Alexander Cockburn (writing in the Nation) has become the latest contrarian-de-jour, sallying forth with some rather novel arithmetic to show that human-caused global warming is nothing to be concerned about. This would be unworthy of comment in most cases, but Cockburn stands out as one of only a few left-wing contrarians, as opposed to the more usual right-wing variety. Casual readers may have thought this is a relatively recent obsession of his (3 articles and responses over the last month), however, Cockburn has significant form* and has a fairly long history of ill-informed commentary on the subject of global warming.
There may be more elsewhere, but while he was writing for New York Press he had at least two articles on the subject: Global Warming: The Great Delusion (March 15, 2001) and Return to Global Warming (June 21, 2001). After both articles, I wrote letters to the editor (here and here) gently pointing out the misconceptions and incorrect statements (though obviously to little avail). To whit, the deliberate confusion of weather and climate, guilt by association (he linked climate modelling to biological warfare research!), the complete mis-understanding of the Harries et al (2001) paper showing satellite evidence for the increased trapping of long wave radiation by greenhouse gases etc.
Rather than simply rehashing the obvious mistakes in his current ‘science’, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at all of the pieces together. The first thing one notices is that Cockburn always tries to shy away from giving the impression he came up with any of his anti-global warming theories himself. In each case, there is a trusted ‘advisor’ or acquaintance who is available to inform Cockburn of the latest foolishness. In 2001 it was Pierre Sprey “a man knowledgeable about the often disastrous interface between environmental prediction and computer models” and now it is Dr. Martin Hertzberg “a meteorologist for three years in the U.S. Navy”. Neither of whom appear to have any peer reviewed work in the field.
In common with the right-wing contrarians, Cockburn’s opinions are not formed from a dispassionate look at the evidence, but come from a post hoc reasoning given his dislike of the purported implications. This line from the Mar 2001 piece discussing the fact that sulphate aerosols have a cooling effect on climate, is a great example:
‘You really want to live by a model that installs the coal industry as the savior of “global warming”?’
That is, since any model that shows that aerosols have a cooling impact (which is all of them) apparently encourages the coal industry to pollute, the model physics must be flawed. The same theme is apparent in the more recent articles. Because carbon offsetting and credits have not worked as well as expected (see this excellent Financial Times report), it is clearly the scientists who raised the issue who are at fault. Bad consequences clearly imply bad science.
This backward logic is clear from reading his articles. At first it was the models that were uncertain, the water vapour that was ignored, and it was the ‘speculative’ nature of the IPCC that he found unconvincing. Then it was the uncertainty associated with aerosols that nailed it for him. Now it is that the CO2 increase itself that is self-evidently bogus. He drifts from one pseudo-factoid to another, hoping to land upon the one thing that will mean he doesn’t need to deal seriously with the issue.
It is probably inevitable that, as dealing with climate change becomes an established concern, those who make a habit of reflexively being anti-establishment will start to deny there is a problem at all, coincidentally just as the original contrarians are mostly moving in the other direction (i.e. there is a problem but it’s too expensive to do anything about it). It is a shame, because as some oil companies and their friends are finding, it is difficult to get a place at the table where solutions are being discussed if you have claimed for years the whole thing was a hoax. As some left-wingers start to follow in the footsteps of these unlikely bedfellows, they too will find their association with specious arguments and simple nonsense reduces their credibility – and along with that lost credibility goes the opportunity to shape policy in ways that might be more to their liking.
Denial of a problem – perfectly exemplified by Cockburn’s articles – is fundamentally a short-term delaying tactic, but as a long term strategy, especially once policies start to be put in place, it is simply short-sighted.
Back in 2001, I invited Cockburn to visit our lab to discuss the science. Even though it was never responded too, that invitation remains open. A truly open-minded journalist would take me up on it… So how about it Alex?
Apparently the English usage of ‘to have form’ in this context is not widespread – it means to have a record or past habit, probably derived from horse racing but often used as slang in referring to past misdeeds…