Do several convenient half-truths make “An Inconvenient Truth”?
Do several convenient half-truths make “An Inconvenient Truth”?
by Henry Edward Hardy
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
–Al Gore, purportedly quoting Mark Twain
I really thought I would like, even love the new Davis Guggenheim film about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth”. Not only was the film “scientifically accurate”, I read, Gore was relaxed and likable! I wanted to see this new, Gumby-like, personable and flexible Gore.
And I do like the new, new Al Gore. He is charming and very believable. Unfortunately the redacted version of his family and political history omits several “inconvenient truths”. And the scientific arguments he presents are at best anecdotal and oversimplified, and at worst, either speculative and unsupported by clear evidence, or are just plain wrong.
There are basically two components of this film. One is Gore’s slickly produced multimedia show on global warming and climate change. Intercut with this are a series of soft-focus, personal vignettes of the sort usually seen in half-hour paid political advertisements during presidential campaigns.
Who was Al Gore, Sr.?
We learn that Gore’s father was a tobacco farmer. And we learn that Gore’s sister, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer. And Dad and son were so remorseful they never grew tobacco again. This is very touching and well-produced, certain to give the sense that Gore has acknowledged, grown and learned from his mistakes and life experience. But has he?
There’s a few inconvenient facts about Gore’s family which go unmentioned. Far from being only a small to middling southern tobacco farmer, what we don’t learn is that Al Gore Sr. was one of the wealthiest, and longest serving members of Congress in his time, serving 7 terms in the US House and three terms in the US Senate. We don’t learn of Gore Sr. and Jr.’s relationship with their political and financial mentor, Dr. Armand Hammer, Chairman of Occidental Petroleum and arguably one of the wealthiest and most influential men of his time. Hammer was a fascinating character. One the one hand, his father, Julius Hammer, was one of the founding members of the Communist Party USA and Hammer himself was perhaps the only American capitalist to receive the Order of Lenin, the highest national Order of the old Soviet Union. According to The New York Times, Dr. Hammer’s first name was derived both from the name of the Dumas character, Armand Duval, in “La Dame aux Camelias” and from the arm-and-hammer symbol of socialist labor. (Not after the baking soda brand, though Hammer did later in life buy a minority stake in the company). On the other hand, Hammer was a confidant of and major supporter of President Richard Nixon. Hammer was convicted of making illegal contributions to Nixon and sentenced to a year in prison. However, he never served any time as he was pardoned by George Bush the First.
We don’t hear anything about how Gore Sr. became Vice President of Hammer’s Occidental Petroleum after leaving the Senate, nor do we learn of how the elder Gore went on the be chairman of the Island Creek Coal Company in Lexington, Kentucky. Nor do we hear anything about Gore Sr.’s most famous triumph, the passage of the Interstate Highway Act. This Act transferred millions of defense dollars into building the familiar system of interstate roads. This represented a huge transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector and a vast and lasting gift to the automobile, petroleum, and manufacturing mega-corporations. The car went from being a luxury to being a necessity. The commuter culture and suburbia were born. Vast tracts of undeveloped or agricultural land were paved over. Vast amounts of asphalt were produced, liberating vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere and vast amounts of pollutants into groundwater and streams. Oh but we are oh so sorry about the tobacco. But no mention of these other things. Hmmm.
Who is Al Gore, Jr.?
So much for the sins of the father. But how about Gore Jr? Apparently he’s always been a liberal. At least one could easily form that impression from the movie. No mention of Gore’s support for the Hyde Amendment or his pattern of anti-abortion voting up to 1988. No mention of his enthusiastic support as one of eleven Democrats to cross party lines in the Senate to vote for Gulf War I. No mention of his support for the bombing of Yugoslavia, the US “humanitarian” invasion and occupation of Somalia, or other imperial misadventures of the Clinton administration. So much for Gore’s platitudinous mea culpas. They ring pretty hollow compared with the record of his very real mistakes. So much easier not to talk about these “inconvenient truths”.
What really causes the earth to be warm?
Gore attributes much of global warming to “the greenhouse effect”. One gets the strong impression based on gigantic charts Gore projects that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are primarily responsible for the observed warming. These charts are misleading for several reasons. The charts are not to scale and do not have their origin at 0,0, thus making them very deceptive. They don’t clearly display the units of measurement. The data isn’t properly sourced. Finally, coincidence does not in itself imply or prove causation.
Ok now for the real science which Gore omits. This is really pretty simple, its all basic algebra and geometry with a very little bit of optional trig. Imagine we have a black ball sitting in cold, empty space. Now we shine a light on it. The ball will heat up until the energy it emits is equal to the energy it receives. This is called “thermal equilibrium”.
We can calculate the temperature of the ball and the frequency of the energy it radiates via a lovely and elegant equation called the “Stephan-Boltzmann Law”. This emitted energy is sometimes referred to as “black-body radiation” as it is the ideal thermodynamic description of a “perfect” radiator. The energy given in terms of watts per square meter per unit time is equal to the absolute temperature in Kelvin raised to the 4rth power times a constant, called the Boltzmann constant (= about 1.3807 x 10 ^ -23 J K ^ -1).
Well suffice it to say the most important input into the earth as a thermodynamic system is the sun’s energy striking the earth, measured as “incident solar radiation”.
However, the earth is actually a good deal cooler than we would predict if it were a classical black body. Whats up with that?
Well, the earth isn’t really black. It reflects back some of the light without absorbing and re-emitting it. The percentage of light which is reflected from an object rather than being absorbed is called the “albedo”. The higher the albedo, the “whiter” the object, and the more light it reflects, the less it absorbs, and the cooler it will be.
There are a couple of problems with the “greenhouse effect” analogy. First off, that isn’t how real greenhouses work. Glass doesn’t “reflect” radiation, it absorbs it, thus lowering the albedo, and increasing the temperature derived from the Stefan-Boltzmann law. Gore shows a chart showing light coming in, bouncing off the earth’s surface, then being trapped in the atmosphere and bouncing up and down. (The whole graphical presentation reminded me strongly of the 1955 Disney film, “Conquest of Space” based in part on the book by German-American rocket scientist Willy Ley). Gore quickly glosses over this part by saying “you all already know this”. However, it is completely wrong.
Carbon dioxide (and other, more powerful “greenhouse” gasses such as methane, which Gore omits to discuss in the film) don’t “reflect” infrared radiation. If they did, they would *cool* the earth rather than warming it by reflecting away more of the incident solar radiation, thus raising the albedo. In fact, the correct explanation is that they *absorb* more radiation, thus lowering the albedo and consequently raising the temperature of the earth a little bit. Most of the albedo however is derived from the albedo of the surface particularly where ice is present (as Gore correctly, but self-inconsistently points out). Another factor is that the incoming radiation may be in one frequency range, and the “black body” radiation at another frequency range, and the constituents of the earth and its atmosphere may reflect or absorb these wavelengths to different degrees. This effect is called “radiative forcing”. But Gore’s picture of the atmosphere capturing and reflecting light back to the earth like a one-way mirror — nope that’s just flat wrong. Everyone may “know it” but it is not factually correct (cf Gore’s “Mark Twain” quote above).
What factors contribute to keeping the earth warm? There are a number. There is residual heat left over from the formation of the solar system. (The earth is big and will take a long time to cool). As the earth cools it shrinks, and as it shrinks, it falls in on itself, converting some of the potential energy to heat energy, establishing a new equilibrium. There is thermonuclear heat from deposits of radioactive minerals. There is stored chemical energy which is converted through anaerobic metabolism by archaea and extemophile bacteria such as iron-oxidizing and sulphate-reducing organisms. There is photosynthesis, by which energy from photons is trapped and used to produce sugars and ultimately, ATP. A significant amount of energy is sequestered in the earth’s biosphere, and in subterranean carbohydrates such as oil, coal, coal tar, oil shale, and gas. There is energy stored in the form of angular momentum as the earth spins like a top, and as it orbits the sun. There is energy “produced” by the gravitational interaction of the earth and moon. The tides being one obvious example. There is electromagnetic energy produced by the interaction of the earths magnetic field (which we don’t well understand or have a good predictive model for incidentally), and the charged particles in the solar wind, an example being the aurora, or “northern lights”. There are underwater and possibly subterranean deposits of methane hydrate which may be significant in the thermodynamic and carbon cycles of the earth.
Most of the heat stored in the earth is, well stored *in* the earth. We basically have very little direct evidence of what is in the earth’s mantle, and no clear idea at all what is in the core. It is on average 3,950.5 miles to the center of the earth from the surface. We have actual data of what is in the first 5 miles or so (12,262m being the deepest documented “hole” (Elert, 2003)), or about the first 1/10 of 1% of the surface. Below that, its all pretty speculative. And yet almost all of the earths stored heat is stored in the terrestrial rock and underlying structures whatever they may be. Shouldn’t we get a better understanding of how heat and carbon are sequestrated and released in the earth itself, before we say as Gore suggests that the science of the issue is settled, we know exactly what to do to fix the problems, and we lack only the political will to carry through?
Next in importance to the lithosphere in terms of the earth’s heat transport system, is the hydrosphere, the oceans, lakes, and rivers. We are just beginning to understand how ocean currents transport heat and chemicals, and we have no strong predictive model relating the transport of heat within the hydrosphere to heat transport in the lithosphere. Should we not also study the oceans more thoroughly before we declare that we know enough to solve the issues?
And the atmosphere. How well do we really understand it? Not well. Can we with certainty predict what the mean surface temperature on the earth will be in 2010? Or 2100? We don’t have a strong predictive model which doesn’t break down fairly fast compared to real data. Gore points out that the ten warmest years on record occurred during the past 14 years. But what about those other four years? If there was a constant heating going on, the increase, one might reason, should be constant. Clearly there are some hidden variables, the huge one being… we don’t have a good objective measure of the energy output of the sun. And we don’t really have more than a clue about how the sun works. We have the general idea that it works by hydrogen fusion, but there is the nagging problem of the “missing neutrinos”. A big huge problem for studying the thermodynamics of the earth since the major input into the system is incident solar radiation. [However, see Solving the Mystery of the Missing Neutrinos, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/articles/bahcall/]
We don’t understand why the Sun’s corona is is 2 million degrees hotter than the surface. We don’t well understand or have a good predictive model of sunspots or solar flares. We understand little about the sun with certainty. Do we really know enough about stars like our Sun to be able to predict, and if necessary, modify its behavior? Is all the science settled and we just need political will?
Finally, Gore uses words and pictures to strongly imply (although he is careful not to state it categorically) that Hurricane Katrina was caused by global warming. That’s a big assumption and really not supportable based on the evidence.
The Gore Sound-and-Light Show
In September of 2005, Al Gore spoke to the Sierra Club and said, “We must disenthrall ourselves with the sound-and-light show that has diverted the attentions of our great democracy from the important issues and challenges of our day.” Indeed we must.
We really don’t understand what the consequences of the massive deforestation, species die-offs, and fossil fuel orgy of the last century will be. It could have little long-term effect as the earth and biosphere’s homeostatic mechanisms are probably (hopefully!) orders of magnitude stronger than whatever good or harm man can yet produce. The earth may reach a new, quasi-stable equilibrium at a higher temperature, as in the Carboniferous Period when the earth is believed to have had no permanent icecaps. It may result in runaway heating of the earth which boils the oceans and turns the Earth into another Venus. Human activity may even trigger the collapse of the biosphere and a catastrophic deep-freeze as in the “snowball earth” hypothesis of Harvard scientist Paul Hoffman (Hoffman and Schrag, 1999). The fact is we don’t know what effect our human depredations on the environment will bring. And thus in our ignorance we should try to follow the first principle of “do no harm”. And second, we should really try to figure out how our terrestrial and solar systems work. We should not offer false certainty or false hope however. Whatever is going on with the climate and the biosphere whether it is of human origin or causation or not is already too big an effect for our primitive society at our low technological level to remediate or “fix”. So let us walk softly on the earth, all learn to do the math and science, and let us all hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
“An Inconvenient Truth” is a beautifully produced and presented, but misleading and self-serving compilation of half-truths, omissions, oversimplifications, and misrepresentations. Not recommended.
An Inconvenient Truth (wikipedia)
School Board Folds After One Idiot Parent Objects to Global Warming Video (discussion of and links to this article and blog)
Al Gore, the Other Oil Candidate, Corpwatch
Gore isn’t quite as green as he’s led the world to believe USA Today
Global Warming Fever San Francisco Chronicle
Letter to Environmentalists from Ralph Nader
Challenge issued to environmental journalists and advocates of catastrophic AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) from junkscience.com
Gore as climate exaggerator Reason Magazine
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy