A UK High Court judge has rejected a lawsuit by political activist Stuart Dimmock to stop the distribution of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth to British schools. Justice Burton agreed that
“Al Gore’s presentation of the causes and likely effects of climate change in the film was broadly accurate.”
There were nine points where Burton decided that AIT differed from the IPCC and that this should be addressed in the Guidance Notes for teachers to be sent out with the movie.
Unfortunately a gaggle of useless journalists have misreported this decision as one that AIT contained nine scientific errors. Let me name some of the journalists who got it wrong:
Sally Peck in the Daily Telegraph, Nico Hines in the Times, Mike Nizza in the New York Times, James McIntyre in the Independent, PA in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, David Adam in the Guardian, Daniel Cressey in Nature, the BBC, Mary Jordan in the Washington Post, Marcus Baram for ABC News, and (of course) Matthew Warren in the Australian.
Let’s look at what Burton really wrote (my emphasis):
Mr Downes produced a long schedule of such alleged errors or exaggerations and waxed lyrical in that regard. It was obviously helpful for me to look at the film with his critique in hand.
In the event I was persuaded that only some of them were sufficiently persuasive to be relevant for the purposes of his argument, and it was those matters – 9 in all – upon which I invited Mr Chamberlain to concentrate. It was essential to appreciate that the hearing before me did not relate to an analysis of the scientific questions, but to an assessment of whether the ‘errors’ in question, set out in the context of a political film, informed the argument on ss406 and 407. All these 9 ‘errors’ that I now address are not put in the context of the evidence of Professor Carter and the Claimant’s case, but by reference to the IPCC report and the evidence of Dr Stott.
If you noticed the quotation marks around ‘error’ then you are more observant than all of the journalists I listed above. Burton is not saying that there are errors, he is just referring to the things that Downes alleged were errors. Burton puts quote marks around ‘error’ 17 more times in his judgement. Notice also the emphasised part — Burton is not even trying to decide whether they are errors or not. This too seems to have escaped the journalists’ attention. (And yes, that was Bob Carter mentioned there.)
So what is Burton assessing in his judgement? Well, s407 says that where political issues are involved there should be “a balanced presentation of opposing views” so Burton states that the government should make it clear when “there is a view to the contrary, i.e. (at least) the mainstream view”. Burton calls these “errors or departures from the mainstream”.
So contrary to all the reporters’ claims Burton did not find that there were 9 scientific errors in AIT, but that there were nine points that might be errors or where differing views should be presented for balance.
Now let’s look at the nine points and see if Burton classified them correctly.
In scene 21 (the film is carved up for teaching purposes into 32 scenes), in one of the most graphic parts of the film Mr Gore says as follows:
“If Greenland broke up and melted, or if half of Greenland and half of West Antarctica broke up and melted, this is what would happen to the sea level in Florida. This is what would happen in the San Francisco Bay. A lot of people live in these areas. The Netherlands, the Low Countries: absolutely devastation. The area around Beijing is home to tens of millions of people. Even worse, in the area around Shanghai, there are 40 million people. Worse still, Calcutta, and to the east Bangladesh, the area covered includes 50 million people. Think of the impact of a couple of hundred thousand refugees when they are displaced by an environmental event and then imagine the impact of a 100 million or more. Here is Manhattan. This is the World Trade Center memorial site. After the horrible events of 9/11 we said never again. This is what would happen to Manhattan. They can measure this precisely, just as scientists could predict precisely how much water would breach the levee in New Orleans.”
This is distinctly alarmist, and part of Mr Gore’s ‘wake-up call’. It is common ground that if indeed Greenland melted, it would release this amount of water, but only after, and over, millennia, so that the Armageddon scenario he predicts, insofar as it suggests that sea level rises of 7 metres might occur in the immediate future, is not in line with the scientific consensus.
The IPCC report does say that the ice sheets will melt if warming is sustained over millennia, but does not rule out it happening sooner:
Recent satellite and in situ observations of ice streams behind
disintegrating ice shelves highlight some rapid reactions
of ice sheet systems. This raises new concern about the overall
stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the collapse of which
would trigger another five to six metres of sea level rise. While
these streams appear buttressed by the shelves in front of them,
it is currently unknown whether a reduction or failure of this
buttressing of relatively limited areas of the ice sheet could actually
trigger a widespread discharge of many ice streams and
hence a destabilisation of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Ice sheet models are only beginning to capture such small-scale
dynamical processes that involve complicated interactions with
the glacier bed and the ocean at the perimeter of the ice sheet.
Therefore, no quantitative information is available from the current
generation of ice sheet models as to the likelihood or timing
of such an event.
In scene 20, Mr Gore states “that’s why the citizens of these Pacific nations have all had to evacuate to New Zealand”. There is no evidence of any such evacuation having yet happened.
Seeing themselves as climate refuges some Tuvalans are already leaving their islands, moving their communities to higher ground in a new land. … Fala and Suamalie, along with international environmental activists, argue that Tuvaluans and others in a similar predicament should be treated like refugees and given immigration rights and other refugee benefits. This tiny nation was among the first on the globe to sound the alarm, trekking from forum to forum to try to get the world to listen. New Zealand did agree to take 75 Tuvaluans a year as part of its Pacific Access Category, an agreement made in 2001.
Gore’s statement is badly worded, since it could be understood to to be saying that entire countries have been evacuated rather than some of the residents.
In scene 17 he says, “One of the ones they are most worried about where they have spent a lot of time studying the problem is the North Atlantic, where the Gulf Stream comes up and meets the cold wind coming off the Arctic over Greenland and evaporates the heat out of the Gulf Stream and the stream is carried over to western Europe by the prevailing winds and the earth’s rotation … they call it the Ocean Conveyor … At the end of the last ice age … that pump shut off and the heat transfer stopped and Europe went back into an ice age for another 900 or 1000 years. Of course that’s not going to happen again, because glaciers of North America are not there. Is there any big chunk of ice anywhere near there? Oh yeah [pointing at Greenland]”. According to the IPCC, it is very unlikely that the Ocean Conveyor (known technically as the Meridional Overturning Circulation or thermohaline circulation) will shut down in the future, though it is considered likely that thermohaline circulation may slow down.
The IPCC says that by “very unlikely”, they mean a 5-10% chance of it happening. Since the consequences would be very bad, I think Gore is justified in saying that it is worrying, though it would have been better if he had said that it was a possible rather probable result of continued warming.
In scenes 8 and 9, Mr Gore shows two graphs relating to a period of 650,000 years, one showing rise in CO2 and one showing rise in temperature, and asserts (by ridiculing the opposite view) that they show an exact fit. Although there is general scientific agreement that there is a connection, the two graphs do not establish what Mr Gore asserts.
Burton is wrong here. Gore does not assert that there is an exact fit, but rather that:
The relationship is very complicated. But there is one relationship that is more powerful than all the others and it is this. When there is more carbon dioxide, the temperature gets warmer, because it traps more heat from the sun inside
And that does reflect the scientific consensus.
Mr Gore asserts in scene 7 that the disappearance of snow on Mt Kilimanjaro is expressly attributable to global warming. It is noteworthy that this is a point that specifically impressed Mr Milliband (see the press release quoted at paragraph 6 above). However, it is common ground that, the scientific consensus is that it cannot be established that the recession of snows on Mt Kilimanjaro is mainly attributable to human-induced climate change.
The Kilimanjaro glacier may or may not be disappearing due to global warming, but it is making other tropical glaciers disappear. So while he could have picked a better example, it doesn’t affect his argument.
The drying up of Lake Chad is used as a prime example of a catastrophic result of global warming. However, it is generally accepted that the evidence remains insufficient to establish such an attribution. It is apparently considered to be far more likely to result from other factors, such as population increase and over-grazing, and regional climate variability.
Sanjay Gupta reports:
The United Nations Environment Programme says that about half of the lake’s decrease is attributable to human water use such as inefficient damming and irrigation methods. The other half of the shrinkage is due to shifting climate patterns. Anada Tiega of the Lake Chad Basin Commission blames climate change for 50 to 75 percent of the water’s disappearance.
So some of it is due to human use, but it is wrong to say that global warming has been ruled out as a cause.
In scene 12 Hurricane Katrina and the consequent devastation in New Orleans is ascribed to global warming. It is common ground that there is insufficient evidence to show that.
Gore does not ascribe Katrina to global warming. He follows the scientific consensus in saying that warming will make hurricanes get stronger. Katrina is used as an example of the damage that stronger hurricanes could do and of the consequences of ignoring warnings from scientists.
In scene 16, by reference to a dramatic graphic of a polar bear desperately swimming through the water looking for ice, Mr Gore says: “A new scientific study shows that for the first time they are finding polar bears that have actually drowned swimming long distances up to 60 miles to find the ice. They did not find that before.” The only scientific study that either side before me can find is one which indicates that four polar bears have recently been found drowned because of a storm. That is not to say that there may not in the future be drowning-related deaths of polar bears if the trend of regression of pack-ice and/or longer open water continues, but it plainly does not support Mr Gore’s description.
Burton is badly wrong here. Look at the news story on the drownings (my emphasis):
“We know short swims up to 15 miles are no problem, and we know that one or two may have swum up to 100 miles. But that is the extent of their ability, and if they are trying to make such a long swim and they encounter rough seas they could get into trouble,” said Steven Amstrup, a research wildlife biologist with the USGS.
The new study, carried out in part of the Beaufort Sea, shows that between 1986 and 2005 just 4% of the bears spotted off the north coast of Alaska were swimming in open waters. Not a single drowning had been documented in the area.
However, last September, when the ice cap had retreated a record 160 miles north of Alaska, 51 bears were spotted, of which 20% were seen in the open sea, swimming as far as 60 miles off shore.
The researchers returned to the vicinity a few days later after a fierce storm and found four dead bears floating in the water. “We estimate that of the order of 40 bears may have been swimming and that many of those probably drowned as a result of rough seas caused by high winds,” said the report.
There were storms before 2006, but they didn’t drown bears. The bears drowned in the 2006 storm because they had to swim further because of global warming.
In scene 19, Mr Gore says: “Coral reefs all over the world because of global warming and other factors are bleaching and they end up like this. All the fish species that depend on the coral reef are also in jeopardy as a result. Overall specie loss is now occurring at a rate 1000 times greater than the natural background rate.” The actual scientific view, as recorded in the IPCC report, is that, if the temperature were to rise by 1-3 degrees Centigrade, there would be increased coral bleaching and widespread coral mortality, unless corals could adopt or acclimatise, but that separating the impacts of climate change-related stresses from other stresses, such as over-fishing and polluting, is difficult.
Burton is wrong. The IPCC report actually states:
Late 20th century effects of rising temperature include loss of sea
ice, thawing of permafrost and associated coastal retreat, and more
frequent coral bleaching and mortality.
Overall, there are a couple of points where I wish Gore would have talked about timescales and probabilities (sea level rise and thermohaline circulation), and a couple of examples that could have been better chosen (Kilimanjaro and Lake Chad). Burton was mistaken on the other points where he felt that Gore went past the consensus. I don’t think that there is any harm in the Guidance Notes on Burton’s nine points, but the usual suspects will, of course, ignore the fact that the judge found that Gore was “broadly accurate” and try to make it look as if there are serious problems with AIT and climate science.
I saw AIT recently, and while it does not make up lies out of whole cloth in the way that Durkin’s Swindle did, I was certainly uncomfortable with parts of the story Gore presented.
William Connolley, who also notices that “this judgment has been badly, consistently and lazily reported” and:
AIT is in some danger of becoming a cuckoo overshadowing what it is supposedly explaining. Skeptics can find it very convenient to attack the film, and thereby pretend they are attacking the basic science.
Here’s my take on this: there is no question that there are a few statements in Gore’s movie that make me flinch. Had he run the script by me, I would have suggested he rephrase a few of his points.
That said, I think the movie is overall quite good and I give it high marks for accuracy.
Looks like something fishy is going on with the funding behind the UK high court challenge against An Inconvenient Truth being viewed in schools.
Dimmock is a member of the political group, the New Party. The founder and chair of the New Party is Robert Durward, whose party is so right-wing it has been labeled “fascist” by the Scottish Tories.
More importantly, there is a cross-fertilisation between the New Party and Durward’s other pet project – he is the founder of the anti-environmental Scientific Alliance. Both the New Party and Scientific Alliance work closely with the PR company Foresight Communications.
There was only one scientific advisor on the [Great Global Warming Swindle], Martin Livermore, whose sole scientific qualification is that he is the Director of a web-based think tank, The Scientific Alliance. The Alliance was set up by in 2001 by Robert Durward, the fiercely anti-green director of the British Aggregates Association, and Foresight Communications, a Westminster public relations and lobbying company, to “counter scare-mongering by the so-called green lobby”. (For more…)