By George Monbiot
04 May, 2007
me begin this response with an admission of incompetence. I am not qualified
to comment on the scientific claims made in Alexander
Cockburn's article. But nor is Cockburn qualified to make
When a non-scientist attempts
to dispute the findings of an entire body of science, a good deal of
humility and a great deal of research is required. Otherwise he puts
himself in the position of the 9/11 truthers. Though they might know
nothing about physics, structural engineering, ballistics or explosives,
these people still feel qualified to assert that the experts in these
fields are wrong, and that the Twin Towers were in fact brought down
by controlled explosions.
A prominent progressive writer
recently said the following of such amateur detectives.
"[They] proffer what
they demurely call "disturbing questions", though they disdain
all answers but their own. They seize on coincidences and force them
into sequences they deem to be logical and significant. Like mad Inquisitors,
they pounce on imagined clues in documents and photos, torturing the
data - as the old joke goes about economists -- till the data confess.
Their treatment of eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence is whimsical.
Apparent anomalies that seem to nourish their theories are brandished
excitedly; testimony that undermines their theories--like witnesses
of a large plane hitting the Pentagon -- is contemptuously brushed aside."
The writer was Alexander
Cockburn. I charge that his treatment of climate change resembles their
treatment of the events of September 11th 2001.
To sustain or to refute his
argument about the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global
temperatures requires a detailed knowledge of the following issues.
They are all complex matters. You have to spend a great deal of time,
and you must have some expertise in and understanding of climate science,
to be able confidently to comment on them:
1. The measurement record
for carbon dioxide emissions.
2. The measurement record
for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
3. The possible biases in
these records, and whether or not they have been recognised and allowed
for by the standard climate models.
4. The possible smoothing
effect of the lag between carbon emissions and averaged atmospheric
5. Carbon concentrations
in the Eocene.
6. Other factors affecting
7. The current state of the
Milankovitch cycle and its likely impact on temperatures, with and without
the extra radiative forcing caused by the addition of anthropogenic
Cockburn provides no evidence
that he has mastered these issues, or that his research into his chosen
subject is any more extensive than that of the conspiracists he so correctly
and so entertainingly derides. But this is not the only resemblance
between his case and the case made by the truthers.
· The first test of
whether a scientific critique carries weight is whether or not its claims
can be traced to articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Cockburn
provides no references of any kind. As a result it is impossible for
someone who is not an expert in this field to assess his claims. Have
the "papers" he refers to been published in a peer-reviewed
scientific journal? Cockburn does not tell us. If they have not, they
carry no scientific weight.
· He appears to rely
on the testimony of one man who studied meteorology for three years
a long time ago, while dismissing the work of thousands of others with
greater experience and better credentials. As Cockburn must know from
his work on the 9/11 conspiracists, you can find an "expert"
to support just about any position on any subject. If you want to believe
that HIV does not cause AIDs, you can find a professor of medicine who
supports that view. If you want to claim that smoking does not cause
cancer, or that black people are less intelligent than white people,
you can find a self-appointed "expert", with academic qualifications,
to defend that position. The cherry-picking of experts is just what
the 9/11 conspiracists have done, and this is just why their approach
· He provides no evidence
that he has asked other climate scientists to determine whether or not
Martin Hertzberg's argument has merit. The scientific approach demands
that, rather than sheltering them from criticism, you subject your beliefs
to the same scrutiny and scepticism with which you treat opposing views.
· He uses arguments
- such as the claim that "water is exactly that component of the
earth's heat balance that the global warming computer models fail to
account for" and the claim that global temperatures were higher
in the medieval period than they are today - that have long been discredited.
For a discussion of these positions, see here and here.
· He has not understood
that a temperature rise initially pre-dating an increase in CO2 in the
ice core record strengthens rather than weakens the standard theory.
Temperatures rose as a result of changes in the Milankovic Cycle, sunspot
activity or other forcing agents. They then caused the release of greenhouse
gases from the biosphere, which then caused temperatures to rise further.
Climate scientists warn that rising temperatures caused by carbon dioxide
emissions today will cause exactly the same effect: the release of further
carbon dioxide and methane by oceans, soils and forests, causing further
rises in temperature. What would he expect to find - evidence of industrial
civilisations 600,000 years ago?
The fact that Cockburn appears
to be unaware that these arguments carry no weight lends support to
the suspicion that he knows no more about this subject that the 9/11
truthers know about the thermal properties of structural steel. And
yet he feels he can brush the conflicting data contemptuously aside.
Where does this confidence come from?
Cockburn's article cannot
be taken seriously until we have seen his list of references, and affirmed
that the key claims he makes have already been published in peer-reviewed
scientific journals. This would not mean they are correct, though it
does mean that they are worth discussing. Could he possibly have gone
into print without first ensuring that the scientific claims on which
he bases his arguments have been properly published? I find this hard
to believe, for it would be the height of irresponsibility. But Cockburn
now has to demonstrate, by providing his references, that he did indeed
carry out this basic check.
George Monbiot's book Heat:
how to stop the planet from burning is now published in
the US by South End Press.
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