In all the hubbub about George Will’s falsehood-filled columns and Andy Revkin’s equation of Al Gore with George Will in the New York Times, one simple fact has been a largely overlooked:
Contrary to Revkin’s assertions, Former Vice President Al Gore is not guilty of “exaggeration,” let alone “guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements.”
Having communicated at length with Gore’s staff and Revkin, I will show that not only did Gore do nothing worthy of the NYT‘s criticism, but in fact he acted honorably and in the highest traditions of science journalism. Contrary to the impression left by Revkin in his February 24, “News Analysis” piece (see here), Gore and his team work overtime to accurately represent the data and the science.
Gore is very careful in his use of language, more careful than the NYT — and far more careful than the man who initiated the indefensible charge, Roger Pielke, Jr. As Dylan Otto Krider wrote at Examiner.com:
It was Pielke who provided Revkin with his Gore infraction to “balance out” his article on Will to allow Revkin to say “both sides do it” …
As we will see in this two-parter, Revkin’s case is so weak, so nonexistent, that it rests almost entirely on his interpretation — on his indefensible overinterpretation — of one word by Gore, a word that Revkin didn’t even include in his article for reasons that will soon be obvious to all.
Part 1 focuses on how Pielke started all this by fabricating a bunch of baseless charges against Gore and smeared the good name of thousands of scientists.
To undestand what Gore was saying — as opposed to what Revkin and Pielke assert Gore was saying — we need some history.
See this new slide in The New York Times.
In Gore’s famous climate slide show, he discusses the science on the connection between human-caused climate change and extreme weather. Kalee Kreider, Mr. Gore’s spokeswoman on environmental matters, explained some of the history in an email that Revkin published in a blog post (here):
I can confirm that historically, we used Munich Re and Swiss Re data for the slide show. This can be confirmed using a hard copy of An Inconvenient Truth. (It is cited if you cannot recall from the film which is now several years old!). We became aware of the CRED database from its use by Charles Blow in (May 31, 2008) the New York Times. So, it’s a very new addition.
We have found that Munich Re and other insurers and their science experts have made the attribution. I’m referring you particularly to their floods section/report (see here and here). Both of these were published in a series entitled “Weather catastrophes and climate change-Is there still hope for us.”
Revkin notes that this figure was based on data “from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (also called CRED) at the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels.”
Kalee explained to me that Gore’s office did a number of things to ensure the validity of making the overall argument that human emissions are in the process of helping to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather catastrophes — and the validity of using this figure in that context.
[Note: Kalee is a long-time friend.]
First, the Gore folks contacted CRED to get their report [PDF] Annual Disaster of Statistical Review: The Numbers and Trends 2007. On page xiii of the Executive Summary, the report reviews the evidence that in 2007 many regions of the world “experienced some history making hydro-meteorological disaster” and states:
Although if the above mentioned trends are consistent with the conclusions of the IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) fourth assessment report — stating that climate change is likely to affect the severity, frequency, and spatial distribution of extreme climatic events such as hurricanes, storm surges, floods and droughts — the linking of past trends in the EM-DAT figures and to climate change needs to remain guarded.
Indeed, justifying the upward trend in hydro-meteorological disaster occurrence and impacts essentially through climate change would be misleading. Climate change is probably an actor in this increase but not the major one — even if it impact on the figures will likely become more evident in the future. The task of identifying the possible impact of the climate change on the EM-DAT figures is complicated by the existence of several concomitant factors.
So the CRED folk say that “climate change is probably an actor in this increase” in hydro-meteorological disaster currents and impacts in recent years, as the IPCC says the scientific literature predicts, but note that it is not the major factor — though it is a growing one.
Second, the Gore folks monitored the NYT to see if CRED was critical of how Blow used their slide. If you read Blow’s 2008 piece, “Farewell, Fair Weather,” you will see that he uses the figure to help make his case:
We are now firmly ensconced in the Age of Extreme Weather …
Who do we have to thank for all this? Probably ourselves.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued reports concluding that “human influences” (read greenhouse-gas emissions) have “more likely than not” contributed to this increase. The United States is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Furthermore, a White House report about the effect of global climate change on the United States issued Thursday (years late and under court order) reaffirmed that the situation will probably get worse …
This surge in disasters and attendant costs is yet another reason we need to declare a coordinated war on climate change akin to the wars on drugs and terror. It’s a matter of national security.
But CRED never issued any complaint about how their data was being used. So if CRED had a problem with using that chart to argue that human emissions were contributing to weather-related disasters, and that “we are now firmly ensconced in the Age of Extreme Weather,” they kept it to themselves.
Third, the Gore folks stayed on top of the scientific literature. And two major, highly credible reports were released in 2008. The first, in June, was by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (aka the Bush Administration) Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate, detailed a clear increase in extreme weather even in North America. It pointed out:
of observed increases in temperature extremes have been linked to human influences. The increase in heavy precipitation events is associated with an increase in water vapor, and the latter has been attributed to human-induced warming.
In short, much of the rise in extreme weather events has been scientifically attributed to human-caused climate change.
In November, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change released a report [PDF], “Physical and socio-economic trends in climate-related risks and extreme events, and their implications for sustainable development,” which detailed a clear increase in extreme weather events around the globe. It published a figure that
shows an increase in climate and weather-related disasters over the last five decades compared with a relatively constant level of geological and geophysical disasters. The figure shows a clear distinction between geological disasters, which have remained fairly constant in number, and climate-related disasters, which have increased decade after decade. One possible explanation is that climate change has influenced the increase in climate-related disasters, and it is certainly set to be a more powerful force as it continues and accelerates.
SUCKERS SPINS ANDY REVKIN INTO ATTACKING GORE
On February 13, Gore gave his talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which he used the slide. The video is here and the slide is at minute 7.
You’ll probably end up watching the whole video a few times because you’ll find it hard to believe how Pielke spun a perfectly reasonable presentation into a vicious assault not just on Gore, but on the integrity of the hundreds of scientists in the audience. You’ll find it even harder to believe Revkin swallowed this hook, line, and sinker.
When Gore shows the slide, “after a sequence of images of people from Iowa to South Australia struggling with drought, wildfire, flooding and other weather-related calamities,” he says:
This is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented.
Significantly, Gore does not state what “This” is.
You may choose to infer that “This” is “global warming” but Gore didn’t say that nor is global warming ever close to being an immediate antecedent. A listener might easily think he was saying that the growth in floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires that he has been discussing separately over the last few minutes, many of which, as he says, have been linked to factors that are worsened by global warming, were combining to help create the overall trend in weather-related disasters that the CRED figure shows. There is simply no way of knowing for certain without asking Gore, which nobody bothered doing.
Why does this matter? Because it is almost entirely on the basis of the word “This” that Roger Pielke, Jr. slammed the entire audience of scientists for being “collaborators” in “the misrepresentation of climate science for political gain” and on which Andy Revkin is hanging his claim that Gore is “guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements.”
Let me be very clear here — I have already argued (see here and below) that it would hardly have been unreasonable if Gore had said “Global warming is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented.” That is a scientifically plausible statement. And no doubt that is the close to (but not precisely) the impression his overall presentation here is meant to leave, as we will see. But it isn’t what he said when showing this specific slide.
In short, there is no “smoking gun” language in Gore’s talk on which to justify the extreme measure of the New York Times staining his reputation.
And if any person on the planet deserves NOT to have words put in his mouth, NOT to be attacked for words he never uttered, that would be Al “never said he invented the internet” Gore [I’ll have more to say on this in Part 2].
And all this makes what happens next doubly absurd.
On February 15, two days after the talk, our old friend Roger Pielke, Jr, wrote a blog post titled, “Not A Peep from Scientists” in which he quoted the CRED report just as I did and then not only sharply criticized Gore for using that slide to make his argument, not only attacked Gore for supposed “blatantly” misleading the audience with “scientific untruths,” but attacked every single member of the audience for not objecting:
And of all of those scientists in attendance, here is a list of those who sought to set the record straight on blogs and in the media:
OK, I couldn’t find any, but if you know of any such reactions, please share in the comments … But as the non-response to Al Gore’s in-your-face untruths shows, the misrepresentation of climate science for political gain has many willing silent collaborators.
So for Pielke the entire audience of three thousand scientists are “willing silent collaborators” because of their supposed “non-response to Al Gore’s in-your-face untruths shows, the misrepresentation of climate science.”
But this string of “in-your-face untruths” doesn’t exist. Please listen to the video yourself and try to find them. I challenge any credible person to find them. Remember, we aren’t talking about one or two ambiguous word choices here. You need to find a bunch of blatant in-your-face untruths.
In his speech Gore attributed a wide range of recent weather events to human-caused climate change including floods in Iowa, Hurricane Ike, and the Australian bush fires.
No he doesn’t. That statement by Pielke is a blatant in-your-face untruth. Gore does show a picture of Ike and say
It is the view of many scientists that the intensity of hurricanes is affected by the warming issues.
That is a fact. I interviewed many such scientists for my book. Indeed, that carefully worded sentence should be a strong clue to any listener that Gore understands the science, that he understands the debates over what can and can’t be attributed directly to global warming right now, and is working hard not to make any inaccurate statements.
Gore doesn’t attribute the 500-year flood in Iowa to human-caused climate change. He does refer to the “heat that puts more moisture into the atmosphere that causes longer downpours,” but that is such a well-confirmed impact of warming that even the Bush report cited above acknowledges it.
As for bushfires, Gore says the fires have “ignited a nationwide debate that is very much focused on global warming.” That is also a fact. Many Australians who are suffering through a once-in-a-thousand year drought make the climate connection explicitly. For instance, Australia’s climate change minister Penny Wong recently said, “All of this is consistent with climate change, and with what scientists told us would happen” (see here).
So far the non-response of the audience to Gore’s quite reasonable statements does not seem very shocking at all. They hea
rd what Gore said, not what Pielke claimed he said.
It is quite clear that Gore is not attributing every single extreme event that he shows to climate change — that is clear from his wording. Gore is making a statistical argument that we are seeing more extreme weather events and more intense (i.e. record-breaking) weather events — which is why he has so many “anecdotal” or individual extreme weather event slides — and that “many can be linked to factors that are worsened by human emissions.”
How do I know this is the case Gore is making? Because I went to the page (102) in the book An Inconvenient Truth where Gore has his original figure from Munich Re and other insurers (whose “science experts have made the attribution” of rising extreme events to climate change as Kalee explained to Revkin). Gore writes of ” hurricanes, floods, drought, tornadoes, wildfires,” and says:
Many can be linked to factors that are worsened by global warming.
All this is quite in the mainstream of scientific analysis. And has been for a long time.
As far back as 1995, published analysis by the U.S. National Climatic Data Center showed that over the course of the 20th century, the United States had suffered a statistically significant increase in a variety of extreme weather events, the very ones you would expect from global warming, such as more — and more intense — precipitation. That analysis concluded the chances were only “5 to 10 percent” this increase was due to factors other than global warming, such as “natural climate variability.” And since 1995, the climate has gotten much more extreme (see here).
So Gore did not speak a bunch of “in-your-face untruths.” He did not speak a single one. Pielke must apologize to the hundreds of scientists in the AAAS audience for the shocking attack on their scientific integrity in claiming that they were “willing silent collaborators” in “the misrepresentation of climate science for political gain.”
Pielke should remove that post and replace it with an apology.
The remaining issue — the only issue here at all really — is whether Gore’s use of the slide and specifically what he said about it, makes him “guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements.” It does not even come close.
For Pielke, what apparently makes Gore’s use of the CRED data an in-your-face untruth is what CRED wrote about its own dataset — which I cited above and which Pielke cites.
Two points. First, nobody in the AAAS audience could possibly have known what CRED wrote about their figure, so even if Gore had misrepresented it — which he didn’t — there can be no justification for Pielke smearing their reputation on the basis of their failure to object to what Gore said. [Of course, if they had known what CRED wrote, they still would not have had reason to object to what Gore had said about it.]
Second, Gore did not “[justify] the upward trend in hydro-meteorological disaster occurrence and impacts essentially through climate change,” as CRED warns against. Just listen to the video. Gore never even uses the term climate change or global warming in conjunction with the figure. Yes, his entire talk is about global warming, but as we’ve seen, he is careful in his use of language and his attributions.
By “essentially,” CRED presumably means that you shouldn’t go around saying that global warming is the primary cause of the upward trend in hydrometeorological disaster occurrence and impacts. But Gore doesn’t go around saying that, I find no evidence he believes it, and, more to the point, he certainly didn’t do so here. While showing the slide, this is what he said:
This is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented. On the left-hand side of this image you can see what used to be the norm. In recent years the increase has been quite startling. Four times as many in the last 30 years as in the previous 75. And the increases are continuing. This has a huge economic impact when you look at in the context of history of these fires. This from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. It is quite startling.
Hard to argue with that. Hard to imagine a bunch of scientists storming out the door or needing to “set the record straight on blogs and in the media,” as Pielke insists was the only conscionable action.
And again, from Gore’s perspective:
- CRED had written in its annual report that climate change is “probably” a factor in the trend
- CRED had never bothered to object to the use of that slide by Charles Blow in the New York Times to show global warming was significantly contributing to the trend in weather-related disasters.
So it is hard to see how the use of this slide and the language Gore used with it comes close to constituting “the misrepresentation of climate science for political gain” or even a single “in-your-face untruth”
This should have been a case of no-harm no-foul. But for reasons only Revkin can explain, he views Pielke as a credible source and he turned an indefensible Pielke blog post into an utterly indefensible print article in the New York Times.
In Part 2, we will see that CRED wrote an email to Pielke and Revkin in which they backtracked on what they had written in their report. But while Revkin makes a big deal of that, I will show that it is almost entirely irrelevant to the charge Revkin lays on Gore. I will show that all of Revkin’s charges are baseless.
BOTTOM LINE OF PART 1
Roger Pielke, Jr.’s indefensible smear against Gore and thousands of the leading scientists in the country is utterly beyond the pale — even for the blogosphere. Many in the media seem to view Pielke as a credible, middle-of-the road guy on climate, when he is the opposite of that. I’m hoping that those in the mainstream media who see what he did here will now realize he is a non-credible source who may spin them into the kind of blunder Revkin made.
This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.