RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Former Vice President Al Gore goes to Capitol Hill today to testify on climate change.
He'll appear before a joint meeting of two house committees. Gore has championed the issue of global warming for decades and he has books and an Oscar-winning documentary to his credit. Now that he is firmly in the spotlight on this issue, so are his detractors.
They include some scientists who are concerned about global warming, but have raised questions about Al Gore's data and some of his conclusions. We've asked NPR science correspondent Richard Harris to help us sort through some of the questions. Good morning, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Would you say that Al Gore - given all of his history with this subject - is a credible voice on global climate change?
HARRIS: Well, he is a lay person. He is not a scientist, and he's careful to say that. But that said, he does get the big picture very well. Most scientists say he really can see the forest for the trees, as one person put it.
Human activities are contributing to climate change, those changes will become more pronounced as the time goes on, and it is possible that those changes could be severe. But that said, scientists do quibble a little bit about some of the facts that he draws to make those arguments.
MONTAGNE: Give us some examples, then, of some of the concerns that scientists have.
HARRIS: Okay. Well, for example, I saw Al Gore give a talk at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last December. And he was cheered by this enormous audience of scientists who were really excited to hear his message that, you know, it's time to take global warming seriously, et cetera, et cetera. But after the talk, a couple of them came up to me and said, you know, he didn't exactly get the science right in the sense that Gore said that Arctic ice could be gone entirely in 34 years, and he made it seem like a really precise prediction.
And there are scary predictions about what's going to happen to Arctic sea ice in the summertime, but no one can say 34 years. That just implies a degree of certainty that's not there. And that made a few scientists a bit uncomfortable to hear him say that, making it sound so precise.
MONTAGNE: And there are also questions about Al Gore's estimates as to how much the sea levels will rise.
HARRIS: Yes, in fact, in his documentary he talks about the fact that what the world will look like - Florida and New York - when the sea level rises by 20 feet. But he deftly avoids mentioning the time frame for which that might happen. And when you look at the forecast of sea-level rise, no one's expecting 20 feet of sea level rise in the next couple of centuries, at least. So that's another thing that makes scientists a little bit uneasy. True, we have to be worried about global sea-level rise, but it's not going to happen probably as fast as he implies in his movie.
MONTAGNE: And one other dramatic moment in the film has to do with Hurricane Katrina - very dramatic.
HARRIS: Indeed. And he implies, essentially - he never says - but he implies that Katrina is due to human-induced global warming. And I think if a scientist were to talk about this, most scientists say these are the kinds of things that we expect to see more of as a result of global warming. But people are careful not to attribute specific storms or events to global warming.
Again, Gore doesn't do that exactly, but he sort of leaves the impression. And it's a very lawyerly way he does this. He doesn't - if you actually read it word for word, you can't say, this he said wrong. But he leaves the impression that Katrina was global warming, and I think scientists don't go that far.
MONTAGNE: So is this partly cultural in the sense that scientists do, by nature and by profession, care about all of the details?
HARRIS: I think it's partly cultural. And I think that in that sense, Al Gore is very well attuned to the culture of Washington, D.C. And the culture of Washington, D.C. is don't do anything unless there is a crisis.
And that's been the problem with global warming for all these years, is that it's something serious to be worried about - the worst-case scenarios are pretty scary. But Al Gore has realized that if you want to get attention, you really have to focus on the crisis, and you have to make people worry about things maybe a little bit more than scientists would say.
MONTAGNE: Is there some element of - if you will - professional jealousy here?
HARRIS: Among the scientists? No. I think the scientists are actually pretty grateful by and large that Gore has succeeded in bringing their issue to the public's attention. But scientists do care very much about how precise the details are. And when it's not exactly right, they, you know, they bristle a little bit. But, you know, it's the difference between a popularizer like Gore, and scientists, who really for whom the details really are what's most important.
MONTAGNE: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Former Vice President Al Gore goes to Capitol Hill today to testify on climate change. And, Richard, thanks for joining us.
HARRIS: It's my pleasure.