Unpicking a Gish-Gallop: former Greenpeace figure Patrick Moore on climate change

Who recently said this?

"If we stopped using fossil fuel today, or by 2020 as Al Gore proposes, at least half the human population would perish and there wouldn't be a tree left on the planet with[in] a year, as people struggled to find enough energy to stay alive."

And some people call us 'alarmists'!!

The excerpt comes from a recent piece in the Conservative-leaning Washington Times, to which links are being circulated in the certain quarters of the Blogosphere. The source? Patrick Moore - not the famous TV astronomer, but a former early member of Greenpeace, with which he was involved at various levels between 1971 and 1986, before leaving the organisation to take up salmon-farming in British Columbia and then going on to become involved in PR consultancy for various industries. He managed to exasperate his former organisation sufficiently to have a press release dedicated to him in 2008, and two years later he came under journalist George Monbiot's beady eye in this article, published in The Guardian. Now he's back, with an interview entitled 'Patrick Moore on the facts and fiction of climate change'. Reading down the page, beyond the paragraph from which the above statement was taken, one is treated to a classic example of a well-known debating tactic, the so-called Gish-Gallop. As this is a frequently used ploy by fake-sceptics, it's worth using this example to explore what a Gish-Gallop is and how it works.


Duane Gish (b. 1921) is an American biochemist and a prominent member of the creationist movement. A former vice-president of the Institute for Creation Research and the author of numerous publications on the subject, Gish is well-known for relishing confrontational publicly staged debates with evolutionists, employing a technique where arguments and topics are presented in a rapid-fire but scattergun manner for a prolonged period. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, has dubbed this approach the "Gish Gallop," describing it as "where the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn't a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate". The phrase has stuck and indeed so has the tactic, being used in front of audiences by all manner of advocates of all manner of things from creationism to 'faked' moon landings to climate change denial, where it is a popular way of appearing to be winning a debate. The word 'appearing' is the important one here.


When one is stuck in a live debate and faced with such a torrent, Eugenie Scott is quite correct. However, when a Gish-Gallop appears in print, it's a bit easier to unpick at leisure. In the Washington Times piece, interviewer Joseph Cotto asked a straightforward question:

Cotto: In the past, you have said that human activity is not the only cause for climate change. What do you believe is the greatest contributing factor?

What followed was a 631-word volley of disconnected factoids spliced together with pieces of meaningless arm-waving. If this were a live debate, answering the points in detail would be impossible (for the purpose of the Gish-Gallop is just that). However, here we have the advantage that an example has been provided in writing. So let's take our time, split the whole thing into individual, numbered italicised points (I've put horizontal lines between each one to make it a little easier to follow) and examine them for their accuracy. Moore opens fire with:

[1] First, we don't know precisely how the many factors affecting climate contribute and interact in producing the earth's climate at any given time.

Reality: Arm-waving. We have a good understanding of the prime drivers of planetary climate.

[2] The cause of the onset of Ice-Ages, one of which we are presently experiencing, is a puzzle we don't fully understand.

Reality: Whilst there are many areas of interesting research with respect to the glacial-interglacial cycles of the Quaternary, we have a good understanding of the primary drivers i.e. orbital variations occurring over cycles of tens of thousands of years. We also have a good understanding of the feedbacks and how they interact e.g. warming between glacials and interglacials is amplified by carbon dioxide released as permafrost melts. Of course, we are currently in an interglacial, and the last glacial is often referred-to as the ice-age. Presumably Moore is referring to all of the Quaternary here, because we are most certainly not in a glacial phase right now!

[3] I explain in my presentations that as a scientist who is fully qualified to understand climate change, I seem dumber than the people who say they "know" the answers because I do not profess to know the future, especially of something so complicated as the global climate.

Reality: Again, this is meaningless arm-waving. Projections of future climate changes in different emissions-scenarios are accompanied by error-bars representing the range of uncertainty. We have a good understanding of the range of possibilities and the uncertainties involved. If Moore is 'fully qualified to understand climate change' then he ought to understand that.

[4] One thing is certain, there is no "scientific proof" as the term is generally understood, that human emissions are the main cause of climate change today. Even the IPCC only claims that it is "very likely" (a judgement, in their own words, not a proof) that human emissions are responsible for "most" of the warming "since the mid-20th century" (1950).

Reality: There is no such thing as scientific proof so this point is simply nonsensical. However, the notion of 'proof' is a frequently-seen misconception about science. Science does not 'prove' things: it validates or falsifies theories by the weight of evidence. Proof only exists in pure mathematics and logic, as explained in this very readable piece in Psychology Today, written by Satoshi Kanazawa. This is why the IPCC uses terms like 'very likely'. It's the language of probability. To explain further: if you try to run blindfold across a busy motorway, it's very likely you will be run over and seriously injured or killed. It's not 100% certain, but just how lucky do you feel?

[5] Therefore they [IPCC] are not claiming that humans caused the 0.4C warming between 1910-1940, but they are claiming that we are the main cause of the 0.4C warming between 1970 and 2000. Yet they provide no opinion as to what did cause the warming between 1910-1940. There is a logical inconsistency here that has never been addressed.

Reality: Wrong again.  From AR4, Working Group 1, Chapter 9:

"A number of studies detect the influence of external forcings on early 20th-century warming, including a warming from anthropogenic forcing. Both natural forcing and response are uncertain, and different studies find different forcings dominant. Some studies indicate that internal variability could have made a large contribution to early 20th-century warming. Some observational uncertainty in early 20th-century trend (Sections,; Figures 9.4, 9.5)."

[6] It is also important to note that the IPCC does not speak of "catastrophe", that is left to the fanatics and perpetual doom-sayers.

Reality: Wrong again. In the AR4, working group 3 devotes an entire sub-section to the risk of 'catastrophic or abrupt change.'

[7] The causes of climate change are first the sun, as it is responsible for the existence of climate. Then there are many cycles of earth rotation around the sun and on its own axis. Then there is the chemistry of the atmosphere which seems to be the only factor that matters, and only CO2 concentration, for the true believers/warmists/climate catastrophists etc.

Reality: This is a mixture of accurate and inaccurate points. Firstly, the sun is a cause of climate change, but it is not responsible for the existence of climate. Here, Moore appears to misunderstand what climate actually is. If Earth were somehow blasted into interstellar space, it would still have a climate - it would be an iceball. The orbital cycles are, as mentioned above, recognised to be of importance in the glacial-interglacial cycles of the Quaternary. The chemistry of the atmosphere is a third prime driver of the Earth's climate. Solar activity has been in slight decline since the late 1970s whilst temperatures have trended steeply upwards. The orbital cycles work over many millennia. Indeed, out of the three prime drivers, the only one that has seen major changes in the past few decades is the chemistry of the atmosphere, as a consequence of the emissions from burning fossil fuels. The point ends in more arm-waving.

[8] What most people don't realize, partly because the media never explains it, is that there is no dispute over whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and all else being equal would result in a warming of the climate.

Reality: Inaccurate. Many elements of the media have explained the properties of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas clearly and concisely, although there are some other elements that still try to pretend it's all a great big hoax. Whilst there is no dispute in mainstream science about the properties of carbon dioxide, among the climate change 'skeptics', there are two clear camps: those who accept that the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect is real (but who argue that the effect is small) and those who refuse to accept that the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect even exists!

[9] The fundamental dispute is about water in the atmosphere, either in the form of water vapour (a gas) or clouds (water in liquid form). It is generally accepted that a warmer climate will result in more water evaporating from the land and sea and therefore resulting in a higher level of water in the atmosphere, partly because the warmer the air is the more water it can hold.

Reality: We both agree that warmer air can hold and transport more moisture. This is expressed by the Clausius-Clapeyron Relation, something that has been understood since the 19th Century, as noted in part 1 of our History of Climate Science. But I will address your 'fundamental dispute' in the points below where you attempt to make a case for it.

[10] All of the models used by the IPCC assume that this increase in water vapour will result in a positive feedback in the order of 3-4 times the increase in temperature that would be caused by the increase in CO2 alone.

Reality: Wrong. Models don't "assume". They model.  3-4 times? Wrong again. The net feedback roughly triples the CO2 forcing, but water vapor, while being the biggest single feedback, is just one of a number of feedbacks.  The water vapour feedback roughly doubles the CO2 forcing. Skeptical Science covered this in 2007 in a piece entitled 'Evaporating the Water Vapour Argument'.

[11] Many scientists do not agree with this, or do not agree that we know enough about the impact of increased water to predict the outcome.

Reality: Given how wrong the previous statement is, it is not surprising that many scientists wouldn't agree with it!

[12] Some scientists believe increased water will have a negative feedback instead, due to increased cloud cover. It all depends on how much, and a t what altitudes, latitudes and times of day that water is in the form of a gas (vapour) or a liquid (clouds). So if  a certain increase in CO2 would theoretically cause a 1.0C increase in temperature, then if water caused a 3-4 times positive feedback the temperature would actually increase by 3-4C. This is why the warming predicted by the models is so large.

Reality: You can count the number of climate scientists who believe water vapour feedback to be negative on one hand (out of thousands). Then we're back to the plain wrong stuff again: it has already been pointed out above that 3-4 times positive feedback from water vapour is incorrect (it's roughly 2x). So that is not why modelling has produced scenarios with larger temperature rises. Skeptical Science has covered cloud feedback here, and as an interesting aside, amongst many papers on this subject, Dessler has a new paper on water vapour feedbacks in the Journal of Climate.

[13] Whereas if there was a negative feedback of 0.5 times then the temperature would only rise 0.5C.

Reality: The data say otherwise: it's already gone beyond 0.5C

Ten temperature records


[14] The global average temperature has now been flat for the past 15 years, as all the while CO2 emissions have continued to increase.

Reality: Did global warming stop in 1998, 1995, 2002, 2007, 2010 (select unusually warm year of choice as start-point)? We take a look here and here. It did not: the entire planet is accumulating heat due to an energy imbalance. Oceans are accumulating energy. Land absorbs energy and ice absorbs heat to melt - as witnessed by the unusually-strong melt-out of Arctic sea ice this year. What Moore does here is to pick a short timescale with a start-point cherrypicked for its notable warmth, due to the global warming trend being powerfully superimposed by the exceptionally strong 1997-98 El Nino. Similar highpoints have occurred in the past too: let's use a graphic to highlight the problem with short-termism when interpreting climate trends, which are defined as over 30 years or more:

How Realists view global warming

[15] There are only 2 possible explanations for [this], either there is some equally powerful natural factor that is suppressing the warming that should be caused by CO2, or CO2 is only a minor contributor to warming in the first place.

Reality: On short-term timelines, there are powerful natural factors that can potentially suppress temperatures: big volcanic eruptions, strong La Nina episodes and so on. If the background warming trend is around 0.2C per decade, El Nino and La Nina, with their potential +0.3C to -0.3C influences on annual average temperatures respectively, can obviously mask that trend positively or negatively in years where they are strong. As noted above, 1997-98 saw an exceptionally strong El Nino, producing a consequent temperature high that has only in recent years been equalled - hence it being a popular start-point for the 'global average temperature has now been flat for the past 15 years' talking-point. Let's think of an analogy here: unemployment. Supposing a country had seen a brief crisis twenty years ago in which unemployment spiked at 20%, falling quickly back to a more normal level of 5%. Now let's suppose things were slowly going wrong again, with lots of job-losses on the news and unemployment slowly climbing over three years to 10% then 15%. If a Government minister then went on air to say that unemployment had fallen over the past 20 years, what would be your response? If printable, please add in the comments, below!

There was then a pause for breath as the interviewer asked a further question:

Cotto: Across the world, untold millions are very nervous about global warming. Do you believe it really is the sort of threat that many perceive it to be? Why or why not?

And straight off again..... the Gish-Gallop resumes for another 362 words:

[16] No. I do not believe alarmism and fear are the correct responses even if our emissions are causing some warming.

Reality: This is not a response to the question the interviewer asked! Nevertheless, nobody is advocating mass-outbreaks of alarmism: instead what is a sensible course is one of prudent risk management.

[17] In particular I do not believe it makes sense to adopt policies that would obviously cause more harm that the supposed "catastrophe" that might be caused by warming.

Reality: Neither would it make sense to execute all smokers in case they get cancer, but it would make sense to help them to quit. In other words, more arm-waving. In terms of policymaking, the benefits of reducing carbon emissions will significantly outweigh the costs, as explored in more detail here.

[18] The proposal to end fossil fuel use in a short time frame with no alternative is a classic example.

Reality: Name one major government who has made such a proposal, Patrick. None exists.

Some advocates may be suggesting a major and rapid transition away from fossil fuel dependency, but that is completely different from the 'no alternative' scenario that Moore portrays. For example, Al Gore has proposed in a 2008 speech that it would be possible for the USA to make the transition away from fossil fuels in a short timespan, but not without an alternative. He said:

"What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don't cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home?" and: "Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years."

This is both admirable and ambitious (after all, who wants a polluted world?), but let's compare Gore's vision of a clean energy future with Moore's, repeated from the top of this piece:

"If we stopped using fossil fuel today, or by 2020 as Al Gore proposes, at least half the human population would perish and there wouldn't be a tree left on the planet with[in] a year, as people struggled to find enough energy to stay alive."

The one is visionary and positive, the other takes negativity to the brink of hysteria.

[19] Many of the so-called "cures" for climate change would cause more damage to the patient that the so-called "disease".

Reality: This is repetition of the same debunked point for a third time. But we are about to rapidly switch themes. Rapid and apparently random theme-switches are an essential part of any effective Gish-Gallop:

[20] The climate has been considerably warmer throughout the history of modern life (550 million years) for most of the time than it is today.

Reality: This statement is basically meaningless because modern Human civilisation has developed within and is dependent upon a reasonably stable climate. For more on this favourite talking-point, see Climate's changed before.

[21] These were the Greenhouse Ages, often lasting 100 million years or more, when all the land was either tropical or subtropical. Not that many millions of years ago Canada's Arctic islands were covered in sub-tropical forests. There was no ice at either pole. The sea was considerably higher.

Reality: Yes there were prolonged periods during which a Hothouse climate prevailed. This is well understood. See our April 2012 post on Eocene Park. This is not somewhere we want to go quickly.

[22] Life flourished through these times.

Reality: Wrong because it is a vague over-generalisation. There were mass-extinctions associated with phases of rapid climate change. Rapid environmental change tends to cause mass-extinction events because the environment alters faster than the abilities of many species to adapt. Unfortunately, there is evidence that we may be entering another such event right now.

[23] They will say that humans are not adapted to such a warm climate, ignoring the fact that humans are a tropical species, and would not be able to live where there is frost without fire, clothing, and shelter.

Reality: Whilst hominids originated in Africa, they migrated and colonised many latitudes - including temperate and cool zones, well before the fossil fuels were widely used - as fake-sceptics are fond of pointing out, they even colonised southern Greenland on a temporary basis during Medieval times. However, we are not generally well-adapted to exist in certain climatic belts - hot and arid or permanently cold. In both cases, there is simply not enough food available locally to support large populations, although a relatively small number of semi-nomadic hunters and/or herders may eke out an existence. The key threat here involves the expansion of hot and arid conditions into areas that currently sustain large populations: failure of other animal and plant species (including those farmed for food) to adapt quickly enough to such changes and subsequent ecosystem/agricultural collapses would obviously have massive impacts upon us. To underplay this is grossly irresponsible.

[24] I believe that a 2.0C in global average warming, or even more, would be in balance beneficial, partly because most warming occurs where it is now cold and very little occurs in the tropics. This would make northern Canada and Siberia fertile, and it would increase the number of frost-free days for food production in the temperate zones.

Reality: If Moore believes this to be true then he should provide some evidence, not just unsubstantiated opinion. For example, if he knows a way of growing millions of tons of corn on recently thawed-out permafrost bog with the sunlight constraints of high northern latitudes, then he should let the rest of the world know! Fertility depends on deep rich soil development as much as it depends on temperature. More discussion on the topic of where we are heading here - and it sure ain't where Patrick says we are heading. But hey, it's time for another theme-switch:

[25] The polar bear might be reduced in numbers but the only reason they evolved in the first place was due to the present Ice Age.

Reality: So that disqualifies them from a continued existence, does it?

[26] Polar Bears are not even a distinct species, they are a variety of Brown (Grizzly) Bear.

Reality: Wrong. Polar Bear: Ursus maritimus. Grizzly Bear: subspecies of Ursus arctos. They are regarded as distinct species. 

[27] Some penguins that live on ice might dwindle but there are plenty of penguin species that do not depend on ice, In the Galapagos, Australia, and South America, for example.

Reality: Again, so that disqualifies them from a continued existence, does it? 

[28] I fear the irrational policies of extreme environmentalists far more that a warmer climate on this relatively cold planet (14.5 C global average temperature today compared with 25C during the Greenhouse Ages.

Reality: Perhaps you live at a reasonable elevation, well inland. We do not have to lose the polar ice-caps for disastrous sea-level rise to occur, given the number of major cities situated at or close to sea-level. A partial melt would be sufficient for the need to relocate millions and in addition the loss of fertile low-lying agricultural lands would have many severe consequences.

In conclusion, this is a barrage of meaningless arm-waving that links a series of statements that are almost entirely incorrect. It's political rhetoric, in other words, but rhetoric that does not stand up to scrutiny. However, this is not the first example of such from this source. In researching the background to this post, I discovered that Moore's opinings were being highlighted over at Climate Depot, a website that likes to disseminate climate change misinformation. There, I found another set of Moore quotes from a month or so earlier. Take a look at this:

"There is no 'abrupt' increase in CO2 absorption, it is gradual as CO2 levels rise and plants become less stressed by low CO2 levels. At 150 ppm CO2 all plants would die, resulting in virtual end of life on earth."

This is repeating a suggestion from James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, and - again - it is wrong. It is also irrelevant given that we have gone from 280 to nearly 400 ppm CO2 over the past 150 years and are still rising fast. Back to the science, and how plants respond to high (or low) carbon dioxide levels is an interesting enough topic to warrant a full post in its own right, given the amount of research that has been done in this field over recent years (hint - they do not die out at 150ppm), so stay tuned. In the meantime, the best advice would be to treat anything Patrick Moore says on climate change with due skepticism.

Posted by John Mason on Saturday, 25 August, 2012

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