Did Al Gore tell a Nobel lie?

By
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Though Al Gore is a darling in Hollywood, it seems he just can’t catch a break in court. First, there was that bitter legal disappointment about hanging chads in Florida. Now a High Court judge in London has ruled that his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” is something less than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

This most recent controversy stemmed from a British government plan to show Gore’s documentary in United Kingdom secondary schools. Some in the British government thought Gore’s film was an apt and scientifically unassailable subject for children. However, Stewart Dimmock, an irate parent and school governor, begged to differ. He considered Gore’s film more political than scientific and filed a lawsuit to prevent it from being shown in the British schools. And he did so based upon a British law that sensibly prevents the government from supporting any partisan political viewpoint in the schools.

The case came before London High Court judge Michael Burton, who was considerably more critical of the film than the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While the latter group awarded the film an Oscar, Burton gave it the judicial equivalent of two thumbs down. According to an Oct. 11 report in the London Times, he ruled that the film was not an objective scientific work but a “political film” with an “apocalyptic vision.”

In fairness, Burton did observe that the film “is based substantially on scientific research and opinion.” However, he still held that Gore’s film is a “political work (that) promotes only one side of the argument.” As a result, Burton ruled that the British government cannot distribute the film without a warning disclosing its factual inaccuracies to students.

Burton identified nine inaccuracies in the film. He concluded, for example, that the film was politically biased and scientifically overreaching to attribute dramatic natural phenomena such as Hurricane Katrina, coral reef bleaching, the reduction of the snow pack on Mt. Kilimanjaro and the drowning of polar bears to global warming. He also rejected as overreaching the film’s claim that global warming will alter the Gulf Stream and thereby cause an ice age in Europe. And based upon scientific consensus of the testimony he received, he found that rising seas caused by global warming will not make millions of coastal residents homeless in the near term, as the film suggests. Indeed, he found this claim “distinctly alarmist,” since the scientific consensus is that it will take a millennia for sea levels to rise the 20 feet the film asserts.

The High Court ruling couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for Gore, since it was issued just one day before he and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking environmental advocacy. To make this controversy even more inopportune, Martin Perry, the co-chair of the IPCC, fundamentally agrees with Burton’s ruling. Thus, in an online Washington Post interview, Perry concedes there are “factual errors” in Gore’s film even as he asserts they “do not affect the main argument.”

While Perry’s point is well-taken, the exaggerations in Gore’s film remain troubling. Some may argue that the public needs to be shaken from its lethargy, even if it means making apparently far-fetched apocalyptic claims about killer hurricanes, new ice ages and rising seas. This argument, of course, is a variant of Plato’s “noble lie” – the contention that political lies sometimes serve just purposes. However, the truth is that no lie is noble, whether it pertains to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or scientifically unsubstantiated examples of global warming. Scientific fact must be divorced from political spin if we are to have honest discussions and make informed decisions about global warming.

Of course, it may not be fair to categorically brand Gore a liar even though a respected judge has found inaccuracies in his film that the co-chair of his Nobel Prize co-recipient has acknowledged. Maybe we should call him a serial exaggerator instead. Lest you think otherwise, don’t forget Gore’s former claim to have invented the Internet. But while some of us good-naturedly poke fun at Gore’s peccadilloes, others in the court of public opinion will be considerably less kind in their reaction. Gore’s exaggerations will regrettably become grist for the opinion mills of those who seek to create skepticism about global warming. Moreover, Gore’s political opponents will seek to capitalize on these mistakes should he enter the presidential race. In fact, one imagines that policy wonks are currently sharpening their political knives at Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters.

However, for now, my thoughts are on the secondary school children in Britain. Gore’s film will be distributed to their schools. But after their teachers issue them the judge’s warnings about the scientific inaccuracies in the film, I fear they that they will remember Gore as an exaggerator, if not a “liar,” long after they forget what should have been the invaluable lessons of his film. Therein lies an inconvenient truth for advocates of all political stripes. If the truth is on your side, let it speak eloquently for itself. Don’t grossly exaggerate it; if you do, people may never completely believe you again.

Lindsey Meyers ’09 fights global warming by avoiding floating polar bears.