Cockburn’s form

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.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page