Tuesday, December 23, 2003

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The politics of the global warming debate

Gregg Easterbrook has a great post on the politics underlying the scientific debate over global warming:

Critics of instant-doomsday environmental thinking continue to be mau-maued by enviros and the liberal wing of the establishment. This is wrong in and of itself, and also stupid politics from the standpoint of convincing the world to heed warnings about global warming. The case for greenhouse-effect reform will only become persuasive once environmental science is depoliticized.

Read the whole post -- and Easterbrook doesn't even mention all of the salient criticisms of the environmentalists.

UPDATE: A mea culpa partial retraction of the endorsement for Easterbrook's post -- he erred in his description of the politics underlying one of the two cases that form the basis of the post. See David Appell for more on this, as well as the discussion thread below. Thanks to multiple commenters below for the heads-up.

Another treatment can be found in the Technology Review article to which Easterbrook linked. Interesting quote:

Let me be clear. My own reading of the literature and study of paleoclimate suggests strongly that carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels will prove to be the greatest pollutant of human history. It is likely to have severe and detrimental effects on global climate. I would love to believe that the results of Mann et al. are correct, and that the last few years have been the warmest in a millennium.

Love to believe? My own words make me shudder. They trigger my scientist’s instinct for caution. When a conclusion is attractive, I am tempted to lower my standards, to do shoddy work. But that is not the way to truth. When the conclusions are attractive, we must be extra cautious.

FINAL UPDATE: The Economist has a story suggesting that non-industrial forms of human activity also affect global warming.

posted by Dan on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM


The case for greenhouse-effect reform will only become persuasive once environmental science is depoliticized.

Pray tell, exactly how is that going to occur? Do we dismiss the existing generation of climatologists from their posts and raise the new ones in Skinner boxes? At what point in this process should we anticipate that the Petroleum Institute will withdraw from the debate to let the hatchling scientists resolve the issue once and for all?

posted by: alkali on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Pray tell, exactly how is that going to occur?

For one thing, the enviros can stop acting as if someone wants the earth destroyed if he doesn't agree with their view on global warming.

posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Or, it can not occur, in which case, as Daniel says, the case for greenhouse gas reform will remain unpersuasive.

In this connection, Michael Crichton's Caltech Michelin Lecture from January of this year is well worth reading. Globa warming is but one illustration of the problems caused by the improper entanglement of science and public policy. Credit where credit is due: I got the link from Clayton Cramer's blog.

posted by: Chuck Bearden on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Easterbrook appears to be incorrect about what happened at Climate Research.

The editor wasn't "forced to resign" for publishing a bad paper, he resigned when the publisher prevented him from publishing an editorial *making public that publishing the Soon & Baliunas article was an error.*

Four other editors also resigned over it.

To recap, Climate Research publishes a bad article. Newly-appointed Editor-in-Chief wants to publish an editorial admitting that it was a bad paper. Publisher does not allow editorial to be published. Editor-in-Chief resigns.

The former editor-in-chief's side of the story is at http://w3g.gkss.de/staff/storch/CR-problem/cr.2003.htm

A PDF of his unpublished editorial is at http://w3g.gkss.de/staff/storch/CR-problem/CR.editorial.pdf

posted by: Jon H on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]


Firstly, I am surprised you give any importance to Gregg Easterbook's writings relating to the environment. Kevin Drum has pointed out on more than one occasion that Gregg Easterbrook cannot be trusted to provide the truth on environmental issues.

As the post by Jon H shows Easterbrook completely misrepresented the reason for the resignation of the editor-in-chief, portraying it as something completely opposite to what it really was. David Appell has also pointed this out at Quark Soup:

That Soon and Balunas' work is flawed has also been covered by Appell...for example here:

Additionally, Easterbrook cites Richard Muller's paper - and Muller also misleads readers as to why the Climate Research editors resigned. Additionally, reading Muller gives me the impression that the McIntyre and McKitrick challenge to the CW on Global Warming arises more from a difference in data analysis/interpretation. Indeed, Mann et al. have shown that M&M did shoddy work. David Appell covered this over a series of posts in Nov 03 (still continuing in Dec 03):

Mann et al.'s rebuttal of M&M is here:

All in all, Easterbrook and Muller don't know what they are talking about.

posted by: TR on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Dan you really need to post a mea culpa on this one. Easterbrook screwed it up.

What appears to have happened is:

first: A guy called Chris de Freitas, who is an editor of Climate Research writes lots of anti-global warming op-eds.

Second: Baliunas and Soon submit their paper to CR. CR allows submitters to choose their editor, so they choose De Freitas who OK's it to be published.

Third: Numerous other editors of CR ask "how the hell did this get published?" The paper is apparently quite bad; although I have too much previous with the mobbing habits of the scientific sommunity to assume it is on the basis of unpopularity alone.

Fourth: The publisher, Otto Kinne agrees that the paper as it stood should not have been published. Other editors of CR demand a change to the peer-review processes of CR. (Note that, although the B&S (unfortunate initials) paper "passed a peer review process", that process was overseen by De Freitas, and it is De Freitas' behaviour that the other editors were complaining about).

Fifth: The editor in chief, Hans von Storch demands to publish an editorial in the next CR disclaiming the B&B paper. Kinne refuses this request and von Storch resigns.

Sixth: Three other editors of CR also resign, also apparently in protest at the quality of the peer review process.

Seventh: Then another two.

This is all from David Appell's site. Easterbrook has, on the most charitable explanation possible, confused De Freitas (who was criticised by his publisher, but not sacked) with von Storch (who resigned after a conflict with his publisher, but was against the B&S article, not for it), and has certainly misrepresented Kinne, who did not sack anyone or force them to resign.

posted by: dsquared on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Another point that might help this debate; lets stop pretending that corporations alone have a vested interest in a particular outcome. Environmental scientists rely on funding which relies on global warming existing. No disaster, no funding. Does that make them liars? Of course not, but lets have truth in advertising. Its human nature not to want to admit your lifes work might be a load of crap.

posted by: mark buehner on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

mark buehner writes: "Environmental scientists rely on funding which relies on global warming existing"

They rely on it, but, realistically, an environmental scientist's funding is probably not as large as the personal paycheck and other earnings of a polluting company's CEO. The scientist's personal income share of that funding is likely to be a small part of the funding, if any.

A company's incentive to distort is orders of magnitude larger than the incentive for a scientist.

It's nothing new for a scientist's life's work to be shown to be wrong, and there's no shame in it, if the error was based on the available evidence of the time. Nor is it likely to prevent further employment in the field.

posted by: Jon H on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Having been around scientists working on atmospheric environmental issues all my life, from acid rain to smog to climate change I have one insight to share:

You would be shocked to learn how little they think about the implications of their research. My sample of the atmospheric scientific community doesn't think about policy, or what implication their findings will have on future funding streams.

Instead the assumption is that as long as there are things which are not known there will be a way to fund the research to learn more. When there are no longer unknowns they lose interest in the topic and move on to the next thing. The only thing that bothers them is when politics or bureaucracy intrudes on the path towards learning more about things they don't know about.

So, please, don't get carried away ascribe political motivations to the atmospheric science community as a whole.

posted by: Rich on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Buehner's post displays remarkable ignorance about the scientific process. While any individual scientist may be swayed by ideology or funding sources, the nature of peer review removes almost entirely these prejudices from the scientific body of knowledge as a whole. You cannot advance without independent confirmation of results, and discovery of scientific errors in the work of others is extremely well rewarded by the system. Political considerations have little weight as far as results go.

posted by: Oldman on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

"Mad cow, officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has been linked to a fatal human form of the disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease."

Just what is the evidence that anyone with CJD has caught it from eating infected "mad cow" beef? CJD has risen to epidemic proportions in the past in cannibal populations. But rates of CJD seem unaffected by outbreaks of Mad Cow. Could it be that it is politically useful to link the two. Using science for their agenda like global warming?

posted by: Geoff Dean on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Just what is the evidence that anyone with CJD has caught it from eating infected "mad cow" beef?

The prion proteins at work in CJD are not the same as the prions found in the brains of mad cows. The prions found in the brains of people who died from "new variant CJD" (vCJD), which has killed a small but worrying number of people in the UK, are the same as the prions found in the brains of cattle who died of BSE. The connection between mad cows and vCJD is no longer questioned by mainstream scientists (a few holdouts still think that it's got something to do with organophosphate poisoning)

posted by: dsquared on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

Jeez, guys -- Let's see: first, anyone who has tried to do research that doesn't fit the current paradigm will tell you that the "peer reviewed" process can be as effective at enforcing conformity as any politburo or church social. However, it isn't necessary to posit any political impulse on the part of atmospherics researchers: a general notion that one direction of research is "responsible" while the other is not will ensure that funding gets directed into one side of the question without anyone having to be consciously slanting things.

Ideally the peer-review process would be done by paragons of objectivity who realize that approaches challenging the current wisdom can be most productive, but until peer review is done in Heaven it ain't gonna happen.

Second, as far as variant-CJD: the truth is that very little is very well known about vCJD or other prion diseases. Neither CJD nor vCJD is exactly the same as kuru, the prion disease apparently passed by "mortuary cannibalism" in New Guinea. Prions are weird beasties: they're even smaller than viruses and don't have genetic material -- they're variants of a natural protein. CJD is caused by one variant that's also coded for by a genetic defect; there's good reason to think that CJD could be the result of a random utation event. The problem is that contact with the variant protein, once it's there, seems to cascade: the prion turns normal proteins into other prions.

The vCJD prion does turn out to be a lot like the BSE prion, but the mechanism of transmission is less that clear: proteins are generally digested to amino acids and absorbed, or excreted. How's the little beast getting (a) through the gut and (b) through the blood-brain barrier? There's some chance that the variant protein occurs naturally in both humans and beeves due to some other mechanism; if not, whatever the transmission process is, it's not an easy process, because there's only 140-some cases among an "exposed" population of a hundred million.

The main takeaway point here is that whenever you see someone say something to the effect that they absolutely know anything about BSE/vCJD, take it with a grain of salt.

Oh, third: as far as global warming goes: beyond all the other counter-arguments, the most interesting one I see is that Mars is apparently experiencing a global warming period very much like Earth. This makes the whole notion of "anthropogenic" global warming seem very suspect.

posted by: Charlie on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]


posted by: politics on 12.23.03 at 12:25 PM [permalink]

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