FOX News on Al Gore - Part II

19 October 2007

FOX News contributor and non-scientist Steven Milloy (who does not have a PhD in anything whatsoever, nor does he consult with - or cite - anybody with any relevant expertise) has a new column in which he argues that "25 percent of 'An Inconvenient Truth' is not true," and that moviegoers should be offered a full refund. His analysis is predictably awful.

First off, I thought this bit was particularly amusing:

Gore attempts to smear his critics by likening them to the tobacco industry.
That's an odd protest coming from Steven Milloy, who received $180,000 in 2000 and 2001 for his work as a consultant for Philip Morris (he also has many other ties to the tobacco industry).

Anyway, Milloy starts off by using a British judge as his sole scientific source, rather than any kind of climate scientist. As a preliminary matter, it should be pointed out that this same judge said that the movie was broadly accurate, particularly relating to its portrayal of anthropogenic greenhouse gases as the main driver of global warming (he even uses the IPCC report as his scientific source). The judge only went into minor factual points, even going so far as to put the word "errors" in scare quotes (lest someone like Milloy mistake what he was saying). But according to Milloy, there would be nothing left of An Inconvenient Truth if this judge's alleged "errors" (Milloy doesn't use scare quotes even though the judge in question did) were stripped away from the film. So let's take a look at what Milloy has to say.

Gore then links Hurricane Katrina with global warming. But the judge ruled that was erroneous, so the Katrina scenes would wind up on the cutting-room floor.

You can read what Gore actually said here. Basically, Gore mentions how warmer waters can lead to increased hurricane intensity (a claim well corroborated by many respected atmospheric and climate scientists). He then names a few, including Katrina, to illustrate the destruction involved.

There is a serious debate going on in the scientific community right now on the topic of hurricane intensity and global warming. Kerry Emanuel and others say that yes, hurricanes and tropical storms will gain more net energy (and thus become more destructive) as the earth gets warmer (thus supplying that energy to the hurricane's heat engine). This is borne out by the close correlation between temperature increase and hurricane intensity increase, as well as basic thermodynamics.

Atmospheric science professor William Gray (an old man fond of comparing Gore to Hitler - "Gore believed in global warming almost as much as Hitler believed there was something wrong with the Jews") and others disagree, saying that our recent surge in hurricane intensity is simply due to a decadal cycle.

The bottom line is that this point is unresolved (see Storm World). This was certainly not an error, or even an "error," in Gore's movie, since he has significant scientific support for his contentions. The only way you could attack this is if you think Gore should have sidetracked the discussion to go into the subtleties of the Emanuel/Gray debates. Simply put: Milloy is the one misleading here.

Milloy goes on:
...about the 16:30 minute mark, when, according to the judge, Al Gore erroneously links receding glaciers — specifically Mt. Kilimanjaro — with global warming.
No, what the judge said was that Kilimanjaro specifically cannot be attributed to global warming. This is very very different from how Milloy (a tricky lobbyist) presents the issue. Milloy says that the judge called Gore out on linking any receding glaciers (which includes Kilimanjaro) to global warming. In fact, the way that Milloy presents the issue is downright wrong. The world's glaciers are in fact retreating because (surprise!) the earth is undeniably getting warmer. Kilimanjaro, however, was not a great example of this claim, due to the other contributing factors to its retreat (see Tropical Glacier Retreat).

Milloy goes on:
As the judge ruled that the Antarctic ice core data presented in the film "do not establish what Mr. Gore asserts," this inconvenient untruth also needs to go.
This is a case of the judge simply being wrong. This is also precisely why Milloy was wrong in relying on a British judge as his scientific authority. What Gore actually said was this:
The relationship is very complicated. But there is one relationship that is more powerful than all the others and it is this. When there is more carbon dioxide, the temperature gets warmer, because it traps more heat from the sun inside
That is precisely, 100% right (see The Lag Between Temperature and CO2).

Gore spends about 35 seconds on how the drying of Lake Chad is due to global warming. The judge ruled that this claim wasn’t supported by the scientific evidence.
Nope. According to Gavin Schmidt of NASA:
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.
...a 30-second clip about how global warming is causing polar bears to drown because they have to swim greater distances to find sea ice on which to rest. The judge ruled however, that the polar bears in question had actually drowned because of a particularly violent storm.
It appears that, yes, the polar bears here drowned because of a storm. This is the story that sparked the film's anecdote:

"We know short swims up to 15 miles are no problem, and we know that one or two may have swum up to 100 miles. But that is the extent of their ability, and if they are trying to make such a long swim and they encounter rough seas they could get into trouble," said Steven Amstrup, a research wildlife biologist with the USGS.

The new study, carried out in part of the Beaufort Sea, shows that between 1986 and 2005 just 4% of the bears spotted off the north coast of Alaska were swimming in open waters. Not a single drowning had been documented in the area.

However, last September, when the ice cap had retreated a record 160 miles north of Alaska, 51 bears were spotted, of which 20% were seen in the open sea, swimming as far as 60 miles off shore.

The researchers returned to the vicinity a few days later after a fierce storm and found four dead bears floating in the water. "We estimate that of the order of 40 bears may have been swimming and that many of those probably drowned as a result of rough seas caused by high winds," said the report.

Milloy plods along:
On the heels of that error, Gore launches into a 3-minute "explanation" of how global warming will shut down the Gulf Stream and send Europe into an ice age. The judge ruled that this was an impossibility.
Whoah, there. The judge certainly did not call it "an impossibility." He said that the IPCC called it "unlikely." When the IPCC says that something is "unlikely," though, they mean that there is a 5-10% chance of it happening. Of course, it seems far more likely that the Gulf Stream will simply be slowed down by about 30% by 2100. But there is certainly no error, or even "error," in mentioning the more severe possibilities. Simply put: Milloy is wrong again.

I'm going to skip a bunch of Milloy's "facts" and "journalism" here because it's really tiring. But I just want to point out one more:
Gore also says in the film that 2005 is the hottest year on record. But NASA data actually show that 1934 was the hottest year on record in the U.S. — 2005 is not even in the top 10.
Notice the weasel words added in the second sentence: "in the U.S." When NASA corrected its data earlier this year, it was only in relation to the continental United States. They found a minor error that meant that 1998 (which was previously thought to have been only 0.01ºC warmer than 1934 in the continental United States) was actually 0.02ºC cooler. The global temperature rankings, however, remained unchanged. In sum, Milloy's assertion here is pure, 100% bullshit.

What bothers me about this entire article is that in-and-out hit pieces like these are a dime a dozen in the mainstream news today, while serious science journalism is truly rare.

UPDATE: Bonus FOX News graphic.

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