Les Chevaliers de l’Ordre de la Terre Plate, Part I: Allègre and Courtillot

France has a per capita carbon emission of 1.64 tonnes, compared to 2.67 tonnes for the U.K and 5.61 tonnes for the US. So, if anybody has earned the right to rest on their laurels and pontificate to the rest of the developed world about what they should be doing, you’d think it would be France. Far from it, under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy, France has embarked on an ambitious program of deeper carbon reductions. In introducing the measures, Sarkozy said "The guiding principle is that the cost to the climate — the carbon cost — will be integrated into planning of all major public projects, and into all deliberations affecting the public." These measures include: a commitment that all new buildings would be net energy producers by 2020, incandescent lighting would be banned by 2010, buyers of efficient vehicles would be subsidized, drivers of inefficient vehicles would be penalized, and road construction would be severely curtailed in favor of expanded rail travel using state-of-the-art French TGV technology. A carbon tax is also being seriously contemplated. These proposals are the result of an intensive months-long series of discussions with scientists and stakeholders such as environmental nongovernmental organizations, industry representatives, and labor union representatives. The process, known as Le Grenelle de l’Environnement, was described here by Nature (subscription required) and a summary of some of Sarkozy’s proposed actions was reported in the press here.

All the same, there has been some pushback from a vocal pair of highly decorated French academicians, Claude Allègre being the most prominent and noisiest of the two. In recent years, Vincent Courtillot has emerged as a reliable sidekick to Allègre — a Dupont to his Dupond — helping to propagate Allègre’s claims and adding a few of his own. Both are members of the Académie des Sciences, and Allègre has been awarded both the Crafoord Prize and Bowie Medal. Allègre has an impressive list of publications relating to the Earth’s interior, and besides that was Minister for Education, Research and Technology in the Jospin government. Courtillot — currently director of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) — has had a distinguished record of research on fundamental aspects of geomagnetism and is currently President of the Geomagnetism and Paleomagnetism Section of the American Geophysical Union. Their views were amply (some would say more than amply) represented at a symposium on the IPCC report, held last Spring at the Academie (See the issue "Evolution des Climats" of La Lettre de l’Académie des sciences, and press reports in Le Figaro, Le Monde, and Liberation). What does all this mean? Are the opinions of Allègre and Courtillot founded on some special profound insight that has escaped the notice of the community of scientists who have devoted entire careers to studying climate? Let’s take a look.

When an active scientist of the distinction of Allègre or Courtillot speaks out, the voice has a special claim on our attention, no matter how implausible the claims may seem. It would be a mistake, however, to accept the proclamations of such luminaries on the basis of authority; one must examine the arguments on their merits. Allègre does not publish his arguments on climate in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, so we have to turn to his popular writings and public statements to get a glimpse of what these arguments are. A treasure trove of Allegrisms (Allegrories? Allegrations?) can be conveniently found in a little opus humbly entitled Ma vérité sur la planète (Plon/Fayard:Paris 2007). Many of the things said here merely parrot standard discredited skeptics’ arguments without adding anything new: For example, Allègre at several junctures repeats the old fallacy of confusing unpredictability of weather with the problem of determining how climate responds to changes in radiative forcing: "I have difficulty believing that one could predict with precision the temperatures that will occur a century from now, when we can’t even predict what they will be one week from now." (p.89) He also repeats the fallacy that the lead-lag relation between CO2 and temperature in Antarctic ice cores proves that temperature causes CO2 variations rather than vice-versa — a tired and thoroughly discredited argument (look here for a summary of the rebuttals) . There is little more to say about such arguments, save that Allègre’s willingness to repeat them shows either a remarkable gullibility or a disturbing lack of scientific integrity.

Elsewhere, though, Allègre breaks new ground with regard to passing off nonsense as scientific argument. Here are a few examples.

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