Skip to main content

Al Gore hurricane hubbub and climate change

By Gretchen Goldman, Special to CNN
updated 6:31 AM EDT, Mon August 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Washington Post corrected report that Al Gore cited creation of Category 6 storms
  • Gore was referring to a scientist's statement that such a category might be needed
  • Gretchen Goldman: It's safer to talk about scientifically clear data such as sea level rise
  • She says Gore's basic points were correct, including the rise in CO2 levels

Editor's note: Gretchen Goldman is an analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She blogs and you can follow her on Twitter: @GretchenTG

(CNN) -- When I was in fourth grade, I wrote Vice President Al Gore a letter about my passion for saving the planet. I was ecstatic when he wrote back. I believed then, as I do now, that he is a strong voice for science and the environment.

Since writing that letter as a 10-year-old, I've earned degrees in atmospheric science and environmental engineering. At the same time, I've learned to value the role that science plays in informing public policy.

Meanwhile, Al Gore has become the most visible champion of climate science in public life. He famously won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate education, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists that compiles climate research from around the world.

Gretchen Goldman
Gretchen Goldman

They and other scientists have concluded that human activity -- primarily burning fossil fuels -- puts heat-trapping emissions into the atmosphere that makes heat waves more extreme, increases global sea level, and alters historic precipitation patterns.

Unfortunately, Vice President Gore took some heat for some comments he made about hurricanes and climate change in an interview with the Washington Post. Initially, the paper misquoted him as saying a new "Category Six" was being added to the familiar hurricane scale, which maxes out at Category Five. Category Five storms are those that have sustained winds of more than 157 miles per hour.

As Jason Samenow, the paper's weather editor, pointed out, there are no plans by the National Hurricane Center -- the federal office responsible for categorizing storms -- to create a new category. Later though, we found out that Gore merely indicated that some scientists were "proposing" a new category. Although there is no official proposal on the table, in recent years, at least one scientist has publicly stated the scale might need to be changed. For his part, Samenow later retracted the balance of his criticism

This isn't the first time there's been a public back-and-forth over the science linking hurricanes and climate change. Scientific understanding there is still evolving. And we know that even a sub-Category One storm can be terribly destructive, especially when riding atop rising seas.

How cities fight climate change
Scientists 95% sure on climate change

When discussing science, politicians -- and scientists -- should lead with what we know with more confidence. In the case of climate change, scientists know with great certainty that sea level is rising. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), global average sea level has risen 8 inches over the past century. And new NOAA coastal planning tools show that the United States can expect an additional rise of a foot or more in the next few decades. By the end of the century, scientists find, we can expect 3 feet or more, depending on how much more we overload our atmosphere with carbon.

In human terms, that means many places we now call home will face growing risks from encroaching seas, including iconic shore towns and boardwalks and major cities like Miami. In the short term, we know sea-level rise is making every coastal storm, including hurricanes, more damaging and more deadly.

The hubbub has also distracted from important points Gore made in the rest of the interview. The rest of Gore's interview was accurate -- and important. He correctly explained that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the chief heat-trapping gas, continue to rise. Countries, including the United States, are far behind the pledges they made to limit warming.

He also pointed out growing support at the local level for dealing with climate change. Communities from Florida to New Jersey are already grappling with how to zone and build and plan in a world of higher temperature and rising seas.

Fortunately, there's increasing discomfort with rejections of climate science among the political class. While some supporters of climate policy reform occasionally overstate the effects climate change will have on extreme weather, opponents of climate policy often go completely off the rails, accusing scientists of possible criminal behavior and rejecting the reality of climate change itself. The latter actions are far more damaging to dialogue around climate policy. In fact, they poison our public discourse. You can't deal with a problem if you refuse to acknowledge it exists.

The reaction to Gore's words -- scorn from his detractors and defense from his allies -- demonstrates just how broken the discussion has become. Our national discourse around climate change has fallen victim to growing political polarization and the outsize influence of special interests on our democracy. Far too many politicians are scared of even acknowledging climate change.

Thankfully, there are some depolarizing voices in the debate, such as former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-South Carolina. He takes the science as a given and is pushing for climate policies that differ from those President Barack Obama recently announced. In other words, he's willing to have a real debate that respects the science.

Those are the conversations we deserve, not more public arguments about the science. And I know my fourth-grade-self would agree.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gretchen Goldman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT