Firestorm in the Arctic: Al Gore Vindicated on Comments in Copenhagen

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jeff Goldstein Director, National Center for Earth and Space Science Education

I had a day of meetings yesterday, with no connection to the outside world. When I got home a good friend stopped over and asked if I had heard what Al Gore said in Copenhagen, and the firestorm it created in the world media. I had not. So I made a beeline for the computer and sought out the circus-sphere passing for journalism these days. Here is what I found.

A Timesonline story titled "Inconvenient truth for Al Gore as his north pole sums don't add up", may have been the focal point. Apparently Mr. Gore said, as reported by the Timesonline:

"These figures are fresh. Some of the models suggest to Dr [Wieslav] Maslowski that there is a 75 per cent chance that the entire north polar ice cap, during the summer months, could be completely ice-free within five to seven years."

However, the climatologist whose work Mr Gore was relying upon dropped the former Vice-President in the water with an icy blast.

"It's unclear to me how this figure was arrived at," Dr Maslowski said. "I would never try to estimate likelihood at anything as exact as this."

This led the Timesonline to conclude, that:

The embarrassing error cast another shadow over the conference after the controversy over the hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, which appeared to suggest that scientists had manipulated data to strengthen their argument that human activities were causing global warming.

But this story did not add up to me. My problem was two-fold. First, Mr. Gore stated a dire prediction about the Arctic and attributed the prediction to Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski. Given Gore is not a climate scientist, citing his source was the right and prudent thing to do. Maslowski was apparently contacted by some organization or individual (I should assume the Timesonline but I won't) and the Timesonline then quoted Maslowski's denial. So here we have two individuals with differing stories, but with a distinction -- Mr. Gore was attributing his statement to Dr. Maslowski. But Maslowski was not attributing anything to Gore. Clearly someone was wrong, whether by mistake or by design. But based on the story, I didn't know which one. Which brings me to my second problem -- Timesonline immediately assumed the problem was with Gore, the story was picked up globally, and quickly turned into "there goes Al Gore again, and this time we got 'em!"

But the pesky distinction between the two was an obvious pathway for me to explore -- Gore cited Maslowski, so was there any formal record of Maslowski's past statements about Arctic sea ice coverage? I found no evidence that anyone reporting the story had bothered to look.

Is this what journalism passes for these days? No need to check sources carefully? Forget due diligence? Gore caught twisting the truth -- even lying -- is good for sales and readership? And it doesn't matter whether he did or not, because perception is reality today, not truth?

Earth to journalists. Let me clue you in. I'm not a journalist but I'll do your due diligence for you. It's really easy in the age of the internet. Here, let me show you how it's done.

Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski is a Research Professor in the Department of Oceanography at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California. All this is from his bio on the NPS website. His research includes: arctic oceanography, numerical ocean and sea ice modeling, and climate change -- again from the NPS website. He sounds like a qualified expert to me. Apparently the media has thought so too. Here is what Dr. Masalowski told the New York Times, October 2, 2007 (just 2 years ago):

Experts say the ice retreat is likely to be even bigger next summer because this winter's freeze is starting from such a huge ice deficit. At least one researcher, Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., projects a blue Arctic Ocean in summers by 2013.

Want him in his own words? Here, at Beyond Zero Emissions, is Dr. Maslowski interviewed by Matthew Wright, with a post date of March 24, 2008 (less than 2 years ago.) Read the transcript of the interview, and by all means download the podcast.

"We speak to Wieslaw Maslowski about his prediction that by the summer of 2013, we will have completely lost ice cover in the Arctic. Dr. Maslowski says that the complete loss of summer ice may actually happen sooner."

Wright: "Ok. So now, it was reported in The New York Times that you said that 2013 was a possibility, and perhaps you'd actually projected this some years ago, that we could lose the summer sea ice extent - that's in the summer solstice is it?"

Maslowski: "That is correct."

Maslowski (later in the interview): "There are some model simulations, single model simulations, that are suggesting that it could possibly occur as early as 2050 or maybe even as early as 2030. Comparing those models simulations predictions with the satellite observations of the Arctic sea ice extent actually shows that most of those models are too conservative predicting the current and the past ice extent changes in the Arctic as has been observed. So the idea is that the climate models - they're underestimating, they are too conservative in their prediction."

Maslowski is on the record stating he thought it possible that we'd lose all summer ice cover in the Arctic by 2013. Let's do some math. That is 3.5 years from now. Gore said 75% chance in 5 to 7 years based apparently on personal conversations with Maslowski. You know what? Gore's statement was a conservative estimate relative to what I found Maslowski has said on the record.

Does anybody care that journalistic integrity is important in the midst of a contentious debate? Will 'journalists' like Hannah Devlin, Ben Webster, and Philippe Naughton (see Timesonline) apologize to Mr. Gore for not doing their jobs? Will anyone give the guy any credit for standing up for what he believes in? Mr. Vice President, hang in there. I know you know how Galileo felt.

And a note to the Timesonline. Should I believe your quote from Dr. Maslowski? If so, then shouldn't someone ask Dr. Maslowski why his quote is inconsistent with what he has said on the record? Dr. Maslowski, your credibility as a researcher is on the line.

Let's debate the quality of the data and the interpretation of the data. Let's do it in the context of science. As a planet, let's explore and debate the global courses of action that can and should be considered based on what these data are telling us. And let's do it with journalists recognizing the important role they play in keeping us all informed, and the sacred trust that that entails.

Finally, aside from the spitting back and forth on who said what (which could have been avoided if journalists did their jobs) does anybody care that complete loss of sea ice coverage in the Arctic, even if by 2050, would represent a dramatic climatic change in a geological instant in time?

For an understanding of rapid climatic change in the context of geologic time, and the correlation to human activity, see A Day in the Life of the Earth, at Blog on the Universe.