Cockburn’s Climate Cock and Ball Story

December 19, 2009

It’s truly sad to see once articulate, passionate advocates of progressive internationalism reverting in their dotage to peddling stale old conspiracies and repeating the talking points of right-wing (corporate funded) foundations.

Unfortunately, Counterpunch editor Alexander Cockburn has well and truly slipped into this demented dream-state, finding in the “climate alarmists” and “AGW industry” a suitable target for contrarian zeal.

In the process, he is becoming as absurd and risible as Christopher Hitchens did when he hitched onto the Neocon wagon back in 2002 and cheered for the war in Iraq.

In an editorial today, Cockburn wades into battle against the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, calling it “surely the most outlandish foray into intellectual fantasizing since the fourth-century Christian bishops assembled for the Council of Nicaea in 325AD to debate whether God the father was supreme or had to share equal status in the pecking order of eternity with his Son and with the Holy Ghost.”

Well, that quip certainly fits the content of his article neatly, if not the UN sponsored summit, which has admittedly delivered a terrible, unsatisfactory outcome, but it was not simply an exercise in tilting at windmills.

Cockburn writes that in the 1970s “the supposed menace to the planet and to mankind  was global cooling, a source of interest to oil companies for obvious reasons” while “Coolers transmuted into warmers in the early 80s.”

He’s dead wrong, and sadly hasn’t paid much attention to work being done on the history of science in the 1970s which would set him embarassingly straight.

In 2008, a study group led by Thomas Peterson of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looked at every scientific paper on the world’s climate from the 1970s. What they found was, as Nature reported, “only 7 of the 71 total papers surveyed predicted global cooling” while “The vast majority (44) actually predicted that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide could lead to global warming.”

An inconvenient truth for Mr Cockburn, who needs to brush up on his history if he is going to paint the UN IPCC process as merely a front for corporate rent-seekers.

Cockburn goes on to accuse the “warmers” and “true believers” in Climate Change of erecting a vast propaganda edifice as “Billions in funding and research grants sluice into the big climate modeling enterprises.”

He discounts those “deniers” – who have been lavishly rewwarded by oil firms for their labours, trying to cast the “warmers” as the true intellectual harlots seeking money from the powerful for purely venal purposes.

Cockburn needs to read the Union of Concerned Scientist’s 2007 report “Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to “Manufacture Uncertainty” on Climate Change for more background. Then he might realise how Exxon Mobil had “raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence…funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings…attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for “sound science” rather than business self-interest” and “used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming.”

Despite chiding the “warmers” for taking the “moral high ground,” Cockburn is not averse to doing precisely that, assuming a paternalistic mantle towards free thinking young pups, writing that “Scepticism, particularly for a young climatologist or atmospheric physicist, can be a career breaker. ”

Ironically, the “climategate” e-mails that form the spine of his rant show plenty of evidence of scepticism amongst scientists who still have jobs. If he’d read them, he’d know. But their scepticism is not the all-or-nothing, paranoid conspiracy-mongering type. It’s the – how can we be sure, and let’s look at the methods and evidence again type – the one associated with real scientists, who generally aren’t engaged in a juvenile insurgency against their contemporaries and the institutions which employ them.

Cockburn also evinces a cock-and-bull approach to the much discussed “medieval warm period” which he locates between 800 AD and 1300 AD and, apparently is “a historical fact which made nonsense of the thesis that global warming could be attributed to the auto-industrial civilization of the twentieth century.”

But unfortunately, it isn’t. Aside from the fact that we can’t be sure of local and global temperatures for that period – using proxies like tree rings, pollen grains and written evidence – there’s the glaring problem that the “medieval warm period” was nowhere near a global event.

I’m going to avoid trawling the academic literature and take a brief diversion through Cockburn country by quoting Wikipedia on this point, and for that forgive me. But it’s worth it. Here’s part of the entry on the MWP:

[the] MWP pattern is characterised by warmth over large part of North Atlantic, Southern Greenland, the Eurasian Arctic, and parts of North America which appears to substantially exceed that of modern late 20th century (1961-1990) baseline and is comparable or exceeds that of the past one-to-two decades of in some regions. Certain regions such as central Eurasia, northwestern North America, and (with less confidence) parts of South Atlantic, exhibit anomalous coolness.

I’ll say it again. The MWP was regional. Globally temparatures probably didn’t rise higher that the moment, but we don’t know for sure.

Cockburn’s suave deployment of an e-mail from climate scientist Keith Briffa seems to seal his rhetorical deal, but it really doesn’t. I’ll include the quote in full, as Cockburn excerpted it:

I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards ‘apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data’ but in reality the situation is not quite so simple…I believe that the recent warmth was probably matched about 1000 years ago.

Damning stuff. But what Briffa is referring to is not the problem that the MWP poses for the theory of anthropogenic warming. He is talking about the problem is poses to a linear narrative of gradual warming. This is a key difference which contrarians like Cockburn can’t be bothered to discuss.

Briffa is worried by cavalier scientists and commentators who want to over-egg the climate pudding and is aware of the complexity involved in discussing the climatic history of the globe as a guide to its present and future.

He isn’t admitting that climate change is caused by sunspots, or isn’t caused by greenhouse gas emissions. He is privately challenging colleagues to produce work which doesn’t patronise the public and doesn’t over-simplify.

Cockburn would do well to follow his example.

But Cockburn then excecutes another rhetorical “trick,” suggesting that “a mid- to late-twentieth-century decline” found by climate scientists (and readily apparent in all of the IPCC literature that Copenhagen is working from) invalidates the idea that greenhouse gases alter the climate.

Of course, he doesn’t note that data shows an upward trend from about 1800 to 1940, a levelling or decline and then a rapid increase after 1980. And he doesn’t even pay lip service to the widely accepted idea that the plateau was a product of particles in the earth’s atmosphere caused by industry exerting a “global dimming” effect and reducing the impact of greenhouse gases.

No chance.

The case is similar with arctic sea ice. Cockburn writes that “As for the nightmare of vanishing ice caps and inundating seas, the average Arctic ice  coverage has essentially remained unchanged for the last 20 years, and has actually  increased slightly over the last 3 years.”

This is extremely misleading, where not flatly wrong. Sea ice has not remained “essentially unchanged for the last 20 years” as a trip to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center will show (this graph, for example,  shows how recent sea ice levels have been far lower, consistently, than previous periods).

What Cockburn seems to have been referring to was sea ice maximum, ie/ in the winter months, and not the minimum. Yet this minimum is what most concerns scientists, having fallen abruptly in recent years. In 2009, the NSIDC reports that “At the end of the Arctic summer, more ice cover remained this year than during the previous record-setting low years of 2007 and 2008. However, sea ice has not recovered to previous levels. September sea ice extent was the third lowest since the start of satellite records in 1979, and the past five years have seen the five lowest ice extents in the satellite record.”

Cause for alarm, certainly.

On sea level rises, Cockburn writes that “The rate of rise of sea level has declined significantly over the last 3 years, and its average rate of rise for the last 20 years is about the same as it has been for the last 15,000 years.”

Unfortunately not. As far as we know, the rate of sea level rise has accelerated in recent decades. One group of researchers reported this year that “the most recent satellite and in situ data showed seas were now rising by more than 3mm a year” a rate which the Independent newspaper comments is “more than 50 per cent faster than the average for the 20th century.” [backed up by this study as well].

This is mostly due to the expansion of the oceans as temperatures rise – not the melting of the icecaps. But Cockburn wouldn’t care too much that the worst effects of climate change in terms of sea level rises are expected as large icesheets such as those on Greenland or the Antarctic, begin to melt. Hence, although sea level rises have not been massive enough to warrant Cockburn’s alarm, they should certainly interest us.

Cockburn might, I suppose, be interested to know that scientists have questioned the size of the contribution that might be made by these icesheets. But what he probably won’t be too keen on, is the conclusion of these scientists that a “global, eustatic sea-level rise contribution of about 3.3 meters” is a more likely figure.

The seriousness with which Cockburn views such matters is evident by the maturity of his conclusion. Musing on the after effects of the last ice age, he quips that “The sea rise of that still on-going interglacial warm spell, among other things, flooded the land bridge between  Siberia and Alaska to form the Bering Straits—without which we might be a province of Russia today. So much for the terrors of sea rise.”

This, given the likely consequences of a rise of 3 metres worldwide, is the height of self indulgent contrarian claptrap.

Cockburn will, alas, reach for any source material which confirms his inherent bias, his embrace of dissident physicists Gerhard Gerlich and Ralf Tscheuchner being a case in point.

Gerlich and Tscheuchner argue that the mechanism of anthropogenic climate change violates the laws of physics as, in Cockburn’s version, “a cooler body cannot warm a hotter body” meaning that, “Greenhouse gasses in the cold upper atmosphere, even when warmed a bit by absorbed infrared, cannot possibly transfer heat to the warmer earth, and in fact radiate their absorbed heat into outer space.”

This has been extensively, and eloquently, refuted by physicists. As one of them has written in response, the paper presents “no logical counter to the simple truth that the presence of Earth’s infrared-absorbing atmosphere does indeed raise our planet’s surface temperature by at least 33 degrees C from what it would be otherwise.” (Much more here).

The original paper appeared on an open physics site called Arxiv, which one reader describes as being “popular for maths, but has become a bit of a dumping ground for papers that couldn’t get into a journal (which, seeing as there is very much a pecking order in journals, is something of an achievement).”

The mystery is how the paper then appeared minus a lot of the fat, in the International Journal of Modern Physics. It’s a mystery not unlike the question of why the Nation published Cockburn’s screed. Ah, editors.

Cockburn’s article is an astonishing broadside aimed at the IPCC and the environmental movement in general. It’s highly inaccurate, unhinged, incoherent. It’s also very dangerous – at a time when the British tabloid press has opted to take a climate “sceptic” line and as the legitimacy of the IPCC process lies in tatters (for reasons other than the soundness of its science), and hence demands a rebuttal from progressives.

Whether or not climate change is a personal priority, I hope that those on the left can agree that contributions like Cockburn’s are anathema – unless you buy the “deniers” viewpoint, which is fine – just don’t do it because you are another frustrated lefty contrarian, groping about for an issue with which to rile up ignorant followers.

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5 Responses to “Cockburn’s Climate Cock and Ball Story”

  1. Michael T. Says:

    > It’s truly sad to see once articulate, passionate advocates of
    > progressive internationalism reverting in their dotage to
    > peddling stale old conspiracies and repeating the talking
    > points of right-wing (corporate funded) foundations.

    Alexander Cockburn has held the same position about AGW since the mid-to-late 80s. His fundamental argument has always been to specifically left uses of it, since he believes that only a false socialism, a barracks communism, can be based on this sort of threat which is in any case speculative. Myself I have no opinion on any of this.

    But your errors continue…. I will mention one further bit:

    > Cockburn writes that in the 1970s “the supposed menace
    > to the planet and to mankind was global cooling, a source
    > of interest to oil companies for obvious reasons” while
    > “Coolers transmuted into warmers in the early 80s.”

    The clause does not attach to “the 1970s”, but to the founding of the CRU in 1971 by (if Wikipedia can be trusted) British Petroleum, the Nuffield Foundation and Royal Dutch Shell. The sample of papers used by Thomas Peterson, William Connolley, and John Fleck contains only 10 papers from ’71 and before[^note], which can hardly be used as a basis for judging what might have been moving the founders.

    The founding Director at the founding of the CRU was Hubert Lamb. Of him a quick glance at Wikipedia might at least have given one pause:

    > He was originally known as the “ice man” for his prediction of global cooling
    > and a coming ice age but, following the UK’s exceptionally hot summer of
    > 1976, he switched to predicting a more imminent global warming.[2]

    The Wikipedia note refers to the following passage in a history of the University of East Anglia:

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=50HjSi5o8J0C&pg=PA285#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    [^note]: The papers on the basis of which Peterson Connolley and Fleck would be arguing for a warming consensus in the period up to 1971 (if that’s what they were arguing for) are as follows:

    Cooling papers

    McCormick and Ludwig (1967)
    Barrett (1971)
    Rasool and Schneider (1971)

    Neutral papers

    Landsberg (1970)

    Warming papers

    Revelle et al. (1965)
    Manabe and Weatherald (1967)
    Sellers (1969)
    Benton (1970)
    Report of the Study of Critical Environmental Problems (1970)
    Mitchell (1971)

    • szamko Says:

      Thanks for the response.

      “Alexander Cockburn has held the same position about AGW since the mid-to-late 80s. His fundamental argument has always been to specifically left uses of it, since he believes that only a false socialism, a barracks communism, can be based on this sort of threat which is in any case speculative. Myself I have no opinion on any of this.”

      I didn’t say he had just discovered climate change as an issue of note. But it’s somewhat odd to hold the same views for twenty years or more in a field that is constantly changing owing to the development of science….

      Anyhow, his point about the potential of climate change to be used to promote authoritarian solutions is valid. The only problem is he doesn’t make that explicit. His article is a screed against the reality of what you call “AGW” and he doesn’t present libertarian alternatives.

      But your “errors continue.”

      To be pedantic, you quote that Hubert Lamb “was originally known as the “ice man” for his prediction of global cooling and a coming ice age but, following the UK’s exceptionally hot summer of 1976, he switched to predicting a more imminent global warming.”

      Yet Cockburn writes that “Coolers transmuted into warmers in the early 80s and the CRU became one of the climate modeling grant mills supplying the tainted data from which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC ) has concocted its reports.”

      Lamb “converted” in the 1970s, not the 80s, which is evidence that the scientific community during the earlier decade was actually debating the reality of climate change (not in hock to big oil) and contradicts your man Cockburn’s idea that the 80s saw the important transition.

      And, in fact, as a Times obituary wrote of Lamb in 1997, “Considering his role as the apostle of a changing climate, it was ironic that as the world at large became more and more aware of threatened global warming Lamb himself remained conservative, maintaining a guarded attitude to the climatological importance of man-made greenhouse gases….He felt that the extent of the natural variability of our climate was often underestimated.”

      Hardly the opinions of a man in thrall to the shifting tides of fossil fuel lobby money. In truth, he was a key figure in amassing the data needed to study the history of the earth’s climate and in developing our ideas about how local climates are related to global patterns. You seem to be doing him a bit of a disservice.

      As for the Peterson Fleck et al article, they looked at all articles “projecting climate change on, or even just discussing an aspect of climate forcing relevant to, time scales from decades to a century”and found “only 7 articles indicating cooling compared to 44 indicating warming.” Moreover, they conclude that “global cooling was never more than a minor aspect of the scientific climate change literature of the era, let alone the scientific consensus.”

      So you really have to struggle to prove that fossil fuel money funded a switch amongst climate scientists from a “cooling consensus” to a “warming consensus” in the 1980s as Cockburn does. He’s utterly wrong, fixing the facts around the policy he fears, or wants.

      As for Cockburn’s long standing opinions on “AGW” I can’t find any written evidence that he held such views in the 1980s, but I’m sure you know him better than I do and perhaps you could set me straight. As it is, it seems that he has latched onto the climate change bandwagon rather late to suit his personal journalistic needs. I’d like to be wrong.

  2. Michael T. Says:

    It is true that I was being unjust to the shade of Professor Lamb, who seems interesting and whose integrity is not to be doubted. My point was only to attack the relevance of Peterson et al. (–Which seems from the look of it hardly to count as serious research in any case; we have to do with a historical development that needs a quite different form of evidence and discussion.) The founders of the CRU appointed an “ice man” to direct it. Later he changed his mind, though, as you say, he seems not to have held to the dogmatism that is generally prevailing. (And thus probably be run out of the profession if he were a young man.)

    I notice by the way that the version you quote is one of maybe several:

    > Yet Cockburn writes that “Coolers transmuted into warmers in the early 80s
    > and the CRU became one of the climate modeling grant mills supplying
    > the tainted data from which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel of Climate
    > Change (IPCC ) has concocted its reports.”

    In the [First Post version]( http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/57586 ), begins:

    > The CRU was founded in 1971 with funding from sources including
    > Shell and British Petroleum. At that time [sc. in the period immediately
    > preceding 1971] the supposed menace to
    > the planet and to mankind was global cooling, a source of
    > interest to oil companies for obvious reasons.

    But then continues on immediately with no mention of the 80’s:

    > Coolers transmuted into Warmers and the CRU became one
    > of the climate modeling grant mills supplying the often loaded
    > data from which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel of Climate
    > Change (IPCC) has concocted its reports which have been
    > since their inception – particularly the executive summaries –
    > carefully contrived political initiatives disguised as objective science.

    I don’t know what accounts for that. Maybe the Counterpunch.org version is the earlier one and the First Post has fact checkers who got rid of it? I think the best account of his meaning that mentions the ’80s would read something like “Coolers had transmuted into Warmers by the early ’80s”.

    Cockburn said that he was writing a book on this subject when the last tempest-in-a-teapot broke out. I doubt that he will get plain historical facts wrong. As for his views on “the science” it will be plain that must be taken *cum grano salis*. But there is the difficulty that we are all supposed to have an opinion on the matter, which we force on everyone around us… Part of what bugs me about this, is that it is impossible to get what seems to be an untainted view. It is quite clear that the Real Climate types have politicized the matter quite as much as the right wing idiots. In such circumstances the citizen has nowhere to go. (Nevertheless I myself accept the standard line, things like carbon credits, which are clearly an invention of the financial class, who as a morbid banker friend of mine puts it, are always looking for places to drill and put little taps in the great pipes of money that flow over our heads, wherefrom fees, percentages and interest might flow.)

    > it’s somewhat odd to hold the same views for twenty years or more in a field that is constantly changing owing to the development of science….

    The field has not changed one bit in the crucial respect. Its unchanging result, which is presumably true, is: “We’re warming the planet”. The “consensus” has by now been around for along time. The usual representation, is that all the change and development and advance is more precise proof of it.

    I should interpolate one point: I couldn’t follow the claims or counterclaims of shocking academic and scientific depravity in the CRU email tempest. But the discussion by various computer types of the chunks of code and the README spread through it strengthened my view about the role of programming in this sort of matter. Frankly, I don’t see how anything can be scientific publication that appeals to unpublished code. The code should moreover be in a publicly specified language with diverse implementations. All relevant data should also be published in independently specified common formats. The rationality of the programming language itself must be made a possible point of criticism. This is ABCs, it seems to me. Where mathematical journals publish program-dependent results, the code is always submitted with the article, and is made available to the public. That the climate and atmospheric science journals do not require this is ALL BY ITSELF A COMPLETELY ADEQUATE PROOF of the pre-scientific character of those fields, though obviously it is one that can be repaired. (By the way, I cannot believe that any composition in FORTRAN can be a contribution to science. Scientists should use languages with clear semantics like Standard ML or Haskell — perhaps an appropriate one has not been invented; Mathematica is out, because it is privately implemented; if your published ‘research’ uses Mathematica, it simply isn’t Science. The point is akin to the one that finally hit European judges and parliaments and finally led Microsoft to the formulation of the published .docx specification (for what it’s worth), namely: if it’s in .doc format, it is itself a secret, and must be read with a magic crystal, Word, that is also secret …. and so *it isn’t a government document, not fragment of democratic self-government, which is something essentially public*. But the argument is much stronger in the case of science.). Though the programmer-crowd has a right-libertarian tendency, I think that I accept the claim common among them that the ‘modelling’ machinery was a completely disgusting. The question of the competence of climate scientists and suchlike people to compose rational programs is very much worth raising. Programming is a skill, a trade, like glass-cutting, one quite different in character from expertise in empirical science; only a very deluded public could think otherwise, as they of course do.

    > Anyhow, his point about the potential of climate change to be used to
    > promote authoritarian solutions is valid. The only problem is he doesn’t
    > make that explicit. His article is a screed against the reality of what
    > you call “AGW” and he doesn’t present libertarian alternatives.

    He is generally writing for a left-wing audience; his goals are those of left-wingers generally … minus this one, which he thinks is a distraction. For example, it is I think widely conceded global warming agitation has taken the steam out of other specifically environmental difficulties, and in particular from the focus on local issues, which is crucial part of the environmentalist tradition. It is also possible that a focus on the matter leads to a climate of environmental desperation, in which people simply give up, thinking its going to hell in a handbasket. Indeed, looking around for other criticisms of A.C. I noticed quite a few hyper-moralistic attacks that in fact took exactly that point of view. “Cockburn is in denial…he just doesn’t see it …. WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!”. This is not much of a political program, it’s existentialism.

    > As for Cockburn’s long standing opinions on “AGW”
    > I can’t find any written evidence that he held such views in the 1980s,
    > but I’m sure you know him better than I do and perhaps you
    > could set me straight. As it is, it seems that he has latched
    > onto the climate change bandwagon rather late to suit his
    > personal journalistic needs. I’d like to be wrong.

    I can’t find a discussion in his Nation columns from the 80s. The Nation is fortunately digitally archived. Other writing of the period was in more left wing places like The Voice/LA Weekly/etc., Against the Current, etc. (+plus the Wall Street Journal briefly…) The most extensive discussion — already entering a bit into the science with a discussion of clouds, albedo, what do we know, etc., but also with more discussion of the pseudo-left-wing character of organization around this theme — appeared in a wonderful column he had in the first year or two of the existence of Z (then Zeta) Magazine, i.e. 1987 or 88. Z has a digital archive, but it only extends to the mid-nineties. You could always write to him.


  3. Has casually found today this forum and it was registered to participate in discussion of this question.


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