AGU Conference Buzz Alerted NPR's Richard Harris To Whether or Not Gore Got the Science Right

i-9fa74c2232de58e1fe351827359e253a-GoreGlobe.jpg All eyes today are on Capitol Hill as former VP Al Gore testifies before Congress on global warming. Bill Broad's NY Times' article last week has launched a new narrative in coverage, as various journalists review whether "Gore got the science right" in Inconvenient Truth. Interviewed by host Renee Montagne, NPR's Richard Harris weighs in today with his view. Of note, it appears that Harris was first turned on to the possibility of unease among scientists when he attended last year's American Geophysical Union meetings, where Gore spoke:

I saw Al Gore give a talk at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last December. He was cheered by this enormous audience of scientists, who were really excited to hear his message that it's time to take global warming seriously. But after the talk, a couple of [the scientists] came up to me and said, you know, "He didn't exactly get the science right." Gore said that Arctic ice could be gone entirely in 34 years, and he made it seem like a really precise prediction. There are certainly scary predictions about what's going to happen to Arctic sea ice in the summertime, but no one can say "34 years." That just implies a degree of certainty that's not there. And that made a few scientists a bit uncomfortable to hear him making it sound so precise.

Harris notes that in crafting the film, Gore was carefully attuned to not only the culture of science but also Washington, resulting in a popularized depiction of the science that doesn't quite satisfy all scientists, but gets the main points right:

MONTAGNE: Is this partly cultural in the sense that, by nature and by profession, scientists care about all of the details?

HARRIS: I think it's partly cultural, and I think that in that sense, Al Gore is very well attuned to the culture of Washington, D.C. The culture of Washington, D.C. is: "Don't do anything unless there is a crisis." And that's been the problem with global warming for all these years: It's something serious to be worried about - the worst case scenarios are pretty scary - but Al Gore has realized that if you want to get attention, you really have to focus on the crisis. You have to make people worry about things maybe a little bit more than scientists would say.

MONTAGNE: Is there some element of - if you will - professional jealousy here?

HARRIS: Among the scientists? No. I think the scientists are actually pretty grateful by and large that Gore has succeeded in bringing their issue to the public's attention. But scientists do care very much about how precise the details are. And when it's not exactly right, they bristle a little bit. But, [that's] the difference between a popularizer, like Gore, and scientists, for whom the details really are what's most important.

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NPR seems to be doing something it often does: reacting to the New York Times. In this case, I suspect Harris, like many science journalists, was not happy with Broad's piece and decided to set the record straight based on less partisan reporting. And he did accurately describe some of the exaggeration in the film.

But why should listeners believe a single word of Harris's report when not one source -- not a single one -- is mentioned? Harris is a serious, diligent reporter, so I suppose most NPR listeners will trust what he says. But especially with such a highly politicized subject, I would have liked to hear some reactions from actual scientists, in their own words. So I'm not sure that Harris adds much to this story.

As for the "new narrative" itself, it's really just part of the old narrative. We're still obsessively and compulsively focused on the scientific answer to the "global warming: yes or no?" question, rather than exploring the broader set of issues that desperately need attention.

For example, after Bush's speeches this week about reducing gasoline consumption by 20 percent, wouldn't it have been nice to see some in-depth reporting on the potential for biofuels to displace gasoline and reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Or rather than focusing on how Gore exaggerates the threat from sea level rise, wouldn't it have been nice to see a report on adapting to changes that we know are coming no matter what we do now, and reducing our vulnerability to strong hurricanes that are going to hit our coasts regardless of global warming? And how about a report that examines the million dollar question: What would it really take to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at a tolerable level, and can we really hope to do that given population growth and rising material consumption in places like China and India?

We don't need an answer to the "yes or no" question to justify covering these stories. But I suspect they are more difficult to tell, because they don't involve the kind of simple, straight forward conflict that characterizes the "yes or no" debate. The Gore versus Inhofe confrontation that will evidently take place today will be so much easier to report than a complex story on population growth and sustainability.

As someone else we know, Gore is a character right out of a Greek myth. Like Cassandra he is doomed to always being right and his knowledge always being ignored. Were Eli to engage in framing science policy he would paint that picture.

Moreover, there really is a serious point that Gore has been more correct on this issue than the scientists (and the same is true of many political issues). Something that Jim Hansen commented on

I did not hear from Gore for more than a decade, until January of this year, when he asked me to critically assess his slide show. When we met, he said that he "wanted to apologize," but, without letting him explain what he was apologizing for, I said, "Your insight was better than mine."

Matt, I know it's a little hard to believe that Harris would lead with a pure falsehood and NPR would fail to fact check it, but here you are. The Holland paper (one of the most important Arctic sea ice papers of the last several years) was published on a Monday and received widespread international press coverage the following day (two days before Gore spoke). (BTW, Wieslaw Maslowski, the US Navy's sea ice expert, points out that a continuation of the observed trend in Arctic sea ice from 1997-2005 would result in an ice-free summer Arctic as early as 2016.) So, either those scientists a) weren't in the sea ice field, b) weren't paying any attention to scientific developments the week of the conference, c) were lying, or d) Harris misrepresented them. You choose.

Of the other two substantive points in the story, the concern about a possible 20 foot sea level rise in the next several centuries was recently endorsed by Jim Hansen in a venue that you would think would have been hard for even NPR to miss (note that the linked story is missing the lead illustration, which was... Gore's slide showing the effect of 20 feet of sea level rise), and I think a quick call to, e.g., Kevin Trenberth would have established that there is credible scientific backing for Gore's hurricane material.

IOW, the story was wrong in all three of its cited climate science particulars. The failure to fact-check seems to admit of only one interpretation.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 25 Mar 2007 #permalink