Monday, April 30, 2007

Zero Empirical Evidence

In the new issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn makes a startling announcement:

[T[here is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend.
I'll be polite, and assume that Cockburn is using "empirical" in some highly idiosyncratic sense. Regardless, what he apparently means is that while on a cruise back in 2001, he met up with a retired meteorologist, who subsequently showed him a "devastating" graph that disproves anthropogenic climate change.

Unfortunately, The Nation's ban on the reproduction of graven images has prevented Cockburn from including the graph with his column. But I'm sure that if we could see it, we'd find it just as devastating as Cockburn does. If not more so.

Despite the exquisite grasp of geophysics that Cockburn managed to pick up from his shipboard acquaintance, I'm disappointed to report that a good deal of his piece relies on standard-issue namecalling (the Dogma of global warming is promoted by Doomsters and Fearmongers!) and specious analogies (medieval Catholicism maintained its power by frightening people, just like the IPCC!).

To be fair, though, he does attempt to work a bit of hard science in, as thus:
It’s a notorious inconvenience for the Greenhousers that data also show CO2 concentrations from the Eocene period, 20 million years before Henry Ford trundled out his first Model T, 300 to 400 percent higher than current concentrations.
I have to assume that he's talking about the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which changed the earth's climate catastrophically and led to a massive die-off of land and sea creatures. I'm not sure why he regards this as a rebuke to climate "doomsters."

In any case, Eocene CO2 concentrations are only an "inconvenience for the Greenhousers" if one assumes that because warming happened without human input in the past, it must be happening without human input now.

Which would be a pretty fucking stupid thing to do.

Scientists don't believe in anthropogenic climate change because they decided a priori that warming must be caused by humans; they believe in it because the warming they're currently observing is best explained anthropogenically (e.g., because the rate of change is faster than that observed in past natural events, and because of observed variation in carbon isotopes that are consistent with manmade warming).

Sad to say, Cockburn also dredges up the classic denialist argument that warming drives carbon emissions, rather than vice versa. Luckily, RealClimate recently addressed this misconception at length. I doubt their rebuttal would impress Cockburn, though; having concluded that mainstream scientists are either dupes or "hoaxers," he can safely ignore their attempts to correct him.

In my previous post, I suggested that there's sometimes an irresponsible, escapist quality to conspiracy theories. Oddly enough, one of Cockburn's complaints against 9/11 conspiracy theorists is that they suffer from "political infantilism" and are "immune to any reality check." He's also scolded them by invoking Occam's Razor, and quoting Adorno's observation that "the tendency to occultism is a symptom of regression in consciousness.”

In his new article, however, he informs us that he will soon reveal who the climate "hoaxers" are, and "what they're after."

Let the mighty hear, and tremble!

UPDATE: George Monbiot has also noticed the similarity of Cockburn's denialist stance to that of the "9/11 truthers" he's attacked as fools and dupes, and politely challenges him to provide scientific evidence for his claims.

Since I believe in presenting both sides of the story, I'm obliged to point out that Al Gore remains fat, and is pretending to have read Stendahl.


P. Drāno said...

My impression is that people frequently look for more explanation to a thing (or more meaning) than is actually there. With 9/11, it's just not enough for them that terrorists made a successful strike. With this, Cockburn similarly seems to want to tie in the carbon credits matter with some other nefariousness. But we'll have to wait for the next installment of his singular narrative!

Phila said...

With this, Cockburn similarly seems to want to tie in the carbon credits matter with some other nefariousness.

Maybe so. That, at least, I'd have some sympathy for...

Anonymous said...

Hm...after an entire issue devoted to "what we can do about the climate crisis."

Maybe they're trying to be journalistically fair and balanced.

In that climate crisis issue, though, they had a number of inaccuracies in the science. I wrote them an e-mail about it yesterday. It's too long for them to print in the letters section, so I doubt I'll get any acknowledgement.

If I don't hear in a week or so, I'll write a post based on the e-mail. Now I can include Cockburn's piece too.

The Nation seems to be having some trouble with its science lately.


chris said...

Meanwhile, here in Canada, things are different.

Phila said...

If I don't hear in a week or so, I'll write a post based on the e-mail. Now I can include Cockburn's piece too.

Looking forward to it...

olvlzl said...

Alexander Cockburn isn't as big a pill as Christopher Hitchens, I didn't stop subscribing to The Nation because of him, but he can be almost as big a jerk as Hitchens. He's got a history of enviornmental contrarian horse feathers.

He tends to view life through the lense of ideology and theory, or at least he did back when I read him regularly. But he's hardly alone in that.

Phila said...

He's got a history of enviornmental contrarian horse feathers.

Yeah, I know. Saying there's "zero empirical evidence" for AGW is completely beyond the pale, though. There are plenty of Exxon-funded hacks who wouldn't go that extreme.

I read "Counterpunch" regularly for its first few years, and my see-sawing feelings about Cockburn generally averaged out to attentive neutrality.

This column, however, is indefensible know-nothing horseshit, and if he doesn't wean himself of it through remedial education then I think he deserves to be remembered primarily as a liar and a fraud.