Al Gore, Climate Science, and the Responsibility for Careful Communication

August 22, 2013 | 5:08 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

UPDATE (Aug. 28, 11:45 a.m.): Ezra Klein has confirmed that there was likely a transcript error. Read more.

UPDATE (Aug. 23, 1:35 p.m.): According to Joe Romm at Climate Progress, the full transcript of Vice President Gore’s remarks was incorrectly transcribed by the Post. Read more.

When I was in fourth grade, I wrote Vice President Al Gore a letter about my passion for saving the planet and I was ecstatic when he wrote back. I believed then, as I do now, that he is a strong voice for issues with an environmental component such as climate change. And, importantly, he has become, to many people, the public face of climate science.

He deserves great praise for these Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning efforts. But unfortunately he recently got it wrong about the science of climate change.

Changes in hurricane intensity or not, climate change has serious impacts on our society now.

Changes in hurricane intensity or not, climate change has serious impacts on our society now.

In an exclusive interview with the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein published yesterday, Gore inaccurately suggested that the hurricane scale will now include a category 6 (current scale is 1 through 5). He said the following:

“The extreme events are more extreme. The hurricane scale used to be 1-5 and now they’re adding a 6. The fingerprint of man-made global warming is all over these storms and extreme weather events.”

As was pointed out earlier today by Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist at the Capital Weather Gang, this is untrue. There are no plans by the National Hurricane Center—the federal office responsible for categorizing storms—to create a new category. Though, it is worth noting that the rest of the interview included accurate and important information and it’s unfortunate that this blip made its way in.

Since writing that letter as a ten-year-old, I’ve earned a degree in atmospheric science and learned to value to the role that science plays in informing public policy. Science—and climate change especially—needs effective communicators in order for us to make policy decisions informed by science. It is resoundingly important that such communicators get the science right. This helps instill trust in the research and allows us to create strong policies based on what the science tell us.

And the science tells us a whole lot. Climate change will have consequences for us, and some of them will be severe. And yes, scientists have more confidence in some of these effects than others. Though there is some evidence that climate change will influence hurricanes, the effect of climate change on hurricane intensity and hurricane frequency is complex and scientists are continuing to study the connection. Hurricanes in the North Atlantic region have been intensifying over the past 40 years but not elsewhere in the world. By contrast, scientists have high confidence that sea level will rise all over the world, and particularly fast in some areas like the East Coast. With this knowledge, we can say with certainty that action is warranted, though the type of action necessary will vary based on how communities want to respond.

Politicians and others can be effective communicators of climate science and guide us toward policy action, but they risk creating confusion and eroding public confidence in science when they make misrepresentative statements. In a similar fashion, just last month several politicians from both sides of the aisle made misrepresentative statements. Some overstated the link between climate change and hurricanes. Others dismissed the whole body of climate science entirely.

We should be clear. Attacking science or scientists – or repudiating all of climate science – erodes trust in and understanding of science far more than occasional overstatements about extreme weather and climate change. Take, for instance, Sen. Jim Inhofe calling for investigating climate scientists simply because he doesn’t like their research results, or consider the pundits and talk show hosts who have accused scientists – without evidence – of simply manufacturing all their climate change data.

Politicians who appreciate science and act as its ambassadors have a special responsibility, especially when it comes to science that has particular bearing on policy making. When they are less familiar with the science, it’s best for them to stick to what we know with confidence.

In a warming world with rising seas, planning for hurricanes will be more challenging. In fact, planning for all coastal storms will be more challenging. And this will be true no matter if hurricanes increase or decrease in intensity and frequency. Even without a “category 6,” the weight of the evidence of concerning climate impacts is overwhelming. And as I know my fourth-grade-self would agree, the time to act is now.

UPDATE: August 23, 1:35 p.m.

According to Joe Romm at Climate Progress, the full transcript of Vice President Gore’s remarks, which was incorrectly transcribed by the Post, was:

“The scientists are now adding category 6 to the hurricane…some are proposing we add category 6 to the hurricane scale that used to be 1-5.”

We hope the Post will update its original article to reflect Gore’s original statement.

It’s also true, as Romm points out, that at least one scientist has gone on the record recently saying there might need to be a new category. And while to our knowledge there have been no official meetings or workshops to discuss a new Category Six, it is probably accurate to say scientists have independently discussed or considered it, though the meaning of “proposed” is open to interpretation.

In any case, I still believe politicians should focus on science that is more certain and more actionable from a policy perspective, such as the obvious rise in sea levels.

It’s also worth noting that there could be other reasons to change how we categorize hurricanes besides an increase in wind speed, namely public safety. Even a sub-category one storm that makes landfall can be incredibly destructive, and this will only be increasingly true with higher sea levels.

I believe it is important to stand up for science—no matter who it criticizes. At the Center for Science and Democracy, we believe this is essential for preserving a debate founded on the facts. Accepting what the science tells us (no matter how inconvenient), correcting mistakes when found (as here), and incorporating new information are all part of the scientific process. This is how we move forward and in this case, I hope we can.

UPDATE: August 28, 11:45 a.m.

Ezra Klein has confirmed that there was likely a transcript error and Gore said that “some are proposing” a new Category 6 as opposed to “they’re adding” one. This revised statement is accurate, though still a bit speculative. I wrote a CNN Op-Ed over the weekend wrapping up the reaction to Gore’s comments and encouraging politicians and advocates to stick to scientific findings with greater certainty, such as the link between climate change and rising seas.


About the author

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Gretchen Goldman is the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. For a decade, Dr. Goldman has led research efforts at the nexus of science and policy on topics including federal scientific integrity, fossil energy production, climate change, and environmental justice. Dr. Goldman has testified before Congress and currently sits on the board of the nonprofit 500 Women Scientists.