Inconvenient Truths for Al Gore

Cinemas everywhere will soon be showing former US Vice President Al Gore’s film on global warming. “An Inconvenient Truth” has received rave reviews in America and Europe, and it will most likely gain a large worldwide audience. But, while the film is full of emotion and provocative images, it is short on rational arguments.

“An Inconvenient Truth” makes three points: global warming is real; it will be catastrophic; and addressing it should be our top priority. Inconveniently for the film’s producers, however, only the first statement is correct.

While it’s nice to see Gore bucking the trend in a nation where many influential people deny that global warming even exists, many of his apocalyptic claims are highly misleading. But his biggest error lies in suggesting that humanity has a moral imperative to act on climate change because we realize there is a problem. This seems naïve, even disingenuous.

We know of many vast global challenges that we could easily solve. Preventable diseases like HIV, diarrhea, and malaria take 15 million lives each year. Malnutrition afflicts more than half the world’s population. Eight hundred million people lack basic education. A billion don’t have clean drinking water.

In the face of these challenges, why should stopping climate change be our top priority? Gore’s attempt at an answer doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Gore shows that glaciers have receded for 50 years. But he doesn’t acknowledge they have been shrinking since the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800’s – long before industrial CO2 emissions. Likewise, he considers Antarctica the canary in the coalmine, but again doesn’t tell the full story. He presents pictures from the 2% of Antarctica that is dramatically warming, while ignoring the 98% that has largely cooled over the past 35 years. The UN climate panel estimates that Antarctica’s snow mass will actually increase during this century. And, whereas Gore points to shrinking sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere, he fails to mention that ice in the Southern Hemisphere is increasing.

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The movie shows scary pictures of the consequences of the sea level rising 20 feet (seven meters), flooding large parts of Florida, San Francisco, New York, Holland, Calcutta, Beijing, and Shanghai. Were realistic levels not dramatic enough? The United Nations panel on climate change suggests a rise of only 1-2 feet during this century, compared to almost one foot in the last century.

Similarly, Europe’s deadly heat waves in 2003 lead Gore to conclude that climate change will mean more fatalities. But global warming would mean fewer deaths caused by cold temperatures, which in most of the developed world vastly outweigh deaths caused by heat. In the UK alone, it is estimated that the temperature increase would cause 2,000 extra heat deaths by 2050, but result in 20,000 fewer cold deaths.

Financial losses from weather events have increased dramatically over the past 45 years, which Gore attributes to global warming. But all or almost all of this increase comes from more people with more possessions living closer to harm’s way. If all hurricanes had hit the US with today’s demographics, the biggest damage would have been caused not by Katrina, but by a hurricane in 1926. Allowing for changes in the number of people and their wealth, flood losses have actually decreased slightly.

The movie invites viewers to conclude that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina, with Gore claiming that the warm Caribbean waters made the storm stronger. But when Katrina made landfall, it was not a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane; it was a milder Category 3. In fact, there is no scientific consensus that global warming makes hurricanes more destructive, as he claims. The author that Gore himself relies on says that it would be “absurd to attribute the Katrina disaster to global warming.”

After presenting the case for the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, Gore unveils his solution: the world should embrace the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to cut carbon emissions in the developed countries by 30% by 2010.

But even if every nation signed up to Kyoto, it would merely postpone warming by six years in 2100, at an annual cost of $150 billion. Kyoto would not have saved New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. But improved levees and maintenance could have. While Gore was campaigning for Kyoto in the 1990’s, a better use of resources would have been to bolster hurricane defenses.

Indeed, the real issue is using resources wisely. Kyoto won’t stop developing countries from being hardest hit by climate change, for the simple reason that they have warmer climates and fewer resources. But these nations have pressing problems that we could readily solve. According to UN estimates, for $75 billion a year – half the cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol – we could provide clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education to every single human being on Earth. Shouldn’t that be a higher priority?

Recent hurricanes killed thousands in Haiti, and not in Florida, because Haiti is poor and cannot afford even basic preventive measures. Combating disease, hunger, and polluted water would bring immediate benefits to millions and allow poorer countries to increase productivity and break the cycle of poverty. That, in turn, would make their inhabitants less vulnerable to climate fluctuations.

At the climax of his movie, Gore argues that future generations will chastise us for not having committed ourselves to the Kyoto Protocol. More likely, they will wonder why, in a world overflowing with “inconvenient truths,” Gore focused on the one where we could achieve the least good for the highest cost.