I wrote the following review for the Yale Environment web site before the Nobel Prize announcement on October 12, 2007. While there is much to admire about his activism, the Nobel committee has just politicized the debate further by giving the prize to Gore. The IPCC certainly deserves to be recognized and that should have been sufficient:
A Review of "An Inconvenient Truth" (By Al Gore, Rodale Books, 2006), Reviewed by Saleem H. Ali
Al-Gore has admirably reinvented himself as the environmental conscience of public officials. Unlike his earlier book "Earth in the Balance," which read like a regular nonfiction paperback, this publication is more like a coffee-table compendium with glossy pages and illustrations elucidating the impact of global warming. Each chapter is punctuated with a personal interlude that ties momentous events in Gore's life to concerns abut global warming. The book and its accompanying documentary film has been credited by Time magazine as making a definitive change in public perception of global warming, and Gore has been named one of the "people that mattered" in 2006
Fear of climate change is emblazoned through every page of this book and some of the analogies with World War II are hyperbolic and trite. The title of the book itself is claimed by Gore to be reminiscent of European denial of Hitler's influence which later was realized to be an "inconvenient truth" – but then it was proverbially "too late." Quotation's from Churchill in 24-point font also remind us of the peril of the hour.
While there is little doubt that climate change is occurring, the impact of this change and our range of responses is not presented with as much care and nuance as the topic deserves. For example a notable article by Oreskes (2004) in Science magazine is cited by Gore to suggest that there is a trifling minority of scientists who differed from the view that anthropogenic greenhouse gases were drivers of climate. However, as a major skeptic of climate, Gerhard (2006) later pointed out, the article had ignored a petition by 17,000 signatories under the auspices of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine that challenges the orthodoxy. What is perhaps disturbing is also that any dissent is immediately dismissed as being motivated by greed and corporate interests similar to the tobacco research. However, there is tremendous qualitative difference between climate science and the linear impact of tobacco products on human health. Comparing epidemiological studies of tobacco usage to climate change models is utterly asymmetric and a misplaced analogy. Instead, it would have been much better of Gore had made the argument on its own merits and also tied in the clear issue non-renewability of fossil fuels as a good enough reason to change our behavior.
Critics of climate change such as MIT Professor Richard Lindzen have also argued that the peer review process has itself been corrupted by the preponderance of views about climate change. In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal Lindzen (2006) describes several instances where skeptics of climate change were chastised for their views. He also tries to show how any opponents of the dominant orthodoxy about global warming are "libelously" discredited and dismissed as "stooges of the fossil fuel industry."
Even the relatively liberal Boston Globe appeared to support Lindzen as he tries to clear his name from a lawsuit filed by environmentalists incriminating scientists with connections to the fossil-fuel sector. The article affirms that he has never communicated with the auto companies involved in the lawsuit and only received a total of $10,000 from any fossil fuel sector for his research in the early nineties. The Globe columnist Alex Beam (2006) ended a recent article on this matter with the following: "Of course Lindzen isn't a fake scientist, he's an inconvenient scientist. No wonder you're not supposed to listen to him."
Attempts have been made to connect climate change to more palpable examples of human suffering in the domain of civil conflict or the proliferation of diseases. However, these issues have been addressed with some measure of caution by professional associations in the health sciences. For example, The Royal Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene stated in its proceedings that "both conflict and climate change may produce serious negative health consequences. However, there is insufficient evidence that climate change, e.g. through environmental degradation or freshwater shortages, leads to conflict as is often claimed. Also, current theory on conflict would refute this hypothesis" (Sondorp and Patel 2003).
Thus climate change continues to be a pervasive source of dissent and discord within the scientific community as well as among policy-makers. However, such dissent should not be an excuse for inaction, specially in these heady days of preventative warfare. Comparative security analysts might also argue that since the United States is willing to incur over $500 billion dollars in preventative wars in the Middle East over a five-year timeframe, some measure of serious consideration to preventative strategies on climate change is also in order. Towards this larger goal of prioritizing policy, Al Gore must be commended for drawing our attention to issues of global salience beyond our all-consuming fear of terrorism.
Beam, A. 2006. MIT's inconvenient scientist. The Boston Globe, August 30.
Gerhard, L.C. 2006. Climate Change: Conflict of observational science, theory, and politics: Reply. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin. Mar. 90(3): 409-412.
Lindzen, R. 2006. Climate of Fear. The Wall Street Journal, April 12.
Oreskes, N. 2004. The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science, 305, December 3.
Sondorp, E. and P. Patel. 2003. Climate change, conflict and health. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Mar-Apr. 97(2): 139-140.