Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 18, 2009

Alexander Cockburn’s latest nonsense

Filed under: Global Warming — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Alexander Cockburn in the December 18-20, 2009 Counterpunch Weekend Edition

“As for the nightmare of vanishing ice caps and inundating seas, the average Arctic ice  coverage has essentially remained unchanged for the last 20 years, and has actually increased slightly over the last 3 years.”

* * * *


  1. I’m afraid Alex has gone all contrarian on us. It’s been a while coming.

    Comment by splinteredsunrise — December 18, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

  2. How enormously depressing. I’ve just read the article – it’s not quite illuminati, NWO and black helicopters but it’s not far off.

    Comment by Dan — December 19, 2009 @ 11:54 am

  3. His global-warming stance is not new. At least he didn’t support Obama.

    Comment by jp — December 19, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  4. A good article by David Noble with a similar theme–sans gadfly rhetoric:


    Incidentally, I came across this piece by someone at Accenture ‘Sustainability Services’ the other day:


    Those who are willing to be shunted into haranguing someone on their side of the fence while sleazeballs working for ‘Sustainability Services’ laugh their way to their next cruise would do well to look at the bigger picture and not let their blood pressure rise when Noble or Cockburn point out that bigger picture, even if their phraseology is provocative.

    Comment by Prem — December 20, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  5. Well Alexander on this issue has put himself on the side of the fence containing far right conspiracy nuts, pseudo-science and ‘independant’ advocate groups funded by Big Oil.
    As per ‘phraseology’ I have to say Ive heard this argument before, from people trying to rescue some point from the mouth of some odious pundit. The gad fly rhetoric is not the problem, as annoying as it may be.

    Comment by SGuy — December 21, 2009 @ 2:59 am

  6. I dunno? The moving graphics frankly don’t strike me as showing very much ice cap melt if any over the years?

    On the one hand Cockburn’s argument about the nuclear power monopolies manipulating the hype have a certain ring of truth, as do many of his other points. On the other hand, there sure seems to be a lot of anectodal evidence for receding glaciers.

    Maybe it’s a CP thing? With the exception of voting for Democrats, Cockburn has always had a soft spot for the CPUSA, and I seem to recall his father was a member of the British version. 20 years ago in Tucson I knew an atmospheric scientist who was also a member of the CPUSA. Very bright, albeit an eccentric bookworm with bizzare social skills, he dilligently studied main-frame computer models about global temperature patterns over time. He was convinced global warming wasn’t occuring in a significant or abnormal way. He was so adamant that I’m certain he’s more convinced than ever today, although I’ve lost touch since the early 90’s.

    Like comment # 3 said, at least Cockburn didn’t support Obama. More importantly, I tend to forgive ones cantankerous foibles on what I deem lesser issues when they consistently articulate why a vote for Obama was rancid politics. Teaching people why a progressive’s vote for a democrat is a political sin will, in my view, do far more to save the planet than 500 professors urging caps on CO2 emissions ever will.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 23, 2009 @ 2:52 am

  7. Uh, Louis, the graphic does have the advantage of beginning in the 70’s, and thus *over* 20 years ago, but it ends in 2005, *almost 5 years ago*. Cockburn’s “latest nonsense” was a statement about *the last three years*, which occurred after 2005. The other difficulty, which may have some explanation from a scientific point of view, is that this video is not a continuous image, *but only shows the ice each year at its lowest extent*. It thus has an intrinsically fraudulent character. We need only follow your film link to find youtube offering others without these defects: videos that represents all seasons, and one that carry into this year eg.

    which are much more ambiguous. The ice at its greatest extent in particular seems to have been pretty big lately. I don’t know what Cockburn is using as his basis. On the face of it, “average Arctic ice coverage for a year” means “Arctic ice coverage averaged over the course of a year”, not “least ice coverage for a year”. I wonder if the better argument might wonder whether he was right (he’s no doubt going by something) but insist that it is lowest ice coverage that matters, and so on, and there his claim would be wrong. I don’t mean to defend his position (I accept the usual account) but only the legitimacy of taking such a position without being hammered by people in no better an epistemic situation than him.

    jp is quite right against splinteredsunrise: Cockburn has held to essentially the same position, whatever its merits, since the early years of Z magazing circa 1987. His particular point then was that the left-winger’s love of this kind of proposition works against genuine socialism and at best for barracks communism or war communism, and that – what has I think proved correct – that it would drain environmental organizing of its energy, its local + global focus in favor of the latter only. He seems already to have taken an interest in the scientific aspect of the question, discussing cloud cover, albedo, etc. — so though he may be incapable of grasping the science, he has been at it for at least 22 years.

    splinteredsunrise, I wonder what to make of your use of the “contrarian” meme? It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that it is cocooning at best, Orwellian at worst. The person who finds this word in his vocabulary is thinking “I needn’t worry about ideas that are different from my own, they all spring from a specific psychiatric syndrome and never from thought, reason, evidence or principle.” I’m glad the expression wasn’t so ready to hand when, by championing the brilliant “contrarian” journalism of Debbie Nathan, he helped destroy the “satanic ritual abuse in the day care center”/”recovered memory” consensus that put so many in prison, all of them completely innocent, many at the hands of Janet Reno in Florida, who made her name on such cases. (Wikipedia links a post-hysteria 1996 “investigation of more than 12,000 allegations of satanic, ritual and religious abuse resulted in no cases that were considered factual or corroborated.” (A self-serving, but I think accurate account by A.C. appears in http://www.counterpunch.org/pollitt.html as for the anti-Pollitism of that piece, I don’t mean to take a position. I mean it just to supply names and dates for further investigation into the evils of ‘contrarianism’)

    Comment by Michael T. — December 23, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

  8. Even if the issue is what is happening to Arctic icecaps over the past 3 years, Cockburn is on thin ice as this article would indicate:

    The New Zealand Herald
    August 13, 2008 Wednesday
    Arctic sea ice meltdown speeds up

    Ice at the North Pole melted at an unprecedented rate last week, with leading scientists warning that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2013.

    Satellite images show that ice caps started to disintegrate dramatically several days ago as storms over Alaska’s Beaufort Sea began sucking streams of warm air into the Arctic.

    As a result, scientists say that the disappearance of sea ice at the North Pole could exceed last year’s record loss. More than a million square kilometres melted over the summer of 2007 as global warming tightened its grip on the Arctic. But such destruction could now be matched, or even topped, this year.

    “It is a neck-and-neck race between 2007 and this year over the issue of ice loss,” said Dr Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado.

    “We thought Arctic ice cover might recover after last year’s unprecedented melting – and indeed the picture didn’t look too bad last month. Cover was significantly below normal, but at least it was up on last year.

    “But the Beaufort Sea storms triggered steep ice losses and it now looks as if it will be a very close call indeed whether 2007 or 2008 is the worst year on record for ice cover over the Arctic. We will only find out when the cover reaches its minimum in mid-September.”

    This startling loss of Arctic sea ice has major meteorological, environmental and ecological implications. The region acts like a giant refrigerator that has a strong effect on the Northern Hemisphere’s meteorology. Without its cooling influence, weather patterns will be badly disrupted, including storms set to sweep over Britain.

    At the same time, creatures such as polar bears and seals – which use sea ice for hunting and resting – face major threats. Similarly, coastlines will no longer be insulated by ice from wave damage and will suffer erosion, as is already happening in Alaska.

    Other environmental changes are likely to follow. Without sea ice to bolster them, land ice – including glaciers – could topple into the ocean and raise global sea levels, threatening many low-lying areas, including Bangladesh and scores of Pacific islands.

    In addition, the disappearance of reflective ice over the Arctic means that solar radiation would no longer be bounced back into space, thus heating the planet even further.

    On top of these issues, there are fears that water released by the melting caps will disrupt the Gulf Stream, while an ice-free Arctic in summer offers new opportunities for oil and gas drilling there – and for political disputes over territorial rights.

    What really unsettles scientists, however, is their inability to forecast precisely what is happening in the Arctic, the part of the world most vulnerable to global warming.

    “When we did the first climate change computer models, we thought the Arctic’s summer ice cover would last until around 2070,” said Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University.

    “It is now clear we did not understand how thin the ice cap had already become – for Arctic ice cover has since been disappearing at ever increasing rates. Every few years we have to revise our estimates downwards.

    Now the most detailed computer models suggest the Arctic’s summer ice is going to last for only a few more years – and given what we have seen happen last week, I think they are probably correct.”

    The most important of these computer studies of ice cover was carried out a few months ago by Professor Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

    Using US navy supercomputers, his team produced a forecast which indicated that by 2013 there will be no ice in the Arctic – other than a few outcrops on islands near Greenland and Canada – between mid-July and mid-September.

    “It does not really matter whether 2007 or 2008 is the worst year on record for Arctic ice,” Professor Maslowski said. “The crucial point is that ice is not building up enough over winter to restore cover and when you combine current estimates of ice thickness with the extent of the ice cap, you get a very clear indication that the Arctic is going to be ice-free in summer in five years. And when that happens, there will be consequences.”

    This point was backed by Dr Serreze. “We always knew it would be the first region on Earth to feel the impact of climate change, but not at anything like this speed.”

    Comment by louisproyect — December 23, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

  9. I don’t get it, first, this is from a year ago; and it speaks not to the average, nor even to the the maximum or minimum coverage, but only to the rate of decrease, which could be accounted for by the larger winter coverage.

    In January following that New Zealand news, we find this (http://www.dailytech.com/Article.aspx?newsid=13834):

    Earlier this year, predictions were rife that the North Pole could melt entirely in 2008. Instead, the Arctic ice saw a substantial recovery. Bill Chapman, a researcher with the UIUC’s Arctic Center, tells DailyTech this was due in part to colder temperatures in the region. Chapman says wind patterns have also been weaker this year. Strong winds can slow ice formation as well as forcing ice into warmer waters where it will melt.
    Why were predictions so wrong? Researchers had expected the newer sea ice, which is thinner, to be less resilient and melt easier. Instead, the thinner ice had less snow cover to insulate it from the bitterly cold air, and therefore grew much faster than expected, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

    Earlier on in the same, we read “Thanks to a rapid rebound in recent months, global sea ice levels now equal those seen 29 years ago, when the year 1979 also drew to a close.” Which fits okay with this:

    This is reported everywhere, see e.g http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/09/090921-arctic-sea-ice.html I’m sure the rightwing types are having a field day with it.

    Again, I accept the usual account, I just don’t hold forth on how moronic other rational people are for thinking differently, especially without bothering to meditate on what I am saying or quoting; this is unjust.

    Comment by Michael T. — December 23, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

  10. Michael T., I don’t think you are “moronic” but you are repeating the rightwing’s talking points. That article you referred us to was the centerpiece of a George Will denialist column. Here’s a follow-up which puts the research in context:


    Comment by louisproyect — December 24, 2009 @ 12:19 am

  11. The “right wing talking points” meme has all the merits of the idea of contrarianism. Do you think there are right wing facts? We are not here addressing the largest questions of principle, which decide the question of corruption or truth in ones practical orientation — you don’t seem to be disputing that Cockburn is on the side of the angels in respect to them. We are disputing fairly definite questions of empirical fact. The truth of the practical principles you and I and Cockburn alike would affirm are indifferent to where the facts come down on these questions. (There is a memorable passage in Lukacs’ “What is Historical Materialism?” (pardon the expression) where he says that the principle Marx was teaching would not be disproven even if every particular factual document he marshals in evidence should turn out to be mistaken.)

    My procedure was simply to compare Cockburn’s words with the evidence being brought against — him in particular on the question of the last three years. We saw that words and counter-evidence did not meet in the video or in the New Zealand press. Looking about for something reputable seeming and not palpably right wing, I attached a couple of links. Given the operation of the search engines, it is no surprise that one of those, from Daily Tech, not National Geographic, was there because it was so often linked — by rightwingers using it for their ends (as I predicted a priori) and moralistic ‘warmers’ attacking it. Only the first part spoke to the question allegedly decided by the New Zealand press a year and a half ago, namely •what’s happened in the last three years*. It was direct reporting based on an interview with Urbana Champaign experts.

    I was then tempted to throw in the other sentence, and did, since it happened to refer to the fateful year 1979, the first frame of your film. Following your advice, I looked into the tempest in a teapot that blew up around this passage following the use of it by the cretinous Will (arguing, it seems, for something only slightly more limited than the claim that *everything will be alright in every respect because everything has always been alright in every respect*). It is Will’s delirious employment of them that made the claims of the experts at UIUC became ‘right wing facts’, having previously been just ordinary facts.

    But looking into the matter, it seems that we see that the UIUC people have been a bit cornered by their own crowd. The judgment about 1979-2009 was based on the image I linked, which runs from 1979-2009, and they stand by it. It has no bearing on the Cockburn “last 20 years” (=since 1989) statement, which I wasn’t meaning to address but sort of did — I meant to be addressing relevance of the stale New Zealand article — for the simple reason that Cockburn was talking about the Arctic, i.e. the frozen North, unless he was using the expression broadly to cover both poles as I think is no longer done. The graph and the claim that went on to be used by Will pertained to *North and South together*. Interestingly Will did not actually err on this point, nor have the original sources disowned it, they have just busied themselves with clarifications. See the delicately phrased

    Click to access global.sea.ice.area.pdf

    about the dispute which buries but is too proud to disavow this sentence:

    > Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas,
    > is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979, as noted in the Daily Tech article.

    Moving now to your new link, we see what seems to be characteristic of the Will-stoked tempest, namely, a proof that the claim is somehow wrong, or a half-truth, based on evidence from the North only. (Somehow the criminality of the Washington Post is at issue in a lot of discussion, but I refuse to look into this, since I grant the thesis on other grounds.)

    > (To recap again, their support was decidedly roundabout. A January 1 post on a blog called Daily Tech claimed that
    > global ice cover in late 2008 were unchanged from 1979.(1) In response to that blog post, the Center posted a pdf
    > on their web site explaining that “observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S.
    > Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979.” (2) But then the scientists
    > also explained that climate models predict a decline in Arctic ice, but are less certain about Antarctica,
    > with some even suggesting an increase–making measurements of global sea ice not terribly relevant
    > to the question of climate change. (3) The Post ignored that part.(4))
    (1) Note that this was based on a reading of the chart.
    (2) Note that this affirms the correctness of that reading.
    (3) Not that this falsifies what is said in the pdf, and in any case raises the issue what is meant by global warming, if only northern warming counts in favor of it.
    (4) The Post was merely being legalistic and sensible. Will had the good fortune not to have miscopied and referred only to the Arctic north.

    Other bits of abuse of the fact or would be UIUC fact are more plainly idiotic. See for another random example http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-grandia/wapo-staffers-slamming-ge_b_184294.html

    > Washington Post reporters Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan have an article on the alarming decline of
    > Arctic sea ice. In a stunningly unusual move, the article includes this statement:
    >>”The new evidence–including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover
    >> in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s–
    >> contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will
    >> that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.”

    The trouble of course is that Will copied properly — he’s probably very good at copying — and did not make an
    affirmation about the Arctic, the frozen North, but about the North and South together. Thus this “new evidence”
    which is about the North only, has no bearing on his claim, ie Daily Techs claim, ie the UIUC claim. I don’t really care
    what punishments Will suffers in this or the next life, but this is simply falsification and a refusal to read of the type
    I found in the heading to your post.

    Comment by Michael T. — December 24, 2009 @ 6:21 am

  12. I forgot to point out the main proof of the doubtful integrity of your latest source. While dissing the Post for “ignoring” part of the pdf — a part that in fact did not speak to the question of factual error and is thus irrelevant — they themselves carefully excise the crucial last clause of the sentence that they and I both quote viz. “… as noted in the Daily Tech article”. The deletion looks to be aimed at sowing confusion — the suggestion seems to be that the reporter was being upbraided in the pdf, when it completely validates his interpretation of their evidence and reaffirms it explicitly.

    Comment by Michael T. — December 24, 2009 @ 6:33 am

  13. Re: #11 by Mike T. — So, Michael T., please digest this matter if you will, that is, what’s your own personal conclusion regarding this Global Warming issue based on your own dead reckoning?

    Your condensed analysis is valued in this forum.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 24, 2009 @ 7:55 am

  14. Im sorry Michael T but wha? louis’s link clearly shows yet another example of fudging the facts by denialists. While you nit pick you completely ignore the far more serious issue of the scientist who was overlooked by the Post authorities. Im disturbed by how your trying to have your cake and eat it too over this issue. This is not a debate about the nature of a stellar object 50000 light years away this is something which has a life or death effect right now and in the future.

    Comment by SGuy — December 24, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  15. Dear Karl F, I apologize for seeming loquacity. I accept the usual, standard account of increasing warming due to human activities emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gases, though of course I don’t profess any wisdom on the matter, as it involves so many parts of science unknown to me. My would-be wisdom was only about Proyect’s dissing Cockburn on the ground that he thinks differently. My thought was that the principle “No Enemies on the Left” is a good one, and the exceptions need careful justification. It seemed to me that Louis P. was being unjust.

    Dear SGuy, Again, my purpose is to defend the right of Cockburn to think differently on questions of plain fact without being judged a traitor to socialist ideas. It turns out that this requires what you consider nit picking. I am quite happy to nit pick on behalf of Alexander Cockburn (as Louis P. has made it necessary to do), even though I think his position on this matter is hopeless.

    I don’t see that a careful reading of the Discover link shows the least error in the Daily Tech report (which it seems that Will was using). It doesn’t seem the Post did overlook the scientist you mention, if you are meaning Prof Chapman, who was interviewed by Daily Tech. It is clear that he and his colleagues affirm the (then) truth of the Daily Tech report — naming both it and the writer explicitly – in the pdf linked above. Mr Zimmer’s campaign seems constantly to finesse the matter at hand, turning claims about North+South into claims about North only, while seeming to recognize the difference; though in fact the difference between North and North+South is not to the point, only the facts about North+South are in question. The distinction is more completely overlooked in other fragments of the tempest — see the quotation from the other Post reporters above, which is an outright falsification. That the poles are operating differently is not news, and various ways of making the differences fit together have been proposed, see e.g. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090421101629.htm linked in the ‘overlooked scientists’ pdf. The truth of the claim reaffirmed in the pdf is arises from making a sum over these two changing figures, which is not a sum that should simply be ignored, or one of interest only to Skeptics, fact fudgers, etc. as their continued calculation of it shows. (Indeed the data carried forward into the present, Dec 2009, don’t look so good for the would-be Skeptic, by the way, whatever he might have been hoping to make of them, as we see by comparing

    with the same representation continued into the present:
    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/global.daily.ice.area.withtrend.jpg )

    Comment by Michael T. — December 24, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

  16. I don’t think that Alexander Cockburn is an “enemy” of the left. Only that he is dead wrong on climate change. He is also wrong on abortion rights. I also think it is a mistake to flatter Ron Paul and to provide a regular platform for Paul Craig Roberts. But on the whole, Counterpunch is a valuable resource for the radical movement.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 24, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  17. I agree with Lou for the most part on CounterPunch in general and Paul Craig Roberts in particular but at least his latest article there went out of its way to call Clinton a War Criminal for bombing the Serbs. (Actually Clinton was a war crminal long before then as his very first official act in the White House was to send Tomahawk missiles blindly into Bagdad whereby he murdered many innocents, including a woman sleeping in her apartment that had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for poetry.)

    PCR says the same thing about Bush’s criminal wars (and says they’re now Obama’s criminal wars) and he defends Palestinian rights rather articulately.

    I wonder though if he’d agree that Reagan should have been hung as a war criminal for the cowardly air strike which murdered Quadaffi’s daughter?

    Speaking of Reagan I’m reminded me of an idea for a novel I once had wherein Reagan was really killed by Hinkley’s bullet to the lung but the CIA whisked him off to Orlando where Disney World technicians made a senile bionic man out of him so he could finish his term of union busting and previously unprecedented wealth transference from the poorest 20% of America to the richest 20%.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 24, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

  18. Louis P., your self-representation as simply opposing Cockburn’s opinion on climate change and so on, does not fit with the demagogical character of this and the list of “possibly related posts’ your site offers the reader, and which I read or re-read before commenting.

    Cockburn contrarianism
    Alexander Cockburn’s “experts”
    Which Alexander Cockburn should we believe?

    The last mentioned post, for example, seems to suggest some contradiction either in his views about greenhouse gasses, or in his view of different institutional sources: How shocking that he declares the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (New York, NY) as a source of warming hysteria when earlier he used the Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt MD) as a valid source? You give the 2007 date for the Counterpunch text, but don’t note that Fate of the Forest is almost 20 years older (1989). You may also be suggesting a contradiction in his views about climate change, but one cannot fail to notice the ‘scare’ quotes in the 1989 expression ” ‘greenhouse’ gases.” What is interesting is the total consistency over a 20 year period.

    The first mentioned post employs the Orwellian “contrarian” epithet — why consider ever consider counter-evidence when you can just discount as coming from a … counter-evidentialist? — and goes on to give an elaborate account of how he’s “hooked up” with the Spike Online crew. I don’t know anything about them, but whatever their demerits, they seen to have one single essay by him, which is clearly in the nature of advance press for a book he was writing, but seems to have dropped (or maybe Verso dropped it?); there is no “association” or “hook up”. So, we have a guilt-by-association argument. Similarly, his views on gun control — which are very widely held on the left, properly so-called, and only systematically rejected by sensible liberal types, except now as catastrophically bad politics — are compared to those of Ted Nugent, to his discredit.

    I don’t know anything about Nugent’s politics, I’ll take your word for it, but Nugent probably believes in freedom of speech and religion … there must be at least one thing you and Cockburn and I and the rest of your readership have in common with Nugent have in common; are we thus all alike open to fatal argumentum ex Nugentum, or whatever irrational demogogical principle you are using?

    The conviction that prompted me to write was that it seems plain that you are engaging in a demagogical campaign against Cockburn on a number of fronts. Where you seem to give facts to oppose him, as with this video, we see that you are in fact indifferent to what he said — an indifference that is in plain sight with the references to the Space Flight Center and the Institute for Space Studies. For the rest you use the language of guilt by association, “right wing talking points”, “contrarianism” , the argument from Nugent, and other completely irrationalist methods.

    Comment by Michael T. — December 26, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  19. The conviction that prompted me to write was that it seems plain that you are engaging in a demagogical campaign against Cockburn on a number of fronts.

    That’s true.

    –Climate change

    –Abortion rights

    –making alliances with the right

    Other than on these issues, I have no problem with Counterpunch.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 26, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

  20. Pardon catastrophically bad editing above.

    Comment by Michael T. — December 26, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  21. I guess it is progress that you concede your campaigns on these fronts are demagogical in character.

    Comment by Michael T. — December 26, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

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