Thursday, August 09, 2007

Shaft of light, stage left

If conservatives are getting mildly panicked about climate in their flagship journal, National Review, what's happening elsewhere? We know what conventional mainstream liberal publications usually say about "global warming."

But further on the Left, there are surprises. The biggest that has come to our attention are the recent "Beat the Devil" columns by Alexander Cockburn, in the Nation, of all places. I have to pinch myself as I write this - I can't quite believe it - but Cockburn's recent column (June 25) is one of the best summaries of the issue outside of the science world I've seen in a long time. In one page, he concisely states all the serious problems with the "global warming" hysteria, both empirical and theoretical.* It's like spending a hot, muggy, dusty day outside - then entering into a cool room filled with pure, dry air.

Maybe Cockburn is like his former colleague, Christopher Hitchens - an admirable journalist in a world of generally low journalistic standards - in that he actually believes ... horrors ... in reason, science, and ... progress. In this funny Orwellian world we live in, adjectives like "progressive" and "liberal" are frequently applied to people who are neither. Cockburn throws in some left-wing bromides that don't quite jibe (the power industry is actually very wary of nuclear power, having been burned before). But it's nice to see an older sensibility, more rational, less cynical, that once characterized people who actually did believe in progress.

I'm still pinching myself.

POSTSCRIPT: Cockburn's column has set off some cognitive dissonance from a conservative news source (NewsBusters): see this article by associate editor Noel Sheppard.

Sheppard is certainly right: Cockburn comes loaded for bear and doesn't leave empty-handed. And it is true: computer climate modeling, fatally flawed as it is, is a $2-billion/year industry worldwide, and its product is viewed by everyone else in science with deep skepticism, or even derision, as sporting splashy and outlandish claims of having solved the hardest problem in physics (fluid turbulence). The self-promotional and careerist aspects of climate hysteria are significant, as is the "porky" nature of the publicly-funded part - points we'll return to later.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: Manzi has added a new comment to the previous posting, "Heat and Light." You might think we're all saying different things. Actually, what Manzi and Cockburn are saying is congruent with the argument here. It's all more or less equivalent to these propositions:
  • Computer climate models are in their infancy and can't be taken seriously as real predictors at this time.
  • There's no significant human-induced "global warming" now or in the recent past - at least, nothing that can be distinguished against the much larger climate variability due to other factors, like climate oscillations (e.g., El Nino) or solar variability.
  • A mild human impact on climate is likely over the next couple centuries. But no more than mild, as we know from the ice cores.
  • Mitigating feedbacks will be moderate to large, in comparison to the factors that enhance temperature, but are not well-understood at this time.
Claims to the contrary have no scientific foundation. They're deliberate and hysterical attempts to short-circuit normal scientific process with junk science (the "hockey stick") and confuse in the general public's mind real climate with faulty and very preliminary computer model results.

My only real bone to pick with Manzi at this point is that the ice core and solar variability aspects of this issue are more certain than he seems to believe. They're about as certain as one can be with a non-laboratory science. The solar variability part can be studied in real-time and shows up in every detailed time-sequenced climate variable (not just temperature - cloudiness and rainfall, for example). These climate changes have the right periodicity and a small but consistent delay relative to the solar driver (solar magnetic cycle). Only the causal details of how changes in the Sun translate into climate changes are incomplete. The ice core studies involve reconstructions of the past, but can be cross-checked by comparing different chemical concentrations and different ice core samples from different spots in the polar regions. The evidence is reassuringly consistent.

What's funny (or outrageous) is that fairly well-established results like these are often criticized as not being from "gold-standard" controlled experiments - which is true - while absurdly inadequate computer models and transparently wrong nonsense like the "hockey stick" are touted as the last word on the subject - even though they have, respectively, flimsy and nonexistent bases. That's the politics of "global warming" - normal scientific standards and protocols are suspended if the argument is about climate.

Manzi's article is surprising considering its venue. But compared to the tidal waves of drivel published on the subject, it's sober and sane.

POST-POST-POSTSCRIPT: A reader was disturbed by the fact that the Cockburn article was not linked on the Nation site (where it requires a subscription to view), but on Counterpunch. The latter is a well-known anti-Israel publication, but it's the only place on the Web where Cockburn's article is available for free. Caveat emptor.
* I wish I could be that concise, and so probably do some of my readers :)

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