04 January 2010

Global Warming: Skepticism, Conspiracy Theory and Bipolarchy

The question of whether human industry bears responsibility for a significant enough part of recent global warming that human action is required to ameliorate it should not divide people along partisan or ideological lines. In the United States it seems to do so. As the debate is portrayed in the media, "liberals" are more inclined to believe that irresponsible capitalism is at fault and that government and international action is imperative, while "conservatives" either dispute predictions of further warming or deny human culpability. This seems to be an instance when the partisan polarization of American culture has compelled many people to take sides without judging the facts or projections objectively. Many people see anyone who questions the present consensus as a hireling of corporations or a fatuous ideologue. People on the other side see those who uphold the consensus and call for international action as conspiratorial liars, perpetrators of a hoax designed to bring them power and/or wealth. It's hard to find a genuine skeptic on the subject, since I don't count conspiracy theorists as skeptics. But the psychology of conspiracy theory sometimes cuts across partisan or ideological loyalties.

In the past I've cited Alexander Cockburn, the Nation columnist and editor of the Counterpunch website, as a lonely voice of skepticism about global warming from the "left." Cockburn demonstrates his contrariness in the new issue, one which boasts as its cover an alarmist map of a significantly overflooded Europe. While other writers report from the Copenhagen summit with certainty about the menace of warming, Cockburn calls the "global warming jamboree" the "most outlandish foray into intellectual fantasizing since the fourth-century Christian bishops assembled in 325 AD for the Council of Nicaea to debate whether God the Father was supreme or had to share equal status in the pecking order of eternity with his Son and the Holy Ghost."

Cockburn is inspired, like many self-styled skeptics, by the leaked e-mails that appear to implicate promulgators of the "anthropogenic global warming" (AGW) scenario in suppressing facts that might throw the prevailing theories into dispute. The consensus seems to be that the e-mails themselves nor the data allegedly suppressed do nothing to refute the consensus model on warming. For Cockburn, as for many on the "right," they prove a conspiratorial attitude among global-warming scholars.

The challenge for conspiracy theories is to discover motive for a conspiracy that supposedly disregards inconvenient truths. For most "skeptics" the answer is to presume a leftist, anti-capitalist motive, the presumption being that the "left" will use a global warming crisis as a pretext to destroy capitalism, the American way of life, institute a cult of nature worship, and so on. Since Cockburn is a man of the "left," he simply follows the money.

It has been the standard ploy of the Warmers [a Cockburn coinage, as far as I know, meant to equate believers with "Truthers" or "Birthers] to revile the skeptics as whores of the energy industry, swaddled in munificent grants and with large personal stakes in discrediting AGW. Actually, the precise opposite is true. Billions in funding and research grants sluice into the big climate-modeling enterprises and a vast archipelago of research departments and "institutes of climate change" across academia. It's where the money is. Skepticism, particularly for a young climatologist or atmospheric physicist, can be a career breaker.

Cockburn moves on to repeat points he's made in the past against the AGW scenario. He cites the website climate4you.com for proof that the oceans have been cooling over the past decade, and repeats the argument that the AGW theory violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. "Greenhouse gases in the cold upper atmosphere cannot possibly transfer heat to the warmer earth, and in fact radiate their absorbed heat into outer space," he writes.

When any writer combines skepticism with conspiracy theory, critics are obliged to answer in kind. I can't help asking whether Cockburn disputes AGW because of his expertise in science or because he sees an academic-industrial complex that offends his socialist sensibilities looming behind the warming-science community. If the latter, then he's all too typical of our time, when the whole notion of objectivity remains under assault from partisanship and postmodernism. Too many people respond to the appearance of a controversial thesis by asking, in one way or another, which side it takes, or which side the theorists are on. That tendency has colored the response to both global-warming theory and any objective criticism of it. Cockburn is idiosyncratic because we expect his ideology to bias him in favor of the warming consensus, because we in turn identify the consensus, rightly or wrongly, with a global "left." But his idiosyncrasy doesn't make him objective; his resort to follow-the-money conspiracy theory disqualifies him almost at once. That doesn't mean objective criticism of prevailing warming or AGW models is impossible, but we clearly need to relearn both what objective criticism looks like and how to respond with the same objectivity. We can't be objective, however, if we divide academia and the world itself into antagonistic, irreconcilable sides. The emergence of a global bipolarchy divided over the global warming question might well doom the planet -- though not necessarily in the way some of you think.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

..."Greenhouse gases in the cold upper atmosphere cannot possibly transfer heat to the warmer earth, and in fact radiate their absorbed heat into outer space,"

The whole problem with greenhouse gasses is not that they "transfer heat to the warmer earth." It is that they act as an extra layer of insulation, keeping excess heat created by modern, industrialized nations, from escaping, slowly raising the ambient temperature of the planet as a whole. The fact that this guy seems to think that greenhouse gasses radiate heat in and of themselves tells me he either doesn't know, or doesn't comprehend the science behind global warming.