Log in | Jump |


News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism
This item was posted on March 15, 2009, and it was categorized as Antarctica, Arctic sea ice, Climate, Climate Change, Climate change policy, Global Warming, Global warming skeptics, greenhouse gases, sea level rise.
You can follow comments through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and trackbacks are closed.

He probably meant Arctic sea ice, but that too is an exaggeration


If the polar ice caps were to melt, this is what the map of the world would eventually look like


Editor’s note: please see updated information at the end

I really do want to give former Vice President Al Gore the benefit of the doubt when it comes to global warming, since he has accomplished so much to raise awareness on the issue. But he just seems to be hard-wired to exaggerate — to his own detriment, as well as to the cause of reining in climate change.

And in this case, the failure of a journalist to challenge Gore’s assertion that all polar ice will be gone in a few years just makes the problem worse.

In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, the Nobel prize winner said business leaders are realizing that action is required on climate change because they are “seeing the writing on every wall they look at. They’re seeing the complete disappearance of the polar ice caps right before their eyes in just a few years.”

Gore obviously meant to say something about Arctic sea ice. But even here, his statement is an exaggeration, since scientists who study the cryosphere are predicting that the Arctic Ocean could be ice free in 20 years. (Some scientists predict sooner.) This would be ominous enough, since it could theoretically push the climate system across a tipping point, leading to dramatic, sudden changes.

But complete melting of the polar ice caps — the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica — would be many orders of magnitude worse, accompanied by 70 meters, or 230 feet, of sea level rise, according to Konrad Steffen, the director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. Just look at the map above to see how the contours of the continents would change if that happened. (By contrast, complete melting of Arctic sea ice, which floats on the water, would not raise sea level one millimeter for the same reason that melting ice cubes do not raise the level of liquid in a glass.)

Sea level most definitely is rising faster than expected, and that too is reason enough for great concern. But Steffen, who conducts research on the response of the Greenland ice sheet to climate change, recently predicted based on current trends that we might expect a meter of sea level rise by the year 2100. That would be bad enough, causing monumental problems for low-lying regions that are home to 600 million people. 

But complete melting of the polar ice caps in a few years? Perhaps that’s possible, but I don’t know of any scientist who has predicted anything like that. I know Gore is trying to spur people to action on the most all-encompassing issue of our time. Unfortunately, his zeal gets the better of him sometimes, and it doesn’t do the cause for action on climate change any good. 

Actually, I fault the Guardian even more than Gore here. The reporter, Leo Hickman, should have picked up on this mistake and asked Gore whether he really meant to say that, and his editors should have caught the mistake before it went into print. Gore surely would have corrected himself, and this gross exaggeration would not have been disseminated to the world. Unfortunately, it’s now part of the record, and it may help to further erode public understanding of science — which Elizabeth Kolbert decries as a cause of inaction on climate change. I’m also sure the mistake will be used  against Gore by those who deny the reality of climate change to make the case that he, and all people who are working hard to do something about climate change, are “global warming alarmists” who can’t be trusted.  

Lastly, I thought quite hard about whether to post this, because I know people are going to attack me for undermining the cause of action on climate change. So let me clear: My intent is exactly the opposite. I fervently believe that we must take action both to reduce carbon emissions and to adapt to climate changes that are inevitable no matter what we do. And that’s why I published this. Because rallying support for action will depend on whether people can trust what they read in the press about climate change, and what public leaders on this issue are saying.

Update, Sunday 3/15/09:

Evidently, Gore has misspoken about polar ice melting before. See this Youtube video in which he says the entire north polar ice cap may be gone in five years: 



Well, even that is a probably an exaggeration:

The embargo has just been lifted on a paper in Nature Geoscience (subscription probably needed for full text) about the projected pace of Arctic sea ice melting. Julian Boé of UCLA and his colleagues project that September sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean will vanish by 2100  could vanish by 2065. In my original post above, I say that some scientists believe Arctic sea ice could disappear in just 20 years, and there is even some research suggesting it could happen even sooner. Clearly, there is much scientific uncertainty — as Boé et al point out: 

“However, it is still theoretically possible that some crucial processes are missing in all the models and that the relationship is not reliable: for example, as the representation of sea-ice processes in climate models is still generally rather crude, one could imagine that missing processes might lead either to a rapid nonlinear reduction in sea-ice or stabilize sea-ice cover.”

The extent of Arctic sea ice in September (at the end of summer, when it generally reaches its lowest point) has decreased by almost 25 percent between 1979 and 2006. “Unfortunately, most current climate models underestimate significantly the observed trend in Arctic sea-ice decline, leading to doubts regarding their projections for the timing of ice-free conditions,” Boé and his colleagues write. Their Nature Geoscience paper was an an effort to do better. 

In any case, an ice free Arctic in September by the year 2100 — 90 years from now — the year 2065, or even as soon as 5 years from now for that matter, is a far cry from complete deglaciation of the polar ice caps within a few years., or even just the ice being gone in the Arctic ocean within five years.

This item was posted by .

You can follow comments through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and trackbacks are closed.

This thing has 17 Comments

  1. Posted March 15, 2009 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, which I think is responsible. I agree that we have to be critical about global warming claims, or we just perpetuate the divide.

    Re: this paragraph (I’ll paste it below), and the graphic — is there anyone putting out maps of the specific geographical areas that will be submerged under various climate change scenarios — and helping those people/communities/governments to prepare?

    “Sea level most definitely is rising faster than expected, and that too is reason enough for great concern. But Steffen, who conducts research on the response of the Greenland ice sheet to climate change, recently predicted based on current trends that we might expect a meter of sea level rise by the year 2100. That would be bad enough, causing monumental problems for low-lying regions that are home to 600 million people.”

  2. Posted March 15, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I guess those who believe in Gore are upset about this latest exaggeration but, honestly, almost everything Gore says and writes is an exaggeration, to the point where I don’t see how any honest person can take anything he writes seriously. For example, literary critic Camille Paglia wrote in Salon magazine:

    “When I tried to watch Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” on cable TV recently, I wasn’t able to get past the first 10 minutes. I was snorting with disgust at its manipulations and distortions and laughing at Gore’s lugubrious sentimentality, which was painfully revelatory of his indecisive, self-thwarting character. When Gore told a congressional hearing last month that there is a universal consensus among scientists about global warming — which is blatantly untrue — he forfeited his own credibility.”

    Gore himself has said: “I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it (global warming) is.” That is, he habitually exaggerates. Both Inconvenient Truth and Earth in the Balance are filled with unsubstantiated exaggeration for rhetorical effect.

    Gore is also making millions of dollars in his various “green” businesses, thanks to the fears he’s whipped up. Conflict of interest?

    Gore is no saint; he’s a politician. And, as we all know, politicians lie for effect. His sin, if I might put it that way, is dragging down the credibility of science in the process.

  3. Posted March 15, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink


    I believe journalism’s creed is to “hold power to account.” The Guardian failed to do that in its interview, which is why I wrote this post.

    I also believe in transparency, which is why I told you in my post not only where I stand, but also where I sit. Stepping out of my journalistic role, I will say that I am inclined to give Gore the benefit of the doubt because of the impact he has had on public awareness of the issue of climate change. But I also believe he could be far more effective if he gave up the exaggeration and also installed a tripwire in his brain that would keep him from saying ridiculous things like “they’re seeing the complete disappearance of the polar ice caps right before their eyes in just a few years.”

  4. Thom
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Tom, you caught an obvious fumble. There is one possibility that you haven’t considered. It may be that the Guardian reporter or an editor messed up the Gore quote. My guess is that either the Guardian or Gore will release some sort of correction.

  5. googler
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tom

    Good post – I just caught The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart giving CNBC finance lead a well deserved roasting. Worth a look if you haven’t seen it already. Keep pushing for better standards of journalism. Cheers

  6. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Do we even know the quote is accurate? Regardless, cut Gore some slack here. He does a great deal of extemporaneous speaking on the record, and given his subject matter can’t make much use of the usual politicians’ dodges of speaking in generalities or changing the subject.

    Assuming the quote is accurate, I’m pretty sure that what Gore meant is that we’ve seen signs of sharply increasing melt trends at both poles in the last few years. As I hope you know, the biggest concern is about the WAIS rather than the Arctic sea ice.

    As you may also be aware, the specific statement Gore makes about the potential for an ice-free state at summer Arctic ice minimum is based on the (as yet unpublished) modeling work of Wieslaw Maslowski, the U.S. Navy’s sea ice modeler. Maslowski doesn’t use a GCM, and points out that his regional-scale model picks up warming ocean currents that the GCMs can’t due to scale issues. Hansen e.g. has seen his results and thinks they’re credible. As it stands right now, Maslowski’s results are the only ones that haven’t been shown to be very likely wrong. Even so, most climate scientists are understandably nervous about going on the record in favor of such a specific short-term outcome, which has led to the odd situation of the NSIDC team making that twenty-year prediction based on no specific research whatsoever.

    The paper you mention isn’t trying to make a prediction at all (noting the characterization in your last sentence), and so can’t be used to criticize predictions aside from prior ones from the GCMs. All it really says is that the GCMs will do better if tuned to a parameter (ice thickness) that has been observed to track well with recent reductions. Consistent with the passage you quote, the same authors have another paper awaiting publication that identifies another major problem with the GCMs.

    Speaking of the WAIS, if you haven’t already done so please read this recent interview of a leading glaciologist, noting that what he’s worried about isn’t currently reflected in the peer-reviewed literature and bearing in mind that Gore talks to such people.

  7. Posted March 15, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Tom, I’m curious. How do you go about installing a tripwire in your brain to prevent you from ever misspeaking?

  8. Posted March 15, 2009 at 11:26 pm | Permalink


    I think you need to do a little more research on this story.

    Yes, clearly Gore should have spoken “summer arctic ice”, rather than polar ice cap, and if he did he should acknowledge that he msspoke.

    But you appear to be unaware that there was a well publicized study last year projecting an ice free Arctic by the summer of 2013.


    This is the study that Gore had in mind (see this transcript from Australian ABC):

    “AL GORE: One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study to be presented by US Navy researchers later this week warns it could happen in as little as seven years. Seven years from now.”


    Was Gore exaggerating when he said that?

    I think it would be fair to say that many, even most, sea ice models are now projecting an ice free arctic well before 2100 – perhaps somewhere between 2013 and 2040 or 2050. This is a big change even from IPCC AR4, where models projected ice free summers only by the end of the century or even into the next.

  9. MarkB
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    I have to ask how you get from “hard-wired to exaggerate” to he “misspoke again.” When I call my wife by my ex-girlfriend’s name, I misspeak. When I constantly declare worst-case scenarios as most likely outcomes and invent extremes out of whole cloth, that is not misstating. Al did not misspeak – he said exactly what he meant to say, and he said it twice.

    The Guardian didn’t call him out on his nonsense, because they, like you, believe “he has accomplished so much to raise awareness on the issue.”

    I suppose it would be asking too much to see a flicker of light go off here.

  10. Posted March 16, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Tim: You start by acknowledging that you have a propensity to exaggerate things. And then think carefully before you speak.

  11. Posted March 16, 2009 at 6:37 am | Permalink


    But the difference between the Guardian and me is that I did call him on it.

    I can tell that it would be asking much too much of you to see a flicker of light go off about that.

  12. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Tom, note that I have a long comment with a couple of links caught in moderation.

  13. Posted March 16, 2009 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    When Gore said “They’re seeing the complete disappearance of the polar ice caps right before their eyes in just a few years.”

    that could mean in September of some year soon which is not so unlikely as you started out to make it appear and, in fact is a proposition that you appear to agree with.

  14. Posted March 16, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink


    Did you even bother to read my post before responding? If you did, then I would suggest doing some research to learn what the words “polar ice caps” refer to.

    It most definitely is not my proposition, nor that of any scientist I’m aware of, that the polar ice caps could disappear in just a few years.

  15. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Tom, my 3/15 9:29 PM comment still has the “Your comment is awaiting moderation” line attached to it. Has it been cleared or is there a glitch of some sort?

  16. Jessica
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I think the reason gore exxagerates is because he is so passionate about how fast the climate is changing that it’s a little scary. If we wait and take our sweet time to make changes it will be too late to reverse anything. So I commend him for trying to light a fire underneath people.

One Trackback

  1. Posted March 15, 2009 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    [...] Yulsman ventures back into the political dangerous terrain left by another Al Gore exaggeration on climate change: In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, the Nobel prize winner said business leaders are [...]

Comments are currently closed