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.

30 comments

  1. Barry Woods says:

    China, India and the developing world are going to burn all their coal, regardless of anything Gore says and I think he knows this.

    I just think him a nasty piece of bullying work, he the super rich man with political influence, me a member of the public with virtually none.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7040370.stm

    “And after the interview he [Gore] and his assistant stood over me shouting that my questions had been scurrilous, and implying that I was some sort of climate-sceptic traitor.

    It is miserable when such a vastly important debate is reduced to this. The film and the High Court row are, though, products of their time. ”

    If he can and chooses to shout down Roger Harrabin, what chance anybody else, It will be interesting to see his new video, where he ‘reveals the Deniers’

    http://climaterealityproject.org/

  2. Richard says:

    It’s an analogy. Certainly it’s a provocative one, and why not? Tactically, perhaps it’s unwise; I’m not sure. But an analogy isn’t an assertion of identicality, or resemblance on every point. Gore is saying that the tactics of brutal dismissal of scientific argument employed frequently in the public domain by those who deny AGW remind him of the way racism was expressed in public in the 50s and early 60s, and calling for an effort of resistance comparable to the one that happened then. Given the worldwide suffering that is likely to come about if the mainstream scientific scenarios turn out to have been accurate, and given the defence of powerful vested interests involved in the campaign of denial (denial, not rational debate involving respect for expertise and evidence), the analogy doesn’t seem preposterous to me. Why should it? The analogy is being applied to those people who now say ‘scam’ whenever the subject is mentioned; not to genuine scientific debate.

  3. Joe Immen says:

    Hi Mark, I really enjoyed your 6 Degrees book.
    You are presenting this like Gore made a direct comparison of climate ‘deniers’ to racists, when really he was talking about how having difficult conversations about climate change is similar to having difficult conversations about race.
    I think Gore was saying that it’s the moral duty of those familiar with climate science to call out people who are misinformed and ignorant on such an important topic. Gore said “it’s important to get that out there”, meaning get the facts out there in conversation.

    • klem says:

      He’s right, it is difficult to converse about race, however I find it easy to converse about the fraud which is anthropogenic climate change.

      cheers

  4. His point was that views on the acceptability of racism have changed, and that it wasn’t easy to achieve that.

    From that follows that views on global warming can change as well, even if it is difficult to achieve that.

    And he better be right. Views on that issue need to change in a big way, as they have on racism in the United States.

    That is especially true for Gore’s country, where denial of global warming is not only acceptable but actually something required for the Republican nomination to the next presidential election.

    You said basically the same thing in “God Species”, though your comparison was with the positive change about the ozone hole. That one wasn’t easy either.

    No one reading your book would conclude that your main point was calling deniers of global warming “CFC regulation opponents”. But you are misinterpreting Gore in exactly that way.

  5. John Russell says:

    I think Gore is rather a bull in a china shop and would be better advised to think how his statements might be interpreted, or shut up. However I can see where Gore is coming from and agree with Joe, above, that he meant that “…having difficult conversations about climate change is similar to having difficult conversations about race”.

    One day I’m sure we’ll be amazed at the rhetoric being delivered today by those in denial over human-produced climate change. And that amazement will be similar to the amazement we now have over the rhetoric used by those who once denied black people their freedom, women the vote; or wrote, “cigarettes are good for your throat”.

  6. Lennart van der Linde says:

    Gore makes a comparison, if I hear him correctly, between the moral struggle against climate science deniers and the moral struggle against racism. Jim Hansen had made the comparison between the moral struggle for rapid CO2-reductions and the moral struggles for ending slavery and nazism. Ignoring the scientific indications for possibly catastrophic climate risks borders on criminal neglect to me.

    Discussions about climate change are not so much scientific discussions, it seems to me, as discussions about what is the moral thing to do given the scientific state-of-the-art. In this sense the comparison seems legitimate with the earlier discussion about what is the moral thing to do about, for example, racism given the scientific state-of-the-art about race and human nature.

    Of course this will anger many people who think denying the conclusions of climate science (the various uncertainties and risk evaluations included) is moral, just as many racist people would get angry if you would call their racism immoral. It seems this can hardly be avoided, so we’ll just have to deal with it.

    If 99 doctors say a child has cancer and should urgently be treated, and 1 doctor says the child is healthy, who should the parents listen to? Is it moral for them to ignore the 99 doctors and listen to the 1? It seems to me that is exactly what the people are doing who refuse to take the risks seriously that follow from climate science.

    So why criticize Gore for making this legitimate and courageous comparison instead of supporting and defending him? Why would it be moral to deny the main conclusions of climate science and the risks those conclusions imply?

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. The fact is their seems to exist a considerable risk of dangerous climate warming caused by human activities. So we should act urgently to reduce this risk as far as we can.

    What moral argument can be made that would should not act this way? If such an argument cannot be made, than denying we should act this way seems pretty immoral to me, just like racism. Isn’t that what Gore is saying?

    • Tom Blees says:

      I think the moral argument that something must be done if the risk of AGW is real is an easy one to make, and skeptics must feel that way too. That’s precisely why, I think, they keep trying to shed doubt on the science. The 99 doctors vs 1 approach is probably the easiest way to shift the discussion to the moral aspect and thus carry the day. The skeptics will try to contest the 99 to 1 ratio or, in extreme cases, try to contend that the 99 are scammers. Not an easy case to make!

      I just think that Gore choosing to frame this as a moral issue, as a matter of it being important to convey your belief and passion about it, is an approach that falters when people are trying to bring the scientific facts into question. Who cares if you feel passionately about something if it’s a delusion? Plenty of people feel passionate about their belief in angels or demons or god or scientology, and give them half a chance and they’ll pile it on you like there’s no tomorrow. But it does nothing to convey the facts or convince anyone attempting to have a rational argument.

      I’m not saying it’s wrong to feel deeply about our responsibility to the planet, of course. I’m just saying that if we can make the argument based on facts, the moral argument is self-evident. But that door doesn’t swing both ways.

  7. Richard says:

    Mark,

    You say:

    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.

    I think you are missing something very important here. The vast majority of people, whatever their views, are ‘non-experts’. It isn’t only the conversations of experts that matter. What happens out in the broad culture matters too, and has big political consequences. And out there, the argument for action on climate change is really struggling, it seems to me. Some very unscrupulous modes of argument are being used to bully and silence it. Look at the way the word ‘scam’ is routinely deployed (see above). In pub conversations about global warming now, someone always chips in with the view that the UEA emails discredited the science. They can never give any actual particulars, of course, but the assumption has nevertheless become viral, encouraged by journalists and lobbyists. Respect for expertise has come under deliberate attack; it cannot be taken for granted.

    I don’t think you should be ‘relaxed’ about this, and I can see why Gore thinks something equivalent to the great moral and cultural campaign of his formative years is needed.

    • Mark Lynas says:

      Richard – I’m sure you are right. But the point is that we (who accept the science rather than seek to deny it) should hold ourselves to the highest standards in the debate. That might also make our case more persuasive to others… surely the way to convince a doubter is to take their doubts seriously and address them?

    • Richard says:

      I can’t disagree with that, of course. But you conjure up an ever so civilised conversation in which all parties open-mindedly examine the evidence, concede each other’s strongest points, evaluate specialist sources fairly, and respect the balance of evidence, uncertainty and probability. This isn’t what most of these conversations are like. An extremely aggressive conspiracy-theory argument is being used to pre-empt the kind of debate you want. As John Lanchester said, we deeply don’t want to believe this story. So – when the science is very specialist, and hard for non-experts like me to grasp, and full of variabilities, but at the same time horribly urgent – we are vulnerable to that kind of bullying. What Gore is trying to do is bring in the moral question as well – the question of the morality of certain ways of arguing.

      What are our moral obligations when faced with the extremely strong probability – on the basis of what nearly all the experts tell us – but not the certainty of this threat, which menaces future generations rather than ourselves? This is an unfamiliar sort of moral question. That’s one respect in which the question of global warming differs markedly from the question of racism. But if Gore meant that global warming denial – of the kind I describe here – and racism have deployed the same sort of bullying tactics to avoid fair debate, then I can see what he means.

    • Mark Lynas says:

      Richard – you make your case well, and I’m mostly convinced. Isn’t the point though that no side to an argument has a monopoly of truth? I’ve been attacked in similarly morally-loaded and strident terms by greens who (IMHO) find themselves on the wrong side of the scientific fence on nuclear power, for instance. (‘Chernobyl death denier’ is a phrase that sticks with me!) So if you (not you personally) want to pursue an ‘arms race’ of hyperbolic attacks against opponents, they can come back to haunt you…

    • Richard says:

      Yes, I accept that, generally, it’s unlikely that one side in an argument will have a monopoly of truth, though an argument between anti-racists and racists would seem to be an exception. But how would you apply that general rule to the question of AGW, in which there is such a preponderance of expert opinion supporting the broad thesis, and the potential consequences of inaction are so very serious?

      Again, Gore’s analogy does some useful work. One can only express racist views by wilfully ignoring the preponderance of scientific findings; ditto global warming. Where the analogy ends is that racist views frequently went with, and still go with, deliberate personal cruelty of the most immediate kind. This clearly isn’t true of AGW-denial, and therefore the deniers can understandably feel affronted by the comparison – though I hope they will reflect on the possibility that their denial will have cruel consequences for future generations. They are taking a huge gamble with other people’s lives. What is the proper moral reaction to that, if not to condemn it in some sort of moral terms?

      Perhaps these conversations need to start with debate about what counts as evidence, what sort of respect is due to expertise, and what is the appropriate response to probable as compared to certain outcomes. By ‘probable’, I mean that to the best of our present knowledge we have to say that this is probably true because nearly all the experts say so.

      The truth is that only a tiny number of people have had the necessary specialist training that enables someone to evaluate the scientific evidence directly and take part in the strictly scientific debate (I’m not one of them). The rest of us, however, are critically affected; we need to form views on this, because so much is at stake. Certainly we should make every effort to grasp the scientific arguments, but inevitably our grasp will be very limited – we will be taking the arguments on trust, or refusing to do so. What we need then is some sort of discussion of what might entitle a non-expert, an ordinary person, to decline to take those arguments on trust. What constitutes legitimate grounds for doing so? And what grounds have no legitimacy? Maybe that’s where all these conversations have to start.

  8. Shaheer says:

    I don’t think that climate deniers are like racists. Racists were bad, but not genocidal maniacs.

    Oh well, oil, water, and soil depletion means we need a population reduction. There are simply too many people with too many demands for food and prosperity. While i’d prefer we all become vegetarian and stop having children, the Tea Party/Republican’s plan of burning the poor off the face of the earth certainly is a workable strategy. Once a 3 billion poor people die of famine, then climate change becomes real and we develop geoengineering, nuclear, and syn-foods.

    Sick strategy, but I genuinely think this is the secret Republican/Tea Party strategy. It also frees up the Arctic which contains 1/4 of the worlds fossil fuel and mineral wealth.

    • Shaheer says:

      I guess warming is also good in that it will allow us to mine methane clathrates, expand the US military due to climate-related war, and develop new technologies (geoengineering).

      It’s just sad that so many young people will pay the entropy cost of our energy bill.

    • Barry Woods says:

      Hi Mark
      I guess being equated to a ‘genocidal maniac’ beats being called a ‘Chernobyly death denier’ in the game of irrational insults.. ;
      :(

    • klem says:

      “There are simply too many people with too many demands for food and prosperity. ”

      Which brings up the obvious question; If 7 billion people are too many, what is the correct number?

      “Once a 3 billion poor people die of famine, then climate change becomes real and we develop geoengineering, nuclear, and syn-foods.”

      For greenie socialists like yourself, major famines are happy hopes and dreams.

      cheers

  9. J Bowers says:

    I think Al Gore’s getting better. Sorry to go against the grain, but appeasement in the face of lying bullies just doesn’t work; they just lie and bully more. I suspect this is what Gore has realised, especially with the makeup of this latest Congress.

    • geoffchambers says:

      If you think Gore’s getting better, perhaps you should tell him. He’s got 100,000 friends on facebook, but only 2 have commented on his blog in the past 9 days

    • J Bowers says:

      But he’s got 100,000 friends on Facebook.

    • geoffchambers says:

      Most of them seem to be fresh faced third world teenagers. Mrs Gore should perhaps have word with him

  10. Thank you for these perceptive comments Mark. Watching it, I can see that Gore is making several comparisons – he is expressing how it feels to him- making an emotional analogy that expresses his frustration – and trying to express the power of peer persuasion (what we could also call generating a new social norm) and the role it played in changing attitudes to race. Through this he is also trying to make a historical analogy that expresses his certainty of the inevitability of attitudinal change.

    But you are right- he goes further when he talks of the moral dimension and clearly slurs non-accepters. Given the change in public attitudes, to compare anyone with racists is inflammatory (it is interesting that the only abusive language that has strengthened its power in the past generation is that concerned with race and child abuse). I have less time than you for the high profile deniers but I do sympathise with the many honest, intelligent and decent people who express doubts about climate change, and insulting a quarter of the population is hardly going to win them over.

    I despair that a highly experienced politician and communicator like Gore, who is talking about ‘winning the conversation’ makes such a basic communications error and gives his opponents such handy ammo. Why did no-one ever hear him talk like this and say ‘Al that might not be too smart’? But then I also wonder why, when he went on the world stump about climate change, no-one suggested that he needed to do everything he could to address his own carbon footprint which ended up being a massive own-goal.

    Personally, (and this interview reinforces this feeling), and not withstanding my respect for Gore’s work on climate, I think in retrospect that it has been a major mistake to allow a senior Democrat to adopt the mantle of climate savior. The language, images and concerns he speaks to (such as the civil rights analogy) are all those of middle aged progressive Democrats and reinforce the polarisation of American climate politics. I feel we would be in a much stronger position in the US if there had been a wider range of political voices in favour of action and if Al had had sufficient modesty (and comms savvy) to stand back and bit and encourage people with different politics to share the limelight.

  11. Webcraft says:

    The Deniers’ Song
    _______________

    Three nine zero parts per million
    What on Earth’s the harm in that?
    Climate’s driven by the sun
    Cosmic rays are where it’s at.

    Global weather propaganda
    Warmists on the gravy train
    Lying snouting hypocrites
    Fly to Cancun on the plane.

    Wasn’t that last Winter cold?
    Chuck the broken hockey stick!
    FOI them, Telegraph it,
    Hiding decline with their trick.

    Gore’s a carbon billionaire
    Climate changes all the time;
    Four by fours killed dinosaurs?
    You should be in pantomime.

    Turbine nonsense solar panels
    Telling me to take the bus
    I can see your central heating
    You’re no better than all us.

    Don’t show me your graphs and figures
    No upward trend this past ten years!
    Cannot hear you, cannot hear you
    Fingers stuck in both my ears.

  12. Barry Woods says:

    I guess by you blog comments you shall be known..(including mine)
    If Al Gore can’t get media attention for his Climate Reality event, then the show is over.

    Politics and public interest has moved on, like it or not.

  13. NewYorkJ says:

    Mark Lynas: “after all, it takes courage to come out against the mainstream on any issue. ”

    I disagree with that, as it clearly doesn’t apply on issues where being contrarian has widespread political support. Scientists who come out against the mainstream are held up as Galileo by large groups of people and trumpeted in many media outlets. There’s no fame or fortune in supporting the mainstream. Scientists that do just blend in with the crowd. Being contrarian has its perks, opening new doors at conferences sponsored by certain think tanks, with recognition often more rewarding than found in traditional scientific circles. A scientist having trouble getting nonsense published will always find much greater fame and recognition in contrarian realms. True courage would be one of these contrarians willing to admit they are wrong.

    On Al Gore, I agree that the racism analogy is over-the-top, and I also agree that the fossil fuel connection to deniers is insufficient, as there are many motivated by other reasons. However, your quote here concerns me:

    “today I have a sneaking respect for those who speak about their doubts on climate change with conviction and integrity”

    This actually opens the door for the racism analogy. I understand “skeptics” are often not flat-out liars. They often believe with 100% sincerity their convictions (although they are willing to tell themselves and others bits of lies along the way). But why should ignorance garner much more respect? They believe with great conviction that thousands of scientists are perpetuating a hoax, and they are confident in their beliefs. I actually find that even more troubling than those who don’t believe it but are working to push that rhetoric.

  14. Blair Dowden says:

    I think that conservatives should consider the possibility that Al Gore may be right, in a way, to draw an analogy between the Civil Rights and Climate Change issues. Yes, it is an inflammatory tactic, and wrong to compare a simple moral issue with a complex scientific one. But conservatives should remember the consequences of being on the wrong side of that moral issue. The civil rights struggle energized and empowered the left, and an entire generation learned to distrust the right. Conservatives thus shut themselves out of participating in solutions to the racism issue, resulting in intrusive and counter productive policies such as “affirmative action”.

    The left has been using accusations of racism to shut down debate on issues (such as immigration) ever since, and Gore is doing it again. Why not? It works.

    Conservatives are repeating history with their irrational denial of any reality of anthropogenic climate change. So once again, the left is in charge of solutions, and many of those “solutions”, such as Kyoto-style wealth redistribution, serve other purposes. Climate change will probably be slow enough to get away with denying it for a while, but guess who will take the blame if there are extreme climate events, whatever their actual link to global warming? Will another generation grow up with a distrust of conservatism?

  15. Robert Nagle says:

    I think the historical analogy is interesting and an effective way to describe the opposition. Actually I have been writing about the historical comparisons between slavery in the US and the carbon emission industry. For climate change and slavery, you had profound economic interests at stake and whole regions devoted to defending their peculiar institution. Where the analogy breaks down: slavery from the very start was odious and dehumanizing, but over time, as it was integrated into US culture, it was humanized a bit, but our institutions broke down trying to preserve slavery in our culture. With climate change, few would have guessed at the start that carbon emissions might have such serious repercussions, but over time the consequences are becoming more apparent.

    I am all for honest skepticism, but as a climate change activist in a oil-obsessed city (Houston, Texas), I face rudeness, anger and irrationality all the time. More ominously, I also face a lot of disengagement from the issue. Many simply don’t have an opinion about the issue other than that climate change might become serious later on (without any need for policy changes). I often detect an incredible lack of urgency as well as a resignation that there’s nothing you can do to change the climate.

    The tragedy about the oil industry is that it employs a lot of honest people who are willfully blind to the consequences of the company’s actions. Both my parents worked in oil and gas (when climate change wasn’t really known about), and many colleagues of mine do today. Many people just accept that because oil and gas have polluted the environment over the century, they will continue to do so and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s that attitude which I find so infuriating.

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