An Inconvenient Truth

The issue of climate change has entered its rock concert/college curriculum phase, which is a sure indicator that the issue has peaked and will now begin a long slow fade in the public mind.

The recent staging of simultaneous “Live Earth” rock concerts along with news that Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth (a lavishly photographic companion book to the movie) has become assigned reading at North Carolina’s Elon University follows a familiar pattern seen repeatedly over the past 40 years. Gore’s lavish, simultaneous “Live Earth” concerts on several continents follows the model of “Live Aid” and “Farm Aid” in the 1980s¬—“consciousness raising” events after which public interest quickly waned.

Elon University says it is assigning Gore’s book, rather than a serious scientific and policy work such as the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), because it conveys an “important rhetorical message.” Elon makes clear that it is interested in spawning activism above the university’s traditional mission of imparting understanding.

We’ve seen this movie before, one might be tempted to say. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, countless college classes adopted Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling jeremiad The Population Bomb as required reading, in courses as diverse as history, political science, economics, and sociology. Ehrlich’s thesis—that runaway population growth would soon engulf the world in widespread famine and disaster—turned out to be totally wrong, and the public soon forgot Ehrlich. (It is worth recalling that in his heyday, Ehrlich was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Today he doesn’t even make it on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Ehrlich still writes, but has anyone seen him on the bestseller list lately?)

In the early 1980s countless college courses made required reading of Jonathan Schell’s lament about nuclear weapons, The Fate of the Earth, and students were required to sit through and discuss The Day After and numerous other anti-nuclear films. These books were the model for the crack-brained idea of a “nuclear freeze,” which, ironically, Al Gore opposed as a Senator in the 1980s, but which he now points to as his inspiration for a present day “carbon emissions freeze.” The nuclear freeze enthusiasm was soon shown to be wrongheaded, and no one reads Fate of the Earth any more.

There is a cautionary lesson here for Elon University and its imitators. Elon says it is concerned with the question, “How will you be learning new information in twenty or thirty years?” The answer, surely, is not to assign books for their trendiness or for their explicit service in the cause of “consciousness raising.” Especially when the work in question—An Inconvenient Truth—is an acknowledged polemic whose substantive weaknesses are an embarrassment to serious climate scientists.

Gore’s account of global warming goes far beyond the evidence. Gore and other climate extremists have been promoting “consensus” science for years now—especially the assessments produced by the IPCC. So it is a highly inconvenient truth that the latest IPCC scientific assessment undermines many of Gore’s most spectacular claims. The IPCC says the worst-case sea level rise this century might be 23 inches; Gore portrays 20 feet or more in his horror film and coffee table book. Ditto for Gore’s claims about hurricanes and melting ice caps; the new IPCC report fails to bolster Gore’s alarmism.

Earlier this year New York Times veteran science reporter William Broad filed a devastating article about scientists who are “alarmed” at Gore’s alarmism. The dissents from Gore’s extremism, Broad explained, “come not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists” who have “no political ax to grind.”

“I don’t want to pick on Al Gore,” Don J. Easterbrook, an emeritus professor of geology at Western Washington University, told hundreds of experts at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. “But there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing, and we have to temper that with real data.” (Easterbrook hastened to add that not only has he never received industry funding, he’s not even a Republican!) And Reid Bryson, emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin who is sometimes credited with being “the father of scientific climatology,” recently had this reaction when asked about Gore’s book and movie: “Don’t make me throw up. It is not science. It is not true.”

Colleges and universities used to pride themselves, perhaps overly so, on promoting “critical thinking skills.” It is hard to see how students at Elon or any other university will learn to think independently or critically for the rest of their lives when the university chooses to present only one side of an issue with a purely polemical reading list. Elon should ponder the recent fate of Antioch College, which recently folded up after years of chasing its politically correct tail. Environmental correctness risks ending up in the same dead-end educational alley.

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators.