a garden slug die if it is sprinkled with table salt?” One then designs a good, if not infallible, test take 20 slugs from the same garden, of the same type and age, put them in identical boxes of soil and feed them identical diets for nine days. On the tenth day, sprinkle half of the boxes with salt, and the other half with sugar. Then take inventory of dead slugs. If there are significantly more dead salty slugs than dead sweet ones, repeat the experiment, fly to Sweden to collect a Nobel Prize.

Why is this a good experiment? For one thing, it is reproducible – identical conditions yielding the same results on multiple occasions. Also, there exists a “control group” of unsalted but otherwise identical slugs, allowing one to weed out every variable except one and thereby pinpoint the cause of death.


Reproducibility and control are the bedrock of much of modern experimental science. When one is studying a system that is complicated, finding the right control group is often the stickiest task of the experiment.


Climate science is different. The planet is not amenable to being poured into a test tube. For one thing, we can’t do a “control” experiment – there’s only one Earth.

We can’t really do any controlled experiments at all. As Richard Lindzen, professor at MIT and one of the world’s most voluble global warming skeptics has stated, “… the earth and its climate are dynamic; they are always changing … even without any external forcing.”


His point is that numerous factors affect the earth’s climate, including ocean currents, wind currents, water temperatures, human activity, perhaps even solar variability. All of them are in constant flux. We have no means of isolating one whilst keeping all of the others constant. All we can do is count dead slugs, i.e. measure.


Now, although it’s impossible to carry out a controlled experiment on the Earth, we are currently in the process of executing the snazziest uncontrolled experiment in the history of the world.


It goes a little something like this. Take the entire planet. Dig impossibly huge holes in it. Each and every day, go to the holes and scrape out about 85 million barrels of oil. Then burn the oil in the open air, occasionally spilling some of it into the ocean. And then … wait. If the planet disintegrates, maybe do something.


Now that’s bad science.


But it’s not too far from the “science” of global warming skepticism. Even skeptical scientists don’t disagree that the earth is warming up, and most of them don’t even doubt that humans are responsible, at least in part, for the warming.


What they want is sensational proof of harm. Unfortunately, the only way to furnish this proof is by means of a potentially fatal experiment keep burning fossil fuels until something really bad happens.


It seems strange. If I gave you a prize-winning stallion, would you feed it a steady diet of fried

rats? No? But no one has ever proved that fried rats are bad for prize-winning stallions. It might well be a very healthy diet. Yet because the gift is so precious, you would probably take cautious care before taking any chances.


It seems that in the case of the planet, the onus has been reversed.

An Inconvenient Truth is a good film; it is interesting, convincing, well-presented and contains absolutely beautiful cinematography. I hope that you will watch it.


If your opinion of the film though is “Gore really got the science right” or “Gore has no clue what he’s talking about,” unless you fall into a hair’s breadth of the global population, I believe you have drawn the wrong conclusion.


One cannot opine on science. Science isn’t something that lends itself particularly well to opinions. All one can do is evaluate the methodology.


An Inconvenient Truth is the global warming gospel according to Gore, and like all acts of witness, it is fundamentally unscientific. It is a book report. It is not a science paper.

This is not surprising. A science paper is high on detail and almost entirely bereft of entertainment value. For as long as people like us are unable – or unwilling – to use primary sources to educate ourselves about our planet, for better or for worse, we rely on people who aren’t – people like Al Gore.


Gore attributes a lot of things to global warming – including the manifestation of certain new diseases, the mutability of certain species populations, and the distribution and frequency of natural disasters. His confidence has the trappings of arrogance, and it is fair to say some of his studies are too scantily explicated to be truly persuasive.


But Gore is merely the messenger. And if you’re going to trust anyone on these issues, you can do a lot worse than Gore. He is a smart man. Keep in mind that no one has accused him of garbling the facts; his critics merely reject his facts. Gore might have neglected to present some of the more nuanced views on global warming, but he has devoted a large chunk of his life to learning about it.


Whatever you do, don’t disagree with Gore merely because he is Gore. Ralph Klein, for instance, stated, “I don’t watch movies much, and I don’t listen to Al Gore, in particular, because he’s a Democrat, and not only that, he’s as far left as you can go.”


Incidentally, on the same topic, Klein also snapped, “The United States needs our oil. I don’t know what he [Gore] proposes the world run on, maybe hot air?” This is literally the worst argument I have heard for continuing unabated use of fossil fuels.


Klein’s reasoning is bad. One cannot allow oneself to be goaded into the ridiculous creeds of partisan politics. The left thinks it’s a good idea, ergo, the right says it must be a bad idea (and vice versa). It’s absurd.


The Earth and its atmosphere are not partisan. If the climate scientists who predict dire consequences for global warming – and it really is the bulk of them – are correct, the stakes are just too high for this daft political childishness. And there’s no scientific evidence that a little bit of energy conservation ever hurt anyone.


Global warming skeptics have a song. It’s a very loud one, and it sounds like this. “We can’t prove that human pollution warms the earth (even though this one’s not really contested by anyone any more), increases the frequency of hurricanes, accelerates the spread of disease, or causes glaciers to rapidly melt. Until the Earth is in critical condition, there’s no problem. Gas up, break out the Russian roulette, let’s party. Al Gore sucks.”


When you burn a log, both the log and the smoke it creates are permanently irretrievable. I don’t really know how well this analogy holds, but if we imagine the log as 85 million barrels of the Earth’s oil a day … do we really want to find out?


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