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Convenient Untruths

October 21, 2007 9:39 PM

See the attached article by Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann reporting on the high court judgement against Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth. For more information see: http://www.realclimate.org/


I thought this was a really useful, plane english, set of comments

in response to the Judge's ruling that Al Gore's film has 9 errors

in it and can be shown to schools, but only if these are


Just two days after a high court judge ruled that the Inconvenient

Truth contained "nine scientific errors" Al Gore and the

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were awarded the

Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to global climate change


On the grounds of these `errors', the judge Mr Justice Barton ruled

that the film can still be shown in schools (which was being

challenged), as part of a climate change resource pack, but only if

it is accompanied by fresh guidance notes to balance Gore's `one-

sided' views…Encouraging a more in depth discussion within in the

classroom is certainly a good idea - but they should bear in mine

that the `other side' bases its argument on exclusion of key facts

and fundamentally flawed or old science (see article on the Great

Global Warming Swindle here).

Scratch the surface, however, and we find it's the same old story -

a corporation with an ulterior motive secretly provide financial

support for a legal case against one of the most effective efforts

to raise awareness about climate change.

Stewart Dimmock, the Kent school governor who kicked up a stink

about the government's plans to show the Oscar winning film The

Inconvenient Truth to secondary school students was effectively

funded by a mining company - Cloburn Quarry Limited, based in

Lanarkshire. Just to let you know - they also advised Channel 4 on

The Great Global Warming Swindle (see previous article here).

While, Dimmock credited the little-known New Party with supporting

him in the test case, the Observer (Sunday 14 October 2007) revealed

that he conveniently failed to mention that the New Party received

nearly all of its money between 2004-2006 from the Lanarkshire

mining firm.

Before the deluge of contrarians come knocking at the door - let's

asses what these `nine-scientific errors' are. Note here that even

the judge used the word `errors' in quotations to emphasise that it

was not clear that they were actually errors!

Many of the 9 `errors' were actually due to simplification of what

is an extremely complicated science. This happens in schools all the

time - remember the model of an atom in chemistry class at secondary


The most common way of describing an atom is using the solar system

model - a nucleus with electrons orbiting around it. Of course in

reality an atom is far more complicated, and this model is merely a

simplification to help a student conceptualise something that is

really very difficult to understand. Since atomic physics isn't a

particularly controversial science, unless of course you are

thinking about making a nuclear weapon - scientific inaccuracy being

taught to hundreds of thousands of 16 year olds each year doesn't

really bother anyone. The same goes for photosynthesis, respiration


The point is that in order to make science accessible,

simplification is necessary. We cannot expect a movie to have the

same depth as a scientific paper - who would watch it!

The judge also failed to recognise the inherent uncertainty of

climate change. The uncertainty lies, not with that it is actually

happening, but precisely what will happen, and what has happened in

the past. While understanding of the climate system is constantly

improving, there are still many things to be understood.

Communication of uncertainty (degrees of error, or accuracy if you

like), has always been a problem in science that captures the

attention of the public.

The `errors':

Error #1: The Inconvenient Truth claimed that low-lying inhabited

Pacific atolls `are being inundated because of anthropogenic global

warming' - but there is no evidence that any evacuation is actually


Response: In fact, there is evidence of evacuation due to rising

seas in low-lying Pacific atolls. In 2005, a small community living

in the Pacific island chain of Vanuatu became one of, if not the

first, to be formally moved out of harms way as a result of climate


The villagers have been relocated higher into the interior of Tegua,

one of the chains' northern most provinces, after their coastal

homes were repeatedly swamped by storm surges and aggressive waves

linked with climate change.

The line that caused the dispute, however, was `That's why the

citizens of these pacific nations have all had to evacuate to New

Zealand". The reality is, this is ahead of its time, but the

Government of Tuvalu has asked New Zealand to be ready to evacuate

islanders if needed. Currently, only 75 people per year can be

evacuated but this will change if the situation worsens.

Error #2: The film suggested that the ocean conveyor (thermohaline

circulation) may shut down. According to the IPCC, this was very

unlikely and that the ocean conveyor may slow down, but won't shut


Response: No one really knows whether the thermohaline circulation

will slow down or even shut down. The behaviour of the thermohaline

circulation in the past is still uncertain. Did it stop? Did the

North Atlantic Branch of it shift? Did it slow down? From the latest

IPCC report climate models suggest that there may be a 30% slow down

by 2100, but there is still much to understand. I see no harm in

pointing out that climate change may have an effect on the

thermohaline circulation, engaging in a full debate about whether it

will or won't shut down or slow down, would have detracted from the

main point - there may be many non-linear (small change = big

response) climate change responses and the impacts will be difficult

to predict.

The Natural Environment Research Council (the UK's main funder of

climate change research) was concerned enough about its shut down/

slow down that they have spent £20 million on a six year research

project (see here). If you are interested in this issue, this is a

really good place to start.

Error #3: Gore claims that the graph of CO2 and temperature over the

past 650,000 years show and `exact fit'. The two graphs do not

establish what Mr Gore asserts.

Response: See Great Global Warming Swindle article here. Gore's

argument simplified a complex relationship which is actually still

not completely resolved. But, it really doesn't matter what the

relationship between CO2 and temperature was like in the past. Never

before in the past 650,000 years have concentrations of CO2 risen so

rapidly, nor has this been due to human activities. CO2 is causing

current temperatures to rise. (see RealClimate for a more in depth


Error #4: Mr Gore said that disappearance of snow on Mount

Kilimanjaro was expressly attributable to human-induced climate

change. The judge said that the consensus could not be established.

Error #5: Mr Gore ascribes Hurricane Katrina to global warming, but

there was "insufficient evidence to show that".

Response: Errors #4 and #5 both deal with an issue of attribution -

i.e. is climate change responsible for these impacts? Unfortunately,

this question is unanswerable. We can say climate change may have

played a part, but I don't think an extensive discussion into

probabilities and risk would have made the film accessible. Gore has

also used these examples to illustrate what may happen in the future.

Error #6: Mr Gore referred to a study that showed polar bears were

being found that had drowned "swimming long distances to find

ice". "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."

Response: The decline in sea ice is affecting them severely, since

they depend on it for hunting seal. The specific anecdote in the

film came from observations of anomalous drownings in 2004 - and was


Error #7: The film said that coral reefs all over the world were

bleaching because of global warming and other factors. The judge

said separating the impacts of stresses due to climate change from

other stresses, such as overfishing and pollution, was Response.

Reponse: Corals `bleach' when they are under stress. It is correct

to say a number of environmental factors cause coral bleaching, but

many recent episodes have been linked to abnormally warm ocean

water. This example also illustrates how climate change exacerbates

already existing vulnerabilities.

Error #8: The drying up of Lake Chad was used as an example of

global warming. The judge said:" it is apparently considered to be

more likely to result from …population increase, over-grazing and

regional climate variability."

Response: actually there is substantial evidence to suggest that at

least a portion of this drying out is human caused - due to

decreases in rainfall across the whole Sahel.

Error #9: The film said a sea-level rise of up to 20ft would be

caused by melting of either west Antarctica or Greenland in the near

future; the judge ruled this was `distinctly alarmist'.

Response: I agree, 20 ft is rather a lot in the `near future' Gore

makes the mistake of not specifically mentioning a timescale. The

20ft (6 metres) figure, however, does relate to how high sea levels

were 125,000 years ago.The most severe `near future' estimate I have

read is by James Hansen from NASA who suggests that a rise of

several metres may occur by the end of the century. 20ft is rather

more than the 2-3 metres `worse case scenario'. Still, 2-3 metres is

pretty bad, in fact even the IPCC estimate of just under a metre

will have a significant impact for many nations, particularly

Pacific Atolls which are only a few feet above sea level and

Bangladesh. In addition, absolute rise in sea level means that

inundation from storm surges and coastal erosion is more likely.

Gore gets the science right and the "small errors don't detract from

Gore's main point", which is ultimately that the scientific evidence

for anthropogenic global warming is now overwhelming.

Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann