Friday, June 29, 2007

Turbulence; Alexander Cockburn, George Monbiot and the Weakest Links

In a couple of hundred years, historians will be comparing the frenzies over our supposed human contribution to global warming to the tumults at the latter end of the tenth century as the Christian millennium approached. Then, as now, the doomsters identified human sinfulness as the propulsive factor in the planet's rapid downward slide.

With these trenchant lines Alexander Cockburn, editor of the online journal CounterPunch, long-time journalist and contributor to The Nation, threw himself again into the greenhouse debate in April this year. Cockburn cast himself as a rationalist defender of the enlightenment out to free the world from the oppressive superstitions put about by that latest enclave of religious backwardness; global-warming advocates.
There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend. The greenhouse fearmongers rely entirely on unverified, crudely oversimplified computer models to finger mankind's sinful contribution. Devoid of any sustaining scientific basis, carbon trafficking is powered by guilt, credulity, cynicism and greed…

Having persisted in this hyperbolic vein Cockburn reveals that he is able to refute the evidence of the world’s climate scientists via a Dr. Martin Hertzberg, “a combustion research scientist for most of his career” (meaning he used to blow things up for mining companies – he’s now retired) who was a naval meteorologist for 3 years or so at some stage, and who Cockburn met on a cruise. Apparently this one source is sufficient to refute the entire greenhouse consensus, as further notes and citations are not provided! But we are to understand that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists - and their fellow-travellers - are underqualified, fearful for their grants, liars, and/or dupes to a person.

Although George Monbiot was not specifically mentioned in this opening epistle, the editors of ZNet asked him to do so in his role as a prominent global warming activist. (You can follow this exchange for yourself at

information that is Cherry-picked to fit theories

Monbiot rightly pointed out that Cockburn seemed to have reversed the position he had taken on the 9-11 conspiracy theories. He was able to quote Cockburn complaining about unqualified ‘experts’, information that is cherry-picked to fit theories, and counter-evidence that is simply ignored. He also pointed out that since this was a science debate, Cockburn might need to provide some credible sources. He asks for references.

If he was looking for a more considered response, he didn’t get it. “No response is more predictable than the reflexive squawk of the Greenhouse fearmongers,” wrote Cockburn on the weekend of May 12th and 13th. He refers readers to his previous article as sufficient rebuttal of the whole global warming argument, and then lapses into abuse. Plain and simple abuse, of a kind that would sit comfortably on Fox. Or in Pravda. “James Lovelock, the Rasputin of Gaia-dom” sets the tone. Al Gore is “the world's best known hysteric and self promoter”. Michael Mann, a real-live climate scientist who had written a scientific rebuttal of Cockburn’s first piece, is a “climate alarmist” and “reigning weather bureaucrat at the IPCC."
More histrionic comparisons are drawn to the misguided theories of the past…

To identify either the government-funded climate modelers or their political shock troops, the IPCC's panelists, with scientific rigor and objectivity is as unrealistic as detecting the same attributes in a craniologist financed by Lombroso studying a murderer's head in a nineteenth-century prison for the criminally insane.

…but no additional evidence is provided to prove the global warming theory belongs with Lombroso’s. In conclusion - all Greenhousers are witting or unwitting stooges of the nuclear industry.

Monbiot, noting that Cockburn had failed to respond to Mann’s detailed criticisms, again asked for references;

Scientists in the United Kingdom sometimes satirise people who claim to know more about their own subjects than they do by imagining how they would respond if asked to provide their references. "Man I Met in a Bar, A. 2006. Why I am Right and Everyone Else is Wrong. Proceedings of the Inebriate Society, Vol 9991524, no4." So far, Alexander Cockburn's references amount to "Man I Met on a Ship, A. 2001." If he has better sources than that, why won't he reveal them?

Cockburn’s next response began with an anticipation of his own martyrdom (noteworthy in one accusing others of retrograde religious fervour)

In the Middle Ages they burned heretics, and after reading through the hefty pile of abusive comments and supposed refutations of my initial article on global warming I'm fairly sure that the critics would be only to happy to cash in whatever carbon credits they have and torch me without further ado.

It’s also notable that when it comes to 'abusive comments' he’s blithely unaware of the beams in his own eyes when decrying the motes in the eyes of others (though no evidence of this is provided, either.) He targets Monbiot specifically as the ‘honorary chairman of the King Canute Action Committee’.

He quotes a Dr. Goldberg quoting a Professor Seitz on the alleged political corruption of the IPCC process back in 1996. But he gives a complex rebuttal on carbon isotopes to Dr. Michael Mann in his own voice. So, are we to understand that Cockburn is well versed in these high-falutin’ brainy-science-guy matters? Or is he, as seems more likely, passing someone else’s argument off as his own? Again, where are his listed scientific sources?

Monbiot’s reply points out that Professor Seitz had been the head of institutes funded by ExxonMobil, prior to which he had been – literally – a tobacco scientist! I suppose he would know a lot about turning evidence around to suit your case. He then asks, again, for sources.

the Weakest Links

Cockburn did finally – 4 articles later in the June 12th weekend edition of CounterPunch - yield a list of references. How do these stand up? I clicked the active web-links he offered and found the following;

  1. 1. J. A. Glassman, "The Acquittal of Carbon Dioxide", posted in
    A private site 'under construction' that hosts a paper that denies that CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere causing warming - a position most global-warming deniers have moved on from.

  2. 2. R. Essenhigh, Chemical Innovation, May 2001, Vol 31, No.5 pp 44-46, available
    on line at

    'Page not found.' After eventually finding 'Chemical Innovation' had ceased publication I did find the article listed as having been a 'Viewpoint' column (i.e. it's an Opinion piece rather than a scientific article as such), but it still wasn't available.

  3. 3. Z. Jaworowski, "Ice Core Data Show No Carbon Dioxide Increase",
    21st Century Science & Technology, Spring 1997, available on line at

    This leads to the homepage of the creepy, far-right LaRouche Science Journal (interesting, allies who i note are rather pro-nuclear, Alexander!) where I could also browse articles on building 6000 nuclear plants by 2050 and some truly bizarre economics texts related to the miraculous properties of electricity. A paper by another author proves that there's no global climate change, because there's no global climate! Things cool down in one place, warm in another, and average increases or decreases in the system overall appear to be ruled out!

    And there's an additional paper where the self-same good Dr. Jaworowski warns us that not only is global warming not true, but we must beware of an impending Ice Age, which, sadly even burning all the available oil won't save us from. But, not to worry; "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." And "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."

    Wonderful, not at all nutty, stuff. Dr. Jaworowski is to be congratulated for having attained a realm beyond the reach of satire!

  4. 4. R. Lindzen, "Is There a Basis for Global Warming Alarm?", Oct
    12, 2005, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, on line at:

    We've reached an extreme neo-liberal think-tank (if you try browsing some of the material about Venezuela and Che Guevara you may feel Cockburn has again found himself in some strange company given his own politics) hosting a genuine scientist, at least, in the form of Dr. Lindzen. (And oil companies' friend? See It's to be noted that Lindzen now accepts the reality of anthropogenic warming, he just doesn't think it will be a problem.

  5. + 6. 7. and 8.

    The remaining links lead to John Daly's self-published website. John lists his own qualifications as follows "Climate and climate change has been a lifelong study of mine since my early days as a ship's officer in the British Merchant Navy. I have lived through and traced the progress of the `ice age' scare of the 1970's, the `nuclear winter' scare of the 1980s, and now the `global warming' scare of the present."

    Firstly John himself goes over his own take on the 'Middle Ages were warmer than today' argument. The remaining links on his site are technical pieces by other authors. I am no more qualified to refute all this than Cockburn is to endorse it.

But other qualified persons handle all these arguments - convincingly to my mind - at . I assume that if these papers had ever been published in more prestigious journals Cockburn would have revealed them.

So, even where there really is substance at the end of a link, we're back at the familiar 'who is credible' point. Personally, I was underwhelmed by Cockburn's case. If it's to be the IPCC and versus John Daly's website; well, while I'm all for siding with an underdog, in this instance it would appear to be a rather reckless strategy!

Additionally Cockburn promised us more links and references from the papers of the good Dr. Martin Hertzberg, his first source (the man he met on a cruise ship). One might have thought this should have been produced in the first instance!

The 16th and 17th of June edition of CounterPunch arrived, and, curiously, Cockburn's next salvo was tucked below a diary piece entitled 'Was Tony Soprano the Teacher or the Taught? The Psychopathology of Shrinks'. Cockburn had now taken to decrying the whole process of peer-review. Doubtlessly one can crtiticise the institution, but for a dissenting idea like Global-Warming - one that threatens the power of major players in the global economy, after all - to have made it through the proof/peer-review process seems rather like an endorsement of it, to me. It's a bit like democracy - the worst political system we have, apart from all the others.

Cockburn to keep dog from homework?

None of the promised Dr. Hertzberg material had arrived, though. We were to understand that “Martin Hertzberg's papers, incidentally, are being scanned by CounterPunch business manager Becky Grant, a task postponed last week because Becky was in Utah with her family attending the wedding of her sister.” I suggest he best keep the dog away from his other homework! But a letter from the good Doctor that Cockburn finds amusing has. Hertzberg likens his own persecution to Einstein's at the hands of Nazi Science. Now, there's a modest and instructive simile!

In the absence of these soon-to-be forthcoming proofs Cockburn busies himself defending, in an overblown and really rather silly way, Dr. Jaworowski - he of the impending Ice Age and 10 000 years of nuclear fission - from derision. Some had the temerity to see him as a 'crank', apparently! Frankly, on the strength of his two articles referred to above, the good Doctor might best consider not publishing to avoid this. Particularly not on websites of the lunar-right.

What's most disturbing in all this is that in constructing his conspiracy between willing governments and Greenhouse scientists Cockburn - a progressive writer I have hitherto admired - blithely turns history on its head. When it comes to the issue governments - particularly in the US and my own country, Australia - have generally stood firm in denial with the true vested interests, the large oil and coal companies that are producing the bulk of CO2 pollution. In reality they were forced reluctantly to acknowledge the reality of global warming by the often courageous efforts of frequently-derided atmospheric scientists. Even after this grudging acceptance, for the most part rhetoric has been high, and action low, on most governments' agendas. Cockburn also chooses not to notice that many global-warming proponents are fully alert to the dangers of greenwashing; such as Carbon Trading being just another investment bubble unlikely to really mitigate atmospheric carbon, or bio-fuels spelling chaos for third-world small-farmers, or the US wanting to use greenhouse as an excuse to slow the Chinese economy. And, yes, the Nuclear lobby is exploiting the issue. No matter; all are just lackeys of The Man!

CounterPunch remains a great journal of progressive issues and politics. But on the issue of the science of Global Warming - I'm going to have to make the obvious pun - Alexander Cockburn is just a source of hot air!

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