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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Climate Cover-up, a Review

This review follows on the heels of what the media has dubbed climtategate--a textbook example of how to make a mountain out of a mole hill. A few weeks prior to that brouhaha, the media was awash with reports that the world is actually cooling, which upon closer inspection also amounted to nothing. Sticking with mole analogies, correcting the disinformation perpetuated by those who seek to discredit climate research has become a perpetual game of Whac-A-Mole.

The book does a very thorough job of documenting the history of sometimes despicable attempts by various vested interests and contrarians to discredit climate science. There is no doubt which side holds the science high-ground on this issue and after reading this book there should be little doubt which side holds the moral high-ground.

It gets off to a slow start but hang in there. It gets better, ending with a bang. It is not a neutral perspective of the pros and cons of the global warming debate. This is a detailed, no holds barred account of the people who work to discredit climate science and the methods they use to do it.

The authors begin with a critique of octogenarian Freeman Dyson, the world’s most notable global warming skeptic. Dyson is in a class of his own and does not deserve to be lumped in with the usual ignoramuses, cranks, and conspiracy theorists. I suspect his mention at the front of the book was one of those last minute edit jobs in response to a NYT article about Dyson’s skepticism just prior to the book’s release. Climategate, the latest global cooling farce, and Dyson’s skepticism are all examples suggesting that an updated version of this book a year from now might be twice as long.

Dyson is an icon in the world of science and scientists don’t like it when anyone takes a pot shot at one of their heroes. Dyson is by all accounts a genius. He probably thinks people who use calculators are sissies. Back in the seventies, Dyson published a paper which calculated that we could stabilize carbon in the atmosphere by simply planting a trillion or so fast growing trees.

Intellectually speaking, I am but a speck of dirt on the bottom of one of Dyson’s shoes, but people who once proved brilliant in their field of expertise rarely prove to be quite so brilliant in unrelated fields, like climatology. Michael Jordon comes to mind.

Some climate models suggest that planting trees in the upper latitudes would have a warming effect because they would reduce reflectivity of snow on the ground. If true, this is an example of how humanity has already reached some points of no return. Out of curiosity, I just fired up a spreadsheet to calculate how much land mass a trillion trees would cover spaced at five foot intervals with a five foot square boundary around each. Dyson could probably do this in his head. Maybe I have a decimal point in the wrong place but according to my calculations they would cover the Earth’s landmass dozens of times over unused arable landmass more than twice over (see comment by Pete S).

The following was found in a publication describing a lecture Dyson gave in 2006:
“He had useful advice for his home planet, but he also puts most of his hope in the colonization of space and a future beyond our atmosphere. In outer space, he believes, there will again be speciation in the Darwinian sense.”

Following are some quotes from a NYT article:
“Forty years ago it was fashionable to worry about the coming ice age. Better to attack the real problems like the extinction of species and overfishing. There are so many practical measures we could take”

“I’m still perfectly happy if you buy me a Prius!” Imme [his wife] said.

“It’s toys for the rich,” her husband smiled, and then they were arguing about windmills.”

1) The ice age hypothesis was short lived, not widely accepted, and blown out of proportion by a lay media looking for sensationalist headlines, as always.

2) If we attacked all of the world’s problems (like overfishing and species extinction) linearly (one at a time) instead of in parallel, the sun would go dead before we got to the end of the list.

3) A Prius is not a toy for the rich.

Dyson is also a big proponent of solar power, so, go figure.

Skepticism is one of the keystones of science and anyone who wasn’t skeptical when they first heard about global warming should contact me so I can sell them some land in Florida. Likewise, the word skeptic might be appropriate for those who have been living in caves for the last decade and have just caught wind of the concept, but what do you call someone who refuses to move to the next stage regardless of the evidence?

The word denier was used 36 times in this book. Denial is also the first stage listed in Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross' book, "On Death and Dying." (see the Wikipedia article on the Kubler-Ross model). Denial is the overarching reason for a belief in an afterlife. Acceptance of the results of decades of global warming research is not by any means tantamount to accepting one’s eventual demise, but the potential ramifications of global warming appear to be enough to send many people scurrying for their ostrich holes.

Much of the denial we see is probably related to the potential ravages of global warming. If the research results were suggesting that global warming has little potential and would have little impact, I doubt there would be any debate at all.

Few of us will live an entire life without facing situations that we find so threatening that we deny they are true, at least at first. Coping mechanisms help us deal with unpleasant realities until we can gather ourselves and face them, or not. But some people have become very adept, maybe too adept, at capturing the anxiety relief denial can provide especially when doing so will not have a negative impact on their daily lives. They have a hair-trigger reality switch that has been honed to a shine by repeated use, and few people who do it are consciously aware that they do it because awareness would deactivate the switch.

We of course pick and choose our denials. You could deny that walking in front of a speeding bus is dangerous but you would also be taking a big personal risk. Unlike some forms of denial, denying the potential ramifications of global warming entails no physical danger to the denier, only anxiety relief. It is custom-made for using denial as a coping mechanism. However, a prolonged and collective denial by enough people may have an impact on our children’s and grandchildren’s lives by radically altering the world they will live on. Collective, self-reinforcing denial may have been what brought the Easter Island civilization down.

There are plenty of other reasons not to accept the findings of decades of global warming science. You may just be ignorant or misinformed, or have a contrarian personality disorder that is not constrained by logic and evidence (conspiracy theorists fall into this group), but whatever reasons you have, they are not backed by science, regardless of what you may have told yourself to the contrary.

[Update 12/06/09]

An earlier review by Roberts can be found here on Grist. Denier debunking is like trying to kill zombies that won't stay killed.

Half of the review on the Guilty Planet blog is spent criticizing the authors for critiquing Dyson. She thinks that Dyson is qualified to critique climate science because of the "book" he wrote about using trees to absorb carbon back in 1977. I commented on the blog pointing out that he had not written a book, but had only published a paper. She didn't publish my comment, but I see she corrected that part about him publishing a book on the subject:

...the first entry that pops up is his 1977 [book] paper published in the journal Energy titled: "Can we control carbon dioxide in the atmosphere".

In a book [Climate Cover-up] that lauds accuracy so loudly, a misstep such as this so early on can be fatal ...

... Dyson is probably a bad early target for Hoggan, who should have stuck to the corporations (worthy of his energy), rather than making false claims about a venerable scientist. Climate Cover-Up recovers from this slip up but, as the old African proverb goes, one falsehood can spoil a thousand truths.

Spare me.

And take the time to click on this video (found on Pharyngula):

and if that was not enough, watch birth of yet another Climate Croc:


  1. Anonymous11:45 AM

    Found your blog via grist, and just watched the video you linked to. That was wonderful! Passing it on to another frustrated friend. Thanks!

  2. Since you're not PZ Myers I'll assume - for the sake of argument - that when somebody points out that you are buying into the classic 'Poisoning the Well' tactic of false logic you might give your head a shake.
    Talking about 'deniers' - labeling error right there - is generalizing about dissenting views.
    Is Dr. Ian Plimer's point that an open system is inherently unpredictable such a stretch ? Modeling just atmospherics in a water-ice system in a real world orbit of varying distance would be bad enough, as it omits consideration of the dynamics of the whole body.
    Dr. John v. Kampen was also throwing in variations due to absence of sunspots and tying that to historical trends - and his is just one instance of challenging a model as too simplistic and uninformed.
    He and I started quipping on this freely only after I mentioned I had found Framing Arguments relating to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and foreign policy that also referred to a scam using ginned-up ideas for Global Warming : which seemed an odd connection.
    Since there controversy does nothing but become more involved and complex... a blatant comparison to frogmarched 'Ayes' of accepted and palatable belief.
    Besides my own catalogue of related articles there is a collection of pieces at Global
    At the end of the day we do have a 'Conspiracy Theory' : complete to fulfilling the dictates of Occam's Razor.
    I post at Opit's LinkFest! on Blogger

  3. Just found your blog ... love the video links! Thanks for posting!

  4. Followed your link from R2. Nice blog.

    Land area for a trillion trees spaced 5 feet apart is actually quite a simple mental calculation. A mile is 5,000 feet (give or take 280). That's a thousand trees in a line. A square mile is thus a million trees. A trillion is 10^12, equal to a million million. So the answer is a million square miles. A considerable amount, certainly, but definitely not several times the earth's landmass -- looks like you DID misplace a decimal point alright. Dyson's a clever guy. Otherwise, I agree with most of what you wrote.

  5. Thanks, Pete,

    I appreciate it when commenters check numbers and sources, for me or anyone else for that matter. This is one of the greatest strengths of blogs--commenters keeping bloggers honest.

    Wish there were a free editing service for bloggers.

    One should always do a rough, back-of-the-envelope reality check on calculations to see if the result makes sense, as you just did.

    I took a look at my spreadsheet and found that I had assumed a five foot square boundary around each tree to give its branches room to grow, not a five foot spacing between each trunk as I said in the post.

    I found somewhere on the net that Doug fir trees should not be spaced closer than about ten feet apart. That was just my first screw-up.

    Also, since you can't plant trees where there are already trees, or on land already producing food, or in deserts or mountains, I assumed they would have to be planted on land that us unused.

    I had scrounged up a study claiming that there is about a million square miles that was once under cultivation or pasture that could be coached back into production with enough water and fertilizer.

    I can't really explain why I said they would cover the Earth's land mass dozens of times. Never blog while drinking? That was my second screw-up.

    My spreadsheet shows they would cover about 2.3 times the unused arable landmass. That's the beauty of spreadsheets, you can keep tweaking your assumptions until you get the answer you want ...

    I'm sure not qualified to critique a paper written by Dyson. I don't know what kind of trees he assumed would be planted or where but common sense suggests two things to me:

    1) Humanity's future does not lie in outer space.

    2) We are not going to reverse global warming by planting a trillion trees. I love the concept but something tells me that surely to God somebody besides Dyson has already looked into that ; )

    3) With population expected to increase 40-50%, planting 3,000 trees per second for the next decade on underutilized arable land might be a tad counterproductive, and eating trees is not an option because that would release their carbon ; )

  6. Three, three things to me...


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