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This item was posted on March 16, 2009, and it was categorized as Antarctic sea ice, Antarctica, Arctic sea ice, Climate, Climate Change, Climate change policy, Energy, Global Warming, Global warming skeptics, Nuclear Power, greenhouse gases, sea level rise.
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He said many sensible things, some things people will excoriate him for, and one really dumb thing

Editor’s note: Please see the correction in the text below. I goofed!

The Guardian published a partial transcript today of the interview with Al Gore that produced his statement about the polar ice caps disappearing in “just a few years.”

As I pointed out yesterday, the very latest science suggests that Arctic sea ice may be completely gone in September about 90 years from now starting around 2065 (although some scientists think it could happen in 20 years). From the paper: “Our estimate of the first 20-year period with climatological ice-free conditions in September in the Arctic is 2066–2085.” 

I have never heard any credible scientist predict the complete deglaciation of Antarctica and Greenland at any time within the next 100 years, let alone just a few years. Such an event would raise sea level by 230 feet and completely remake the map of the world. 

I’m sure those who deny that humans are warming the globe will find much to attack in Gore’s statements during the Guardian interview. I’ll let them criticize him. [I removed the following comment because it doesn't encourage the tone I'm trying to encourage. Mea culpa! - T.Y.] prance up and down about it. So I’ll stick to things that people of good will can debate reasonably. For example, whether a carbon market system employing cap and trade really will be effective. Gore argues that after a rocky start in Europe they’ve begun to get their act together, and “once there is a truly global carbon trading system the synergy will drive towards much higher levels of efficiency.” Debatable for sure, but certainly a reasonable proposition. 

I’m sure people will also debate what he had to say about nuclear power. Gore says he is not as reflexively opposed to it as he once was, but he remains skeptical. And this statement about nukes seemed to be true on its face: 

“For the eight years that I spent in the White House every nuclear weapons proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a reactor programme. People have said for years that there are now completely different [nuclear] technologies. OK, but if you have a team of scientists that can build a reactor, and you’re a dictator, you can make them work at night to build a nuclear weapon. That’s what’s happened in North Korea and Iran. And in Libya before they gave it up. So the idea of, say, Chad, Burma, and Sudan having lots of nuclear reactors is insane and it’s not going to happen.”

Here’s the most incisive thing I thought Gore said: 

“An economist called Herman Daly said years ago that we’re operating Planet Earth as if it’s a business in liquidation.”

Say what you will about how much Gore exaggerates aspects of global warming, I don’t think there is any question among environmental scientists about whether we living in a sustainable manner on this planet. We clearly are not, and this is ultimately an even bigger issue than climate change. Gore obviously has understood this for a long while, which is a lot more than we can say for most politicians.

As a journalist, I believe it’s my job not only to get the facts straight — for example, pointing out the error in Gore’s statement about the cryosphere — but also to tell the truth about the facts. That’s my goal here.

One last thing — a quote from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their excellent book, “Elements of Journalism”:

“If journalists are truth seekers, it must follow that they be honest and truthful with their audiences, too — that they be truth presenters. If nothing else, this responsibility requires that journalists be as open and honest with audiences as they can about what they know and what they don’t. How can you claim to be seeking to convey the truth if you’re not truthful with the audience in the first place.” 

The Guardian should be applauded for taking this call for transparency seriously and publishing a partial transcript of the interview. Until the advent of Web 2.0, journalists and editors were much more wary of opening their notebooks to readers, perhaps because they were fearful of what readers what might think if they saw what was not actually included in a story. That’s an outmoded way of thinking, and I’m glad the Guardian seems to feel that way too.

But one question for the Guardian: Why a partial transcript? What else did Gore have to say?

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This thing has 15 Comments

  1. Posted March 16, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Tom,
    I’m updating and reposting my comment here, as it appears it may be in “moderation” limbo at the other Gore thread (you can remove the first version if you want).

    You wrote:
    As I pointed out yesterday, the very latest science suggests that Arctic sea ice may be completely gone in September about 90 years from now (although some scientists think it could happen in 20 years).

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

    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.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7139797.stm

    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.”

    http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2007/s2117573.htm

    Was Gore exaggerating when he said that?

    I think it would be fair to say that many, even most, sea ice model results published in the past year or two are now projecting an ice free arctic well before 2100 – perhaps somewhere between 2013 and 2050. If 2013 is at the low end, the 90-year estimate would appear to be at the extreme upper end.

    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. Your overall assesment of the current state of sea ice research seems out of date, although it is admittedly a fast moving area.

  2. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    No, the very latest science does not suggest that Arctic sea ice may be completely gone in September about 90 years from now. The estimate in that paper is for 2060 to 2080, but even that’s just a product of tuning the known-to-be-erroneous GCMs to ice thickness. I suspect the authors would be very surprised if it took even that long.

  3. Posted March 16, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Steve:

    EGADS! You’re right. The abstract says “by the end of the 21st century,” and even though I read the study, those words got stuck in my head, and then, well, gulp, I misspoke!

    Here’s a direct quote from the paper: “Our estimate of the first 20-year period with climatological ice-free conditions in September in the Arctic is 2066–2085. This is slightly earlier than predicted, even by the models with the largest decreasing trends in the 1979–2007 period (see Fig. 1).”

  4. googler
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    HI Tom

    I’ve got to call you on this:

    “I’m sure those who deny that humans are warming the globe will find much to attack in Gore’s statements during the Guardian interview. I’ll let them prance up and down about it. So I’ll stick to things that people of good will can debate reasonably.”

    This seems really out of place in the context of sentiments expressed in other posts esp. re: Godwin’s law. What happened to people being allowed to disagree or be unconvinced without being labelled? Or having the nature of their “will” and “reasonableness” questioned?

    Did you watch Jon Stewart? A lot of everyday folk were not convinced by the never ending credit boom and told they didn’t understand “economics”, “finance” etc etc… and hey ho look how that worked out.

    Just because you aren’t convinced doesn’t mean you lack goodwill.

    Cheers

  5. Posted March 16, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Googler:

    Point well taken. I’ve removed the offending comment. Suffice it to say that I’ve been labelled so much in the past few weeks that I caught the virus!

  6. Thom
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Not to hijack the thread….but I’m kinda’ hijacking the thread. For those in DC who are interested in climate emissions, there are regular seminars on the Hill led by top experts. However, unlike RPJr., these scientists have made a name for themselves by publishing and and advising experts and policy makers, not by blogging and getting cultivating the press. This may make the discussions less interesting, but probably more pertinent.

    American Meteorological Society and the Heinz Center

    Assessing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Policies: New Science Tools in the
    Service of Policy and Negotiations

    What is the Climate-Rapid Overview And Decision Support Simulator (C-ROADS) and what was the motivation for its development? More importantly, how is this simulator intended to be used to assess the success or failure of various greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction policies, nationally and internationally, alone or in combination, to limit climate change? Is the tool scientifically robust? Who is its intended user? Are there examples of the use of C-ROADS to evaluate current legislative proposals to reduce GHG emissions? What was the outcome of those simulations?

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009
    New Time – 12:30-2:30 pm
    Russell Senate Office Building, Room 325
    Washington, DC
    Buffet Reception Following

    Moderator:
    Dr. Anthony Socci, Senior Science and Communication Fellow, American Meteorological Society

    Introductory Remarks: The Honorable Senator John F. Kerry (MA)

    Speakers:
    Dr. John D. Sterman, Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management and Director of the MIT System Dynamics Group, MIT Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, MA

    Dr. Robert W. Corell, Vice-President of Programs, The H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, Washington, DC

    This briefing series is open to the public and does not require a reservation.

    Program Summary: http://www.ametsoc.org/atmospolicy/EnvironmentalScienceSeminarSeries.html

  7. Posted March 16, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Let us look at the other side of this. It is well known that if you caveat statements to journalists they screw the caveats up (see Eli can be a journalist also), so the general rule is say things as simply as possible to avoid distorting truncation.

    If you are going to hold people to exact statements, you better start teaching reporters and editors to understand what is being said and to convey it accurately.

  8. Posted March 16, 2009 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    So Eli, are you claiming that the Guardian misquoted Gore? If so, what is your evidence? The newspaper published a transcript, and I doubt they’d do that if they didn’t feel confident that they got it right.

    If they did not misquote him, what do you think of Gore’s exaggeration? Complete deglaciation of Antarctica and Greenland in a few years? Do you believe that? If not, would you not agree that Gore risks undermining his credibility if he doesn’t get a handle on his predilection for exaggeration?

  9. Thom
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Tom, you’re missing the point. The “transcript” is not from a recorded interview. The Guardian admits up front that they did not video or record the interview. So “yes”, there is a possibility that the reporter screwed it up. I raised that possibility on the last thread.

    I think it’s a little unprofessional, borderline laughable, for them to even try and make the claim of a reporter’s notes as a “transcript.”

  10. googler
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks Tom

  11. Leo Hickman
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Hello. I’m Leo Hickman, the journalist who conducted the interview. Very pleased to see you discussing the interview here, but I feel I should just clarify a few things…

    First, the interview was recorded on tape, hence why I was able to transcribe it. Gore’s people didn’t authorise us to make the recording public on the Guardian website. Both parties agreed to this before the interview commenced. It’s a shame, I know, but they were the terms of us doing the interview.

    Second, yes, it would have been nice to run the full transcript, but the reality was we didn’t have the time and/or resources to transcribe the whole conversation. Plus, editorially, we felt it was right to focus on the key points – especially as it was being formatted into a commentable blog post.

    PS. He did say “polar ice caps”, but I think it’s pretty obvious he meant to say “polar sea ice”, “summer sea ice” etc. I know it’s a big difference, but it was a simple slip of the tongue. I don’t think there’s much point reading lots into it.

    Best, Leo

  12. Posted March 17, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Leo:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment here! I appreciate it.

    As I said in my original post, I thought it was pretty obvious that it was a slip of the tongue. But the problem is that this is a big problem for Gore, and it undercuts his authority. His default setting seems to be to stretch the envelope as far as possible to push people into acting. I’m not sure that’s the best strategy. But some folks take me to task for that point of view, saying that when the house is burning down, you really ought to shout. The trouble is that the burning house analogy doesn’t work perfectly here. People do not yet see the flames, so science that’s well within the scientific consensus is hard for many to accept. And then the exaggerations, even if unintentional, invite dismissal of the whole issue.

    Anyway, in my original post I took you to task for not calling Gore on the comment. But now I’m realizing that I wasn’t there, so I have no clue about the ebb and flow of the interview. Suffice it to say that I think Guardian readers should know that no one thinks the Earth’s polar ice caps are going to be totally deglaciated in a few years. (And if you can get Gore’s folks to acknowledge that, all the better.)

  13. Posted March 18, 2009 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Tom,
    I’m sorry, but you still don’t have it right about arctic sea ice projections.

    Rather than quote one study as the “latest science”, you should review the invited arctic presentations at the latest AGU conference.

    I would consider projection of ice free arctic in late summer by 2030 as mainstream now (e.g. Mark Serreze of NSIDC). Moreover, Maslowski’s projection of such conditions as “likely” within a few years (i.e. possibly by 2013) is certainly credible, as it takes into account thickness trends and changing arctic weather patterns. 2060 is thus at the upper end of current estimates within the cryosphere science community.

    Do whatever you need to do (how about interviewing Maslowski and/or Serreze), but please get it right.

  14. Posted March 18, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Deep Climate:

    Thanks for adding this to the discussion. I appreciate it. I’ll just note that in my original post I said that some scientists believed Arctic sea ice could be lost in 20 years, which would be 2030. Perhaps the word “some” is misleading, and I should have said “many” or even “most” instead. I’m open to what people think would be a fair way to report it.

    On an unrelated note: If anyone posts a comment and it gets stuck in moderation limbo, please email me. I’m pretty sick at the moment, and working too hard at the same time, so stuff is slipping through the cracks. Thanks for your patience!

  15. Leo Hickman
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Tom, just to explain the dynamic of the interview: it was roughly 50-60 minutes long and it was a double-header with Al Gore and David Blood, CEO of Generation Investment Management. The focus of the interview – again, agreed in advance – was to be about their vision of ‘sustainable capitalism’. There wasn’t much scope for going off-piste with this topic, but we did manage to discuss a few other issues, many of which were then transcribed for the Guardian’s website in addition to being included in the original print news story and interview. I tried to speak to him on the phone the following day to clarify a couple of things – as I was invited to do so – but he was too busy. It was most definitely a “one-shot” situation, but I felt we managed, despite the restrictions, to get some interesting comments nonetheless. I suppose we could have added a bracket after his mention of “polar ice caps” saying something along the lines of “we presume he meant to say ‘Arctic summer sea ice’ here” but that would have been a little presumptive I think without being able to run it past him first. We chose, for accuracy’s sake, to go for a literal transcription of the words he said.

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