Fox & Friends on Al Gore and the Nobel Prize

17 October 2007

For years now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has gathered the world's top atmospheric and climate scientists together to study the causes and impacts of climate change. Every few years, this group of scientists compiles a comprehensive written report detailing current scientific thought on the topic, as well as the effects and different mitigation strategies. They even provide helpful summaries of these reports in plain language for policy makers.

During his tenure in the Senate, his two terms as Vice President, and now as a citizen, Al Gore has consistently worked to establish and ratify international treaties dealing with this same issue. As of June 2007, a total of 172 countries and other governmental entities have ratified such an agreement (representing over 61.6% of emissions from Annex I countries). As I'm sure you're all aware, he even made a very successful documentary film on the topic.

This past Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the IPCC and Al Gore for having "done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations". The media's coverage was predictably awful. They pretty much all framed this story in one of three ways: (1) Will Al Gore run for President now?, (2) Al Gore is the anti-Bush, and this prize is a symbol of the world's dissatisfaction with the current President, or (3) Al Gore is a liar.

I'll try to write something about each of these (although I've been very busy lately), but #3 is obviously the most troublesome. Of course, all the usual characters came out. But I'd like to focus on one segment from Fox & Friends that really epitomizes the shallow, dishonest commentary that followed this story.

Right off the bat, FOX host Steve Doocy frames the story by linking Al Gore to Yasser Arafat (the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their peace negotiations that year). Of course, it could have been worse. Doocy could have started by comparing Al Gore to Osama Bin Laden (which is precisely what The National Review did).

Then Doocy mentions the $1 million prize. He doesn't say where this fits in to his story, but it seems that he just wants to solidify this story as being about personal gains for Al Gore. No mention of the fact that Gore is donating 100% of that prize to the Alliance for Climate Protection.

Next, FOX & Friends mentions that another Peace prize winner was "anti-Bush." No explanation as to why this is significant, but the implication is that somehow this means that the Nobel Committee was simply motivated by "anti-Bush" sentiments. Also, subtly embedded in this comment is the suggestion that awarding Al Gore is somehow anti-American. This was the point that particularly bothered me.

Doocy then piles on to criticize An Inconvenient Truth, which he simply calls "not so true." Rather than citing any scientists or scientific organizations that take such a position (hint: they're very scarce), Doocy instead cites a judge from Britain. This is a very popular meme right now.

The blonde chick explains that the judge found "eleven falsehoods" (the judge she's referring to actually only found nine "errors" - and yes, the judge put scare quotes around the word "errors" throughout his opinion to underscore the triviality of the "errors"). Nobody on the show mentions that the same judge also said that "Al Gore's presentation of the causes and likely effects of climate change in the film was broadly accurate."

Next, FOX & Friends tells the audience that some group wants to strip Al Gore of his Oscar. That group is actually just a conservative think tank in New Zealand.

Finally, FOX & Friends begins to list some of the nine "errors." According to them, Gore lied about sea level rises, the Gulf Stream, Lake Chad, and Polar Bears. But here is what the climate scientists Gavin Schmidt (NASA) and Michael Mann (ESSI) have to say about each of those:

Ice-sheet driven sea level rise Gore correctly asserted that melting of Greenland or the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea levels 20ft (6 meters). In the movie, no timescale for that was specified, but lest you think that the 20 ft number is simply plucked out of thin air, you should note that this is about how much higher sea level was around 125,000 years ago during the last inter-glacial period. Then, global temperatures were only a degree or two warmer than today - and given that this is close to the minimum temperature rise we can expect in the future, that 20 ft is particularly relevant. The rate at which this is likely to happen is however highly uncertain as we have discussed previously.
Climate impacts on the ocean conveyor The movie references the Younger Dryas event that occurred 11,000 years ago when, it is thought, a large discharge of fresh water into the North Atlantic disrupted the currents, causing significant regional cooling. That exact scenario can't happen again, but similar processes are likely to occur. The primary unresolved scientific issue regards how quickly the circulation is likely to change as we move forward. The model simulations in the latest IPCC report show a slowdown in the circulation - by about 30% by 2100 - but there is much we don't understand about modeling that circulation and future inputs of freshwater from the ice sheets, so few are willing to completely rule out the possibility of a more substantial change in the future. Further discussion on what this really means and doesn't mean is available here and here.
Drying up of Lake Chad It is undisputed that Lake Chad has indeed shrunk rapidly in recent decades. While irrigation and upstream water use are probably contributing factors, the dominant cause is the reduction of rainfall across the entire Sahel from the 1950s to the 1980s and with rainfall today still substantially below the high point 50 years ago. There is substantial evidence that at least a portion of this drying out is human-caused. A few recent papers (Held et al, PNAS; Chung and Ramanathan and Biasutti and Giannini) have addressed causes ranging from Indian Ocean changes in sea surface temperature to the increase in atmospheric aerosols in the Northern hemisphere. Gore uses this example to illustrate that there are droughts in some regions even while other areas are flooding. Unfortunately this is exactly what the models suggest will happen.
Impact of sea ice retreat on Polar bears As we presaged in August, summer Arctic sea ice shattered all records this year for the minimum extent. This was partially related to wind patterns favorable to ice export in the spring, but the long term trends are almost certainly related to the ongoing and dramatic warming in the Arctic. Polar bears do indeed depend on the sea ice to hunt for seals in the spring and summer, and so a disappearance of this ice is likely to impact them severely. The specific anecdote referred to in the movie came from observations of anomalous drownings of bears in 2004 and so was accurate. However, studying the regional populations of polar bears is not easy and assessing their prospects is tough. In the best observed populations such as in western Hudson Bay (Stirling and Parkinson, 2006), female polar bear weight is going down as the sea ice retreats over the last 25 years, and the FWS is considering an endangered species listing. However, it should be stated that in most of the discussions about polar bears, they are used as a representative species. Arctic ecosystems are changing on many different levels, but it is unsurprising that charismatic mega-fauna get more press than bivalves. In the end, it may be the smaller and less photogenic elements that have the biggest impact.

They may have taken it a bit easy on AIT when it comes to the refugees, though. More on the UK judge's ruling here and here.

I'm not saying that this movie is above criticism. It certainly isn't (particularly with regard to Tuvalu). However, to cover this Nobel Prize by simply rattling off nine "errors," and to simply call them "factual inaccuracies" is highly misleading and intentionally distracting from the main issue.

All in all, the people at FOX News have done what they always do when the issue of climate change comes up: (1) turn it into an issue about Al Gore, (2) act as if Al Gore is a total liar, (3) completely ignore the scientific community at large (they never once mention the collective thousands of scientists who shared in this award), (4) make some hit-and-run climate contrarian points, (5) act as if recognizing climate change is "anti-American," and (6) make a sweeping conclusion that "nobody knows" whether climate change is driven by anthropogenic gases.

UPDATE: Bonus FOX News coverage.

Again, they keep on turning to the UK judge, the New Zealand conservative think tank, and now a retired Geography professor to make their points. Maybe they should talk to some climate scientists before doing a news report on climate science.

UPDATE II: Bonus FOX News coverage.

Again, in a panel with Brit Hume, William Kristol, and Charles Krauthammer, FOX News argues that (1) Al Gore has joined the ranks of Yasser Arafat, and (2) the Nobel Prize must have an anti-Bush or anti-American agenda.

Juan Williams is also guilty of simply going the route of predictable talking-point narrative #2 (see above). Why are television round-table discussions so horrible?

UPDATE III: On yet another FOX News segment, they argue that (1) Al Gore has joined the ranks of Yasser Arafat, and (2) the Nobel Committee has some sort of Socialist, anti-American agenda. This time, they add the idea that General Petraeus should have won the award instead.

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