On Dec. 9, an op-ed by Sarah Palin on climate change ran in the Washington Post. Al Gore responded to Palin’s piece and made some fresh claims of his own later that day in an interview with MSNBC. We find that both engaged in some distortions and have been rightly called out by experts in the field.
- Gore said that 40 percent of the polar ice cap is already gone. That’s an outdated figure — it has recovered in the last two years, and is now about 24 percent smaller than the 1979-2000 average.
- Gore’s claim that all Arctic ice would "go completely" over the next decade is greatly exaggerated. The scientist he is citing was actually talking about nearly ice-free conditions, and only in the summer months.
- Gore and Palin both left out information when discussing the economic impact of climate legislation. Gore dodged a question about job losses, and Palin ignored the potentially severe effects of doing nothing.
- Palin misrepresented the contents of the leaked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit, saying that they show "fraudulent scientific practices." That’s not the case.
The original Inconvenient Truther and the oil pipeline proponent actually had some common ground — both agreed that global warming was real. However, they differed on almost every other point, starting with whether that warming has anything to do with human activity.
A Convenient Exaggeration
Gore offered some stale scientific data and some overly grim predictions when he said the "entire north polar ice cap, which has been there for most of the last 3 million years, is disappearing before our eyes. Forty percent is already gone. The rest is expected to go completely within the next decade."
The north polar ice cap is melting at rates that are certainly cause for concern. But it’s not going quite as fast as Gore says. Gore’s 40 percent figure is outdated. Arctic ice levels, as measured by the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, were 40 percent lower at the end of the summer of 2007 than the average observed from 1979 to 2000. But the totals have actually increased for two consecutive years since. According to a release from the group, the average ice cover was 5.36 million square kilometers for the month of September 2009, compared with the 1979 to 2000 September average of 7.04 million square kilometers. That’s a difference of about 24 percent, nearly half what Gore said.
And Gore was wildly off the mark when he predicted that all Arctic ice would "go completely within the next decade."
We should point out that ice levels in the Arctic region change seasonally. During the summer months some ice melts, and then waters freeze again in winter as the temperature goes down. The levels of summer melting have been going up for a number of years, and this could eventually lead to very minimal ice coverage during the summer.
One researcher, Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Post-Graduate School, made a projection in 2007 that a nearly ice-free arctic summer might occur as early as 2013, though he recently moved that back to 2020. But saying the north polar ice cap will be entirely gone is hyperbole. Even the most dramatic projections, such as Maslowski’s, do not say the ice would be gone during the winter months.
Gore noted these caveats himself a few days later while presenting at the U.N. Climate Summit in Copenhagen when he said:
Gore: Some of the models suggest that there is a 75 percent chance that the entire north polar ice cap during some of the summer months will be completely ice-free within the next five to seven years.
Even here, Gore was being a bit aggressive with his claims of "ice free" summers. In fact, Maslowski, whose work Gore cited, complained to the U.K. Telegraph that "I would never try to estimate likelihood at anything as exact as this. … I was very explicit that we were talking about near-ice-free conditions and not completely ice-free conditions in the northern ocean.”
Environment and Economy
Gore and Palin both made some roughly factual statements about the effect of climate change proposals on the economy. Palin said that proposed “cap-and-tax” [sic] plans will result in job losses, and she’s right. Gore, by contrast, said that "the response to global warming can bring jobs back" — and he’s right, too. Overall, nonpartisan experts, including Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf, agree that proposed cap-and-trade legislation will kill some jobs, create others and ultimately have a small but negative effect on employment – probably.
But neither combatant gave the full picture here. Gore, when asked about the economic effect of climate proposals, responded: "I think that the losses of jobs started a long time ago with the outsourcing to other countries for a variety of reasons, including the cheaper labor costs," he said. "It’s not — not because of the response to global warming." That’s called dodging the question.
Palin, meanwhile, presented potential job losses and tax increases as evidence that “any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs.” But if scientists are correct, the potential cost of doing nothing could be severe. The Congressional Budget Office said earlier this year:
CBO, September 2009: A strong consensus has developed in the expert community that, if allowed to continue unabated, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will have extensive, highly uncertain, but potentially serious and costly impacts on regional climates throughout the world. Those impacts are expected to include widespread changes in the physical environment, changes in biological systems (including agriculture), and changes in the viability of some economic sectors.
Palin Jumps the Gun
In her op-ed, Palin said that stolen e-mails between scientists at the Climate Research Unit of the U.K.’s University of East Anglia show that we lack “trustworthy science” on the subject of climate change, and she argued that President Obama should have boycotted the U.N.’s Copenhagen summit as a protest against the "fraudulent scientific practices" the e-mails expose. But her catastrophic conclusions about the e-mails are not supported by the evidence.
Palin wrote: “The e-mails reveal that leading climate ‘experts’ deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to ‘hide the decline’ in global temperatures, and tried to silence their critics by preventing them from publishing in peer-reviewed journals.” As we said in our article on this subject, though, there are two ongoing investigations, but so far there’s no evidence that deception or blacklisting actually occurred.
The “decline” under discussion is well-represented in the scientific literature, not covered up. The e-mail in question refers to supplementing tree-ring data with direct temperature readings in order to avoid an artificial dip where the two diverge; the divergence is not fully understood, but it has clearly not been buried. And while it’s true that a few of the e-mails discuss the feasibility of barring skeptics from editorial positions, there’s so far no evidence that this actually occurred.
Palin also said that “the documents show that there was no real consensus even within the CRU crowd.” It is certainly fair to say that experts are not of a single mind about climate science. Groups of experts – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the national academies of science of 13 countries including the U.S., the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society and others — agree that the planet is warming due to increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and that human activity is in no small part responsible for the increases. But the specifics are, as in any science, a matter of study, research and debate.
One e-mail exchange between Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientist Edward Cook and University of Virginia scientist Michael Mann shows what scientific debate can look like in the climate field. After some back-and-forth about Cook’s temperature reconstruction and his conclusions about the medieval warming period, Mann writes: “Lets figure this all out based on good, careful work and see what the data has to say in the end. We’re working towards this ourselves, using revised methods and including borehole data, etc. and will keep everyone posted on this.” Cook sums up:
I am quite happy to work this stuff through in a careful way and am happy to discuss it all with you. I certainly don’t want the work to be viewed as an attack on previous work such as yours. Unfortunately, this global change stuff is so politicized by both sides of the issue that it is difficult to do the science in a dispassionate environment. I ran into the same problem in the acid rain/forest decline debate that raged in the 1980s. At one point, I was simultaneous accused of being a raving tree hugger and in the pocket of the coal industry. I have always said that I don’t care what answer is found as long as it is the truth or at least bloody close to it.
Palin is right that not all climate scientists agree on everything. But she’s wrong to imply that this invalidates the field or undermines the conclusions on which they do agree.
– by Jess Henig and Justin Bank
Palin, Sarah, "Sarah Palin on the politicization of the Copenhagen climate conference," The Washington Post. 9 Dec 2009.
"Transcript: NBC’s Mitchell interviews Al Gore," MSNBC. 9 Dec 2009.
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Amos, Jonathon, "Arctic summers ice-free ‘by 2013,’" BBC News. 12 Dec 2007.
Hanley, Charles J., "Gore: Polar ice may vanish in 5-7 years," Associated Press. 15 Dec 2009.
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"The Economic Effects of Legislation to Reduce Greenhouse-Gas Emissions," Congressional Budget Office. Sept 2009
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"North Pole Ice Cap Melting Faster Than Ever," Agence France-Presse. 27 Aug 2008.