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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. 201

    [[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?]]

    Ethanol from plants is taking CO2 out of the air and then putting it back in. Gasoline from oil is taking CO2 out of the ground where it has been for 300 million years and putting it in the air. That’s the difference.

  2. 202

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

    Every time you assert that engineers are scientists, I will counter it, because it’s not true. And it’s pretty damned arrogant as well. The prejudice seems to me to be all on your side. By your argument, who needs scientists to do science? We can just have engineers do it. We don’t even need people to get science degrees, just engineering degrees. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

  3. 203
    fredrik says:

    Barton, Nature seems to atleast publish something about windturbines.

    Thus, those people do science according to your definition.

    Do you ever answers peoples questions by the way? I have asked you a couple questions but you just ignore them. You just sit on your high horse claiming that I am wrong. You are also inconsistent, modeling a windturbine is not science even though you can found a lot of peer-reviewed article about it but an engineer that publish his works in peer-reviewed journals are doing science according to you. So what is it?

    Science degrees or engineering degrees on the PhD level is more or less the same in my opinion and I am going to continue to belive that until someone give any argument that it is not true. No argument has been given so far. This assumes that PhD’s in engineering subjects like aerydnamics or structural dynamics is considered engineers. I get the impression that you and Ray thinks that and I have asked you to clarify. If their research are considered science, they should be considered as scientist and I have no problem any more.

  4. 204
    Dick Veldkamp says:

    #202 (Barton) Engineer vs scientist

    Barton, whether somebody (in your view) is “arrogant” says exactly nothing about the validity of his arguments.

    Now can we please stop this particular discussion that is getting us nowhere? Moderators?

    [Response: Agreed. No more scientists vs engineers postings please…. – gavin]

  5. 205
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re #197

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

    Likely not.

    But if you’ll forgive a short, semi-off-topic digression, in my own experience I do find it interesting that in another area of contention, Evolution, the Creationists tend to be defended most virulently on message boards by engineers who seem extremely touchy about the questions regarding their credibility in making pronouncements regarding the biological sciences, and that, in the general “debate”, the legitimacy of many Creation “scientists” is, at best, questionable:

    Also worth noting is that the founder of the modern Intelligent Design movement, Phillip Johnson, is a lawyer.

    Finally, perhaps the Global Warming issue could use a barometer like Project Steve from the National Center for Science Education:

    Not that any of this necessarily means we see a correlation between the two discussions, but I think it would be worthwhile to note, once more, that the issue started when someone attempting to defend Griffin’s unfortunate statements posted his resume as proof that he was a scientist (sans any mention of peer-reviewed work on the subject of focus) when, in fact, the resume was that of an engineer.

    Some feel there is a distinction between scientists and engineers, others do not. I tend to side with those that do, so there’s my bias, for what it is worth. Personally, I don’t think then or now anyone is trying to suggest there is something negative about being an engineer, though if I were to venture an opinion, it seems that those who take a position tending to support the idea that there is no distinction seem to be doing so in a defense of engineering. Take from that what you will.

    Again, please forgive the digression. That said, it is a Friday, and a beautiful day indeed, (at least, here on the Left Coast), and I do hope you all have a wonderful and contention-free weekend.


  6. 206
    James says:

    Re #199: [We’re talking about personal preferences then, not about unbearable living conditions for human beings having for consequence to reduce world population.]

    How do you determine what conditions are bearable or decent, except by consulting the personal preferences of the people who might live in them? And again, you’re overlooking the very big gap between your unbearable conditions (yet the people who live in them do manage to bear them, mostly), and what you or I would consider decent conditions.

    [So now, do you still think a lower population density means better living conditions?]

    All else being equal, yes. Low population density is necessary for a decent life, but of course it is not sufficient.

    [Do you have any idea how science works?]

    Well, I think I do. So, I assume, do the several companies & institutions that have paid me to do it :-)

    […in the case of demographers study populations dynamics, migration movements, sociological behaviours past and present to then model a projection of future populations.]

    Yes, I thought that is exactly what I said. They’re gathering statistics on past behavior, and using them to project the future. That would be akin to studying past climates, finding out that there were e.g. Milankovic cycles, and using those to project future climates. Unfortunately those projections would be wrong, or maybe incomplete is a better word, because they don’t take the effects of CO2 into account. Those effects (simplistically) can’t be determined by statistical methods, because humans haven’t put large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere before, but they can and were predicted by theory. See the difference? Demography has statistics, but no theories with which to predict the effects of things that haven’t happened before.

  7. 207

    And as the VD sufferer said, that Alexander really makes my…

    Okay, I won’t say it. But I wanted to.

  8. 208
    Mark A. York says:

    “Okay, I won’t say it. But I wanted to.”


    Concerning engineers economists and other techician trades many of whom deny global warming, Barton is correct they have a product to produce as free from difficulty as can be. It’s pragmatic in nature. Good! We need them to work on solutions to climate change based problems including solving the core problem: CO2 production. What we don’t need is cross-disciplinary denial that there is a problem, and there is no need to go to work. We need cooperation and a pool of all the talents we can muster. The time for competition is over. Let us compete for solutions before it’s too late.

  9. 209
    Bill Doyle says:

    I remember being amused by Chomsky’s notion that the CIA was a Marxist organization that simply wanted the other side to win! All these guys – left or right – are convinced they have human destiny in the bag; I suspect that Alexander is one of that class of intellectuals who simply cannot accept that history would have the temerity not to end up at the destination he’s envisioned for it…

  10. 210
    Nick Gotts says:

    RE #209 [I remember being amused by Chomsky’s notion that the CIA was a Marxist organization that simply wanted the other side to win!]

    Off topic, I know, but I’m curious: where did Chomsky say this? Sounds to me like an ironical comment, which could have been prefaced by: “From the way they behave you would think…”. And who are “All these guys”?

  11. 211
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE: #208

    Mark, individuals are free to deny AGW as strongly and with righteous indignation as they choose.

    The rest of the world is slowly and steadily facing the future as climate scientists, agronomists, oceanographers, determine and report on the consequences of a warming world.

    When the heads of nations met at the recent G-8 they looked across the table at winners and losers. The former are few and have a short lifespan and the latter will eventually be all of us.

    No suprise the insurance industry was the first out of the box to esablish a global warming strategy: cut their losses. Now, China is backing away from coal liquefaction and ethanol production because water availability is not certain. Sea level rise is already claiming victims.

    I have come to see AGW is not an environmental problem: it is an engineering and economic challenge to solve and the US will be in short supply of engineers. In your words:

    [We need them to work on solutions to climate change based problems including solving the core problem: CO2 production.]

    The environment is victim. Environmentalists and especially NIMBYs will hamper the work by opposing needed investments, offering up ideas and remedies for which they have no background or fight infrastructure retrofit and additions if they threaten ecosystems already marked for destruction by relentless AGW.

  12. 212
    Bill Doyle says:

    re#210 0ff topic: Quick skim of a dozen volumes did not reveal the source of the quote: should I ever find it I’ll post it.

    On topic, and regarding sources: did people thoroughly check any of Cockburn’s links. I’m glad I did, because it would have been a shame to miss out on Dr. Jaworowsky’s ‘The Ice Age is Coming’- Snowball Earth is on its way, but hey, not to worry; â��The present technology of nuclear power, based on the nuclear fission of uranium and thorium, would secure heat and electricity supplies for 5 billion people for about 10,000 years.â�� And â��However, I think that in the next centuries we shall learn to control sea currents and clouds, and this could be sufficient to govern the climate of our planet.â��

    Cockburn later went on to wax indignant that people had suggested the good Dr. might be a crank!

    I’d have to say that overall, his proferred links were a little wobbly! I’ve also enjoyed the string of ‘dog ate my homework’ explanation re not producing the long-promised Hertzberg papers…

  13. 213
    Robin Fox says:

    re #212, Bill Doyle: Cockburn did finally provide the references to George Monbiot, who then got the papers from Herzberg himself. Monbiot’s response, which he says will be the last in his exchange with Cockburn, is at

    He refers readers to RealClimate for general information on climate change and specifically to the discussion of Cockburn’s nonsense.

  14. 214
    Nullifidian says:

    I have to thank Bill Doyle. I wouldn’t have thought to look at the crank sites Cockburn links to.

    However, it does raise an interesting question. If Cockburn uses a pro-nuclear crank for support, that indicates that the argument that concern about anthropogenic CO2 being a stalking horse for the nuclear industry is probably a red herring.

    If so, I really wonder what his objections are. I have two hypotheses, both of which may be true. One is that, as an old Stalinist, he’s offended at the thought that the age of industrialization through which all human culture must pass according to Marx may well lead to catastrophic effects on the survival of humans and human culture. Proponents of this view would disdain AGW for not being sufficiently rigorous in its adherence to Marxist principles.

    Alternatively, (after comment #134) he could be a paid shill.