When the canary stops singing

Illustration by Forest Byrd

You can find substantiation for most any view on the Internet, accurate or not. To be meaningful, information has to come from a reliable source and has to be set in context.

We’re printing a lengthy letter this week from a Voorheesville reader, John Kiernan, who is responding to our editorial last week on global warming, “Better to be inconvenienced than extinct.” Our editorial commented on a local update of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and on activities of Hilltown residents to reduce their carbon footprints.

We linked the growing price of fossil fuels that have spawned our modern society with the harm they cause our environment and the future of the world. With fossil fuels being depleted, now is the time to make changes in our society and in our lifestyle that will not just save money, we opined, but help save the earth. We listed a number of simple changes individuals could undertake and called for government leadership to tackle more difficult and overarching changes.

Kiernan dislikes Gore and has chosen to attack the messenger.

While we usually reserve our forum for opinions on local matters and eschew commentaries taken from largely unnamed Internet sources, we’re running most of Kiernan’s lengthy letter because he is responding to our views and because global warming is an issue that is local in the sense that we are all part of the problem and therefore we all need to be part of the solution.

The thrust of Kiernan’s letter is based on “untrue statements” he says a British court with the help of scientists found in Gore’s film.

Here’s the context that is missing from his letter.

Stewart Dimmock, the father of two children, tried to prevent Gore’s film from being shown in secondary schools in Britain.

A British newspaper, The Observer, published a story indicating that Dimmock was funded by fossil-fuel interests that have tried to undermine scientific consensus behind global warming. That information raises some questions, so we look to a reliable source — the judge’s decision.

High Court Judge Michael Burton said in his ruling that An Inconvenient Truth “is substantially founded upon scientific research and fact, albeit that the science is used, in the hands of a talented politician and communicator, to make a political statement and to support a political programme.”

The judge also wrote that Martin Chamberlain, the lawyer for the defendant, had argued “persuasively” that the “film advances four main scientific hypotheses, each of which is very well supported by research published in respected, peer-reviewed journals” and accords with the latest conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He lists them:

— 1. Global average temperatures have been rising significantly over the past half-century and are likely to continue to rise (”climate change”);

— 2. Climate change is mainly attributable to man-made emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (”greenhouse gases”);

— 3. Climate change will, if unchecked, have significant adverse effects on the world and its populations; and

— 4. There are measures which individuals and governments can take which will help reduce climate change or mitigate its effects.

The judge went on to say that he looked at the film with a critique by Dimmock’s lawyer, Paul Downes, in hand. Downes, he said had “produced a long schedule of such alleged errors or exaggerations and waxed lyrical in that regard.” Burton found nine matters that should be clarified for students seeing the film.

The judge allowed the film to be shown in British schools.

Kalee Kreider, Gore’s environmental advisor, responded in the Washington Post’s “The Fact-Checker” column by Michael Dobbs: “We were gratified that a UK High Court judge, a layperson with a full docket, found the film worthy enough to be shown in British schools. A generation of schoolchildren will become more educated about global warming and what can be done to solve the climate crisis.”

Kreider said that creating a 90-minute documentary from original peer-reviewed science for a general audience is complex and answered each of the nine points.

The comments on polar bears received much media play. Our letter-writer, Kiernan, says, “It turns out that Mr. Gore had misread the study: In fact, four polar bears drowned and this was because of a particularly violent storm.”

Kreider said, “Polar bears only exist in the Arctic and hunt and live on the ice. Where there is not enough ice, they are required to swim. The U.S. Minerals Management Service...reported new research in December 2005 about increased polar bear mortality due to reduced sea ice.

“At the same time, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service was previewed showing a major polar bear population drop (22 percent) in Hudson Bay in Canada — which was also believed to be linked to sea ice decline….

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” she said in 2007, “is now considering an Endangered Species Listing for the polar bear in part because of the impact that human-induced climate change is having on their habitat.”

This May, polar bears were designated a federally endangered species.

Could the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service all be wrong? While legitimate question can be raised about government agencies’ studies being shaped by prevailing politics, we find it unlikely these reports are all dead wrong.

Kiernan goes on to make allegations about Gore’s household energy use, to claim it’s a fallacy that America is running out of fuel for the future, and to cite studies he says show increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the last century have had no deleterious effects on the earth’s weather and climate.

Kiernan and others so inclined can find countless sites online that would state these views, but it doesn’t make them true. The closest we can get to the truth on this matter at this point in time is the consensus of scientists cited by the British judge in his ruling. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is conservative in its statements since it relies on agreement of all the governments involved.

All of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries have endorsed the conclusions of the IPCC that most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th Century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic, or manmade, greenhouse gas concentrations. Natural phenomena like solar variation and volcanoes likely had a small warming effect from the pre-industrial times to 1950 and a small cooling effect from 1950 onward, the panel says. Warming and sea level rise are expected to continue for more than a thousand years even if greenhouse gas levels are stabilized.

We’re not here to defend or criticize Gore for his personal use of energy. We believe that is irrelevant to the larger issue. Gore’s film was a way to alert the public about an impending crisis. So was Elizabeth Kolbert’s carefully researched book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, from which we quoted last week.

We believe the British judge had it right when he said Gore’s film “is substantially founded upon scientific research and fact, albeit that the science is used, in the hands of a talented politician and communicator, to make a political statement and to support a political programme.”

A political solution is needed; each of us acting alone isn’t going to be enough.

We think of the polar bears’ dying the way the coal miners thought of their canaries. The miners brought the caged birds into the mines to warn them of the build-up of dangerous gases they couldn’t otherwise detect. They knew to get out of the mine when the canary died to save their own lives. We can’t get out of the earth but we can make changes so the human race can go on living.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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