Category Archives: Al Gore

Freeman Dyson and irrational optimisim

Via Sullivan, here’s a Freeman Dyson essay (in the form of a twin book review) contemplating technological solutions to the climate-change problem. It is dense and complex and elegant, which makes it easy to miss the fact that its central message is dangerously whacked-out.

The first book the renowned physicist, mathematician and futurist (who’s 84 now, and thus has lived long enough to have to account for some of his predictions) contemplates is economist William Nordhaus’s economic study of various greenhouse-gas mitigation plans, A Question of Balance. Sir Nicholas Stern’s turns out to be very expensive, according to Nordhaus’s model; Al Gore’s is, too. The Kyoto Accord, had it been implemented, would have been slightly profitable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s proposals would be slightly more than slightly profitable, yielding a global economic benefit of $3 trillion compared to business as usual.

But by far the most appealing option is something Nordhaus calls the “low-cost backstop,” which in his models produces a net global profit of $17 billion. The only problem, one that appears not to bother Dyson, is that it’s a fantasy — the “backstop” is any hypothetical technology that could solve the climate-change problem without incurring significant cost, details left as an exercise for the reader. Indeed, Dyson’s complaint is that Nordaus doesn’t actually provide details:

The main deficiency of Nordhaus’s book is that he does not discuss the details of the “low-cost backstop” that might provide a climate policy vastly more profitable than his optimum policy…  Concerning the possible candidates for a low-cost backstop technology he mentions in the sentence I previously quoted—for example, “low-cost solar power”—Nordhaus has little to say. He writes that “no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it.” The “low-cost backstop” policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change…

[I]f we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as a low-cost backstop to global warming.

Yes, and if Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus. But, writes Dyson:

I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Ah. Well that’s all right, then.

Look, I’m as big a fan of science and engineering as the next guy, and I do believe they’ll play a major role in sorting out the mess we’re digging ourselves deeper into. I don’t think the catastrophist branch of climate-change thought gives human resourcefulness and ingenuity enough credit. But there’s a vast chasm between respecting the power of scientific advancements and assuming that just around the corner lies science so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic.

Yet Dyson’s piece leads a writer as smart as Andrew Sullivan to say that it’s the most “helpful” thing on the subject he’s read in weeks.

He’s not as dogmatic as some climate worriers and persuasive, I’d say, in arguing that only technology can solve this problem (and government may not help much). But the possibility of genetically-modified carbon-eating trees is what really struck home[.]

The central point Sullivan takes from the piece, that science will provide the answers — possibly in the form of carbon-sucking trees — and politics but the nudge in the right direction, is important. The danger, however, is that people who don’t want the nudging to happen will assume that science is on the case and if only we wait a bit, it’ll supply all the solutions we need on a silver platter.

We’ve seen the effects of high gas prices on consumer and corporate behaviour, and from an environmental standpoint, they’re encouraging. But there’s no connection between those high prices and the climate-change problem. If everyone dials down the rhetoric in the Middle East and just calms the hell down a little, we’ll see the prices fall, and all the incentives to use less fuel and devise alternatives will fade again.

Dyson’s described his many prognostications thus:

When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science.

So let’s hope we get the trees and sort this whole mess out forthwith. But let’s not bet on it.

Al Gore makes himself difficult to defend

With this absurd speech.

… I’m proposing today a strategic initiative designed to free us from the crises that are holding us down and to regain control of our own destiny. It’s not the only thing we need to do. But this strategic challenge is the lynchpin of a bold new strategy needed to re-power America.

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

For reasons I still haven’t grasped, it’s nearly impossible to write about climate change in a mainstream setting without having denialists pop up and, among other things, accuse you of taking orders from Al Gore. (My friend and Ottawa Citizen colleague Kate Heartfield remarked on it a little while ago.) Or, for reasons even more obscure, “Algore,” like he’s a biomechanical replicant of a former vice-president with a model and make instead of a person with a regular name.

But anyway, the criticism usually revolves around the idea that Gore is a crank, full of pie-in-the-sky ideas about someday we might live in a paradaisical vision of windmills and solar panels, not useful proposal for what we might actually do right now in the world we actually live in. Or, alternatively, that he’s a doomsayer whose obviously absurd prophecies of planetary doom are beneath any rational consideration.

Either line of criticism is so disconnected from the reality of Gore’s message, and the manifestly reasonable tone of his main vehicle An Inconvenient Truth, that they’re difficult to engage.

Then he goes and says something like that America should be carbon-neutral in its electricity generation by 2018. And he compares it to the U.S. space program.

On July 16, 1969, the United States of America was finally ready to meet President Kennedy’s challenge of landing Americans on the moon. I will never forget standing beside my father a few miles from the launch site, waiting for the giant Saturn 5 rocket to lift Apollo 11 into the sky. I was a young man, 21 years old, who had graduated from college a month before and was enlisting in the United States Army three weeks later.

I will never forget the inspiration of those minutes.

I wasn’t alive for them, so maybe I can’t fully comprehend the power of the moment he’s talking about, but this strikes me as a dangerously false parallel. The Apollo program, as ambitious as it was, was essentially about making it possible for a few people (astronauts) to do one thing (walk on the Moon) once. More often if possible, but once would meet the challenge. Gore is talking about changing the way everybody does everything, for always. (Clive Crook makes a similar argument here.)

Someone whose public credibility is as fragile as Gore’s is — on a rising curve but certainly not secure — and so important to the movement he argues is key to the continued viability of the planet Earth as a home for humanity, should treat it with a little more care.

From Crook:

Does he even mean it? “I see my role as enlarging the political space in which Senator Obama or Senator McCain can confront this issue as president next year,” he says. Translation: I advocate the impossible so that the possible becomes more probable. Fair enough, one might say. But propaganda in a good cause is still propaganda, isn’t it?

Ah. So it’s strategic nonsense.

Look. It’s not happening, no matter who gets elected. Building a new wind farm, a small one, takes two years, and there’s a shortage of gear and qualified people to install and maintain it. You can’t fix that in a decade (see the difference between an accomplishment for the few and a fundamental change for the many, above). It’s so far from happening that it’s difficult even to take the idea seriously. You can’t.

It’ll be all the denialists talk about for the next year, pointing and laughing, and for a change they’ll be right.

Speaking of unhelpful turns of phrase

I’m not going to paint Bono of U2 as an expert, exactly, but he’s a smart guy who pays attention and has done the reading. He must know that jokes like this at the Davos World Economic Forum …

Acknowledging that a career in rock music was not always conducive to a green lifestyle, Bono compared a conversation with Gore to an act of religious contrition.

“It’s like being with an Irish priest. You start to confess your sins,” he said. “Father Al, I am not just a noise polluter, I am a noise-polluting, diesel-soaking, gulfstream-flying rock star.

“I’m going to kick the habit. I’m trying father Al, but oil has been very good for me — those convoys of articulated lorries, petrochemical products, hair gel.”

… don’t help. What he’s obviously trying to do is acknowledge how difficult it is to live the lifestyle he preaches, and that’s reasonably noble, but he’s still playing directly into the hands of people who really want to see environmentalism as cultishly irrational. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is, and Bono should know better.

This’ll be popping up in place of reasonable discussion, here and there, for years.

Al Gore, man on a mission


Photo credit: “Al Gore 0399“, Flickr/World Resources Institute Staff

Some are suggesting former U.S. vice-president Al Gore is about to be announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming, thanks to his having cancelled a California appearance tonight in support of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. She sent an e-mail to attendees saying:

[H]e needs to travel abroad tomorrow for an exciting and urgent mission that could result in a major breakthrough in the fight against global warming… You should know that only the most urgent global warming mission has called him out of the country.

Commenters on the thread I’ve linked to point out that it’s only the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize that’s due tonight, North American time; the actual ceremony isn’t for a couple of months, so there’s no obvious reason Gore would have to rush off abroad for it. Besides, though I hate to say it, the Nobel Peace Prize is a bit of a mess. It’s gone to many worthy recipients, but it’s also been given to Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat and the entire United Nations (to make a point in 2001, when it was becoming apparent that state actors were no longer what most of us needed to worry about, and including the institutions and member states that stopped good people from intervening in Rwanda and are continuing to stop good people from intervening in Darfur, and so on).

Giving Gore the peace prize would say more about the selection committee than about Gore or the cause of stopping global warming. (Update: Wow. The rare double.)

None of which is my point here. My point here is this:

“Global warming mission”?

Not helpful.

Too much inconvenient truth

Inconvenient Truth posterThe National Post reports on an Ontario student who says he’s been subjected to An Inconvenient Truth in four different classes.

“I really don’t understand why they keep showing it,” says McKenzie (his parents asked that his last name not be used). “I’ve spoken to the principal about it, and he said that teachers are instructed to present it as a debate. But every time we’ve seen it, well, one teacher said this is basically a two-sided debate, but this movie really gives you the best idea of what’s going on.”

McKenzie says he has educated himself enough about both sides of the climate-change controversy to know that the Al Gore movie is too one-sided to be taught as fact.

Which is certainly true. An Inconvenient Truth is an essay with an argument to make, not a purely educational film that acknowledges a lot of weaknesses and unknowns. You can make a strong case for showing the film in schools, but not without context, and certainly not four times to the same kid.

Unfortunately, McKenzie’s argument goes a bit downhill from there.

His teachers are not much more discerning [than some of McKenzie’s classmates]. “They don’t know there’s another side to the argument,” he says. McKenzie’s mother was outraged to find out that Mr. Gore’s film was being presented as fact in her son’s classroom. “This is just being poured into kids’ brains instead of letting them know there’s a debate going on,” she says. “An educational system falls down when they start taking one side.”

This is awfully close to proposing that schools “teach the controversy,” the approach that anti-evolutionists propose for “balance” between the theory of evolution and “creation science” in public schools. Indeed, the Post digs up some people a little later on who propose to send copies of The Great Global Warming Swindle (the British documentary that interviews just about every scientist and pseudo-scientist in the world who dissents from the broad principles of climate-change science) to every school in the country, to balance An Inconvenient Truth.

The situation is awkward, and those who agree with the broad strokes of Gore’s film — as I do — do themselves no favours by treating the movie as though it were the gospel truth. It isn’t. It’s a good and important film, but it’s got flaws, and most importantly, it’s not even nominally impartial.

This comes via Treehugger, where a commenter points out a Washington Post story about the U.S. National Science Teachers Association declining 50,000 copies of the film on the grounds that if they accepted, they’d have a hard time turning down similar offers from other interest groups with video tracts to distribute.

Consider, for instance, if such an offer came from the Center for Scientific Creation. What they promote isn’t necessarily 100-per-cent hooey — there are gaps in the scientific understanding of the earth’s geologic and biologic histories, even if you can’t reasonably conclude from them that the theory of evolution is bogus — so why should their work be beyond the pale of public-school education while Gore’s imperfect film isn’t? Where would the line be?

Inconvenient rigour

Inconvenient Truth posterAn Inconvenient Truth is an excellent film, but it’s not an educational movie, per se. It has a very strong point of view and case to make, and not only about climate change — also about what an excellent fellow former vice-president Al Gore is.

Decent (all the Gores are, really, having gotten out of the tobacco business before getting out of tobacco was fashionable), modest (Al schleps his own stuff through the airport, where he stands in line like everyone else), thoughtful (gosh, but doesn’t he have the most extraordinary insights standing by a stream running through the old Gore land in Tennessee), and so on.

So it makes eminent sense to hold off on showing it in schools till it’s been properly vetted for curricular appropriateness, just like anything else. Heather Stilwell, an admittedly goofy school trustee in Surrey, B.C., is insisting that it be — probably for political rather than pedagogical reasons, but she’s right all the same.

An inconvenient argument

Inconvenient Truth posterOld ice reveals information about atmospheric conditions that prevailed when it was formed, and it shows rises in atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels lagging rises in global temperatures. That is, historically, the earth’s temperatures went up first, then CO2 concentrations followed.

For some, this is evidence that the idea of human-induced climate change is a fraud, and their case is strengthened by the fact that the graph everyone remembers from An Inconvenient Truth is the one where Al Gore uses a mechanical lift to show what’s happened to CO2 concentrations since the industrial age began.

Some skeptics use this fact — and it is a fact — to dismiss the whole idea of atmospheric global warming. The syllogism goes like this:

  • Climate-change fearmongers say atmospheric carbon dioxide contributes to climate change
  • Things other than human influence have previously increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
  • Therefore, the science of climate change is bunk.

Blogger “Reasic” has a learned post today explaining why this argument is nonsensical not just on logical principles, but citing specific facts. Scientists haven’t just looked a little cross-eyed at what happened in the past, seen what’s happening now, and sounded the alarm.

The Milankovitch Cycles [changes in the earth’s orbit and physical attitude toward the sun] are known to be the catalyst for sending our planet into and out of ice ages. These cycles are also considered to be too weak to cause the entire amount of warming that occurs between glacial and interglacial periods. It is understood that, once warming starts around Antarctica and CO2 is released, a positive feedback is started – as temperature increases, CO2 increases, which increases temperature again, etc. This continues in increasingly smaller increments until equilibrium is reached.

Nobody respectable is seriously arguing that climate change is due entirely to human activity — of course there are natural cycles and we’re in one now. The concern is that we’ll exaggerate the natural effect by emitting extra gases into the atmosphere, possibly irreversibly (at least until the next ice age comes upon us, which is a matter of millennia, not decades).