Why Alexander Cockburn is Wrong

(c) 2007 by Barton Paul Levenson

Alexander Cockburn is unusual for a global-warming denier in that, instead of being a right-wing extremist wingnut, he is a left-wing extremist wingnut (and an anti-semite, judging by an editorial of his in The Nation magazine a few years ago, in which he concluded that "good Jews" as well as "bad Jews" were bad). He has taken up global warming denial only recently, but already he is deeply into pseudoscience and making logical errors left and right. I will quote from a recent editorial of his, pointing out some of these errors.

Cockburn writes:

In a couple of hundred years, historians will be comparing the frenzies over our supposed human contribution to global warming to the tumults at the latter end of the tenth century as the Christian millennium approached.

Actually, there's no good evidence that such a panic ever took place. The story was probably invented in the 19th century.

There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend. The greenhouse fearmongers rely entirely on unverified, crudely oversimplified computer models to finger mankind's sinful contribution.

Global warming theory doesn't depend on computer models at all. It depends on radiation physics. The theory was first proposed by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. There were no computers then.

The two lines on that graph proclaim that a whopping 30 per cent cut in man-made CO2 emissions didn't even cause a 1 ppm drop in the atmosphere's CO2.

Cockburn apparently believes that the ambient amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is somehow tied to human emissions. But in fact the whole human contribution is less than 1% of the ambient amount per year. Cockburn is saying that if you have ten gallons of gas in your car, and put in two more gallons, and then only one, the amount of gas in your car should suddenly be cut in half. He is failing at elementary algebra here, along with elementary logic. With the 30% cut in emissions, human industry was still adding to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not somehow cutting it.

Hertzberg says, water in the form of oceans, clouds, snow, ice cover and vapor "is overwhelming in the radiative and energy balance between the earth and the sun Carbon dioxide and the greenhouse gases are, by comparison, the equivalent of a few farts in a hurricane."

Hertzberg is wrong. Carbon dioxide contributes about 26% of the clear-sky greenhouse effect. Water vapor contributes about 60%. See here:

The Earth's Radiation Balance

And water is exactly that component of the earth's heat balance that the global warming computer models fail to account for.

This is just plain wrong. Every global climate model in the world accounts for the radiative effect of water vapor.

We're warmer now, because today's world is in the thaw following the last Ice Age. Ice ages correlate with changes in the solar heat we receive, all due to predictable changes in the earth's elliptic orbit round the sun, and in the earth's tilt.

If you do the matrix math to calculate the effect of Milankovic cycles on the Earth's climate, the Earth should now be COOLING. You cannot account for global warming by saying we're coming out of an ice age. We passed the peak of the interglacial 6000 years ago.

Water covers 71 per cent of the surface of the planet. As compared to the atmosphere, there's at least a hundred times more CO2 in the oceans, dissolved as carbonate. As the postglacial thaw progresses the oceans warm up, and some of the dissolved carbon emits into the atmosphere, just like fizz in soda water taken out of the fridge. "So the greenhouse global warming theory has it ass backwards," Hertzberg concludes. "It is the warming of the earth that is causing the increase of carbon dioxide and not the reverse."

Wrong again. The ocean is presently a net SINK for carbon dioxide, not a net SOURCE. It releases approximately 90 gigatons of carbon a year and absorbs 92. This is completely non-controversial in the climatology and oceanography communities. Hertzberg could have looked this up. Plus, we know the new carbon dioxide is coming from fossil fuel burning because we can identify it by its isotope ratios. The isotope signature of fossil-fuel CO2 was first detected in the ambient atmosphere by Hans Suess in 1955.

Trouble is, the human carbon footprint is of zero consequence amid these huge forces and volumes, and that's not even to mention the role of the giant reactor beneath our feet: the earth's increasingly hot molten core.

The Earth's core is not "increasingly hot," it is cooling as the radioactive elements in it decay and the fossil heat left over from the Earth's formation slowly works its way out to the surface. The geothermal contribution to climate heat is so small it can be completely ignored. It averages about 0.087 watts per square meter (Lodders and Fegley 1997, p. 128). Compare this to the 240 watts per square meter absorbed by the Earth system from the sun. Only someone completely ignorant of geophysics could think the Earth emitted enough heat to alter the climate.

And that's why Alexander Cockburn is WRONG.


Arrhenius, Svante 1896. "On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground." Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 5th Series. 41, 237-275.

Lodders, Katharina, and Fegley, Jr., Bruce 1998. The Planetary Scientist's Companion. NY: Oxford University Press.

Suess, Hans Eduard 1955. "Radiocarbon Concentration in Modern Wood." Science 122, 415-417.

Page created:11/08/2009
Last modified:  02/05/2011