Et tu quoque Al Gore

John Tierney, no friend of the global warming camp, discusses “carbon footprints” this morning in his “Times Select” column (sorry, no free access). Al Gore he says:

He advises you to change your light bulbs, insulate your home, and cut back on driving and air travel. If you must make a trip, he notes helpfully, “buses provide the cheapest and most energy-efficient transportation for long distances.”

And yet,

Fine advice, and it would be even better if he journeyed to his lectures exclusively on Greyhound. But he seems to prefer cars and planes. When you tally up his international travel to inspect melting glaciers and the domestic trips between his homes — one in Washington and another in Nashville, not to mention the family farm in rural Tennessee featured in the movie — you’re looking at a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint.

Tierney doesn’t draw the fallacious conclusion–that Al Gore’s position (we should reduce our carbon footprints) is false. Instead he seems to be suggesting the conclusion, which is not necessarily fallacious, that “Al Gore is a hypocrite.”

We should note that although this is not necessarily fallacious, it isn’t obvious that the evidence above provides good reason to believe that Al Gore is in fact a hypocrite. In fact, Al Gore–much to the chagrin of many environmentalists–has always favored various market solutions to carbon emissions:

Gore and David say they offset their energy usage by sponsoring reductions in greenhouse gases through alternative forms of power and energy conservation (like building wind farms and paying farmers to turn methane into electricity).

But, how does Tierney argue that this isn’t sufficient? By invoking the judgment of a more radical environmentalist position:

Quoting Gandhi — “Be the change you want to see in the world” — Komanoff says his fellow environmentalists should stop offering “get out of purgatory free” cards [carbon offsets] to the rich and instead insist that everyone personally reduce energy use.

So apparently, Gore’s position is not internally hypocritical, though Komanoff disagrees with it. Nonetheless, Tierney thinks that if you want to work to reduce carbon emissions you must accept Komanoff’s positions:

I’m not such a purist myself — I’d let the average person salve his conscience with a carbon indulgence. But I’d hold environmentalist preachers like Gore to higher standards, especially when they’re engaging in unnecessary energy use.

The tu quoque fallacy is an interesting one. If one is too explicit with the fallacy, it isn’t very effective. But subtle forms of it–like Tierney’s here–which assert hypocrisy and therefore suggest that the messenger and the message are somehow compromised are very effective. Most readers of Tierney’s column will probably conclude that because Al Gore is a hypocrite his arguments and prescriptions do not need to be taken seriously.

One thought on “Et tu quoque Al Gore”

  1. Tierney is overlooking the obvious utilitarian justification that Gore could offer for his personal energy expenditures. Perhaps Gore could have taken Greyhounds to all of his speaking engagements (London, Sydney, Paris, North Pole), but the travel times (and possible drowning) would have reduced the efficacy of his message, which consists of the promotion of a film that will be forgotten in another year or so, judging by the public’s short attention span.

    As Dr. Anderson points out, the tu quoque argument is not always fallacious. It can be used effectively to discredit the credibility of a particular person’s promises, motives, etc. The demonstration of this argument can undermine a person’s character when a person’s character is the important subject under consideration. However, no one can seriously question a scientific finding based on the researcher’s motives for undertaking the investigation. The facts are still real (if they are true), even if the researcher undertook the investigation for fame, recognition, tenure, etc.

    If Tierney’s argument is merely meant to prove that Gore is a hypocrite, then Tierney fails. Gore can easily justify his travel allowances to the expediency they offer. As far as his homes are concerned, Tierney doesn’t provide any evidence that Gore overuses energy. Perhaps a copy of his power bill would help.

    These issues are meant to sidestep the real question that we should be asking: Should Al Gore’s character be the key criteria for believing the scientific evidence pointing toward global warming? Obviously not.

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