Al-armist Gore?

I’m breaking my hiatus on political commentary to address a question that lies beneath some hot rhetoric at my favorite science/politics blog, The Intersection. Is Al Gore an alarmist?

Readers of earlier entries in this blog will not be surprised by my answer. Nor will Lance Harting, the young man who raised that interesting question.

Unfortunately, Lance has arrived at The Intersection with rhetorical guns blazing delivering ad hominem attacks on the former Vice President and the people who share his assessment that we are facing a global emergency, for example refering to Gore as “the patron saint of climate catastrophe.” That’s hardly a way to engage others in serious debate.

Still, Lance’s proposition is worth discussing. I think Al Gore is sincere in his statement that his current campaign for a coordinated set of policies to limit CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions is more important than running for President of the United States.

If the world’s climate has not yet crossed a threshhold into a new regime, it may well be on the verge of doing so. Climate scientists agree that we have no more than ten years to act–not merely to decide–and the sooner we start reducing those emissions, the better.

Al Gore is delivering an urgent and badly needed warning, not sounding an unnecessary alarm. He has looked at the evidence and called for political action since the late 1980s, when it was a problem on the horizon. Now that problem is upon us, and it is reasonable to use words like crisis, emergency, or tipping point.

Why am I so convinced of this? I have been reviewing science books for educated adults for major metropolitan newspapers for ten years. These books are by credible authors, mostly without political axes to grind, who used primary source science and history as their guide. The development of the “inconvenient truth” that Gore presents in his slide show and documentary can be traced in those books.

You can find links to reviews of the following titles and others on my Science Shelf website’s climate links page.

You may also choose to follow the direct links here in chronological order:

If you read those books in chronological order, you will discover how the scientific consensus has evolved–it is not a bandwagon effect as some would have us believe–and how the political process, especially in the United States, has failed to address the problem even as it grew more apparent.

If you call Al Gore an alarmist after that, I don’t know what it will take to persuade you that the world has to act decisively and quickly to prevent massive tragedies later in this century.

11 thoughts on “Al-armist Gore?”

  1. Will reducing energy consumption really do any good? Cheap, reliable energy has allowed us to create vast technological improvements in a short amount of time, and vast technological improvements in a short amount of time is the only thing that will help us come up with any permanent solution to both global warming and the upcoming energy crisis that we are going to have to face. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that regulations that will jack-up the price of energy will slow down the progress of, for example, nuclear fusion, that may, in the future, gives us the energy we need without the nasty side-effects?

  2. Good response as usual, Fred. Let’s just hope that something, anything, be done to change the status quo we’re in now for the better.
    I was not aware of how bleak the future of nuclear fusion was. Hopefully there’s a kid around, reading your books, who will one day find an answer.
    -Jose

  3. To Jose:

    Technological improvements may lead to less energy use for the same function. But that doesn’t mean we should continue wasteful practices such as driving larger cars than necessary, using inefficient lighting and appliances, etc. The price of energy will lead to some conservation naturally, but personal morality and public policy can also eliminate waste.

    That approach will keep our energy cheap and reliable as we develop alternative sources.

    As much as I hope nuclear fusion can be tamed for electrical generation, the history of the field is discouraging. I actually worked for a short time with a fusion energy research group in the mid-1970s. Fusion power looked to be about thirty years away. Ten years later, it looked to be forty years away.

    Today, the most optimistic predictions for fusion power put it 30-40 years away.

    I’m betting that renewable sources, like biodiesel, wind, and solar, plus fission (even with its associated risks), will be the growth areas for energy.

    But conservation is a good idea no matter what else we do, because it keeps energy costs down, minimizes environmental harm, and minimizes the political power of the oil-rich countries and their monarchs, oligarchs, dictators, and extremist elected officials.

  4. Latest anon (“Who’s the alarmist”), I doubt you would tell me that after you have read some of the books listed in my original post.

    Spouting old hackneyed, exaggerated claims rather than looking at how our knowledge of the climate has evolved over recent decades will not persuade anyone.

    I’ll shorten my original list of books for you to start your reading, or would you rather just repeat discredited statements?

    The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate by William K. Stevens (1999)

    The Coming Storm: Extreme Weather and Our Terrifying Future by Bob Reiss (2001)

    Field Notes From A Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert (2006) and The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth by Tim Flannery (2006)

    Fred Bortz — Science and technology books for young readers (www.fredbortz.com) and Science book reviews (www.scienceshelf.com)

  5. There is a consensus that we only have 10 years to “act” before what? The end of the world? Terrible earthquakes, floods, and fires? If they are really using history as a guide, why ignore the fact that all kinds of claims of disaster have been made over the years and none have come to pass? Whatever happened to the global cooling theory? Global warming is my least favorite alarmist topic. Whatever happened to the population disaster? Oh wait, the disaster is now that it isn’t growing fast enough.

  6. I believe that Gore is genuinely convinced that AGW is going to cause huge problems in the future and that what we do now may mitigate some of these.

    There is more than ample scientific basis for Gore’s claims. While some of the pictures he has painted of the future may be on the high end with regard to damage and cost associated with AGW and the low end with regard to probability, that does not mean that they will not come true.

    The insurance industry hedges for devastating, low probability potentialities as a regular coarse. They do this for purely monetary reasons, because it is the wise thing to do from a fiscal standpoint.

    But there is more involved with AGW than just money, despite claims to the contrary.

    Some claim “Global warming is a scientific problem, not a moral one” as if to say that what they see as “moralizing” by Gore and others will not help solve the problem.

    Actually, AGW is BOTH a scientific AND a moral problem and it takes passionate entreaties from folks like Al Gore to get Americans off their collective butts in order to do something about it.

    Without a moral component, what reason would Americans have for doing ANYTHING when the effects will not occur for decades and may not affect them personally?

  7. The factual reports on the latest in science are great. The commentaries & interpretations, whether related to factual reports or out of the blue, are CRAP. Please post them apart from factual reports — like on a completely different page.

  8. Another major factor at hand is that we are at the technological brink of being able to undo just about anything that could happen. We are a couple of decades away from recreating any species from a DNA sequence. With today’s technology, it should be technically feasible to construct a screen at the L1 point between Earth and the sun. Likewise, we are within grasp of being able to engineer our environment on truly massive scales. Modern development in zeolites make massive desalination plants by reverse osmosis feasible (China will spearhead that and Africa will reap the greatest benefit).

    Wow! Are you saying that there is no reason to worry because we can use far-out untested technologies to rescue us?

    Let’s focus on renewable energy sources (biodiesel, etc.), conservation, wind, solar, nuclear and see how far those can take us. (Not all may end up as part of the solution for other reasons, such as nuclear waste issues.)

    We aren’t talking about the extinction of the human race, nor are we talking about Bob’s Condo; but we are talking about the spread of tropical diseases, the displacement of tens of millions of people, and geopolitical upheavals.

    The recent books that I cite talk about how much inertia we already have in the system already. If we don’t act promptly, it will get worse than that. We can’t rely on the kind of technologies you propose, especially when we have realistic technologies that can start undoing the damage.

    And please leave out the snide remarks about Al Gore. He’s the most prominent messenger these days, but the message is far more important.

    Are people who deliver that message being alarmist? I don’t think so!

    Fred Bortz — Science and technology books for young readers (www.fredbortz.com) and Science book reviews (www.scienceshelf.com)

  9. The time is past for denials, it’s pretty clear that rising CO2 levels is at the very least a significant contributor to global warming. So now what?

    We’re talking about a global commons. In order to get a global consensus to take action that will have significant impact on people’s lives as CO2 restrictions will, the global population will need to believe that this cost is less than the cost of doing nothing.

    That, however is an immensely difficult case to make. If you can’t show a clear path to the extinction of the human race by inaction or massive, widespread disaster and death, getting this global consensus is nearly impossible.

    Then what we’re left with is competing factions with economic stake in both directions. For example, if I am to make a value judgment whether I’ll pay more for energy, or suffer without to save my brother-in-law Bob’s condo on Cocoa Beach, I am not going to choose Bob’s condo — he can move inland.

    Another major factor at hand is that we are at the technological brink of being able to undo just about anything that could happen. We are a couple of decades away from recreating any species from a DNA sequence. With today’s technology, it should be technically feasible to construct a screen at the L1 point between Earth and the sun. Likewise, we are within grasp of being able to engineer our environment on truly massive scales. Modern development in zeolites make massive desalination plants by reverse osmosis feasible (China will spearhead that and Africa will reap the greatest benefit).

    Basically, in light of the continued exponential curve of technology development, making the case of a doomsday scenario regarding CO2 emission is nearly impossible. In fact, we are far, far more likely to all be wiped out by a sociopath teenager with access to a DNA synthesis lab than be wiped out by a gradual climate change that a growing body of evidence shows the planet has survived before.

    So that leaves appeal to compassion for those people (not species — it’d be far cheaper to institute a tissue sample program than to fight the rising tide of Chinese and Indian economic development) that are due to suffer hardship as the only viable avenue to institute CO2 restrictions.

    So convince me that Bob’s condo is more important than my SUV and I’ll vote for your man (not Gore, though — recent experience has convinced me that the President should have a stable personality.)

  10. What I see is two sides:
    (a) Those who believe we face a serious danger, and therefor, an alarm needs to be raised.
    (b) Those who believe raising the alarm will cause them harm.

    Yet both sides view ‘alarmist’ as a pre-judicial term.
    To me the most troubling aspect of AGW is how thoroughly the denialists own the language – how nearly every phrase used on both sides (e.g. ‘1.4 to 5 degrees of warming’) favors denialists propaganda.
    If you are in a building, and smoke fills the corridors to the point where many fear suffocation, would it be acceptable to attack the person who pulled the fire alarm? Of course not.
    Yet the notion that it is wrong to raise the alarm is embedded in the way you (and nearly every other blogger I’ve been reading lately) have used the word ‘alarmist’.

    The fact that so many are trying to defend Gore by saying ‘he’s not an alarmist’ rather than ‘Gore’s alarmism is saving your children’s lives, you dolt’ is in my view, a victory for the denialists.

  11. Anon, you are right about how the language of the debate is often set by the deniers.

    In fact, Lance Hartings is not a denier, but he is using the term because he either thinks people are overreacting or because he likes to provoke people to get attention. I haven’t figured that out, and I’ve decided to stop trying.

    Anyway, it always helps to have an internal critic warning a person not to let passions overwhelm judgment. You’ll note that I have decided that, in this case, the warning is sounded with urgency and based on judgment.

    The misguiding passion seems to be clouding the minds of those who see Gore’s actions as alarmist.

    My hope is that the title of this posting brought some people here whose initial response was that Gore is an alarmist but can be persuaded to see him as someone sounding an urgent and necessary warning instead.

    I even think Lance is persuadable if he would read The Weather Makers and Field Notes From a Catastrophe, which I review at The Science Shelf.

    Fred Bortz — Science and technology books for young readers (www.fredbortz.com) and Science book reviews (www.scienceshelf.com)

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