Of polar bears and 'censorship'
When is "silencing" a journalist censorship, or simple fairness?
The blogosphere is still reverbrating about the verbal scuffle last Friday between former Vice President Al Gore and an Irish filmmaker over the status of polar bears and the global warming skeptic's subsequent stifling at the Society of Environmental Journalists' conference in Madison, Wisconsin.
I had more than a ringside seat on the incident, as it turns out. I was the one who asked the filmmaker, Phelim McAleer, to stop hogging the microphone and sit down. As a member of the board of director of the society, I was there to see that working journalists and society members - who'd paid to attend the five-day conference - got a chance to ask their questions.
McAleer had every right to pose his question, and to follow it up when Gore didn't answer it directly. (To be fair, the issue raised by McAleer was hardly new - he brought up a British judge's finding in 2007 that Gore's award-winning film "An Inconvenient Truth" contained assertions about climate change that did not reflect the mainstream scientific consensus - though the judge did not dispute the film's main point that emissions from human activity are warming the planet.) You can watch a video of the exchange between Gore and McAleer here or listen to the entire speech and Q&A here (note: big file).
McAleer, it should be pointed out, has co-produced a film that claims to expose "the true cost of global warming hysteria." He and others have used the widely publicized incident at the society's conference to plug his film, "Not Evil Just Wrong," which is scheduled for official release in the next several days.
That aside, he was not asked to sit down because he was putting Gore on the spot, but because there were about 10 others waiting behind him to ask questions. The filmmaker and the former vice president had begun to repeat themselves, and time was growing short. I posted to an unofficial SEJ blog over the weekend, summarizing the episode, which you can read here.
McAleer later complained to me that he shouldn't have been cut off because Gore hadn't answered his question. Environmental journalists should be asking tough questions, not protecting politicians like Gore, he argued. I agree. That's why he was able to ask his question in the first place - SEJ insisted that Gore answer questions as a condition of his appearance, something he has only rarely done. McAleer even got a chance to follow it up, but when it became clear their repetitive exchange was going nowhere, I decided it was time to move on. None of the other questions posed to Gore was as pointed, but then again, there was only time for a few more after McAleer finally took his seat.
As for the substance of the mini-debate between Gore and the filmmaker, the former vice president asserted polar bears were endangered, while his questioner countered that their numbers are increasing. McAleer may have a point, of sorts, but the weight of scientific judgment again is in Gore's favor.
Polar bears in the US are officially classified as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act - a decision made by the Bush administration, which was otherwise accused by environmentalists and scientists of foot-dragging in dealing with climate change. The bears' protection under federal law stems from scientists' findings that sea ice is melting in the Arctic, threatening to deprive the bears of the ability to find enough food to sustain themelves. The government scientists found that unless the ice stops melting so rapidly in summer, the bears' status will deteriorate to "endangered,'' at imminent risk of disappearing.
Climate change skeptics frequently argue that polar bears have increased from an estimated 5,000 worldwide in the 1960s or '70s to somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 today. Bear specialists discount the eariler estimate as little more than a guess, though, noting that there were no coordinated international efforts to assess the bears back then. They generally agree the bear population may have increased some in that time, though just as likely for other reasons, such as hunting restrictions. You can read more on that here.
The status of polar bears throughout the Arctic today varies, the experts say, but the overall trend is not good. There are some 19 different "sub-populations" of bears in the US, Canada, Greenland and Russia. Meeting earlier this year in Copenhagen, where climate treaty negotiators will gather in December, polar bear specialists found only 1 of those 19 groups was increasing in number, while three are stable and eight are decreasing. The group reiterated a warning it had issued four years ago that unabated global warming will ultimately threaten polar bears everywhere.
Now you have the facts - from my perspective, at least - behind Friday's Warholian kerfluffle, the latest sideshow in the serious questions swirling around climate change and the policy response. Judge for yourself if it was worth letting Gore and his interrogator continue to talk past each other - or time to move on to those other questions.
(AP file photos)