Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook is a Liar and a Fraud

Gregg Easterbrook wants us to know that it is now officially "reasonable" to be concerned about climate change.

Does this mean that people who previously denied climate change were not reasonable? Of course not! It doesn't work that way. The center-right position is synonymous with reason; as such, it can grant validity to other positions, but can't be invalidated itself.

Thus, Easterbrook patiently explains that skepticism and even denialism were "reasonable" until quite recently:

Once global-warming science was too uncertain to form the basis of policy decisions — and this was hardly just the contention of oil executives. "There is no evidence yet" of dangerous climate change, a National Academy of Sciences report said in 1991.
Now, when someone quotes only a few words from an untitled scientific report, it always piques my curiosity. It seems very likely that Easterbrook is referring to Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming, which was produced by an NAS synthesis panel in 1991. If so, it looks as though Easterbrook skimmed the introduction, and found this:
There is no evidence yet of imminent rapid change [my emphasis]. But if the higher GCM projections prove to be accurate, substantial responses would be needed, and the stresses on this planet and its inhabitants would be serious.
The phrase "there is no evidence yet" appears nowhere else in the report, judging from a search of its contents.

Just to underscore the dishonesty of Easterbrook's quote-mining, here's an excerpt from the findings and conclusions:
The panel finds that, even given the considerable uncertainties in our knowledge of the relevant phenomena, greenhouse warming poses a potential threat sufficient to merit prompt responses....Investment in mitigation measures acts as insurance protection against the great uncertainties and the possibility of dramatic surprises.
The report goes on to make recommendations for "reducing or offsetting" greenhouse gas emissions, including regulatory caps, incentives, and taxes ("policy decisions," in other words). It also notes:
The fact that people can adapt, or even that they are likely to do so, does not mean that the best policy is to wait for greenhouse warming to occur and let them adapt. Waiting and adapting may sacrifice overall economic improvement in the long run.
Next, Easterbrook dusts off this classic bit of disinformation:
A 1992 survey of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society found that only 17 percent of members believed there was sufficient grounds to declare an artificial greenhouse effect in progress.
At the risk of shocking you, this is not true:
Gallup actually reported that 66 percent of the scientists said that human-induced global warming was occurring, with only 10 percent disagreeing and the rest undecided. Gallup took the unusual step of issuing a written correction to Will's column (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/27/92): "Most scientists involved in research in this area believe that human-induced global warming is occurring now." Will never noted the error in his column.
Easterbrook has another piece of evidence:
In 1993 Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said there existed "a great range of uncertainty" regarding whether the world is warming.
Note that this quote follows the earlier pattern: Easterbrook transplants five words from an unknown context, and makes them refer to a conclusion of his own choosing. I couldn't find the quote in question, so I'll have to let this one go unchallenged for now.

I think I've made my point. But inasmuch as Easterbrook likes to present himself as a scientific wunderkind, I'll address one final issue:
Many greenhouse uncertainties remain, including whether rising temperatures would necessarily be bad. A warming world might moderate global energy demand: the rise in temperature so far has mostly expressed itself as milder winters, not hotter summers. Warming might open vast areas of Alaska, Canada and Russia to development.
First, a warmer world means colder oceans, which very likely means colder and more severe winters. The reasonable folks at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute explain:
Warming is causing more water to evaporate from the tropics, more rainfall in subpolar and polar regions, and more ice to melt at high latitudes. As a result, fresh water is being lost from the tropics and added to the ocean at higher latitudes. In the North Atlantic Ocean, the additional fresh water can change ocean circulation patterns, disrupting or redirecting currents that now carry warm water to the north. Redirecting or slowing this "Atlantic heat pump" would mean colder winters in the northeast U.S. and Western Europe. But the heat gained from higher greenhouse gas concentrations is still in the climate system, just elsewhere. The result: a warmer earth, a colder North Atlantic.
Second, a warmer world means more energy demand for - hold on to your hats - air conditioning. Third, melting tundra in the North is likely to release untold amounts of carbon dioxide, thereby accelerating the warming process:
The 3 to 7 degree rise in temperature predicted by global climate models could cause the breakdown of the arctic tundra’s vast store of soil carbon, releasing more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the air than plants are capable of taking in, said Michelle Mack, a University of Florida ecologist (formerly of the University of Alaska Fairbanks) and one of the lead researchers on a study published in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.
I seldom urge letter-writing campaigns, but you might consider politely asking the New York Times to explain why it allows Easterbrook to impose on its readers with this noxious blend of deceptive quote-mining and hard-right pseudoscience.


AJ Kandy said...

Done! And thanks for digging out those distortions and misconceptions.

I'm writing a blog post about the use of the passive voice to obscure erroneous data, by the way, which neatly ties in how many climate-deniers try to sound more objective and reasonable than humanly possible...

¡El Gato Negro! said...

But, but...

a letter campaign could seriously deestract la Señora Vieja Gris from her solemn duty of sniffing the Clinton's underwear drawers.


Phila said...



As I've said before, I think, it's not even the dishonesty that bothers me, it's the contempt. I picture these people thinking, "I won't get caught, 'cause no one's going to check this stuff. And even if someone does, no one will pay any attention. And even if someone does pay attention, it's not going to affect my career in any way."

Your post sounds great...I'll keep an eye out for it.

Thers said...

I'm not even sure Easterbrook even knows that he's spouting nonsense. He seems the type to believe that what he says is wise and true becasue otherwise he wouldn't be saying it.

Coeruleus said...

Well, as an official member of the "non-skeptic heretics", he is now entitled to overstate minute details and disregard the majority of any report. Plus, any previous overstatement/disregard is immediately null and void.

Phila said...


I'm not even sure Easterbrook even knows that he's spouting nonsense. He seems the type to believe that what he says is wise and true becasue otherwise he wouldn't be saying it.

That's what I've always thought about him, too. But no longer. When you try to back up your position with a scientific report, and you don't identify it by name, and you take only five words out of it, and you don't accurately paraphrase what those words refer're a liar, in my book.

Maybe there's another NAS report from 1991, and it says something totally different, and Easterbrook never read the one I'm quoting. I could accept that, sort of. Or at least, I'd accept that he was being merely sloppy. But I don't see any evidence that the NAS released any other CC report in that year, let alone one that contradicted the findings in this one. So I really think he knows what he's doing here....the page on which "there is no evidence yet" appears is pretty goddamn alarmist.

JMS said...

I think it is perfectly fair to judge people based on how they write. Easterbrook is a slippery devil.

I note also that Michael Shermer (arch-skeptico) cheerfully backed off of his own climate change "skepticism" in the latest SciAm. My, my. Why DO people believe weird things?

Everyone must have recieved the same memo.

Interrobang said...

Did I miss something or was 1991 fifteen years ago? Nobody's mentioned this before (too obvious, maybe), but it seems to me that if you're going to talk about the scientific consensus on an issue, you should use, oh, say, recent studies and articles?

Otherwise, all you've got is one of those fabled "historical documents."

I'm getting tired of this crap. I'm writing a long article on General Motors and transit history, and I feel like I've been swimming in mendacity. I wish I could get paid large sums of money to blatantly lie to people, too, well, except for that "conscience" thingy I seem to have been cursed with.

Phila said...


Did I miss something or was 1991 fifteen years ago? Nobody's mentioned this before (too obvious, maybe), but it seems to me that if you're going to talk about the scientific consensus on an issue, you should use, oh, say, recent studies and articles?

Well, if you read the full article, the basic argument is that it was OK to be a skeptic until very recently (2003, IIRC). The (fabricated) 1991 viewpoint that there wasn't enough info to make policy decisions held true until roughly then, according to him.

It's all lies and trumpery, needless to say.

I wish I could get paid large sums of money to blatantly lie to people, too, well, except for that "conscience" thingy I seem to have been cursed with.

It's a burden, alright. For some reason, I've been brooding a lot the last couple of days about the disadvantages of having a conscience when debating people whose ethics are entirely situational and self-serving. But yeah, having a conscience can definitely cut into your earning power, too.

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