Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Politics of Attacking Al Gore

ABC News
The Politics of Attacking Al Gore
Column: Gore Goes to Washington to Speak on Warming; Capitol Quibbles While Ice Sheets Melt
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Al Gore has taken some heat lately for spreading the word about global warming.

First there were the allegations by a conservative group, the day after Gore collected an Oscar for his movie "An Inconvenient Truth," that his Nashville mansion consumes more than 20 times as much electricity as the average American household. Then there were charges that zinc mining on Tennessee property owned by Gore tarnished his environmentalist credentials.

By the time he arrived on Capitol Hill this past week to testify about his signature issue, the barbs Gore's congressional adversaries hurled at him sounded relatively benign.

"It seems that everything is blamed on global warming," Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma complained. "How come you guys never seem to notice when it gets cold?"

He then confronted Gore with the number of record cold temperatures measured at U.S. weather stations during the month of January. (This would be the same January that was part of the warmest Northern Hemisphere winter on record.)

"We need to be deliberative and careful when we talk about so-called scientific facts," Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas lectured, before enumerating a list of things he believed Gore got wrong in the award-winning documentary.

One of the problems Gore, environmentalists and the scientific community have in conveying the seriousness of global warming is that its most severe effects to date have been felt in the polar regions, far from the places where most politicians and their constituents live.

As Gore mentioned on Capitol Hill, in just the last few months a number of scientific studies have documented alarming environmental changes at both poles. The sea ice layer on the Arctic Ocean has shrunk so dramatically that scientists expect it to disappear completely during the summer months by mid-century. Scientists have seen glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica suddenly accelerate, increasing the rate at which they dump icebergs into the sea and contributing to the rise of the world's seas.

As part of an effort to draw attention to the poles, on March 1 the world's scientific community kicked off the International Polar Year, an intensive research effort and public awareness campaign focused on the Arctic and Antarctic.

"We're seeing the poles change faster than we had anticipated, than we as scientists could have imagined," said Robin Bell, a Columbia University geophysicist who chaired the U.S. national committee for the International Polar Year.

A few years ago scientists felt pretty confident that if anything, the polar ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica would grow due to global warming. Their calculations indicated that any melting would be more than offset by a warming-induced increase in snowfall over the South Pole.

Minds started changing in February 2002, when scientists watched in amazement as a Rhode Island-sized chunk of floating ice on Antarctica's coast disintegrated into icebergs and simply drifted away. Around the same time they noticed that Greenland's already growing output of ice into the North Atlantic had increased dramatically, doubling over the decade that ended in 2005.

"We were much more optimistic about the ice sheets a few years ago than we are now," said Penn State glaciologist Richard B. Alley.

Research is starting to help scientists understand what's going on with surging glaciers. One recent study used images from a NASA satellite to track gigantic sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica as they filled with water and then drained. The pools of liquid water presumably act as lubrication between the ice and the land underneath, making the glaciers above them flow much more quickly than they otherwise would. But exactly how remains a mystery.

"We can't predict what this ice stream is going to do based on these measurements, but this is a major step in that direction," said Robert Bindschadler, a NASA scientist who worked on the project.

In "An Inconvenient Truth," Gore dramatically illustrated what the cities of Miami, Calcutta, Shanghai, Beijing and New York might look like in 2100 if the Greenland ice sheet were to melt, raising sea level by 20 feet.

He capped that section of his presentation with a chilling thought: "Think of the impact of a couple hundred thousand refugees," Gore says in the film, conjuring images of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "And then imagine 100 million."

Gore's political adversaries have criticized him for evoking such a catastrophic future.

"Nearly every significant statement that Vice President Gore makes regarding climate science and climate policy is either one-sided, misleading, exaggerated, speculative or wrong," said Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who holds degrees in government and political science.

Lewis contends that there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that melting glaciers could raise sea levels by 20 feet during our lives or those of our children.

That's true, strictly speaking. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently projected a sea-level rise of between 7 and 23 inches by 2100 a far cry from 20 feet. But those projections explicitly omit any consideration of melting in Antarctica and Greenland, citing the lack of reliable scientific knowledge on the topic.

Yes, it's true: There are some things about global warming that scientists don't understand. But Alley, who has a doctoral degree is in geology, was willing to offer some educated speculation.

"I don't think anyone has come up with anything that would allow you to lose a whole ice sheet in decades," he said.

But, he added, global temperatures could easily be warm enough by 2100 to make the collapse of one or both ice caps an inevitability at some point after that.

So while its true that our children needn't worry about catastrophic sea level rise, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren may not be so lucky.