The Scary Seas
What isn’t so cinematic is the real story of sea level increases.
NASA has an online tracker of ocean levels that shows monthly changes back to January 1993. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was Gore’s first month as vice president). NASA shows the sea rose about 6 millimeters during 1993. A visual representation of this depth would be four pennies stacked on top of each other.
While net sea change has been upward, and (according to NASA) happening “as a result of human-caused global warming,” the tracker also shows a few sharp declines. During one 10-month period from June 2010 through April 2011 the ocean dropped 9.1 millimeters. That equates to the thickness of a stack of six pennies.
NASA’s full 30 years of measurements since January 1993 adds up to a total net gain in sea level of 103 millimeters. That’s about the height of a coffee mug.
Averaged on a yearly basis, the annual upward trend works out to 3.43 millimeters, a depth less than the thickness of two quarters stacked atop each other. At that rate, total sea level increases over the next 100 years will equal 13 inches.
To put that in perspective, NASA reports the ocean rose about 8 inches over the previous 122 years, while nearly all of the world confronted much bigger problems.
If Gore had wished to honestly portray the relative degree of peril we face, he might have held up a ruler and warned us (accurately) that those living near sea level will need to continue developing coastal defenses sufficient to hold back just a little bit more seawater over the next century.
He could have reminded us that adaptation is feasible, has been going on for a long time, and is not very frightening. About one-third of the Netherlands sits below sea level, some of it 22 feet below. Sand dunes, dikes and pumps keep the ocean right where the Dutch want it. They’ll likely find and deploy even better solutions in the future.
However honest it may have been for Gore to portray this global challenge with tiny stacks of coins and nods to the brilliance of the Netherlands, that wasn’t going to win Oscars and other prizes.
So instead, he showed the consequences of a wildly hypothetical 20-foot increase in sea level. This was done with an alarmist video showing Manhattan, most of Florida, Beijing, Shanghai, and many other regions being submerged under the waves.
At the current rate of sea level increase, it will take 1,800 years for the ocean to go up another 20 feet.
Let’s say the annual average pace of sea rise quadruples, from the thickness of two quarters stacked atop each other to the thickness of eight quarters. That still puts the 20-foot total increase at 450 years away.
What would happen in 450 years: Obviously, a lot has been invented since 1573, when even the fiercest warships were still relying on weather-dependent wind power. (But hey, it was renewable!)
And Bible scholars estimate the Gospel of John was written roughly 1,900 years ago, so there is no easily recognizable technological marker to properly convey progress over the last 1,800 years.
If human ingenuity was sufficient to accidentally cause the ocean to rise somewhat more over the past mere century or so, then we have a lot of time left to develop better and cheaper ways to abate, adapt to, or even reverse the process.
In 2007 a British judge ruled there were nine important factual errors presented in An Inconvenient Truth that made it unsuitable for the nation’s schoolchildren unless accompanied by materials to correct the mistakes. The court ruled that the bit about sea level increases was “distinctly alarmist.”
How does Gore justify spinning such a hysterical hypothetical into one supposedly imminent catastrophe?
The 20-foot sea level increase was introduced with this preamble: “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 . . .”
A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that under even their worst-case warming scenario it will take until the end of the current century for ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica combined to add half a meter of sea level increase.
Compared to 20 feet, this worst-case scenario is a little more than 20 inches over the next 77 years. And under the least alarming estimate provided, the IPCC pegs the contribution to be just 1.6 inches through the end of the century.
It wouldn’t be box office gold to show Manhattan finding a way to carefully adapt to a few inches of sea level increase over the length of an average human lifetime.
So instead, Gore decided to explain what happens when 20 feet of extra water washes the world away:
After the horrible events of 9/11 we said, “Never again.” But this is what would happen to Manhattan. They can measure this precisely, just as the scientists could predict precisely how much water would breach the levees in New Orleans. The area where the World Trade Center Memorial is to be located would be under water. Is it possible that we should prepare against other threats besides terrorists? Maybe we should be concerned about other problems as well.
This was an unpleasantly revealing moment because of what it implied about the man’s priorities.
If Gore had collected another 600 votes in Florida during the 2000 election, he would have been president during the 9/11 attacks. And here he was, five years later, selling a mad Doomsday fantasy as a threat co-equal with a mass murder fresh in the minds of an audience who had lived through it.
In a wide field with many options, this may have been the most deplorable moment in An Inconvenient Truth.
In the next installment, Gore opposes increased use of natural gas, which has reduced annual American carbon emissions.