Preparing for Al Gore’s Lecture at Rice University

By Andy May

I have a ticket to Al Gore’s global warming lecture at Rice University on October 23 and plan to attend, I’m very curious about what he will say. The announcement says he will take questions, so I’ve scoured his web site to get ideas for a question should I have the opportunity.

His scientific credentials are thin, The Washington Times, after viewing Al Gore’s Harvard Transcript as released by the Washington Post, concluded that Al Gore was a slow learner in college, especially in science. Notably, he received a D and C- in his natural science college courses and avoided all math and logic courses. So, it would seem he is poorly prepared to lecture us on climate science, the questions will have to be simple, we cannot get into the weeds.

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From the NOAA World Glacier Inventory.

Al Gore’s web site states that he founded “The Climate Reality Project” in 2005. This is a non-profit organization “devoted to solving the climate crisis.” So, what is the “climate crisis” according to Al Gore? They have many slick e-books that you can download from their web site, including “The 12 Questions” and “Climate 101,” these documents give the following reasons.

What is the climate crisis?

  1. Global temperatures are rising.
  2. More frequent and more devastating storms, floods, droughts, etc.
  3. Glaciers melting at a “record” pace.
  4. Rising sea level.

What is the cause of climate change?

Al Gore believes it is primarily man-made carbon dioxide due to burning fossil fuels, although methane emissions and deforestation play a role. He offers no evidence that this is the case other than “Scientists are crystal clear about the relationship between carbon pollution and climate change.”

Potential question:

Mr. Gore, current carbon dioxide levels are 0.04% of the atmosphere, if we double the amount, to 0.08%. How can such a small change in atmospheric composition have such a dramatic effect, given that 99.9% of the thermal energy on the surface of the Earth is in the oceans?

These ideas are asserted in his documents and no evidence is presented. Instead, he claims oil and gas companies and their minions are “attacking” the science of climate. This is as if science were a thing that can be attacked, rather than a process and a method of learning. A critical part of science is actively trying to disprove any proposed idea or theory, regardless of its popularity. Thus, “attacks,” if we may use this word, are an essential part of the scientific method. It is this extremely unscientific idea that climate change is an unassailable, pristine and perfect law of nature, that rankles me, as a scientist, the most.

But, then, Al Gore is not a scientist, either by training, experience, or education. When Al Gore went to college, climate was studied by geologists and meteorologists, it was a sleepy field in those days. I have always suspected that the field “Climate Science” was invented to exclude geologists and meteorologists from it, since they were the only scientists who knew anything about it.

How certain are scientists that climate change is man-made and dangerous?

The evidence (the links are Al Gore’s links)?

  1. “Over 97 percent of climate scientists …”
  2. “18 different major scientific associations wrote …”
  3. Climate scientists have estimated the planet has previously taken around 5,000 years to recover – by warming between 4-7 degrees Celsius – after an ice age has ended.”
  4. “In the twentieth century alone, the average surface temperature increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius – a rate eight times faster than a typical post-ice-age-recovery. And this cycle is rapidly accelerating.”

The first two are “appeals to authority” and easily dismissed. The reference for the first is Cook, et al. (2013). Refutations of the 97% consensus myth are numerous and conclusive, we won’t spend time on these statements other than to recommend the interested reader read Legates, et al., 2013, Legates et al.(2), 2013 and the WSJ article by Bast and Spencer here. Legates, et al.(2) make the following point that is important here:

“Science education must be such that students can, in fact, argue successfully why they believe what they believe. Understanding what is not known and why must be an essential component of that education. Simple recitation of facts coupled with the demonization of any position or person who disagrees with a singularly-derived conclusion does not develop critical thinking and has no place in education. Students cannot learn the scientific method or critical thinking, nor will they benefit until they have learned to examine all scientific evidence without fear or prejudice.”

Item #3 is more scientific and can be checked. We should also point out that technically we are still in an ice age, in item 3 I think they are referring to the last glacial maximum (or “glacial”) within the current ice age. Figure 1 is a temperature reconstruction (see here for more details) that relies mostly on marine temperature proxies, thus it reflects shallow global ocean temperature changes. 99.9% of the Earth’s surface thermal energy is in the oceans and less than 0.1% is in the atmosphere so ocean temperatures are a good way to track long-range global temperature changes. The Earth has been in its fourth major ice age, since the dawn of complex life 600 million years ago, for the past 2.6 million years (see figure 7 here and the discussion). Our current cold period is named the Quaternary. During the Quaternary there have been many periods of glacial advances and retreats, the most recent glacial advance ended about 11,700 years ago when we entered the current interglacial warm period, the “Holocene.”

Figure 1 starts on the left-hand side at the beginning of the Holocene with a temperature anomaly of -1.5°C and reaches a peak of +0.5°C about 1,700 years later. This increase of 2°C occurs near the middle of the warm Holocene Thermal Optimum (HCO). After the 5.9 kyr event (3,900 BC) temperatures begin a long decline. This change from the warm HCO to the Neoglacial decline is called the Mid-Holocene transition (MDT). The coldest point, since the beginning of the Holocene, is reached in the Little Ice Age (LIA) about 400 years ago. Besides noting the major periods in the Holocene, we’ve also labeled the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), the Roman Warm Period (RWP), the end of Bronze Age cold period, the 4.2 Kyr cold period, the 5.9 kyr cold period (at the MDT, when the Sahara began to become a desert), the 8.2 kyr event (a time of great human migration), and the 10.3 kyr event (this is Javier’s B-5 event). Thus, the Earth recovered from the most recent glacial advance in about 1,700 years by warming about 2°C. The warming is somewhat jerky, and there are periods where the average temperature rises or falls 0.5°C or more in less than 100 years.

Figure 1 (Data source here)

Figure 2 shows the Northern Hemisphere reconstruction, using mostly marine temperature proxies, and Vinther et al.’s Greenland reconstruction using airborne ice-core proxies. The Northern Hemisphere temperatures increase more slowly than the world temperatures due to the effect of melting glaciers. It takes the same amount of thermal energy to melt ice (80 calories for 1g) as it does to raise the temperature of liquid water 80°C (80 calories for 1g, see figure 4 here). In the Northern Hemisphere it takes about 5,000 years to reach the highest Holocene Thermal Optimum temperature anomaly of 1.5°C, from a glacial period low of less than -3°C. Either the Northern Hemisphere reconstruction or the Greenland (Vinther et al., 2009, Nature) reconstruction were probably what Gore’s web site was referring to, although they explicitly say “the planet.” The global average temperature change was less, but it was more rapid, since the Southern Hemisphere is mostly ocean and ocean ice melts faster than land-based ice. Figure 2 also shows a decline of 4°C from the peak temperatures of the Holocene Thermal Optimum to the low point seen 400 years ago during the Little Ice Age. Even today, we have not fully recovered from the bitter cold of that period when the Thames River and New York Harbor froze (1779) and fur coats were needed in Cairo. These critical facts are not mentioned on Gore’s web site.

Figure 2 (Source here)

As for Gore’s fourth point, the 0.8°C can be seen in both figure 1 and figure 2, but if the whole record of the Holocene is considered, it is not unusual, many similar temperature increases are seen in the records. As for the claimed recent acceleration in temperatures, it is not apparent in the satellite record shown in figure 3.

Figure 3, source: Dr. John Christy’s testimony to the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology committee, 29 March 2017.

In figure 3 satellite tropospheric temperatures are compared to independent weather balloon tropospheric temperature measurements. In addition, Dr. Christy shows the major world weather center “reanalysis” composite temperatures for the troposphere as purple diamonds. This latter estimate combines many sources of air temperature, including satellite and weather balloon data. We can see that temperatures increase from the early 1980’s to 2003 by about 0.35°C and then flatten out for the next 13 years. They do tic up a bit in 2014-1016 due to the recent El Nino, but there is no other sign of any “acceleration.” Dr. Christy also compares these observations with the Climate Models, which are used to predict the climate effects of human carbon dioxide and methane emissions, and other human activities. As we can easily see, the models consistently over-estimate temperatures.

Potential questions:

Mr. Gore, Dr. Christy has shown that the climate models used today predict higher temperatures than have been observed. Is this because they overestimate man’s effect on global temperatures?

Mr. Gore, The IPCC computed the human component of global warming by comparing climate model predictions of natural climate to predictions of climate that included natural plus human activities. If climate models cannot successfully predict global temperatures, how can this calculation, of human influence, be accurate?

Mr. Gore, The IPCC computed the human component of global warming by comparing climate model predictions of natural climate to predictions of climate that included natural plus human activities. This is obliquely referenced in “12 Questions,” and then you state “it’s clear that man-made carbon dioxide pollution is overwhelming responsible for the global warming we’re experiencing now.” Are there any direct measurements of the human impact on the Earth’s climate aside from simple suggestions that it might exist, like laboratory measurements?

The web site’s ebook “Climate 101” has a chapter discussing how we know we are causing global warming. Here we address that section.

Mr. Gore, your web site has a graphic (from Skeptical Science) entitled “How we know we’re causing global warming.” Yet, all the evidence presented on the graphic is simply proof that either the planet is warming or that fossil fuel carbon dioxide is increasing. None of the evidence suggests these two are linked. How do you link the two? Why couldn’t the warming since the very cold Little Ice Age simply be a natural recovery from an extended cold spell?

Mr. Gore, your web site states that “Fifteen of the 16 hottest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century.” At most the record only goes back to 1880, at the end of the Little Ice Age, the coldest period since the beginning of the Holocene, so even if this assertion is true, why is this significant?

Mr. Gore, your web site states that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have shrunk. Yet, NASA has reported that Antarctic sea ice reached a new maximum extent in both 2012 and 2014. They have also reported, in 2015, that the total ice volume in Antarctica is increasing. In “12 questions” you argue that land ice and sea ice are different, yet NASA says both are increasing in Antarctica. Do you want to comment on this?

Mr. Gore, your web site states that sea level rise is accelerating. No evidence is given to support that assertion, is there any evidence that the normal rate of sea level rise observed as we come out of the Little Ice Age is increasing? Global sea level data does not appear to show an increasing trend.

Mr. Gore, your web site states that ocean temperatures have increased 0.3°. No reference for this number is given. Yet the JAMSTEC Argo and Triton data for 2000-2014 only show an increase of 0.07°C for the ocean to its average depth of 3,688 meters, assuming the temperature at 3688 meters is zero. The actual measurements are to 2,000 meters and the temperature for the upper 2,000 meters of the ocean has only increased 0.13°C. Were you referring to the whole ocean, or only the upper ocean? Are the units Fahrenheit?

The web site’s ebooks “Climate 101” and “12 questions” discuss why we should care about global warming.

Mr. Gore, your web site states that “… we’re already starting to see what a warmer world has in store for us. Intense rainstorms, severe droughts, and heat waves are becoming more frequent. Rising seas are damaging homes near the water. Some populations of animals are starting to die out. And that’s just 0.8 degrees!” Yet, Roger Pielke Jr. stated before the House Science committee on 29 March 2017 that

There is little scientific basis in support of claims that extreme weather events – specifically, hurricanes, floods, drought, tornadoes – and their economic damage have increased in recent decades due to the emission of greenhouse gases. In fact, since 2013 the world and the United States have had a remarkable stretch of good fortune with respect to extreme weather, as compared to the past.”

He has also written more here. Do you wish to explain the difference in these statements? The IPCC also see no correlation between extreme weather and climate change.

Mr. Gore, your web site states that “flooding … [is] swallowing entire islands. The link is broken, can you identify the islands that are being swallowed? Many recent claims of “sinking islands” have later been proven false.

Mr. Gore, your website states that human’s release 100 times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes. If true, why is this not a good thing? The only measured effect of additional carbon dioxide on the Earth is the addition of global vegetated area on the Earth according to Zhu, et al., 2016 in Nature Climate Change. NASA reports that that the “greening represents an increase in leaves on plants and trees equivalent in area to two times the continental United States.” How is significant greening of the planet a bad thing?

Conclusions

There are many more misleading, or simply false statements on the web site, but these were the ones that stood out. I avoided the “economics of climate change” statements since that always devolves to arguing whose “fantasy” numbers are correct. Economic predictions are shaky enough without adding shaky climate predictions to the mix, let’s not move one more dimension from reality.

Al Gore is not a scientist, but due to his popularity we must pay attention to him and address his assertions. If I get a chance to ask a question after his presentation, I would like it to be easily understandable and get to the root of the speculation that human activities dominate climate change. Help in choosing a question or suggestions of new questions are welcome.