We call it life
Global warming and friendly gases
May 18, 2006
In an attempt to mitigate the impact of Al Gore’s new film on global warming, an organisation called the Competitive Enterprise Institute has released two new television adverts that aim to counter what it calls “global-warming alarmism”. The bland name of the Competitive Enterprise Institute conceals the fact that it is funded by, among others, Exxon, Amoco, Texaco, and the American Petroleum Institute. The oil industry’s strategy for dealing with global warming has long been to try to instil confusion and doubt in the public, to “teach the controversy”, as they say in another context, even when there is no controversy. On the evidence of these ads, that is still their approach. Here is the full transcript of the voiceover for one of the ads, entitled “Glaciers”:
You’ve seen those headlines about global warming. The glaciers are melting, we’re doomed. That’s what several studies supposedly found.
But other scientific studies found exactly the opposite. Greenland’s glaciers are growing, not melting. The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner.
Did you see any big headlines about that? Why are they trying to scare us?
Global warming alarmists claim the glaciers are melting because of carbon dioxide from the fuels we use. Let’s force people to cut back, they say. But we depend on those fuels, to grow our food, move our children, light up our lives.
And as for carbon dioxide, it isn’t smog or smoke, it’s what we breathe out and plants breathe in. Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life.
Note how the vast global scientific consensus on human-caused warming of the earth is reduced to a conspiracy theory featuring a shadowy, anonymous “they” who are “trying to scare us”. “They” (in other words, the world’s scientists) are “alarmists”, which has the same tang of unreason as other helpful words like “extremists”. This much is par for the course in industry-funded “scepticism”.
The attempt to rebrand a gas, carbon dioxide, meanwhile, is comical. It is true, of course, that we breathe out carbon dioxide, as a waste product; what the advert doesn’t mention is that if we were to breathe in too much of it, we would die. A strange effect for a gas they call “life”. And it is true that plants breathe carbon dioxide in; but what is as well known is that there aren’t enough plants on the planet to breathe in all the extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.
Cleverer is the line “they call it pollution”. It attacks a straw man who believes that all pollution (smog, smoke, and so on) is made up of carbon dioxide and nothing else. Of course that is false. On the other hand, most people do consider that the extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels is a pollutant. It is an unassailable scientific fact that carbon dioxide heightens the intensity of the greenhouse effect. Running for office in 2000, even George W. Bush had pledged to regulate the emission of carbon dioxide by power plants. Once in office, though, he reneged. White House spokesman Scott McClellan explained: “CO2 should not have been included as a pollutant during the campaign. It was a mistake.” Not a scientific mistake, of course; a political one.
The rhetorical crux of the advert, however, is its claim that there are some “scientific studies” that apparently “found exactly the opposite” from the studies about melting glaciers. As a matter of fact, the CIE’s claims about the studies it cites are demonstrably false . . .
Helpfully, the first pages of the studies in question are shown on screen. When the voiceover says “Greenland’s glaciers are growing, not melting”, we see the abstract of a paper entitled “Recent Ice-Sheet Growth in the Interior of Greenland”, with a glowing halo around the word “Growth”. Eagle-eyed viewers may spot the fact, however, that the article is only talking about the “interior”, and not the edges. In fact, the paper stresses that available data confirms that the edges are thinning. And as can be seen from the extended abstract here, the paper actually goes on to say: “[T]here is still no consensus assessment of the overall mass balance of the ice sheet.” Thus, this paper expressly does not say, as the advert claims it does, that the glaciers as a whole are “growing”.
Next, when the voiceover claims that “The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner”, the abstract of a paper called “Snowfall-Driven Growth in East Antarctic Ice Sheet Mitigates Recent Sea-Level Rise” appears, with another little halo of light around the word “Growth”.
It is immediately apparent that the article in question is talking about the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, not the Antarctic in general. So does this paper actually support the advert’s claim that “The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner”?
To check, I simply went to the source. I emailed the co-lead author of that article, Professor Curt H Davis, Director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Missouri, to ask him. His response was unequivocal:
Our article does NOT in fact support this statement. [...] Our result is only for East Antarctica. Moreover, we make it clear that our results are for the interior and it is well known that the edges are losing mass.
So our conclusion is clear. The CEI’s claims that “Greenland’s glaciers are growing” and that “The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker” are not in fact supported by the very scientific papers it cites as evidence.
They call it life. You might prefer to call it lying.
Update: 05/19/2006 In a University of Missouri news release today, Professor Davis says: “These television ads are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate. They are selectively using only parts of my previous research to support their claims. They are not telling the entire story to the public.”