Is Al Gore right to compare climate sceptics to racists?

In a long online TV interview this week with a supportive (indeed bordering on sycophantic) interviewer, Al Gore this week made some noteworthy statements comparing those sceptical of the science on climate change with Civil Rights-era racists in the American deep south. I don’t want to join the predictable chorus of condemnation, but I do think Gore is wrong, and that his attitude reveals something about why the climate debate has become so polarised and divisive.

If you have six minutes to spare, first watch the video below (extracted from the whole hour-long thing).

Here’s Gore’s key opening quote, setting the scene for his metaphorical comparison:

I remember, again going back to my early years in the South, when the Civil Rights revolution was unfolding, there were two things that really made an impression on me. My generation watched Bull Connor turning the hose on civil rights demonstrators and we went, ‘Whoa! How gross and evil is that?’ And my generation asked older people, ‘Explain to me again why it is okay to discriminate against people because their skin color is different?’ And when they couldn’t really answer that question with integrity, the change really started.

Gore then explains how racism was a part of ordinary conversations in the past, but little by little it came to be seen as unacceptable by most people. The interviewer then adds:

I think it’s difficult to talk about. I think it’s difficult to confront the denial facts that people spew out.

This at least offers Gore a chance to backpedal, and perhaps explain that these are very different historical circumstances and that any outright comparison between southern racists and climate ‘deniers’ is at best misleading, and at worst offensive. But no. Digging in deeper, Gore insists:

It is no more difficult than for southerners to talk about the evils of racism. Trust me on this. That was difficult.

Trying to be supportive (and thereby getting a much more revealing answer than a more confrontational cross-examiner might have done), the interviewer then takes up the theme:

[snip] People need to understand: here’s why it’s not sunspots. There really is no debate around that. Here’s why carbon does trap heat, and it’s very simple science. And if someone tells you that there’s a lag of 800 years, here’s the heat record and the carbon record, you know. That’s why it’s a little bit different I think than racism.

But Gore won’t be shifted. He insists, once again:

Yeah, but I think it’s the same where the moral component is concerned. And where the facts are concerned, I think that it’s important to get that out there absolutely, to the planet.

Of course, Gore is entitled to speak his mind. And that is actually the point. So is everyone else – thereby meaning that no-one should be frozen out of the climate change debate on political correctness grounds by being compared to racists in the past.

Over the years I have met a good many climate scientists, and I don’t know very many who I think will agree with Al Gore on this. Scientists tend to have a strong regard for dissenting voices, however incovenient. And there is a good reason for this: sometimes the ‘consensus’ will be wrong – and to be as right and rigorous as possible, it needs to be continually challenged.

Al Gore too can be wrong: much was made at the time of the release of An Inconvenient Truth about a few minor scientifically-challengeable assertions Gore made. The film also made use of two of my photos, and in illustrating these in his slide presentation, Gore made a mistake in each – wrongly attributing my picture of a melting glacier to Argentina rather than Peru, and exaggerating the situation in Tuvalu. These being minor points, I made nothing of it at the time and I don’t want to now – the point is that no-one is infallible, and that shutting down debate and considering alternative viewpoints as illegitimate risks allowing mistakes to stand unchallenged.

Over recent years I have personally become more tolerant of climate change sceptics. Whereas they used to make me furious and aggrieved, today I have a sneaking respect for those who speak about their doubts on climate change with conviction and integrity (unlike, say, most US Republicans spouting the ‘know-nothing’ party line) – after all, it takes courage to come out against the mainstream on any issue. And I am probably more relaxed also because the science on climate these days seems so strong and overwhelming that it frankly can deal with challenge, especially easily-refutable challenges from non-experts.

Gore also spends much of the interview aligning sceptical viewpoints with the powerful interests of fossil fuel corporations. Of course, there is something in this, but it is not the whole story: no-one can insist that every sceptic gets paid off by Exxon-Mobil, or that every sceptical viewpoint serves only a commercial interest. And even if it did, that still doesn’t make it factually wrong.

The problem is, that to the layperson, Gore sounds patronising as well as intolerant. And that is bad politics as well as bad science. The way to convince people is surely to take their concerns and arguments seriously, not to tell them that their doubts are morally outrageous and beyond civilised debate (like racism is today). In the process, one might find that they actually have something to contribute after all.

The upshot: in a democratic society, free speech is a critical, central issue. I don’t doubt Al Gore’s commitment to this, which he has demonstrated over a lifetime in politics. But his retreat into polarisation on the climate issue, while understandable perhaps, threatens the open debate which democratic countries must rely on to resolve contentious issues. Whilst people in the Arab Spring countries are dying for this cause today, we owe it to them to remember once again how precious they are.

© Mark Lynas
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