When people wonder how the United States ended up in today’s nightmarish predicament, a big part of the answer is that the right-wing message machine and the mainstream U.S. news media distorted reality at key moments about key people, perhaps most notably Al Gore during Campaign 2000.
But even now – when the consequences of the news media’s earlier “war on Gore” can be measured in the horrible death toll that has followed the Bush presidency – it appears that little has changed.
Lies and distortions about Al Gore remain an easy political commodity to sell, as we have seen in the renewed assault on Gore in the wake of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
As the news spread about the Nobel Committee’s recognition of Gore’s work publicizing the threat from global warming, both the right-wing media and major news outlets geared up to hype criticism of Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” in a ruling by an obscure British judge.
Hours before the Nobel Prize announcement, the Washington Post ran a news story quoting High Court Judge Michael Burton as detecting “nine errors” in the documentary and asserting that the alleged mistakes “arise in the context of alarmism and exaggeration in support of his political thesis.”
Burton ruled that British schools could show the film but only with a cautionary advisory for students.
Burton’s ruling became a cause celebre for the American Right’s powerful media, which used it to discredit both Gore and the movement seeking to stop global warming. Mainstream news outlets, such as CNN, quickly fell into line, citing Burton’s ruling almost every time Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize was mentioned on Oct. 12.
Right-wing Internet postings soon added the word “significant” between the words “nine” and “errors,” albeit without quotes around those three words together.
Lo and behold, on Oct. 13, the Washington Post ran a snarky editorial about Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize claiming that Burton’s ruling had found “nine significant errors” – now put together in quotes. The editorial faulted Gore for “factual misstatements and exaggerations.”
For his part, Gore has sought to play down the significance of Burton’s ruling, much as he tried to finesse press misstatements about him during Campaign 2000. Rather than confronting false quotes then about him claiming to have “invented the Internet” and to be the one who “started” the Love Canal clean-up, Gore tried to make light of the misunderstandings so he wouldn’t be further bashed as “defensive.”
Similarly now, Gore’s spokesman Kalee Kreider cited the positive side of Burton’s ruling, saying Gore was “gratified that the courts verified that the central argument of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is supported by the scientific community.” [Washington Post, Oct. 12, 2007]
However, like the “invented the Internet” canard and the press misquotes about Love Canal, Burton’s ruling quickly became the supposedly definitive judgment in dismissing the Gore documentary as the “Inconvenient Untruth.”
Who Is Judge Burton?
Yet, regardless of where the Post editorial writers lifted the phrase “nine significant errors” – clearly not from their own news story – the more significant question should be: Why is Judge Burton suddenly the arbiter of truth on the complicated subject of global warming and on Gore’s lectures about the topic.
Burton, in his early 60s, is best known as an “employment appeal tribunal judge.” Though his career has attracted little public notice, he earned praise from the far-right, anti-immigrant British National Party for issuing a ruling in 2005 that applied the nation’s Race Relations Act “to cover the racial rights of White people.”
Hailing what it called Burton’s history-making ruling, the BNP said, “This now means that any organisations or companies that discriminate against a member of the British National Party are guilty of anti-white racism.” [BNP statement on Aug. 10, 2005]
Burton’s criticisms of Gore’s power-point presentation also read more like quibbles than anything “significant.”
At one point, for instance, Gore shows a photo of flooding on a Pacific island and in reference to rising sea levels states, “That’s why the citizens of these Pacific nations have all had to evacuate to New Zealand.”
Gore’s brief remark doesn’t spell out exactly which islands he was referring to or whether the evacuations were permanent or temporary.
But Burton took Gore to task over the sentence. As recounted by the Telegraph (U.K.), Burton’s ruling states that “An Inconvenient Truth” claims that low-lying Pacific atolls “are being inundated because of anthropogenic global warming” but that there is no evidence of any evacuation having yet happened.
While Gore’s single sentence could be criticized as imprecise or confusing, Burton is not entirely correct either.
The leaders of Tuvalu, a string of islands between Hawaii and Australia, announced in 2001 that they had no choice but to abandon their island-country because of rising sea levels and asked permission to relocate all 11,000 inhabitants to New Zealand. [See article by the Earth Policy Institute, Nov. 15, 2001.]
Since then, New Zealand has agreed to a plan for the gradual evacuation of Tuvalu and other Pacific islands facing environmental catastrophe. [See report from Friends of the Earth International.]
Contrary to Burton’s ruling, the evacuation of Tuvalu already has begun, according to travel reporter Janine Israel in a 2004 story about the expected loss of these picturesque islands to potential tourists.
“Over recent decades, the remote Pacific nation [of Tuvalu] has been beset by frequent floods, cyclones, and rising sea levels.” Israel wrote. “Tuvalu’s 10,500 inhabitants have already begun the dreaded process of evacuating to New Zealand, which has agreed to accept 75 Tuvaluans per year as environmental refugees. …
“Tuvalu has been given 50 years before it sinks beneath the waves. Although the melting of glaciers and icecaps is partly responsible for the rise in sea level, it is also due to the warming of the seawater, which expands when heated.
“And it isn’t alone. Other low-lying island nations are at the frontline of climate change. Kiribati, the Cook Islands, Palau, Vanuatu, Tonga, French Polynesia, the Republic of the Marshall Island, Tokelau, and the Republic of Maldives are all gearing up for a Noah’s Flood. For intrepid travelers, these are the countries to visit before they slip off the map for good.”
Given this unfolding tragedy, Burton’s querulous point would seem to be finicky at best.
Judge Burton also blasts Gore for supposedly suggesting that “in the near future” a sea-level rise of up to 20 feet would be caused by the melting of either West Antarctica or Greenland.
“This is distinctly alarmist,” the judge wrote, arguing that sea levels may indeed rise that much “but only after, and over, millennia” and the idea that the melting would occur “in the immediate future, is not in line with the scientific consensus,” the Telegraph reported.
But in “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore never said the 20-foot rise in sea level would occur quickly or even at all.
Referring to Antarctica’s giant ice cap, Gore said, “If this were to go, sea levels world wide would go up 20 feet.” A similar rise could result from the complete thawing of Greenland’s ice cover, Gore said.
“If Greenland broke up and melted, or if half of Greenland and half of west Antarctica broke up and melted, this is what would happen to the sea level in Florida,” Gore said as slides showed what a 20-foot rise in sea levels would do to coastlines around the world.
While Burton’s ruling fits with the characterization of Gore’s comments as popularized in the right-wing news media, it doesn’t match up with what Gore actually said.
Judge Burton also puts words in Gore’s mouth in other alleged “errors.” For instance, he notes that Gore’s documentary refers to the danger of global warming “shutting down the Ocean Conveyor,” which powers the Gulf Stream that moderates temperatures in Western Europe.
Citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. agency which shared the Nobel Prize with Gore, Burton said it’s “very unlikely” that the Ocean Conveyor would shut down, though it might slow down.
Again, however, Burton is adopting a contentious interpretation of Gore’s comments. Gore refers to the shutting down of the Ocean Conveyor in a historical context, when a vast reservoir of North American ice melted and flooded into the North Atlantic, causing a disruption of the Gulf Stream and an ice age in Europe.
Gore’s description of this historic event suggests that something similar could occur if the Greenland ice cap melted, but again Burton is exaggerating Gore’s comments before attacking them.
Similarly, Burton asserts that Gore claimed that two graphs – one representing CO2 levels and the other global temperatures – showed “an exact fit.” The judge ruled that while there is general scientific agreement that there is a connection, “the two graphs do not establish what Mr. Gore asserts.”
But what did Gore actually assert and where did the judge get the words “an exact fit”?
In that segment of the film, Gore doesn’t use the phrase “exact fit,” although he does joke that a sixth-grade classmate who once asked a teacher if the continents of Africa and South America ever “fit together” might have a similar comment about the two graphs.
Gore then states, “The relation is actually very complicated but there is one relationship that is far more powerful than all the others and it is this, when there is more carbon dioxide the temperature gets warmer because it traps more heat from the sun.”
While there are legitimate questions about the precise correlation between past changes in CO2 and earth temperatures, Burton ignores Gore’s admission that “the relation is actually very complicated” and instead puts the words “exact fit” into Gore’s mouth.
Judge Burton plays a similar trick regarding Gore’s references to the destruction from Hurricane Katrina and other powerful storms. Burton claims that there is “insufficient evidence” to support Gore’s supposed claim that global warming caused Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans.
But Gore never makes that direct connection. He does show footage of extreme weather from around the globe, which many scientists believe has been made worse by rising temperatures, but Gore never specifically attributes Katrina or the other examples of flooding to global warming.
Again, Burton has set up a straw man and knocked it down.
Burton faults Gore, too, for attributing the disappearance of snow caps on Mt. Kilimanjaro and the drying up of Lake Chad to global warming. The judge ruled that scientists haven’t established that the receding of ice and the worsening of droughts are primarily attributable to human-caused climate change.
Regarding Lake Chad, Burton said “it is apparently considered to be far more likely to result from other factors, such as population increase and over-grazing, and regional climate variability,” the Telegraph reported.
While Burton is entitled to his scientific opinions, Gore’s concern that warming temperatures have reduced snow cover and contributed to faster evaporation of water is not a particularly controversial point of view.
Burton’s other cited “errors” are even more trivial. Gore is taken to task for saying that polar bears have been drowning because they face swims of up to 60 miles through open ice. Burton asserts that the confirmed cases show four bears drowning during storms, though he acknowledges that it makes sense to expect future drowning-related deaths of bears if ice caps continue to melt.
Gore’s last “error” supposedly was to warn that coral reefs were being bleached because of global warming and other factors. While agreeing with Gore that rising temperatures could increase coral bleaching and fatality, Burton ruled that it was difficult to separate the impact of climate change from other problems, such as pollution.
[For the full list of Burton’s alleged “errors,” see Telegraph (U,K.), Oct. 11, 2007.]
In other words, Burton appears to be a quirky judge who is prone to quibbling over minor nuances. But the larger significance of Burton’s ruling – as it is now championed by right-wing and mainstream U.S. news outlets – is that the vilification of Al Gore is not likely to cease, even with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize.
That also should be a cautionary lesson to Democrats seeking the White House. The political/media dynamic of Washington has changed little since Campaign 2000. The powerful right-wing news outlets still can make little controversies big and big controversies little.
Plus, major news outlets, like CNN and the Washington Post, continue to fall into line.
The Washington insider community also shows no serious readiness to reexamine its failures in the wake of George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency and the devastating Iraq War, which now even retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former top commander of coalition forces, calls a “nightmare with no end in sight.”
It’s all so much easier to continue making fun of Al Gore.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.