By Willard MacDonald
I was compelled to write this article when my father sent me the book Inconvenient Facts — The Science that Al Gore Doesn’t Want You to Know by Gregory Wrightstone. He said it contained compelling arguments for why climate change is not really a problem and, in fact, demonstrates that we are being misled by a liberal agenda to scare the world into fighting a false threat. My father has an MBA from Harvard, an engineering degree from Cornell, and has been CEO of half a dozen companies. He’s smart, accomplished, and well-read. He’s also an open-minded man willing to adjust his own opinions in light of new information he encounters. Prior to reading this book, he believed that climate change was real, man-made, and required urgent attention. He and I even started a solar company together, both of us motivated by the desire to help address climate change.
My initial response to my father’s assertions about the book was surprise that he would question the truth about climate change. But then, as I thought about it, I became excited that maybe it could be true, and the world is, in fact, not heading toward climate disaster. I have a lot of fears about what we are doing to our world, and I hoped that Wrightstone was actually right. Maybe he had written the most important expose in modern times. Wouldn’t that be wonderful for us all? So, I read the book.
Wrightstone’s book has two basic messages: 1) climate change is happening, but it’s not human-caused so there’s no point in modifying our behavior; and 2) global warming is, in fact, a good thing because historically human societies perform better in warmer climates, crops grow better with more CO2, and because it will help counter the next ice age. The back cover reads, “The book’s 60 “inconvenient facts” come from government sources, peer-reviewed literature or scholarly works, set forth in a way that is lucid and entertaining. The information likely will challenge your current understanding of many apocalyptic predictions about our ever-dynamic climate“ (see: Wrightstone, 2017 in references at bottom).
I was compelled, as I read the book, to check his claims and interpretations of his sources. I pulled up the same raw data sets and scientific articles he cites. What I found was a fascinating and tragic window into the world of climate denial.
Inconvenient Facts claims, over and over, to be based in science and emphasizes the importance of the scientific method; however, the author does not, himself, use the scientific method in his own analysis. There are no references to any peer-reviewed journal articles by Wrightstone himself. Many of his “inconvenient facts” are non-controversial statements. In fact, most of them are actually true. It’s the conclusions that he draws from the “facts” that are not supported by peer-reviewed journal papers — they’re just his own misleading opinions.
I emphasize the importance of scientific articles being peer-reviewed because this is a key part of what upholds the validity of science. An author can’t get away with making outrageous or false claims because the scientific journals won’t publish it unless a random selection of scientists from the same field agree that it is valid science. Wrightstone does include some peer-reviewed references, but they are either just references to raw data that is non-controversial, to outdated reports, or to papers that he misrepresents. On the flip side, by including these references, he is giving the appearance of legitimacy to his readers. When there are references supporting his extreme claims, they are to other non-scientific, non-peer-reviewed publications. Many of his assertions are the same we hear repeatedly from other climate deniers.
Wrightstone does ask some important and interesting questions in his book: Are the recent high levels of CO2 anomalous when we look back over the history of the earth? Are rising temperatures correlated with rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere? Is global warming actually a problem for the world? These are all important questions to ask, and legitimate climate scientists have asked them for years. Their findings are backed by data and are subject to the scrupulous peer-review scientific process.
Wrightstone, however, employs no such rigorous methods. He cherry-picks data and leaps to conclusions that are not supported by legitimate science. In fact, almost every page of his book includes incorrect or misleading interpretations of data or science.
The book is organized around his 60 “Inconvenient Facts,” many of which are actually true. But he uses them to support seven basic high-level myths. Wrightstone’s approach is to state a number of the “facts” that relate to a myth that he is trying to promote. He then makes illogical or inappropriate leaps in his logic to reach his mythical conclusions.
The myths appear to be supported by the “facts” when in reality he is tricking the reader with his sleight-of-hand logic. It’s just like the magician who gains the trust of his audience by showing how meticulously he shuffles the deck or how there is nothing in his hands; then, at the last minute he makes a slight unnoticed movement that slips in a new card or picks up two cards instead of one.
Wrightstone presents a number of true facts to build credibility and trust on a topic, and then from those true facts deduces an incorrect conclusion. The casual reader can easily overlook the misdirection. Climate science is complicated, and most readers are not equipped with the background or the time to investigate claims that, when written with authority, sound truthful. Most assume that if there are a handful of obviously true underlying statements, a reference to some book, article, or scholarly paper, and some logic to the argument, then the claim is valid. This opens-up the opportunity for readers to be misled and for those who hope that climate change is not as bad as it sounds to find support for their hopeful thinking.
Myth 1 — Since the history of the earth includes periods of significantly higher CO2 and temperature, we shouldn’t worry.
About 25% of Wrightstone’s “inconvenient facts” use a line of argument that compares modern levels of CO2, temperature, and ocean acidity to the historically high levels on geological time-scales. He argues that if levels were higher many years ago before humans existed or before the industrial revolution, then humans are not the cause of modern high levels, so there’s nothing we can do about it, and we shouldn’t worry because it’s all happened before.
Wrightstone states “The 40% increase [in CO2 levels], from 280 ppm in 1750 to 406 ppm in 2017, is widely recognized to be mainly man-made” (see: Wrightstone, 2017). This is a great start. The question he poses is whether this is abnormal or a problem. His primary approach is to compare the increases in CO2 of the last 100 years to CO2 levels over the past 400 thousand, 140 million, and 600 million years. It is true that on those time scales CO2 levels have been all over the map, and recent levels don’t appear out of the ordinary. There were times when CO2 levels were very low (182 ppm during the last ice age), and times when they were very high (2,600 ppm on average in the preceding 600 million years). Wrightstone notes:
It should be obvious to the impartial observers of the long-term data that, rather than experiencing excessively high levels of carbon dioxide, we are in fact in a period of CO2 starvation. While short historical periods are used to support apocalyptic visions of life in a world with slightly increased CO2, perspective is everything: the increase of ~120 ppm since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is barely recognizable when viewed in the context of a longer section of the Earth’s CO2 history. (see: Wrightstone, 2017)
The image below from Wrightstone’s book, shows dramatically higher CO2 levels compared to today going back 140 million years.