Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Archive for the ‘William Nierenberg’ Category

Global Weirding and Optimism Bias

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Last night’s Horizon programme on BBC TV was entitled ‘Global Weirding’. I had not heard of this term before but, apparently, it was not just dreamt up by the programme producers in a moment of appalling uncreativity.

The negative review of the programme that Andrew Marszal has posted on the Telegraph website (and most of the comments thereon) provides further validation of Dr Tari Sharot’s work on Optimism Bias; about which I and Paul Handover (of Learning from Dogs fame) have both blogged recently.

It is almost incredible that people (I use the term in a very loose sense) can watch a programme like this and yet remain comfortable in their bubble of unreality. Because they (apparently) watched the programme, Cognitive Dissonance does not explain their failure to recognise its significance (i.e. cognitive dissonance sufferers would not have watched the programme). However, Optimism Bias explains their behaviour perfectly. Yes, these people show commendable “bravery” (or is it unwarranted confidence in their rightness of their delusion?) for watching the programme but, nevertheless, the filter they use when watching stuff like this has a sanitising effect that makes a reverse-osmosis water purifier seem like the first phase of a sand and gravel processing plant!

To me, the programme producers seem to have gone to great lengths to avoid being accused of bias or being “alarmist”; and just allowed the data (i.e. collective noun) to tell its own story. Therefore, to continue to believe that the Sun or natural variability is capable of explaining the fact that, for example, Texas can experience record-breaking rainfall and record-breaking drought in consecutive years would appear to be pushing Optimism Bias into the realms of insanity. As if to underline this point, Weatherdem recently posted this characteristically well-executed summary of weather data; demonstrating just how abnormal current weather patterns are in the USA.

Amongst the evidence supporting an anthropogenic cause for the ongoing climatic disruption we are experiencing are the facts that:
– If it were the Sun, the atmosphere would not be warming from the ground upwards; whereas if the warming is being caused by an energy imbalance (i.e. outgoing long-wave radiation being prevented from escaping into Space) this is exactly what you would expect.
– If it were the Sun, the warming would be most obvious in sub-tropical latitudes, whereas if it is energy imbalance the warming will be most pronounced in polar latitudes; exactly what is happening.

Then we have the evidence of solar expert Dr Mike Lockwood who very pointedly conceded that, although blamed for causing the Little Ice Age (1650-1700AD), the Sun is not responsible for the extremely cold UK winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11. On the contrary, the Horizon programme gave a perfectly plausible explanation for what did cause this extreme cold weather (and all the other extremes featured); and also explained how it is that none of this extreme (cold) weather changes the fact that, on average, the world is warming up.

Katharine Hayhoe was seen very clearly making the point that as the Earth has warmed-up, so the average humidity of the atmosphere has increased by 4%. Thus, even though large parts of the USA, UK and Australia may be in drought, when the rain does fall it is likely to be very heavy and, in the meantime, someone somewhere else is undoubtedly getting more than they expected (or probably needed!). Along with warming oceans giving rise to more frequent and more intense storms, increased average humidity is part of a pattern of atmospheric behaviour that was predicted over 20 years ago.

People like me often cite James Hansen’s testimony before US Congress in 1988 as the time since which many humans have been in active denial of the truth. However, the reality of the situation is that the denial started much earlier than that, may be even as early as when President Lyndon Johnson first admitted that we have a problem in 1965. Then there is the case of John Mercer being ridiculed in 1978 for daring to suggest we have a problem (whose treatment James Hansen cited as a reason for widespread scientific reticence in 2007)… Certainly, not much has changed since 1982, when Mike MacCracken was busy telling anyone who would listen (and many would not) that we have a problem.

So, you see, James Hansen did not walk away from the Pioneer Mission to Venus on a mere whim, he took note of what his fellow scientists were telling him and decided that this was something upon which he should focus; and we should be grateful that he did. What we should be somewhat less than grateful for is the orchestrated nature of the campaign to discredit him and many other climate scientists that then arose out of the mendacious work of people like Robert Jastrow, Bill Nierenberg, Frederick Seitz, and Fred Singer… When the Devil was handing out crimes against humanity, they clearly mis-heard him as having been offering “times aspent in true sanity”

However, compared to this, we should (IMHO) be positively enraged by the fact that the work of these Cold War physicists (with no Communists to fight), has been continued right up to the present day by equally ideologically-blinded experts in ultimately selfish and self-defeating obscurantism such as – yes you guessed it – MIT’s Richard Lindzen; but also the likes of Princeton’s Will Happer. Believe me, if I was seeking a Stalinist revolution, such truth-challenged people (a Barry Bickmore has called them) really would be first on my trains to re-education camps in Siberia (and would thereby count themselves lucky to have avoided the firing squad).

Is Richard Lindzen the devil’s advocate?

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As I said yesterday, this is a sort of addendum to my review of James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren, arising out of Hansen’s characterisation of Lindzen as behaving like a lawyer – putting forward only information and argument favourable to his “client” (page 12); and as someone that does not seek truth because “a lawyer [merely] seeks a win for his client” (page 56).

A brief Google search reveals that Lindzen has repeatedly threatened with litigation anyone who asserts that he denies that smoking causes lung cancer but, here again, he is just being disingenuous, playing with words, and trying to re-write history. The plain facts of this matter are that he was for many years periodically paid large sums of money by Phillip Morris to defend their product against claims that smoking was detrimental to the health of those that smoke and/or others present when they do so.

In so doing, he was a member of the same ideologically-driven bunch of scientists with neo-Conservative tendencies that decided, by 1992 at the very latest, that environmentalism was and is the enemy. These are the people that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway identify as “Merchants of Doubt”; some of whom I have called “the four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse (i.e. Jastrow, Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer). Although 3 out of 4 of these horsemen may now be dead, many more have saddled-up and taken their place… Therefore, it was not for nothing that the German Environment Minister at the 1992 Rio Summit went on the record as saying, “I am afraid that conservatives in the United States are picking ‘ecologism’ as their new enemy” (Luke (2000) – reference details [and link] appended below).

Not only was it a tobacco company executive who, in order to maintain sales and profits, once infamously decided “doubt is our product”, it was a tobacco industry lobby group (The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition [TASSC]) that also brought into common parlance the terms “sound science” and “junk science” in an attempt to deny the seriously detrimental health effects of long-term cigarette smoking (see Ong and Glantz (2001) – reference details [and link] appended below). So it is that these mischievous right-wing ideologues have repeatedly sided with special interests groups (i.e. business leaders – be that in the pesticide, tobacco, or energy industries) in a series of campaigns that have – make no mistake – been against the public interest.

One final point I believe worthy of note is this: Richard Lindzen has a long association with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is also famous for having been the home of the team of researchers whom The Club of Rome, from 1972 onwards, got to do the work for their Limits to Growth reports. In this respect, it should be noted that the former was a group of very wealthy people who were concerned about the profligate and reckless consumption-obsessed society they saw around them 40 years ago (and which is still with us today). Therefore, MIT should be commended for the complete absence of political interference in the research and publications of those that work within it. This stands in stark contrast to the record of shocking – and utterly hypocritical – political interference in the work of NASA during the tenure of George W Bush (see yesterday’s post). One must hope that this has now stopped.

Unfortunately, political interference in science may have stopped but, with people like Richard Lindzen still around, supposedly-scientific interference in politics certainly has not yet been stopped. Furthermore, Hansen has demonstrated just how damaging this ideologically-driven and politically-prejudiced interference has been, and how far back it can be traced: He cites the case of John Mercer who, in the late 1970s, warned that burning fossil fuels may lead to the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Forget “may lead to…” – it is now happening (e.g. see this Climate Denial Crock of the Week item about the Pine Island Glacier)!… But people like Mercer and Hansen are rare, thus Hansen laments the general scientific reticence to speak plainly, forcibly and repeatedly; and to refuse to accept political interference, posturing and prevarication. On the contrary, Hansen asserts that scientists have generally been more concerned about being accused of “crying wolf” than of being guilty of “fiddling while Rome burns” (page 87-8).

Well, given that Rome is well-and-truly burning, or the ship is well-and-truly sinking (or whatever other metaphor you prefer to invoke), one is left hoping that real, objective, climate scientists – as opposed to those like Lindzen that are prisoners of neo-Conservative, anti-environmental prejudice – will find their voice and win the attention of the public and politicians alike. This is because I think Hansen is right to conclude that we are all in breach of Article 2 of the UNFCCC, because “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” is already underway and, as yet, we are doing nothing effective to stop it.


Luke, T (2000), ‘A rough road out of Rio: The right-wing reaction in the United States against Global Environmentalism’, in Low, N. et al. (eds.) Consuming cities: The urban environment in the global economy after the Rio declaration, New York: Routledge (pp.54-69). [Available for free download here]

Ong, E. & Glantz, S. (2001), ‘Constructing “Sound Science” and “Good Epidemiology”: Tobacco, Lawyers, and Public Relations Firms’, American Journal of Public Health, Volume 91(11), pp.1749-1757. [Available for free download here]

How does James Hansen sleep at night?

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James Hansen is widely regarded as one of the most important people in the now at least 30-year-old campaign to get concern over anthropogenic global warming (AGW) taken seriously. I must admit that I sometimes wonder what it must feel like to have spent most of your working life championing a cause and to have so little to show for it. However, I do not think that it is self-pity that may keep him awake at night.

In the Preface to his book, Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen vividly describes some key events from his early years and early career. For example:
1. In December 1963, he witnessed an unusual lunar eclipse (i.e. when the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow). This particular eclipse was unusual because the moon became invisible (instead of appearing red due to some light from the Sun being bent as it passes tangentially through the Earth’s atmosphere). This prompted Hansen to work out how much volcanic dust (from a very large eruption 9 months earlier) must have still been in the atmosphere in order to prevent the moon appearing red. So began, presumably, a fascination with atmospheric physics (as opposed to any other branch of the subject).
2. In 1978, after more than 10 years of studying Venus (including getting NASA to send the Pioneer probe to the planet to investigate it), Hansen decided the really important stuff was going on much closer to home: Therefore, even before the Pioneer probe had reached its target, Hansen resigned from the Mission and, instead, began to focus on what we are doing to our own atmosphere. However, what started out as a new research project has, of course, since consumed the rest of his illustrious career.

By 1988, Hansen was certain enough of his understanding to testify before a Senate Committee and before a Congressional Inquiry (in 1989). Unfortunately, rather than convincing politicians that action was required, Hansen’s testimony proved to be the catalyst for a campaign to discredit him, his work, and anyone (like Ben Santer) who agreed with him. Central to this campaign, of course, were the Cold War physicists Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg, Frederick Seitz, and S. Fred Singer (now with no Communist enemy to fight), using as their primary vehicle of choice the George C Marshall Institute. More than 20 years later, only one of these what-you-might-call “four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse” is left alive (i.e. Singer) but, my God, have they caused one hell of a lot of trouble and, arguably, their legacy may yet get much worse.

In the first Chapter of his book, Hansen recounts one other event that is worthy of note: This was his first ever head-to-head encounter with Richard Lindzen, at the second meeting of Vice-President Cheney’s Climate Change Task Force in 2001. On page 12, Hansen describes Lindzen’s approach as that of a lawyer putting forward only information and “arguments that favor their client” (a strategy Hansen regrettably only later recalled that Lindzen had previously used to great effect in defending the Tobacco industry); whereas Hansen accepts that his style of presentation was more scientific (including assessment of all data and discussion of probability). Sure enough, Hansen was told afterwards that, as he had suspected, members of the Committee were left confused and unable to make firm decisions because two experts appeared to have equally valid but completely contradictory views on the same subject. As Hansen says, a draw in any such “debate” is a loss precisely because “policy inaction is the aim of those that dispute global warming”.

Hansen also laments the way that Lindzen and his fellow “sceptics” have, over the years, repeatedly “moved the goalposts”. Whenever, one of their arguments is falsified they never admit they are wrong; they just start another argument. Indeed, we can see that happening again at the moment: Having denied for at least 16 years that the world is warming, so called “sceptics” are once more seeking to re-write history and claim they never disputed this; seeking instead to move the “debate” onto attribution (i.e. how much of the change is anthropogenic).

However, in reality, we already have answers to all of their spurious arguments. Therefore, in the ongoing campaign to protect the status quo, they continue to obfuscate and confuse; and they continue to deny very clear facts regarding recent geological history (i.e. the last 35 million years) and its implication (i.e. that what we humans are now doing to the planet is significant and dangerous). For example: The average global temperature rise between the so-called Little Ice Age (sufficient for major rivers like the Hudson and Thames to freeze in the 1700s) and the mid-20th Century was less than half of one degree Celsius. Whereas, as the BEST team have very kindly now accepted, the average rise since 1960 is more than twice as much (i.e. 1 degree Celsius).

Furthermore, Hansen’s climate models, calibrated and validated as they have been (by being able to reproduce historic data and correctly predict the temporary effects of major volcanic eruptions such as that of Mt Pinatubo), indicate an overall Climate Sensitivity (i.e. the eventual temperature increase caused by a doubling of atmospheric CO2) as being between 2 and 4 Celsius (within 50 years). This means that unless humans stop burning fossil fuels very soon we are likely to cause a rise in global average temperatures resulting in conditions the Earth has not seen for 35 million years when, with CO2 at 450ppm and falling, Antarctica fist became glaciated); and from which state the Geological Society of London estimate it will take the Earth 100,000 years to recover. Therefore, if sea levels during Ice Ages were 50 to 100 metres lower than today (due to Ice being locked-up in vastly-increased ice caps), what is so crazy about assuming that sea level will rise if existing Ice Caps disappear as predicted (if not faster)?

This, then, is why I suspect James Hansen may have trouble sleeping at night. He has known all of this for at least 20 years and yet, it seems, many politicians, journalists and people are living in denial… If the truth hurts, it is not my fault; and I am not going to stop saying it.


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