Scientists divided over Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”

Writing in the latest issue of GeoJournal, a number of climate change experts have expressed their opinions on former next president of the United States Al Gore‘s controversial documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth.

All are said to agree that the film does a good job in raising public awareness of global warming. They also agree that the main weakness of the documentary is that it relies on individual extreme events – including Hurricane Katrina – to make its case.

But there the consensus ends. Some of the scientists featured insist that factual errors in the film are minor, and that these do not undermine the message. That said, the exclusive focus on recent observational evidence is said to increase the film’s emotional impact while weakening the scientific argument. Eric Steig of Washington University and John Nielsen-Gammon from Texas A&M University fall into this camp.

Others are more robust in their criticism of Gore. David Legates from the University of Delaware concludes that there are significant errors in the film. These give a misleading impression of the current state of climate change, and imply that the science is settled. Roy Spencer from the University of Alabama in Huntsville also discredits the science in the Oscar-winning documentary, saying that the film ignores natural causes of climate variability.

Gerald North of Texas A&M is of the opinion that the film represents mainstream scientific views on global warming. And Steven Quiring, also from Texas A&M, notes that An Inconvenient Truth has had a much greater impact on public opinion and awareness of global climate change than any scientific paper or report.

Please note that I have not yet read these articles in full as I do not have a subscription to the academic journal in which they are published, and must make a special request as a journalist. I can therefore address no more than the points raised in the précis that was sent to me yesterday.

Some scientists are, it appears to me, reluctant to be strongly critical of Gore lest this come across as displaying a lack of unity in the face of continued climate change denial from certain political and industrial lobbies. This is regrettable, and it will damage the credibility of science as we learn more about climate change and settle the unanswered questions. Even if these are all resolved in favour of the overwhelming majority of scientists who are convinced that global warming is due largely to human influence.

It also displays a failure in science public outreach that we rely on celebrity figures such as Al Gore to put forward the case. And in this respect Steven Quiring’s comments are particularly telling. Of course a glossy documentary film will have much greater impact than a peer-reviewed journal paper or technical report to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Scientists of whatever kind have a responsibility to communicate directly with the public. If they do not, and the message is misrepresented by politicians and media pundits, then the experts have only themselves to blame, and in the end we all suffer.

See also here and here.