Coss-posted on Biodiversivist

This review follows on the heels of what the media has dubbed climtategate–a textbook example of how to make a mountain out of a mole hill. A few weeks prior to that brouhaha, the media was awash with reports that the world is actually cooling, which upon closer inspection also amounted to nothing. Sticking with mole analogies, correcting the disinformation perpetuated by those who seek to discredit climate research has become a perpetual game of Whac-A-Mole.

The book does a very thorough job of documenting the history of sometimes despicable attempts by various vested interests and contrarians to discredit climate science. There is no doubt which side holds the science high-ground on this issue and after reading this book there should be little doubt which side holds the moral high-ground.

It gets off to a slow start but hang in there. It gets better, ending with a bang. It is not a neutral perspective of the pros and cons of the global warming debate. This is a detailed, no holds barred account of the people who work to discredit climate science and the methods they use to do it.

The authors begin with a critique of octogenarian Freeman Dyson, the world’s most notable global warming skeptic. Dyson is in a class of his own and does not deserve to be lumped in with the usual ignoramuses, cranks, and conspiracy theorists. I suspect his mention at the front of the book was one of those last minute edit jobs in response to a NYT article about Dyson’s skepticism just prior to the book’s release. Climategate, the latest global cooling farce, and Dyson’s skepticism are all examples suggesting that an updated version of this book a year from now might be twice as long.

Dyson is an icon in the world of science and scientists don’t like it when anyone takes a pot shot at one of their heroes. Dyson is by all accounts a genius. He probably thinks people who use calculators are sissies. Back in the seventies, Dyson published a paper which calculated that we could stabilize carbon in the atmosphere by simply planting a trillion or so fast growing trees.

Intellectually speaking, I am but a speck of dirt on the bottom of one of Dyson’s shoes, but people who once proved brilliant in their field of expertise rarely prove to be quite so brilliant in unrelated fields, like climatology. Michael Jordon comes to mind.

Some climate models suggest that planting trees in the upper latitudes would have a warming effect because they would reduce reflectivity of snow on the ground. If true, this is an example of how humanity has already reached some points of no return. Out of curiosity, I just fired up a spreadsheet to calculate how much land mass a trillion trees would cover spaced at five foot intervals. Dyson could probably do this in his head. Maybe I have a decimal point in the wrong place but according to my calculations they would cover the Earth’s landmass dozens of times over.

The following was found in a publication describing a lecture Dyson gave in 2006:

“He had useful advice for his home planet, but he also puts most of his hope in the colonization of space and a future beyond our atmosphere. In outer space, he believes, there will again be speciation in the Darwinian sense.”

Following are some quotes from a NYT article:

“Forty years ago it was fashionable to worry about the coming ice age. Better to attack the real problems like the extinction of species and overfishing. There are so many practical measures we could take”

“I’m still perfectly happy if you buy me a Prius!” Imme [his wife]  said.

“It’s toys for the rich,” her husband smiled, and then they were arguing about windmills.”

1) The ice age hypothesis was short lived, not widely accepted, and blown out of proportion by a lay media looking for sensationalist headlines, as always.

2) If we attacked all of the world’s problems (like overfishing and species extinction) linearly (one at a time) instead of in parallel, the sun would go dead before we got to the end of the list.

3) A Prius is not a toy for the rich.

Dyson is also a big proponent of solar power, so, go figure.

Skepticism is one of the keystones of science and anyone who wasn’t skeptical when they first heard about global warming should contact me so I can sell them some land in Florida. Likewise, the word skeptic might be appropriate for those who have been living in caves for the last decade and have just caught wind of the concept, but what do you call someone who refuses to move to the next stage regardless of the evidence?

The word denier was used 36 times in this book. Denial is also the first stage listed in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ book, “On Death and Dying.” (see the Wikipedia article on the Kubler-Ross model). Denial is the overarching reason for a belief in an afterlife. Acceptance of the results of decades of global warming research is not by any means tantamount to accepting one’s eventual demise, but the potential ramifications of global warming appear to be enough to send many people scurrying for their ostrich holes.

Much of the denial we see is probably related to the potential ravages of global warming. If the research results were suggesting that global warming has little potential and would have little impact, I doubt there would be any debate at all.

Few of us will live an entire life without facing situations that we find so threatening that we deny they are true, at least at first. Coping mechanisms help us deal with unpleasant realities until we can gather ourselves and face them, or not. But some people have become very adept, maybe too adept, at capturing the anxiety relief denial can provide especially when doing so will not have a negative impact on their daily lives. They have a hair-trigger reality switch that has been honed to a shine by repeated use, and few people who do it are consciously aware that they do it because awareness would deactivate the switch.

We of course pick and choose our denials. You could deny that walking in front of a speeding bus is dangerous but you would also be taking a big personal risk. Unlike some forms of denial, denying the potential ramifications of global warming entails no physical danger to the denier, only anxiety relief. It is custom-made for using denial as a coping mechanism. However, a prolonged and collective denial by enough people may have an impact on our children’s and grandchildren’s lives by radically altering the world they will live on. Collective, self-reinforcing denial may have been what brought the Easter Island civilization down.

There are plenty of other reasons not to accept the findings of decades of global warming science. You may just be ignorant or misinformed, or have a contrarian personality disorder that is not constrained by logic and evidence (conspiracy theorists fall into this group), but whatever reasons you have, they are not backed by science, regardless of what you may have told yourself to the contrary.

[Update 12/06/09]

An earlier review by Roberts can be found here on Grist. Denier debunking is like trying to kill zombies that won’t stay killed.

Half of the review on the Guilty Planet blog is spent
criticizing the authors for critiquing Dyson. She thinks that Dyson is qualified to critique climate science because of the “book” he wrote about using trees to absorb carbon back in 1977. I commented on the blog pointing out that he had not written a book, but had only published a paper. She didn’t publish my comment, but I see she corrected that part about him publishing a book on the subject:

…the first entry that pops up is his 1977 [book] paper published in the journal Energy titled: “Can we control carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”.

In a book [Climate Cover-up] that lauds accuracy so loudly, a misstep such as this so early on can be fatal …

… Dyson is probably a bad early target for Hoggan, who should have stuck to the corporations (worthy of his energy), rather than making false claims about a venerable scientist. Climate Cover-Up recovers from this slip up but, as the old African proverb goes, one falsehood can spoil a thousand truths.

Spare me.

And take the time to click on this video (found on Pharyngula):

and if that was not enough, watch birth of yet another Climate Croc: