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Cockburn’s form

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 June 2007

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…


214 Responses to “Cockburn’s form”

  1. 151
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    Nick, just google a phrase like “warmer is better” (in quotes). You will see a long history of good (and not so good) discussion of why a warmer climate would be better. It is in the tendency of this board to see every new skeptical argument as a new talking point strategy. Although such strategies exist, I don’t believe that warmer is better is a new strategy IMO.

  2. 152
    tamino says:

    I too have been on both sides of the peer review process: both reviewer and reviewed. The process is not perfect; I have at least once received what I considered to be an unfair review. And it’s obvious from reading the peer-reviewed literature, that some real garbage slips through the cracks.

    But despite its flaws, papers must be reviewed to have any hope of maintaining quality of publication. Furthermore, it absolutely must be reviewed by people who know the subject — an editor at the Wall Street Journal is not qualified to estimate the value of a paper on quantum field theory. And the people who know the subject are, by definition, one’s peers.

    Therefore, there is simply no alternative. Without review, too much junk is published. And the only qualified reviewers are one’s peers.

  3. 153
    SecularAnimist says:

    With regard to the discussions of Malthus, it is important to realize that the so-called “Green Revolution”, and the industrialized agriculture practiced in the developed world, was and is utterly dependent on large inputs of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. As such, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    The “new green revolution”, which is part of the solution, is organic agriculture, oriented to bioregional self-reliant production of diverse food for local consumption — not fossil-fueled industrial agriculture oriented to huge monocrops of exports for “global trade”.

  4. 154
    Timothy Chase says:

    Eric (#151) wrote:

    Nick, just google a phrase like “warmer is better” (in quotes). You will see a long history of good (and not so good) discussion of why a warmer climate would be better. It is in the tendency of this board to see every new skeptical argument as a new talking point strategy. Although such strategies exist, I don’t believe that warmer is better is a new strategy IMO.

    If we could easily pickup cities, soil and plants at will and move them where we want whenever it became convenient, then control where the rain fell, calm the storms and screen out the ultraviolet resulting from water vapor destroying the ozone, the argument might even carry some weight. As things are, I believe the argument is seriously flawed.

    But even assuming the mobility of all these things and that we possessed all of these powers, there would still be the increased acidity of the oceans and all that this implies.

  5. 155
    Timothy Chase says:

    joe c (#148) wrote:

    I’m a layperson so please excuse my ignorance. I understand that “peer review” is the process in place, but isn’t the “peer review” process, like any other haman analysis process, subject to political or other biases by the reviewers? Have any of you scientists experienced these biases in that process?

    Different reviewers will have different political leanings and motives. A given author can generally go somewhere else. But there is also the cummulative evidence from many different lines of inquiry. Systemically the whole will advance – much like an economy where there exists many different businesses all looking for the next opportunity, looking for something a consumer will be willing to pay for in preference to the things they already purchase. And every periodical wants to be cutting-edge, containing the breakthrough papers which will further their reputation, give authors a visibility they otherwise lack and bring in more subscribers.

    Money, insights and prestige are powerful motivators. Some will fall down, but others will rise to the occasion.

  6. 156
    Richard Ordway says:

    #148 [[but isn't the "peer review" process, like any other haman analysis process, subject to political or other biases by the reviewers?]]

    I have been around the peer-review system for over eleven years.

    The peer-review system {currently} over a period of about two years or less my personal observation) weeds out normal-human biases within that time period.

    If you don’t have truthful evidence…it will be torn to shreds ***IN AN OPEN WAY open for all to observe from all over the world*** and you and your reputation, and evidence too will be torn to shreds…because “the whole world is openly reviewing you and your work” from 87+ nations and experts from all fields are allowed (and do) view and attack your work…

    …it establishes and enhances *their* reputation and makes *them* stand out if they can legitimately point out errors or untruths.

    There are too many journals from many too many different countries for an unbased bias to last. A journal will be ostricised, lose its reputation and no longer get the best authors (best scientists/best work= money) if it continues to print untruths.

    Yeah, peer-review has weaknesses…it is slow, painful and arduous…and yes subject to short-term biases…but it weeds them out.

    The whole global warming issue…has almost *200 years* of a body of supporting evidence from the peer review system (starting in at least 1824 with Joseph Fourier and physics as to why the Earth is warm and not -18 degrees C).

    Go ahead, and shoot down one line of many lines of supporting evidence that human GW exists (no one can because there is no legititmate peer-review evidence)…it still doesn’t matter…human-caused GW lives….and will continue to live no matter what you think or believe.

    This is because there are so many supporting lines of evidence built up since 1842, ie. physics, paleoclimate evidence and current observational evidence.

    GW is not a value system…such as whether you “believe” in it or not like the FOX news channel likes to do. It is based on hard, cold, steely, provable peer-review evidence that has gone through the crucibles of hell and still stands…and is currently as strong as gravity in the peer-review system.

    The “scientists” who have PHDs who say it is not happening don’t do peer-review in GW that *stands up under peer-review scrutiny* from all over the world in an open way…period.

    They are certainly allowed to say whatever they want…just not that their evidence is the truth…because they have no provable evidence that stands up to open world scutiny in an open way…and time is ticking…

    I’m a little uptight about this because I’m in a job that analyzes peer-review evidence from journals from all around the world every day…and the evidence (started in 1842) is just getting nastier every day…that we are possibly in a sh_t hole of hurt and we need to address the issue before it is possibly too late to avoid damage that is scientifically “unkosher” for me to talk about to the public.

  7. 157
    John Mashey says:

    re: #152 SecularAnimist

    Sounds great! I like organic food, especially compared to the inorganc food, and we shop at the local farms often.

    But since you brought this up as “The Answer” I must ask a few questions:

    1) Do you have at least a year’s experience working on a small family farm?
    2) What do you think of DDT’s use in Africa?
    3) Is Bt corn OK? biotech & GM foods in general? or not?
    4) What do you think of low-till?

    [This is actually relevant to Cockburn & AGW, and interestingly, is another one of these 3-sided arguments (like AGW) that gets most commonly portrayed as 2-sided.)

  8. 158
    Daniel C. Goodwin says:

    James Hansen, George Monbiot, Michael Mann and all the other Global Warming Elitists are either unwitting dupes in a conspiracy to deprive Americans of their God-given liberties, or else they’re implicated as co-conspirators. Where is this climate-crisis hoax leading? That, my friends, is all too easy to see…

    First, they get us used to the idea of carbon credits, and the next thing you know, they’re paying you for your guns and ammunition in carbon credits. Worthington, Vermont, has already passed an ordinance making firearms redeemable in carbon credits (1). That, my friends, is one baby-step away from completely smashing the Second Amendment by making such transactions mandatory. If Americans don’t wise up before it’s too late, the Global Warming Elitists will succeed in taking away our guns, so they’ll be free to dismantle the rest of our freedoms, one by one.

    1. A. Fellow, et al; oral correspondence in a bar, El Cerrito, February 2007.

  9. 159
    Timothy Chase says:

    SecularAnimist (#152) wrote:

    With regard to the discussions of Malthus, it is important to realize that the so-called “Green Revolution”, and the industrialized agriculture practiced in the developed world, was and is utterly dependent on large inputs of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. As such, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    In my own view, if tariffs on goods from developing countries are removed, subsidies being given to local businesses are eliminated, proper investment in alternative energy sources are made, we already have the technology to replace the cheap labour which is employed in the production of agricultural products in developing countries. Then the living standards of their citizens will rise to that of the more advanced countries while birthrates will fall since the skilled labour required by a modernized economy require more education.

    But that you and I are in agreement with regard to the empirical science regarding climate change. Moreover, I fully recognize the importance of avoiding a reduction in the genetic variety within various species of crops – as this renders them more vulnerable to stress and disease on a far wider scale than if variety were preserved.

    I believe that the points upon which we agree are more important than the areas of disagreement.

  10. 160
    James says:

    Re #143: [I was initially just trying to debunk this whole idea of "let's get the world population back to 1 billion quickly" and the myth of the Malthusian ever growing population...]

    You’ve got two separate questions there. To take the second first, you’re not doing too well in debunking that alleged myth. At most, your supposed “demographic transition” slows the rate of population increase. As long as the rate’s positive, it’s still exponential, and you’ve not shown any example where population decreases over the long term, barring some natural or social catastrophe. (We could cite for instance Cambodia under the Kymer Rouge as such an example.)

    The first question is entirely different. It’s not about what the population is likely to be, given various assumptions & projections. It’s about what level of population the Earth can support on a permanent basis. Of course that depends on a lot of factors, including what level of support you want, bare subsistence or something more comfortable. But I don’t think you can demonstrate that the planet can support more than a billion or so.

  11. 161
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re 148 (and Ray’s response, 149)

    To paraphrase Churchill’s comment about democracy, peer review is the worst form of judging the merits of scientific work, except for all the others that have been tried.
    No one has ever claimed that peer review is flawless, but the beauty of science is that it is self-correcting. If a paper is published on an important topic, the results and conclusions will be carefully scrutinized and they, or their predictions, will be re-examined by other scientists, possibly time and time again. If the results can’t be replicated, or the predictions can’t be confirmed, the paper will likely be diminished in value, or completely forgotten. However, it is important to remember that there are several aspects of peer-reviewed research papers of potential value – the actual data, the analysis of those data, and the author’s conclusions.
    Some papers are extremely valuable because of their data, even though their analysis and/or conclusions are determined to be incorrect. Other papers are valuable because they offer new insights, even though their data may be flawed, or mundane (or, in the case of review articles, original data may be absent). It is always a mistake to put too much weight on any single published paper, esp. when it is presents something new. Scientific knowledge usually built piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle, though there are no guarantees that the puzzle’s borders, or shape, are fixed. But, when paper after paper from such disparate fields of science as atmospheric physics, atmospheric chemistry, climatology, oceanography, ecology, botany, zoology, etc keep pointing in the same direction (i.e., the climate is warming, and humans are in part responsible), it is hard for most scientists to ignore the conclusions; they might quibble over a few of the conclusions, but they can’t ignore the growing body of information as a whole.

  12. 162
    Richard Ordway says:

    # 158 Mr. Dan wrote: [[...the Global Warming Elitists will succeed in taking away our guns, so they'll be free to dismantle the rest of our freedoms, one by one]]

    Errr, evidence please sir, evidence…just the facts sir, just the facts. Where’s your evidence that human-GW is not going on and that we don’t have to do something about it?

    Scientists are not responsible for policy…it’s not their field….so don’t shoot the messenger, please.

    What others *do* with the overwhelming GW evidence is indeed a serious legitimate issue.

    However, sir, I’m not morally allowed to tell you about possible threats to your or other personal freedoms in the USA, if worse case GW scenarios come to pass (as actually happened with the ozone hole dynamics..it was the worse case scenario)…”it ain’t very pretty” either.

  13. 163
    Daniel C. Goodwin says:

    Re 162, on Global Warming Elitists… sorry to be pedantic and ruin everything, but with my words taken out of context by someone whose sense of irony has been substantially compromised by the usual, workaday, onrushing absurdities of life in a schizophrenic society (technically: unable to distinguish fantasy from reality), I feel compelled to break out of character: the Second Amendment nonsense is a put-on, folks (there’s a clue for you in the footnote, okay?)

  14. 164
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 158.

    Okay, I’ll bite.

    Could you illuminate a few things for me, please?

    What, specifically, do you mean by the term “Global Warming Elitist?” What does the term mean in relation to the actual science that seems to be rather solid and overwhelming in support of the positions they have taken REGARDING the science?

    And as for the effect on the Constitution of their reporting the science, can you do a more detailed job of explaining what effect their actions are having?

    Seriously, I am genuinely curious.

    Thanks in advance.

  15. 165
    John Mashey says:

    #163 Daniel:
    I caught the irony on first read … but unfortunately, your post was similar to those of posters who are 100% serious… hence, not as amusing as you may have meant it. I haven’t seen a beliefs inventory that did correlations of NRA membership and “AGW is a hoax” beliefs, but I’d speculate that it is high.

  16. 166
    Daniel C. Goodwin says:

    Re: 165 (Global Warming Elitists). Here’s an interesting thought experiment I tried today: try to come up with the most elaborately boneheaded assault on reason you are able to imagine, wrap it in jingoism, and most Americans will think you’re serious – it doesn’t matter how outrageously threadbare the particulars of the argument. God have mercy on us.

  17. 167
    ray ladbury says:

    Re: 166. As Tom Lehrer said, “Satire became redundant when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.”

  18. 168

    Well global warming is a bitch. Nice to see Cockburn and Monbiot double-stuffing her.

  19. 169
    Lawrence Brown says:

    We’ve been found out! It’s all in the last paragraph of Cockburn’s latest polemic: “If the public swallows this new greenhouse dogma,it won’t just be carbon taxes on an airline ticket It will be huge charges for the alleged carbon savings of the immensely expensive nuclear plants they’re so eager to build to give a cooler, cleaner world to your grandchildren.”
    We’ve been outed! What we really want is to impose a nuclear world on our grandchildren! We want them to be knee deep in nuclear waste surrounded by high energy nuclear radiation! Of course! The “they”, though he doesn’t specifically state who, are the proponents global warming and those who believe it to be true. Maybe it could be true. After all paranoids can have enemies,too, and “they” (us) could have this as their ultimate ulterior motive. And a pot of water, on the stove could spontaneously come to a boil.
    What arrant nonsense, this man writes!
    One more point. He states repeatedly that temperature changes first and CO2 changes 600 to 1000 years later. This may have been true in ages past but what’s happening today is much different than what has happened in the past since the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is much higher and increasing at a faster rate than any time in the last half million years or more. A good source for exposing this myth is at
    http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/corporate/pressoffice/myths/index.html

  20. 170
    Timothy Chase says:

    Daniel C. Goodwin (#162) wrote:

    Re 162, on Global Warming Elitists… sorry to be pedantic and ruin everything, but with my words taken out of context by someone whose sense of irony has been substantially compromised by the usual, workaday, onrushing absurdities of life in a schizophrenic society (technically: unable to distinguish fantasy from reality), I feel compelled to break out of character: the Second Amendment nonsense is a put-on, folks (there’s a clue for you in the footnote, okay?)

    Ah, Daniel…

    I wish you had been there at DebunkCreation when I made my entrance by mock-espousing the Omphalosian argument. It took a few hours before things quieted down – and some were still suspicious for a couple of days…

    Anyway, I can only speak for myself, but good to have you aboard!

  21. 171
    Rod B says:

    re 163, I sure charged up the hill! Good one, Daniel.

  22. 172
    nicolas L. says:

    re 160

    “But I don’t think you can demonstrate that the planet can support more than a billion or so”. The population has grown above 1 billion since the beginning of 19th century, 200 years ago. So it’s been demonstrated some time ago now, I think. Besides, the question is not “can we support a 6 or 10 billion people population on earth”, because it’s too late for this. Those people are already here, or will be soon. The question you should ask yourself is “How do we make those 10 billion people living in descent conditions AND in a sustainable way for earth”. We have to look it the constructive way.

    “At most, your supposed “demographic transition” slows the rate of population increase”.
    Supposed? Please ask any geography teacher about the supposd nature of demographic transition. In France, it’s a phenomenon we study during the equivalent of US Junior High School.

    “As long as the rate’s positive, it’s still exponential”. As far as I remember my maths, it’s wrong. To have an exponential growth, you have to have a positive and at least constant rate (or increasing rate) of growth. If you got a positive but decaying rate trough time, you will first reach an arithmetic growth of population, then a decay of population growth. When your growth rate is below zero, then your population begins to decrease.
    If you go there (http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/world.html), you’ll notice by yourself, this is exactly what’s happening now. The population growth rate is slightly decaying, and the population growth curve cannot be compared to an exponantial aynmore since the end of 20th century (inversion of the curve, quite similar to the one you see on a logistic curve). The trend of the growth rate is going down since the 60′s, and there is no reason why it should stabilize above zero.

    “you’ve not shown any example where population decreases over the long term, barring some natural or social catastrophe”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Japan
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germany (go to demographics)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Poland
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_Romania

    I won’t cite here countries of ex-ussr, because you can partially (but not totally) explain their impressive negative population growth rates by the 90′s crisis. You also have to remember that most of developed countries (USA included) manage to keep a positive population growth rate by welcoming immigrant population.

  23. 173
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 111.

    Given as you mentioned me again, I thought a some comments were worthwhile in response.

    I have already pointed out the reasons for addressing Griffin’s engineering background earlier, in #94. Nothing you wrote really changed regarding that, so we’ll let it stand as it is.

    In your discussion of Griffin’s interview, you omitted a rather pointed and glaring comment he made at the beginning of the second answer: “I am not sure that it is fair to say that it [Global Warming] is a problem we must wrestle with.”

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10571499

    His follow-up – “To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change.” – builds nicely on that opening into a straw man argument, the idea that the discussion/”debate” surrounding GW is about what is an optimum climate, which, if this were true, would support his opening statement nicely. While on its own the statement is – as you rightly pointed out – a non-sequitur in a practical sense, in terms of relation to his opening statement, it sets up his talking points nicely. And that’s what this is really about. The next statement – “First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown.” – further builds on this straw man, inferring that the effort to address GW is one of trying to alter the climate, when in fact the real effort that is being discussed – and in places launched – is to ameliorate the effects of what humanity has already done. Then he plays the “How dare we?” card: “And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings â?? where and when â?? are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.”

    The final line is, indeed, political. In fact, the entire statement was. Griffin’s comments are an exercise in rhetorical fallacies, a rather obvious series of talking points. I sincerely doubt they are his “opinion”.

    But how can you call this an “ethical” question when the premise of the statement is false? Griffin set up a straw man, the inference that somehow this discussion revolves around the idea people are arguing over what climate is “just right” (as in the story of Goldilocks), as opposed the very real problem of how dangerous the changes we are experiencing may turn out to be for. If we listen to Griffin, the suggestion is we should do nothing, as it isn’t our right to make the call.

    Say what?

    Griffin’s final statement is laughable, and you are correct that he is dodging the question, but in so doing, he is again attempting to redefine the discussion (albeit with likely unwitting help from Inskeep). He sets up another straw man, inferring that what is being discussed is NASA’s duty to take action or “battle” climate change, a duty that doesn’t exist. What he ignores is the fact that, in essence, that has been exactly what NASA has been doing by virtue of the work NASA scientists have done to show it is happening and by rightly raising the alarm.

    Instead, he ends by voicing an argument that echoes the “warmer is better” claim we see being fielded by the so-called skeptics. (Global Warming Skepticism/Denialism 2.0)

    I agree with you Griffin has every right to his personal opinion. But there is a distinction you are ignoring – he has this right AS A PRIVATE CITIZEN.

    He was not being interviewed as a private citizen, but as the head of NASA, and as such, his statements carry the weight associated with that office, regardless of his intent. Many people listening to him invariably accept what he is saying as reflective of NASA’s policy. The fact that in so doing he essentially engaged in a political exercise to not only muddy the waters regarding Global Warming, but did so in a manner that is in opposition to what the scientists working for that organization have been saying for years, was egregious.

    This is what has upset people. And rightfully so, IMHO.

    Regards.

  24. 174
    James says:

    Re #172: [ The population has grown above 1 billion since the beginning of 19th century, 200 years ago. So it's been demonstrated some time ago now, I think.]

    You missed the important concept in my question, which is sustainability. Most of the current 6 billion or so are supported either by the use of finite fossil fuel resources, or by the degradation & destruction of the environment. Keep on in the same way, and eventually the planet runs out of resources and environment.

    [Besides, the question is not "can we support a 6 or 10 billion people population on earth", because it's too late for this. Those people are already here, or will be soon.]

    Aren’t you now arguing against your own theory, that this demographic transition will cause negative population growth rates, and thus the population will decline? It also overlooks the possibility of what we might call technical interventions, which might range from large-scale nuclear wars to some mad scientist type bioengineering the cold virus to produce contraceptives.

    [The question you should ask yourself is "How do we make those 10 billion people living in descent conditions AND in a sustainable way for earth". We have to look it the constructive way.]

    How is that constructive? It simply can’t be done: there isn’t enough room on the planet.

    [Please ask any geography teacher about the supposd nature of demographic transition. In France, it's a phenomenon we study during the equivalent of US Junior High School.]

    I remember studying a lot of things at that level, many of which have since been shown to be false.

    “…most of developed countries (USA included) manage to keep a positive population growth rate by welcoming immigrant population.”

    Welcoming immigrants? You sure haven’t been paying much attention to US politics :-) In any case, it doesn’t really matter where the excess population is coming from, but that the total continues to increase.

  25. 175
    John Mashey says:

    re: Griffin
    1) It doesn’t bother me if NASA would concentrate on doing good science.
    Far more disturbing than ill-considered remarks are things like:

    NASA shelves climate satellites
    Environmental science may suffer
    http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2006/06/09/nasa_shelves_climate_satellites/

    Why did NASA kill a climate change project?
    http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/01/15/opinion/edpark.php

    Perhaps “Some people do not want to know the data.”

  26. 176
    Timothy Chase says:

    John Mashey (#174) wrote:

    Why did NASA kill a climate change project?
    http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/01/15/opinion/edpark.php

    Perhaps “Some people do not want to know the data.”

    Personally, I find the prospect of this more disturbing than climate change itself.

  27. 177

    [["We can discuss to know if demographic transition is a natural or moral phenomenon. I'd say it's mostly natural. The moral component of it, meaning the acceptation of contraception, historically follows the beginning of the transition. The most of the movement is due to the transition from rural life with subsistence agriculture to urban life. ]]

    Okay, so the demographic transition, in and of itself, lowers the birth rate.

    How does it do that? There are very few ways to lower the birth rate other than not having sex, or not having babies. How can you lower the birth rate without using one of those two methods? If you’re talking about later marriage among people who don’t engage in premarital sex, then you’re talking about people not having sex. If you’re talking about limiting family size, then you’re talking about people not having sex, or using contraception, or having abortions. I can’t think of a way to lower the birth rate in any other way.

  28. 178
    James says:

    Re #177: Note that it’s not really the birth rate that matters in population growth, it’s the “survival to reproductive age” (SRA) rate. What isn’t being taken into account (as far as I can tell) is that it’s only in the last century or so that the two have been even close to the same.

    Thus it seems likely that this demographic shift theory is at least partly illusion, caused by taking what was an abnormal period in human history, the time in which western medicine became widespread, as the norm. in the discussion this demographic shift theory. SRA took a jump, but people’s expectations didn’t change. Now they’re catching up, and in some cases overshooting, which is what’s causing the perception of a demographic transition. Will the transition last, or will it settle to a lower level of increase? I’d tell you, but my crystal ball is in the shop for repairs…

  29. 179
    nicolas L. says:

    Re 174

    “Aren’t you now arguing against your own theory, that this demographic transition will cause negative population growth rates, and thus the population will decline?”
    I donâ??t see where I contradict myself. Did I say demographic transition was over? No, I said in my previous posts that population growth would decline seriously around the end of this century, leading to a total maximal population of 10-12 billion people.

    “It simply can’t be done: there isn’t enough room on the planet”
    So, you should see GW warming as a bless. Cause it will sure make world population diminish a lot if we let it go without mitigationâ?¦ Sorry, that’s a way of thinking I can’t get. You’re basically saying it’s not worth searching for solutions because we’ll never find them anyway. On what serious and undeniable studies are you basing this analysis? My point of view is that we don’t have solutions for everything yet, but we have a lot of good engineers, scientists and people of good will on this planet to at least believe there is a chance of finding solutions soon without sacrificing 80% of the world population. And no single person has the answer to this, but it will be a collective job.

    “I remember studying a lot of things at that level, many of which have since been shown to be false.”
    Which ones? So basically, we should throw at the garbage the 50 last years of geographic and historic studies on the subject? If you’re going to look at the data of the links I gave in my previous posts (and I don’t doubt you did), have you got another theory to explain it?

    “Welcoming immigrants? You sure haven’t been paying much attention to US politics”
    Really? go to see there : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_to_the_United_States
    I quote: “As of 2006, the United States accepts more legal immigrants as permanent residents than the rest of the world combined.”

  30. 180
    nicolas L. says:

    “Will the transition last, or will it settle to a lower level of increase? I’d tell you, but my crystal ball is in the shop for repairs… ”

    You won’t need it. Historians, geographs and demographers already answered this question. Please go look at the data, you can start by here for the basic knowledge: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography
    “The UN “medium” projection shows world population reaching an approximate equilibrium at 9 billion by 2075. Working independently, demographers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria expect world population to peak at 9 billion by 2070. Throughout the 21st century, the average age of the population is likely to continue to rise.”

  31. 181

    [[ I see no fundamental difference between modeling an offshore windturbine and modeling the climate. The methology is the same. ]]

    “Methodology.” And I see a lot of fundamental differences. Your continuing inability to understand the difference between an engineer and a scientist implies to me that you just don’t want to hear what the other side is saying.

    A scientist is trying to find out how something in the natural world works. An engineer is trying to apply science to an engineering project.

  32. 182
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I believe that the demographic transition is generally due to economic factors:
    1) In an urban setting having children is more expensive, and one reaps less economic benefit from it.
    2) More women are educated in an urban society, increasing their awareness of reproductive control and also presenting them with opportunities for work outside the home. The higher expense of urban living (traditionally, anyway), also encourages women to work outside the home. With both members of the couple spending much of the day outside the home and returning late, opportunities for, uh, reproductive activity, decrease.
    3)The urban environment offers greater opportunities for entertainment outside of reproductive activities–yes, sadly many couples will opt for Jay Leno (or his Chinese counterpart) over their spouse. Note however, that the demographic transition is accompanied by increased resource consumption, so I’m not sure it helps that much.
    Given that there are many incidences in nature of an organism discovering a new food source and this fueling another surge in population, I think it’s premature to say Malthus was wrong. All we’ve done is figure out how to turn petroleum into food, and that can’t last forever.

  33. 183
    fredrik says:

    Barton, do you have any idea what a researcher with a PhD in an engineering subject actually do?

    What are the fundamental differences between modeling an offshore windturbine and climate? Explain them to me.

    “A scientist is trying to find out how something in the natural world works.”

    Does the wind (fluid) field around a windturbine have something to do with how the natural worlds works? Has the wave load on a windturbine anything to do with have the natural world works?

    “An engineer is trying to apply science to an engineering project.”

    There are a lot of people that you would call engineers that try understand how the natural world works, people working in aerodynamics, modeling waves, structural dynamics etc. There are no fundamental difference between calculating the aerodymaics around a tree, a scientific problem in your veiw, and calculating the aerydanmics around a windtrubine. It doesn’t matter it the object is natural or man build or if the reason for the calculation is to design a better windturbine or just understanding more about trees.

  34. 184
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Fredrik,
    Engineers and scientists view the world differently. They attack problems differently. I, myself, work in a very applied field. My job title is “radiation engineer,” but the way I do my job is influenced by my training as a physicist. My wife was trained as an electrical engineer. She now works in environmental science, and has a job title of engineer, but she thinks like a scientist. The way I would distinguish between engineering and science is in the tendencies and perhaps the motivations of the practitioners. A scientist doesn’t believe something unless he understands the mechanism–even if he sees it with his own eyes. An engineer trusts an empirical test more than any model. A scientist is often more narrowly focused than an engineer. Perhaps the fact that most engineering disciplines cross scientific boundaries explains why some engineers seem to think they can understand and contribute beyond their expertise. Some scientists do so as well (William Shockley being the classic case), but in general, scientists usually realize that their contributions outside their limited focus will be limited.
    Both the scientific and engineering perspectives have their advantages and limits. Each is necessary, and neither is superior to the other.

  35. 185
    James says:

    Re #179: [You're basically saying it's not worth searching for solutions because we'll never find them anyway. On what serious and undeniable studies are you basing this analysis?]

    But you’re switching questions in midstream. I was responding to your question, back in post #172: “How do we make those 10 billion people living in descent conditions AND in a sustainable way for earth”. You don’t need “serious and undeniable studies” to answer that, just simple arithmetic. The Earth has a land surface area of 57 million square miles. Even neglecting the fact that much of that is desert or ice cap, 10 billion people would mean an average population density of 175 people per square mile, or a bit under 4 acres per person. Thus the inescapable conclusion: a large part of that population would have to live in overcrowded conditions. (Even at the current level, we observe that many people do live in such conditions.) Such overcrowding contradicts the requirements of “decent conditions”, and so the question is answered.

    (Or we can answer the question a different way. Take the fairly prosperous parts of the current population, which is for a ballpark figure about 500 million. Observe the effect they’re having on the planet, and extrapolate.)

    Note that this is entirely apart from the problems of global warming. It simply means that in looking for solutions to those problems, we have to deal with reality. 10 billion people, or even 6 billion, can’t all have a decent life on this planet. That’s not the same as saying they can’t have a life of some sort, or have a chance at a decent life, or that we shouldn’t seek to make what improvements we can.

    [I quote: "As of 2006, the United States accepts more legal immigrants as permanent residents than the rest of the world combined."]

    Perhaps this is a language problem? There is a very distinct difference between “accept” and “welcome”.

  36. 186
    James says:

    Re #180: [Historians, geographs and demographers already answered this question.]

    Sorry, but they haven’t answered it. They’ve used their crystal balls to make predictions, which may or may not turn out to be correct. (You can see this even in the references you give, in which the demographers make a range of predictions based on various contingencies.) It’s pretty easy to think of plausible ways in which they could be wildly wrong. For instance, that mad scientist bioengineers a contraceptive virus, so birthrates & populations decline. Or in the other direction, some religion which rejects contraception gains widespread control, so birthrates & populations exceed the predictions.

  37. 187
    Ike Solem says:

    Many of the solutions to global warming require the cooperation, not just of scientists and engineers, but also of politicians and farmers and manufacturers.

    Take the need to move away from fossil fueled agriculture and towards carbon-neutral agriculture. One of the critical steps appears to be the use of biochar, which is essentially charcoal.

    Let’s look at corn production as an example – the corn stover (everything but the kernels) is usually just left on the ground. Scientists know that vegetation left on the ground goes back into atmospheric CO2, with only a few % going back into the soil matrix – in other words, corn stover is labile carbon.

    Engineers have come up with a bio-oil biochar process that works as follows:

    “The production process converts sawdust, wood chips and other waste wood and biomass into biooil, a greenhouse gas neutral biofuel that can be used to generate electricity and to power industrial processes that make use of fuel oil.

    Dynamotive�s carbon/greenhouse-gas-neutral fast pyrolysis technology uses medium temperatures and oxygen-free conditions to turn dry, waste cellulosic biomass into biooil for power and heat generation. The biooil can be further converted into vehicle fuels and chemicals.

    A co-product of the process is biochar, a dry soil concentrate that can be used to enrich agricultural soils, the forerunners of which were used in ancient times in the Amazon to rejuvenate soils and enhance their productivity. �The soils created then are now known as �terra preta,� which means black soil, and are considered among the most fertile in the world,� according to company information.

    Corn stover can obviously be fed into such a process, which will result in the production of biochar. One concern about feeding corn into cellulosic biofuel production has been that this will lead to increased depletion of carbon from soils. However, the biochar process results in about 20% of the original plant carbon being converted to a stable carbon supplement for soils – a far better result than the few % addition due to just leaving the stover lying on the ground.

    The only question that remains is what energy source will be used to run the oxygen-free pyrolysis of the corn stover – will it be clean solar energy, or dirty coal? Here is where politicians can step in, and mandate the use of clean energy for the process, rather than coal.

    This, I think, provides a good example of scientists, engineers, investors and politicians all working together to solve a specific problem. What’s needed is cooperation among all four groups, and plans that will really work to reduce carbon emissions – unlike coal-fired industrial agriculture corn ethanol production, for example.

    The only losers are the fossil fuel industry – and while they have the cash and the engineering experience to make the transition, investing in new technology will lower their profit margins and upset their shareholders, so they are continuing to fight against the new, clean technologies. They also have too much control over politicians, who routinely sabotage renewable technology development at the behest of the fossil fuel corporations. That is yet another problem that needs to be addressed.

  38. 188
    James says:

    Re #187: [The only question that remains is what energy source will be used to run the oxygen-free pyrolysis of the corn stover - will it be clean solar energy, or dirty coal?]

    Waste heat from nuclear reactors, of course :-)

  39. 189
    David B. Benson says:

    Re #187: Ike Solem — As I understand it, some of the bio-oils, or indeed the char, suffices to run the pyrolysis unit. But any low grade source of heat will do, I think.

    I agree that all four of your groups of people are required. I would also include farmers, ranchers and foresters. Help inform them all. This appears to be a winner for everybody but the fossil fuelers…

  40. 190
    Rod B says:

    I have a question for you corn wizards. Ethanol is touted as greatly reducing the net CO2 emissions from that of gasoline. The only thing that allows this is counting the CO2 taken up by the corn stover during its growth. How long does the stover take to disintegrate? If it is one or even many growing seasons it seems most of the “sequestered” CO2 is put back in the atmosphere, eliminating this claimed advantage for ethanol.

  41. 191
    nicolas L. says:

    re 185

    “10 billion people would mean an average population density of 175 people per square mile, or a bit under 4 acres per person. Thus the inescapable conclusion: a large part of that population would have to live in overcrowded conditions. Even at the current level, we observe that many people do live in such conditions. Such overcrowding contradicts the requirements of “decent conditions”, and so the question is answered ”
    The population density is now around 100 people per square mile (As long as my translation from kilometre is good :) ), and most of this population concentrates in major urban areas. I personally live in one of the top crowded places of the planet. My country is 16th on the list of highest density population, and the city I live in is the fourth on the list of the highest densities on the planet, with about 65 000 people/ square mile ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_selected_cities_by_population_density http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_density ). I sure do live in overcrowded conditions, right? So now, do I live in indecent conditions? As far as I love to complain (I’m a French people, after all), Iâ??d pretty much have to say no. Density doesnâ??t automatically means awful living conditions, for this you c an compare the population density and the living standards of a shanty town to the one of a nice central town like Paris. I donâ??t think youâ??ll find the awful living conditions in Paris, where the density is by far the highest.

    “They’ve used their crystal balls to make predictions, which may or may not turn out to be correct. (You can see this even in the references you give, in which the demographers make a range of predictions based on various contingencies.) It’s pretty easy to think of plausible ways in which they could be wildly wrong.”
    Historians actually studied the history of demographic transition in developed countries. Concerning demographers, I think in the portray you make of them a lot of climate scientists will recognise a very familiar way of thinking and the kinds of critics they have to face everyday. Of course, we canâ??t be 100% sure because the only way for that would be to take a travel machine to 2100 and then come back. As long as this is not possible, Iâ??ll keep on believing the projections.

  42. 192
    fredrik says:

    Ray, I just belive the research education resulting in a PhD in a engineering subject compared to the research education resulting in PhD in science subject are very similar and that the researchers attack a similar problem in a similar way. I dont belive in a general difference as you propose for people with a PhD. Researchers vs non researchers would be better.

    The generalisations that engineerers is more likely to be sceptics is for the first a generalisation and thus shouldn’t be used in my opinion. I think a sceptic stance on global warming is more a political stance compared to anything else.

    I agree with you that you should be very careful to draw any conclusions outside your expertise and it is equally stupid to do independent of who who does it. But I also belive that the only possibly scetchy part of AGW is in the computer models. Simulation Navier-Stokes equations are extremely difficult and there are a lot of knoweledge about simulation large systems and what can go wrong in engineering fields. I dont find it strange that some people with the related background are sceptical of the validity of the predictions. Most sceptics dont have a clue though and use crap arguments.

  43. 193

    [[There are no fundamental difference between calculating the aerodymaics around a tree, a scientific problem in your veiw, and calculating the aerydanmics around a windtrubine. It doesn't matter it the object is natural or man build or if the reason for the calculation is to design a better windturbine or just understanding more about trees. ]]

    No, you are just not getting it. Modeling the flow around a wind turbine is not trying to get at some new scientific principle or discover some new effect or even nail down a controversy. It’s about making an effective product. A computer model of the wind around a tree most likely would not make it through peer review, because it wouldn’t tell anybody anything new. A lot of papers get rejected by journals for just that reason — including some of my papers. If it doesn’t come up with something new, it’s not really advancing scientific knowledge, and that is the difference between engineers and scientists. They may have taken many of the same courses, they may know a lot of the same mathematical and computer programming techniques, but they are simply not doing the same thing, and it’s stupid and wrong to insist that they are. Engineers are not scientists, though they can do science if their work makes it through peer review, because the goal of their job is not advancing scientific knowledge, it’s making products work. Doctors are not scientists, though they can do science if their work makes it through peer review, because the goal of their job is not advancing scientific knowledge, it’s healing people with wounds or diseases. Physicists or climatologists or anthropologists are scientists, because their job is advancing scientific knowledge.

  44. 194
    James says:

    Re #191: [ Density doesn't automatically means awful living conditions, for this you can compare the population density and the living standards of a shanty town to the one of a nice central town like Paris. I don't think you'll find the awful living conditions in Paris, where the density is by far the highest.]

    Once again, there seems to be a bit of language confusion. There’s a big gap between the awful living conditions of a shantytown, and what I’d consider decent. There may also be a bit of personal taste, too. Some people may not mind being crammed cheek by jowl with thousands of others, but lots of people (I among them) do. So a life that doesn’t include a large amount of space can never be decent to me. Indeed, though I’ve never lived in Paris, I have at various times lived in similar cities. I didn’t think that I had a decent life then, and mostly tolerated it in hopes of making enough money to someday escape.

    [Concerning demographers, I think in the portray you make of them a lot of climate scientists will recognise a very familiar way of thinking...]

    Not really. Climate science (in respect to AGW) is founded on experimental data. CO2 does absorb infrared, and the atmospheric concentration is increasing due to human emissions. Given those facts, you can make predictions. You can also input various scenarios as to what future emissions might be, and predict the probable consequences.

    The demographers, by contrast, are really doing nothing much more than curve fitting, observing past behavior and projecting it into the future without any real theoretical or experimental foundation.

  45. 195
    David B. Benson says:

    Re #190: Rod B — Ideally, ethanol production is carbon neutral. That is, all the carbon comes from the air and eventually goes back into the air. The advantage of pyrolysis is that the resulting biochar can be sequestered, for thousands of years, in the soil. It improves the soil tremendously. Used this way, it is carbon negative in that it takes carbon from the air which is put into the ground. It also produces a carbon neutral oil, called bio-oil, which can be burnt directly or used as feedstock for other processes. Here is a well organized site about biochar:

    http://www.shimbir.demon.co.uk/biocharrefs.htm

  46. 196
    Dick Veldkamp says:

    Re #193 (BPL)

    Barton, I think that your distinction between “engineers” and “scientists” is somewhat artificial. Although we could say that engineering is (mostly) about making things that work, in practice by far the best way to achieve this end is to understand what is happening. To stay with the example of wind turbines, engineers have done a lot of work on understanding flow around turbine blades, on turbulence modeling, wake modeling, occurrence of extreme wind events etc.

    A lot of engineering is about making models, checking predictions against measurements, refining the models and so on. For me, that’s science.

    And yes, as you might have guessed from this or from previous contributions, I am a wind turbine engineer.

  47. 197
    John Mashey says:

    re: #195
    Please can we get off the engineer-vs-scientist thing.

    1) If we really care whether engineers or scientists are more prone to irrational beliefs, we need to stir up the kinds of scientists whose expertise lies in that area, i.e., not engineers, physicists, or other climate scientists, but (most likely), social psychologists who actually do this sort of research.

    2) Otherwise, we (who pride ourselves as careful whatevers in our own domains) are mostly speaking from anecdotal evidence. I can think of plenty of people with either science or engineering backgrounds who’ve gone off into hard positions, although I speculate that the percentages are probably lower than in the general population.

    3) Just for fun, I visited http://www.desmogblog.com/ to do a pass through their Deniers Database (encountering an interesting article regarding Tim Ball on the way: in some sense, too bad it won’t go to trial), and started to look at the Deniers list, but quickly encountered one labeled a dowsing expert, at which point I fled. In any case, I think the list was supposed to be scientists, so it wouldn’t have been a representative study anyway.

    Hypothesis: “Engineers are more likely than scientists to succumb to bad ideas”:
    NOT PROVED, and not likely to be proved here.

  48. 198
    Rod B says:

    David (195) I appreciate it. But my understanding is that ethanol (from corn at least) production and burning is carbon neutral (even slightly negative) only if the CO2 absorbed by the stalks, roots, and cobs (and converted to carbon) is permanantly sequestered. If it gets re-emitted into the atmosphere through decomposition (likely within one growing season with full tilling — I think??) then ethanol, joule for joule, adds significantly more CO2 to the air than gasoline. Do you agree?

    I have to study the pyrolysis/biochar thing. Sounds interesting; thanks for the link.

  49. 199
    nicolas L. says:

    re 194

    “So a life that doesn’t include a large amount of space can never be decent to me”
    We’re talking about personal preferences then, not about unbearable living conditions for human beings having for consequence to reduce world population.
    Another short example so you get my point: Europe is around 700 million people, with a 4 millions square miles superficy. Make the math yourself, you will find a 175 inhabitants/ square mile (how weird)
    Do the same with Africa: 12 million square miles and 900 million people. You’ll find 75 inhabitants/square milesâ?¦
    So now, do you still think a lower population density means better living conditions?

    “The demographers, by contrast, are really doing nothing much more than curve fitting, observing past behavior and projecting it into the future without any real theoretical or experimental foundation.”

    Do you have any idea how science works? It’s not about taking a piece of paper, a black pen and starting to design a nice regular curve that will fit your views (this is apparently what some GW contrarians do, though, if I can judge by the last topic posted on RC :)). It’s about collect data (like populations census), analyse it, and in the case of demographers study populations dynamics, migration movements, sociological behaviours past and present to then model a projection of future populations. If you don’t believe demography is a real science, you should take a trip to a geography university, or at least take some information about itâ?¦
    you can start by there: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography , and then go to the external links. That should be a good base to start.

  50. 200
    fredrik says:

    I agree with Dick, good post.

    “No, you are just not getting it. Modeling the flow around a wind turbine is not trying to get at some new scientific principle or discover some new effect or even nail down a controversy.”

    The modeling is done for the understanding of the flow around a windturbine, this is not well known and there are a lack of understanding of some parts, for example stall delay is poorly understood. The are probably not going to result in any new scientific princible but I also doubt that Gavin is going to discover any new scientific principle in his modeling work.

    “Engineers are not scientists, though they can do science if their work makes it through peer review,”

    PhD’s in engineerings subjects publish in peer-reviewed journals so I quess they do science then. Good that was my point all the time.

    “because the goal of their job is not advancing scientific knowledge,”

    That depends on how you define scientific knowledge. Is fluid dynamics around an airplane scientific knowledge, i.e aerodynamics? Is fluid dynamics in the atmosphere scientific knowledge? I would say both are scientific knowledge.

    But whatever, we are not getting anyware here. It just seems to be a lot of prejudice around.


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