Monday, 16 July 2007

It's not about Al's House

I've been so busy lately I haven't posted to this blog for some time. I've read some excellent books recently, including Andrew Dessler's The Science and Politics of Global Warming (his blog) and Joseph Romm's Hell and High Water. (his blog) Each does a fine job of spelling out the reality of the climate crisis, pointing out the strong scientific concensus on the matter. Each in its own way then delves into what has gone wrong over the past decade in the political process in the USA. Their failure to come to grips with this crisis rests on a tragic history of disinformation, spin, and cheap debating tactics, playing on public reluctance to accept a truth that is truly inconvenient.

As I've followed the public debate over the past few years I've witnessed so many foul plays I don't know where to begin. So to start somewhere, I'll pick the uproar over the power bill for Al Gore's quite large family estate. Apparently it's many times higher than a typical family home. Well, that may take a bit of the shine off of Mr. Gore's public image as a green superhero; but what the heck does it have to do with the validity or otherwise of the science recounted in his film? I thought of this as a snippet of dialogue on an imagined evening newscast:

anchor: "Climate change: we've all heard about it and read about it. But is it true? Is CO2 really a greenhouse gas after all? For answers, Dan Dubious has gone right to the source - Al Gore."

Dan D.: "That's right Bob. We're here in Tennessee to look at Al Gore's electric bill. And it's a whopper. What a hypocrite. How can any of us ever believe anything he says from now on?"

anchor: "Wow, Dan, that's amazing. Well, I guess I can stop worrying about droughts and sea-level rise, now that I know the size of one house in the U.S. southland."

Dan D. "Okay, Bob. Glad I was able to set that straight for you."

I'm trying to make the fallacy really glaring, just so we can all agree it doesn't answer the question. The problem is, this tactic doesn't need to address the real question; it works because it distracts. In a sense, it might actually mean something if the question were "Should we follow Al Gore's advise on what to do about climate change?" For that question, at least, Mr. Gore's personal commitment to reducing his own emissions might even be relevant. But Al Gore is not a scientific authority; he's just reporting on what the scientists have found. Even if you hate Gore and everything he stands for, you really can't escape the question of global warming simply by dismissing Gore the messenger.

You have to answer the question: is CO2 a greenhouse gas, and is the huge increase in CO2 that humans have undeniably started going to change the climate substantially? Al Gore's power bill is not a relevant contribution in looking for that answer. The IPCC has of course reviewed all the good sources of information for answering this one. You can read their reports online if you want to know.

But I realize a lot of Americans (and others) are just hoping this very inconvenient idea will go away if we just avoid reading those reports for a little longer. We've avoided them for a decade already.

The sad thing is that the science of spin is so well developed, and no matter how much we may try to bring the USA back to the actual science, the denialist camp has a whole suite of clever debating tactics lined up like so many smoke grenades. There was the astounding move by Micheal Crichton to link global warming activism with ultra-rich ultra-liberals tooling around in private jets. Huh? My climatology prof cycles to work right through Toronto's snowy winter. (As for me I wimp out and switch to the subway once it gets below freezing.) But that's another story.