By Joshua Frank
Alexander Cockburn has been making waves with his recent series on global warming, which has been published in The Nation and online at CounterPunch.org where he serves as co-editor (and I contribute a weekly column). In them, Cockburn attacks the logic of those fear-mongering scientists and all of us uneducated “Greenhousers” who believe humans, and our industrialized economy, are negatively impacting the planet’s climate.
While I’m quite happy to be dubbed a dumb Greenhouser — make no mistake, I’m not an intelligent scientist. In fact I’m one of the few radical environmentalists I know who doesn’t believe global warming is the most immediate threat to life on Earth. Call me crazy, but that trophy, I’m afraid, is still firmly in the clutches of the world’s nuclear powers.
In his articles Cockburn bases much of his argument on the opinion of one retired chemist, Dr. Martin Hertzberg, who worked for the U.S. Navy and later as an explosions expert for the Bureau of Mines, which functions under the rubric of the Department of the Interior. Hertzberg’s reasoning goes something like this: global warming is caused by water vapor and not by CO2 emissions. In fact, according to Hertzberg, it’s never caused by CO2 emissions, no matter the amount. His belief relies on the largely contested thesis that oceans are “carbon sinks” which store excessive CO2 and other sediments.
By contrast, most climate scientists insist that CO2 concentrations are cumulative. So, after they are released, the gas remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years unlike oceanic water vapor, which precipitates rather quickly out of the atmosphere as snow and rain.
Scientific research also challenges the “carbon sink” theory. The most recent and extensive study to do so was written by eighteen scientists and published in Science in late April 2007. The research was conducted by two international scientific expeditions, which studied waters in the South Pacific near the equator. The work suggests that rather than sinking, CO2 is instead gobbled up by animals and bacteria and recycled in the “twilight zone,” a shadowy area 100 to 1,000 meters below the ocean’s surface.
“The twilight zone is a critical link between the surface and the deep ocean,” says Ken Buesseler, a biogeochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who was lead author of the study. “We’re interested in what happens in the twilight zone, what sinks into it and what actually sinks out of it. Unless the carbon goes all the way down into the deep ocean and is stored there, the oceans will have little impact on climate change.”
If true, Dr. Hertzberg’s position is in deep water. But there are far greater problems with this lone scientist than his sketchy position on global warming or his past history as an explosives expert for the Bureau of Mines. Indeed Hertzberg may have other reasons for not challenging the industry-line on climate change. Fact is, Hertzberg serves as an expert witness for Big Coal, and was even hired by Jim Walter Resources in a case where the large coal company paid a meager $3,000 in fines after an explosion in one of their Alabama mines led to the deaths of 13 miners. Jim Walter Resources, which pocketed over $100 million in profits that same year, surely cut Dr. Hertzberg a hefty check for his professional services. His testimony, which was cited by the presiding judge, likely decreased the fine levied at the company.
Hertzberg cannot be considered an unbiased scientist on the issue of climate change, as he is a paid consultant for an industry whose coal-burning power plants produce the single largest source of CO2 pollution in the U.S. This, to me, is proof positive that we ought to disregard Hertzberg’s climate science all together.
There are other blatant problems with some of the warming skeptics’ assumptions as well as their possible motivations. In his second piece on the matter Cockburn quotes the notorious doubter Pat Michaels of the University of Virginia, who spends a great deal of time critiquing global warming models. But Michaels, an Environmental Science professor, was long ago exposed as a pawn of industry. Writing for Harper’s in 1995, Ross Gelbspan explained, “Michaels has received more than $115,000 over the last four years from coal and energy interests. World Climate Review, a quarterly he founded that routinely debunks climate concerns, was funded by Western Fuels.”
Other holes exist in the skeptic’s logic as well. Cockburn correctly references a 1995 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that hastily slipped in the following language, which contradicted much of the original report: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
However, it should be noted that since the IPCC’s second review of climate change research in 1995, there has been two additional IPCC papers, one in 2001 and another this year, both of which argue that the literature overwhelmingly show that humans are “likely” contributing to planetary warming.
Sadly, the aforementioned global warming skeptics are in one way or another on the fossil fuel dole. Aside from Dr. Hertzberg, the explosives expert who does consulting work for Big Coal, and Prof. Michaels who is funded by power companies that operate and own coal fired plants, the last, and worst, ‘scientist’ the skeptics, including Cockburn, so frequently cite is Fredrick Seitz.
For those of you who haven’t followed the climate debate over the years, sourcing the 96 year-old Seitz on global warming, as a friend of mine put it, is like quoting Judith Miller on Iraq’s WMDs. He’s a complete and utter fraud who has been exposed as such time and again. Seitz has argued that smoking doesn’t cause cancer while simultaneously pocketing mega-bucks from Big Tobacco. He even disputes the fact that CFCs damage the ozone layer. Seitz would probably tell you it’s okay to sprinkle DDT on your kid’s birthday cake if DuPont paid him enough.
Seitz, who along with Edward “father of the atomic bomb” Teller, also founded the egregious “Atoms for Peace” program, which called for exploding nukes to excavate harbors, bring natural gas to the surface and run space ships to Mars. Seitz is certainly not an impartial source on global warming. He’s a hack.
Arguing the in and outs of global warming research is diversionary. I agree that we ought to be skeptical of Al Gore’s past, the carbon offset market, carbon credits and the eco-economy that’s spawned from our papal induced guilt. We should be aware that the Prius isn’t really all that ‘green’, with its copper loaded engines that are raping the hillsides of British Columbia. We should know that our eco-friendly Patagonia attire is made locally, in China. Yet climate change, as I noted earlier, is a symptom of industrialization. It cannot, and will not, be tamed until we acknowledge as much.
There is little risk in playing it safe — go ahead and consider the possibility that human industry is contributing to the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. The only harm in calling for a dramatic curb in CO2 emissions, I see, is that large oil and gas companies will have to radically alter their destructive ways. But if global warming serves as a gateway for people to openly criticize our global economy, and God forbid, industrial capitalism — all the better.
-Joshua Frank holds a graduate degree in Environmental Conservation from New York University. He’s the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush and co-edits DissidentVoice.org.