Readers of the Nation are probably by now familiar with the lunatic ravings of Alexander Cockburn on global warming.
What is bizarre, is that, before he traveled down this road, he seemed able to identify other crank ideas – like 9/11 conspiracy theories, and criticized them. Further, it’s unusual to see a left-winger become a crank on global warming. The history of this mess is interesting. It started with this first post from Cockburn, in which he declares global warming a scam.
What evolves is a fascinating picture into the formation of a crank, and the change in global warming denialism from attracting only right-wing cranks, to also attracting left-wing cranks – both denigrating science to serve a political goal.
Below the fold I’ll summarize Cockburn’s arguments and how they use the denialist tactics, George Monbiot’s responses (including his amazing crank-fu!) and discuss why in the future we may start seeing global warming denialism from the left as well as the right.
It starts off with Cockburn’s article entitled From Papal Indulgences to Carbon Credits Is Global Warming a Sin?
He starts early with a false statement:
There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend.
He then presents his evidence starting with a cherry-pick of a single time-point (while ignoring a host of reasons for the result):
Now imagine two lines on a piece of graph paper. The first rises to a crest, then slopes sharply down, then levels off and rises slowly once more. The other has no undulations. It rises in a smooth, slowly increasing arc. The first, wavy line is the worldwide CO2 tonnage produced by humans burning coal, oil and natural gas. On this graph it starts in 1928, at 1.1 gigatons (i.e. 1.1 billion metric tons). It peaks in 1929 at 1.17 gigatons. The world, led by its mightiest power, the USA, plummets into the Great Depression, and by 1932 human CO2 production has fallen to 0.88 gigatons a year, a 30 per cent drop. Hard times drove a tougher bargain than all the counsels of Al Gore or the jeremiads of the IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change). Then, in 1933 it began to climb slowly again, up to 0.9 gigatons.
And the other line, the one ascending so evenly? That’s the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, parts per million (ppm) by volume, moving in 1928 from just under 306, hitting 306 in 1929, to 307 in 1932 and on up. Boom and bust, the line heads up steadily. These days it’s at 380.There are, to be sure, seasonal variations in CO2, as measured since 1958 by the instruments on Mauna Loa, Hawai’i. (Pre-1958 measurements are of air bubbles trapped in glacial ice.) Summer and winter vary steadily by about 5 ppm, reflecting photosynthesis cycles. The two lines on that graph proclaim that a whopping 30 per cent cut in man-made CO2 emissions didn’t even cause a 1 ppm drop in the atmosphere’s CO2. Thus it is impossible to assert that the increase in atmospheric CO2 stems from human burning of fossil fuels.
You see, based on about 4 years of records, and the study of only two variables, you can disprove the entire science. This is a pretty fascinating argument – and classic crankery.
But how could he possibly justify this conclusion, and where did he get this stunningly stupid analysis? Well, it’s pretty extraordinary, and it represents an almost sure sign of crankery. He knows global warming is a lie because some guy he met on a boat told him so.
I met Dr. Martin Hertzberg, the man who drew that graph and those conclusions, on a Nation cruise back in 2001. He remarked that while he shared many of the Nation’s editorial positions, he approved of my reservations on the issue of supposed human contributions to global warming, as outlined in columns I wrote at that time. Hertzberg was a meteorologist for three years in the U.S. Navy, an occupation which gave him a lifelong mistrust of climate modeling. Trained in chemistry and physics, a combustion research scientist for most of his career, he’s retired now in Copper Mountain, Colorado, still consulting from time to time.
That’s right. A guy who was a meteorologist for three years is his expert. A meteorologist, not a climate scientist, for three years in the navy. He met him on a boat. Of course. It all makes sense now.
But what is Hertzberg’s evidence? Where does he get this so-called proof that everyone is wrong but him?
Not so long ago, Hertzberg sent me some of his recent papers on the global warming hypothesis, a construct now accepted by many progressives as infallible as Papal dogma on matters of faith or doctrine. Among them was the graph described above so devastating to the hypothesis.
Ah, papers! But wait. Where are these papers published? Where are the citations? Where is the peer review? How can we possibly analyze this ingenious disproof of the entirety of climate science without a citation?
Cockburn then goes on to recycle the oft repeated confusion that water is a climate forcing agent , hockey stick misrepresentations, the classic CO2 lags temperature canard and various assertions about not being able to accurately measure temperature because we can’t do that over water (we have satellites for that pal).
Well, very wisely, Monbiot asks just one critical question (where are your references?) and cleverly compares this recent foray of Cockburn’s into crankery to the 9/11 truth movement.
Cockburn provides no evidence that he has mastered these issues, or that his research into his chosen subject is any more extensive than that of the conspiracists he so correctly and so entertainingly derides. But this is not the only resemblance between his case and the case made by the truthers.
Cockburn’s article cannot be taken seriously until we have seen his list of references, and affirmed that the key claims he makes have already been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This would not mean they are correct, though it does mean that they are worth discussing. Could he possibly have gone into print without first ensuring that the scientific claims on which he bases his arguments have been properly published? I find this hard to believe, for it would be the height of irresponsibility. But Cockburn now has to demonstrate, by providing his references, that he did indeed carry out this basic check.
Then, comes Cockburn’s second article and response. Does he answer Monbiot’s questions? Of course not! He’s become a crank! For anyone who has read the HOWTO (I swear I wrote it before reading these articles), the crank never responds to a criticism, they instead must restate their claims, louder, and add more fuel to the fire.
First he chucks out a conspiracy theory!
In fact, when it comes to corporate sponsorship of crackpot theories about why the world is getting warmer, the best documented conspiracy of interest is between the Greenhouser fearmongers and the nuclear industry, now largely owned by oil companies, whose prospects twenty years ago looked dark, amid headlines about the fall-out from Chernobyl, aging plants and nuclear waste dumps leaking from here to eternity. The apex Greenhouse fearmongers are well aware that the only exit from the imaginary crisis they have been sponsoring is through a door marked “nuclear power”, with a servant’s sidedoor labeled “clean coal”.
He reasserts his previous position without responding to Monbiot:
(I refer those who rear back at the words “imaginary crisis” to my last column on this topic, where I emphasize that there is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend. The greenhouse fearmongers rely entirely on unverified, crudely oversimplified computer models to finger mankind’s sinful contribution.)
Then he attacks Gore for a while, snore. Then, like he was reading the HOWTO, he attacks scientists as being grant-guzzlers. Another conspiracy theory!
The footsoldiers in this alliance have been the grant-guzzling climate modelers and their Internationale, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose collective scientific expertise is reverently invoked by all devotees of the Greenhouse fearmongers’ catechism. Aside from the fact that the graveyard of intellectual error is stuffed with the myriad tombstones of “overwhelming scientific consensus”, the IPCC has the usual army of functionaries and grant farmers, and the merest sprinkling of actual scientists with the prime qualification of being climatologists or atmospheric physicists.
Man-made global warming theory is fed by pseudo quantitative predictions from climate-careerists working primarily off the big, mega-computer General Circulation Models which include the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the Department of Commerce’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab, a private GCM which used to be at Oregon State before the University of Illinois lured the team away. There’s another one at Livermore and one in England, at Hadley.
Can’t you just feel the hatred for scientists just boiling off of him? It’s something else. Monbiot responds again simply requesting references, and now evincing some powerful crank-fu. Monbiot knows what he’s up against now, and starts outlining the HOWTO all on his own.
People who deny that manmade climate change is taking place have this in common: they do not answer their critics. They make what they say are definitive refutations of the science of climate change. When these refutations are shown to be nonsense, they do not seek to defend them. They simply repeat them as if nothing has changed, then move on to another line of attack.
What else can they do? If they have no understanding of science and no means of supporting their claims, they must seek to distract their critics with a barrage of new allegations. It doesn’t matter where they might be placed on the political spectrum – whether like James Inhofe and Joe Barton they come from the hard right or, like Alexander Cockburn, they come from the left. The tactic is always the same: never apologise, never explain. Just raise the volume, keep moving, and hope that people won’t notice the trail of broken claims in your wake.
Why did I do all that work yesterday? Monbiot had already done it for me. He spots the conspiracy theories too
But he must keep moving, firing his Parthian shots as he goes. Concern about global warming is a “conspiracy of interest between the Greenhouser fearmongers and the nuclear industry”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an “army of functionaries and grant farmers, and the merest sprinkling of actual scientists”, whose science is less reliable than Lombroso’s craniology. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Don’t let your opponents draw breath.
And ends with a killer question.
Scientists in the United Kingdom sometimes satirise people who claim to know more about their own subjects than they do by imagining how they would respond if asked to provide their references. “Man I Met in a Bar, A. 2006. Why I am Right and Everyone Else is Wrong. Proceedings of the Inebriate Society, Vol 9991524, no4.” So far, Alexander Cockburn’s references amount to “Man I Met on a Ship, A. 2001.” If he has better sources than that, why won’t he reveal them?
What is Cockburn’s response? Well, he’s a crank. So what do you think he does? Cry persecution! (I swear again I wrote the HOWTO before reading these articles, John Lynch and Tim Lambert will back me up on this)
I began this series of critiques of the greenhouse fearmongers with an evocation of the papal indulgences of the Middle Ages as precursors of the “carbon credits”-ready relief for carbon sinners, burdened, because all humans exhale carbon, with original sin. In the Middle Ages they burned heretics, and after reading through the hefty pile of abusive comments and supposed refutations of my initial article on global warming I’m fairly sure that the critics would be only to happy to cash in whatever carbon credits they have and torch me without further ado.
The greenhouse fearmongers explode at the first critical word, and have contrived a series of primitive rhetorical pandybats which they flourish in retaliation. Those who disagree with their claim that anthropogenic CO2 is the cause of the small, measured increase in the average earth’s surface temperature, are stigmatized as “denialists,” a charge which scurrilously combines an acoustic intimation of nihilism with a suggested affinity to those who insist the Holocaust never took place.
I’m flabbergasted. He seems to be upset with people like me that point out that people with no data who allege conspiracies, cherry pick data, cite false experts (if the guy on the boat wasn’t enough he goes on to cite Pat Michaels), bash peer-review, move goalposts and make illogical and incorrect assertions about the science might resemble denialists. What’s the cry? They called me names! Persecution! It’s burning of heretics!
It’s actually not name-calling. It’s the description of the use of a specific set of tactics to avoid substantive debate about science or facts and boy does he ever use the tactics.
Now Monbiot is fully-primed, he knows he’s dealing with a full-blown crank now. His final response is perfect:
I have now asked twice in public and four times in private. I have received three replies, each more vituperative and abusive than the last, but no answer to my question. It was not a complicated request. Alexander Cockburn maintained that the evidence that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere do not result from burning fossil fuels was contained in “papers” written by a Dr Martin Hertzberg. Knowing that papers carry no scientific weight unless they are published in peer-reviewed journals, I asked for references. This request, apparently, makes me an egotist, a liar and the “honorary chairman of the King Canute Action Committee”(1). But that is the extent of the information Cockburn has been kind enough to divulge to me. Of references, there is not a word.
In Cockburn’s latest column for the Nation and Counterpunch, he suggests that the request for peer review is “heavily overworked” and has been corrupted by climate scientists(2). Unable to provide peer-reviewed papers to support his claims, he instead attacks peer review. In doing so, he draws on the support of two great authorities: Patrick Michaels and Frederick Seitz. Perhaps he does not know who these men are. He would have done well to have found out before calling them as witnesses for the defence.
He then goes into the explanation for why Michaels and Seitz are not to be trusted as experts on anything.
Monbiot really nails him as a crank in this series of exchanges but there is a serious problem here, and in the debate at zdnet (all the essays are in this link) there is this essay by Justin Podur that describes why denialism about global warming may emerge from the left as well.
He argues that the carbon-trading market system advocated by global warming educators like Gore is really not going to benefit the environment as much as it will benefit industry. If anything, the diversion of crops from food to energy production will increase food prices and disproportionately hurt the world’s poor.
The first problem for leftists trying to understand climate science is that they cannot trust Gore and they cannot automatically trust the scientific consensus. The next problem is that the best-known proposed solutions for dealing with the problem are flawed. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, is completely inadequate for stabilizing emissions. Carbon emissions trading and markets are designed to provide incentives to corporate emitters. Biofuels, in the form of palm oil and sugarcane plantations, are helping to displace peasants through paramilitary massacre in Colombia, contributing to dangerous food shortages, and in any case cause CO2 emissions just like fossil fuels do. If credible science is mixed with dubious pro-corporate policy, which is what Gore has to offer, leftists might feel the sensible thing to do is reject the whole package.
This is what is probably caused the formation of these new left wing cranks on global warming (Podur describes a few other examples). The problem is that the solutions we are seeing are likely to negatively impact poorer countries, and lefties interested in social justice, and with a cranky disposition, might just reject all of global warming as yet another get-rich quick scheme for the illuminati. This would indeed be unfortunate.
It’s important to remember both the left and the right have anti-scientific tendencies, the left’s just tend to be less religious, less world-threatening and more woo-based. My brother recently told me about moving to California, “they don’t believe in Jesus here, just bullshit” in reference to the woo-based beliefs of large portions of the population. The risk of unscientific tendencies is when people with potential to become cranks see a scientific theory as a threat to some overvalued idea they hold dear. Sometimes the over-valued idea isn’t even a bad quality, it can be compassion – but taken to an extreme. If the left starts to see global warming policy as a money-grab by the elites, expect to see more left wing crankery and climate denial based on conspiratorial beliefs about carbon markets.
I suspect this is what has happened to Alexander Cockburn, a lefty who has gone over the deep end, on what appears to be suspicions of a conspiracy to further defraud and hurt poor countries using global warming science.
It might be true that carbon trading will hurt the poor, but that doesn’t change the fact that the science supports anthropogenic climate change. That’s an appeal to consequences, and shouldn’t be a reason to disbelieve and disparage the science and scientists who have worked this stuff out.