Al Gore’s ‘good lies’

When is an error not an error? When it’s in a film designed to raise awareness about climate change and make us change our behaviour.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

Some environmentalists have no shame.

Earlier this year, when Channel 4 showed Martin Durkin’s film The Great Global Warming Swindle, greens had a collective hissy fit. They argued that Durkin’s greens-slating, made-for-TV movie contained scientific errors, and thus it was ‘shockingly irresponsible’ of Channel 4 to show it. There were demands for the film to be cut and censored, and its makers censured; one website started a campaign to have Durkin expelled from TV-land forever (1).

Yet today, some of the very same green-leaning columnists and activists are loudly defending Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, despite revelations that it, too, contains scientific errors. Gore’s mistakes are nothing to worry about, they argue, because his film tells the ‘greater truth’ about climate change – that is, mankind is causing the planet to heat up, and if we don’t keep our greed and avarice in check we’re doomed.

The message of this shrieking double standard is that it’s okay to get your facts wrong so long as it is in service of a Bigger Truth. If you make mistakes while telling the modern morality tale of humanity’s perilous impact on the planet, as Gore did, you are forgiven; but if you make mistakes while criticising the green lobby, as Durkin did, you are ridiculed and threatened with censorship. In short? There are ‘good lies’ and ‘bad lies’. And because Gore is telling ‘good lies’, designed to raise awareness about climate change and encourage people to change their bad behaviour, he deserves our support.

This Orwellian notion that there is a ‘greater truth’ that is superior to factual evidence exposes the censorious impulse behind the politics of environmentalism. Green writers and activists frequently pose as the guardians of scientific accuracy, when in truth their campaigning is driven by a deeply moralistic view of mankind as dangerous and destructive. And like all high priests of morality, they have a highly dysfunctional relationship with ‘the truth’.

Last week, Al Gore hit the headlines around the world after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to combat climate change. Here in Britain, he was on the front pages for another reason, too: a High Court ruling said that his film, An Inconvenient Truth, could only be shown in British schools with guidance notes explaining that parts of it contain ‘alarmism and exaggeration’ (2). The case was brought by Stewart Dimmock, a father and school governor from Dover, England. Dimmock opposes the British government’s plans to distribute a copy of Gore’s film to every secondary school in the land, because the film is ‘sentimental mush’ and will be used to ‘brainwash’ children. The judge said the film can be shown in schools, so long as teachers draw attention to its ‘nine scientific errors’ (3).

The errors include:

  • Gore’s assertion that a sea-level rise of up to 20 feet would be caused by the melting of ice in either West Antarctica or Greenland ‘in the near future’. This was ‘distinctly alarmist’, said the judge, since it is commonly accepted that if Greenland’s ice were to melt to such an extent that it would cause a 20-feet sea rise, it would only happen ‘after, and over, millennia’ rather than in the ‘near future’.
  • Gore’s assertion that the disappearance of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa was a result of global warming. The court heard that it has not been established by any scientist that climate change is the cause of this snow recession.
  • Gore’s claim that a scientific study had found that, for the first time, polar bears were drowning because they had to ‘swim long distances – up to 60 miles – to find ice’. The judge said: ‘The only scientific study that either side before me can find is one which indicates that four polar bears have recently been found drowned because of a storm.’ (4)

How have environmentalists, who leap upon every error or expression of doubt made by climate change sceptics as evidence that they’ve had their palms greased by evil oil corporations, responded to revelations of Gore’s ‘alarmist’ errors? By effectively saying, so what?

Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, was soothingly understanding about Gore’s little mistakes. The important thing, said Lynas, is that Gore’s film tells a bigger truth about climate change, and thus we shouldn’t worry too much about its ‘trivial’ errors: ‘[T]hese points…are trivial details in the context of the main argument of the film, which is unambiguously correct in its portrayal of mainstream scientific understanding of climate change.’ We should lay off Gore, says Lynas, since ‘nothing in science is ever certain’ (5). This is a far cry from Lynas’s denunciation of The Great Global Warming Swindle – Martin Durkin’s ‘campaign of disinformation and misrepresentation…to support his extremist ideological position’. After Durkin’s film was aired, greens treated ‘The Science’ on climate change very much as a certainty, rather than as a process of experimentation, debate and falsification – a certainty which they accused Durkin of sinning against (6).

One climatologist goes so far as to argue that Gore’s errors aren’t really errors. It’s just Gore being, you know, overly keen. ‘It would be fair to say that Al Gore presents the more extreme (concerned) end of the range of scientific opinion on several issues, and implies stronger evidence than is fair on several others. However, the film still achieves an exceptionally high standard of scientific accuracy, and it is regrettable that the judge has triggered a media storm by the injudicious use of the term “errors”.’ (7)

So, when is an error not an error? When it’s committed in the name of raising awareness about climate change, apparently. Gore’s argument that Greenland’s ice will melt and cause a 20-feet sea rise ‘in the near future’ isn’t an error – it is simply an ‘implication of stronger evidence than exists’ and a sign that Gore is at the ‘concerned end of scientific opinion’. Gore’s supporters are using all sorts of Orwellian Newspeak to disguise the fact that he got some things wrong, and made some pretty wild exaggerations about the fate of mankind.

The general response to Gore’s errors has been to say: he may have got some facts wrong (or, in Enviro-speak, he may have made some strong implications about the possibility of certain things being true), but his overall package still represents ‘The Truth’ about climate change. Indeed, the High Court judge himself took this line, arguing in his judgement that the film is ‘broadly accurate’ even though it has ‘distinctly alarmist’ arguments and presents an ‘apocalyptic vision’ of the future of our warming planet (8).

Anyone who is interested in open and rigorous debate should be seriously sceptical about the idea that facts can ever be subservient to a Bigger Truth. Trying to get people to obey your diktats and change their behaviour by scaring them with ‘good lies’ – by using errors and alarmism to drive home a message that is apparently essentially true – would once have been considered the practice of tinpot dictators. Tyrannical governments frequently use ‘good lies’ to keep people in line. Now we have environmentalists justifying a similar approach when it comes to raising people’s awareness of climate change. But an error is not ‘the truth’, whatever Gore’s defenders might say.

They should heed the words of Mark Twain: ‘A good lie will have travelled half way around the world while the truth is putting on her boots.’ Indeed, Gore’s ‘good lies’ about the melting of Greenland’s ice sheets and the danger facing polar bears are now accepted as good coin by the many thousands of people who have seen An Inconvenient Truth, while the inconvenient facts about these issues linger in dusty documents and in a Gore-friendly judgement made by an ageing British judge.

The recent defence of the essential truth of Gore’s film provides a snapshot of environmentalists’ view of debate, democracy and the public. For all their claims that their campaign against climate change is driven by unquestionable scientific facts, they are more than willing to nod through a few errors here and there. Theirs is actually a political and moralistic campaign, based on misanthropic ideas about human activity and on demands for restraint, austerity and the rewiring of people’s expectations and desires. And this campaign uses The Science as a false form of authority. For greens, The Science is less about facts and evidence, much less open debate, than it is about scaring people into accepting the environmentalist agenda. The Science is used both to pressure people to accept the political premises of the green lobby, and also to silence anybody who criticises the green lobby by accusing them of being ‘anti-science’ or ‘deniers’. That is why even errors and exaggerations can become part of The Science, the overall truth, in the world of the environmentalist – because The Science is actually a deeply political category.

Environmentalists have a narrow view indeed of what constitutes ‘the truth’. They treat truth as something which is revealed to the public by scientists in a laboratory, which apparently green activists are allowed to exaggerate every now and then. In short, the truth comes from on high, and we must all abide by it. For spiked, truth is something that is actually best formulated by the public rather than for the public, through robust and honest debate about our needs and desires and how society can best meet them. As John Stuart Mill said, truth can only be established through free and frank public debate, and unless truth is ‘vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice’.

The received truth of environmentalism – that The Science has indicted mankind as a plague on the planet and we must atone for our sins by reducing our carbon emissions and reining in development – is indeed little more than a prejudice. And a hard-hitting democratic debate about environmentalism, where neither Al Gore’s film nor Martin Durkin’s film, whatever their errors, should be censored, might help to expose the poisonous prejudices behind the truth about climate change.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. He is speaking in sessions on Iraq, new technology and politics, and the future of journalism at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27&28 October.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons argued that the anti-development message of Live Earth was nothing to sing and dance about. Frank Furedi cried O Gore, deliver us from evil. Bjørn Lomborg argued, Let’s improve life in the present and the future. Brendan O’Neill saw the roots of the Live Earth Handbook in middle-class guilt. Daniel Ben-Ami reviewed An Inconvenient Truth and argued it was time for a heated debate about climate change. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) See ‘Apocalypse my arse’, by Brendan O’Neill

(2) Al Gore’s inconvenient judgement, The Times (London), 11 October 2007

(3) Al Gore’s inconvenient judgement, The Times (London), 11 October 2007

(4) Gore climate film’s ‘nine errors’, BBC News, 11 October 2007

(5) The truth will out, Comment Is Free, 11 October 2007

(6) Scientists move against Channel 4 Swindle, Mark Lynas’s blog, 25 April 2007

(7) Al Gore versus Mr Justice Barton: a personal evaluation, John Shepherd, Medialens, 12 October 2007

(8) Al Gore’s inconvenient judgement, The Times (London), 11 October 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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