The Sad Case of Alexander Cockburn

He’s one of the most respected journalists of the left – but he is also a science-denying crank who insists that global warming is a hoax.

Transcript of a Radio Ecoshock broadcast, June 18, 2007.

Published by permission of the author, Alex Smith.

When some right wing pseudo fascist nut is convicted, or discovered in the bedroom of a little boy, something inside me accepts. I want to cheer, but I don’t, because it shows we are all kind of crazy, in some way. But at least all their hurtful rants become sidelined, in the great debates of the day. Thank God, if there is one, we don’t have to listen to Jerry Falwell anymore.

When an icon of the Left falls – someone who has warned and enlightened us, it is much harder. That’s what makes it so painful to announce the virtual death of one Alexander Cockburn – or at least the passing of his credibility.

This transplanted Irish/Scottish writer has blasted malfeasance, and authoritarian violence, from the pages of CounterPunch, the Nation, and many mainstream publications. He has been chums with Noam Chomsky, and pals with many of the gonzo journalists who keep us all honest.

But now Cockburn has joined the Exxon-funded cranks, who deny that humans are heating up the planet with their pollution.

Go ahead and fill that gas guzzler, people. Don’t worry about a thing. Alexander Cockburn believes the oil is infinite. It will never run out, because all the geologists in the world are wrong. Oil wasn’t made from compressed plant life – the whole core of the Earth is filled with oil, and it will ooze out forever. He knows this because one scientist, building on theories from Stalinist Russia, says it is so. Cockburn steadfastly believes in abiotic oil, the endless supply.[www.counterpunch.org/cockburn10152005.html]

And, you don’t have to worry about global warming either. Pump up your coal plants, and gun that Hummer, baby, because humans have nothing to do with climate change. If the world is warming at all, Cockburn tells us in a series of recent articles, Nature is doing it, not us.

He knows this because he once met a man on a boat who told him – and that is enough to trump all the climate scientists. You don’t even have to believe your own eyes. Never mind the super storms, the arctic melting, the winter that never was. You can relax about all that, because Alexander Cockburn has discovered an alternative reality, a new truth, that only he, and few desperate souls on the far Left, can see.

I feel better already. Millions of Americans, Canadians, and fossil-fans everywhere, will cite the writing of Alexander Cockburn as a source. The pro-oil web sites and right-wingers like the Heartland Institute have already linked to Cockburn’s new denial literature.

Today, we mourn the credibility of one of our own, Alexander Cockburn.

I take this personally, and I’ll tell you why. In my beloved British Columbia, in this chain of mountains by the sea, huge and wondrous pine forests are dying, and already dead. From space you can see the red swaths of dead trees, mile after pitiless mile, killed off by global warming. Where winters were cold enough to kill off the pine bark beetle, suddenly they are not. And this pest is killing every pine of the Rockies, and threatens to invade the Northern Prairies as well.

We’ve lost a magnificent realm of forests, because the winters just aren’t as cold as they have been for thousands of years. I’m sad about that, and angry about the intellectual fools who spin out skimpy lies, to divert us from saving what is left of the ecosphere, as humans have known it, during our short stay here.

Former friends and admirers have tried to reason with Mr. Cockburn. UK columnist George Monbiot has pleaded for an explanation, or at least a dialogue. All that comes out is more craziness, a hole dug deeper in denial. Monbiot, and many others have given up, realizing Cockburn has become a crank, with fixated ideas that cannot be changed by reality.

Actually, Alexander Cockburn is part of a trio of new additions to the climate deniers Hall of Shame. He is assisted by two Canadian intellectuals, University Professors who are battling their own schools, and all of science. These are David Noble and Denis Rancourt – and we’ll get to them in our next radio feature. Unlike Cockburn, these academics have something worthwhile to add to the debate.

Let’s investigate the investigator, Alexander Cockburn.

Born a Scot, but raised in Ireland, Alexander Cockburn brought the rebel outsider’s view to a number of American publications. He was published in the New York Review of Books, Esquire, and Harpers.

He started a column in The Village Voice called “Press Clips” – but was kicked out in 1983. The Voice claimed he accepted, quote, “a $10,000 grant from an Arab studies organization in 1982.” Cockburn has been very critical about Israel, Zionists, and the treatment of the Palestinian people. Some Jewish writers and intellectuals call Cockburn anti-Semitic, but the label hasn’t stuck in the Left, where criticism of Israel is allowed.

Thereafter Cockburn picked up a regular column in the political paper The Nation. It was titled “Beat the Devil.” He is co-editor of an online journal called Counterpunch.

Along with Noam Chomsky, Cockburn has blasted U.S. foreign policy in Central America, and militarism generally. He roasts the leadership of the Democratic Party as too tame. In the year 2000, when he supported the Presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Cockburn and co-editor Jeffrey St. Clair brought out an anti-Gore book called Al Gore: A User’s Manual. You can buy it from Amazon for $1.26.

This loathing of Al Gore may be behind his persistent attack on the science of climate change. In his Counterpunch article May 12th, titled “Hot Air, Cold Cash, Who are the Merchants of Fear” Cockburn writes:

“The world’s best known hysteric, and self promoter on the topic of man’s physical and moral responsibility for global warming, is Al Gore, a shill for the nuclear industry, and the coal barons from the first day he stepped into Congress, entrusted with the sacred duty to protect the budgetary and regulatory interests of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Oakridge National Lab. White House ‘task forces’ on climate change in the Clinton-Gore years were always well freighted by Gore and his adviser John Holdren, with nukers like John Papay of Bechtel.”

Too bad he cited John Holdren, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a top Harvard scholar. Who doesn’t know that Holdren, unlike Cockburn, is just a dupe, with no scientific credibility? He’s just a spokesperson for those, quote, “grant-guzzling climate modelers and their Internationale, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” And they are all pawns in Al Gore’s game.

In fact, we shouldn’t be surprised by the recent series of strange articles with his one man theory climate change. Cockburn has been consistently nutty on this subject. In March 2001, Cockburn’s article in The Free Press was titled “Greenhouse Gas and Global Warming: The Great Delusion.” He finds climate change is nothing to worry about, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, are a bunch of extremist doomsters. His deep throat source is one “Pierre Sprey, former government analyst, statistical expert, and veteran of many battles over inflated eco-catastrophic predictions.”

Actually, Pierre Sprey, the climate expert, turns out to be one of Robert McNamara’s whiz kids at the Pentagon, deeply involved in the design of the F-16 fighter plane. He quit in 1986 for a new career, recording jazz music. Who couldn’t fall for those credentials?

www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/15/AR2006051501518.html

His August 23rd, 2001 “Beat the Devil” followed up with more of global warming plots, somehow cooked up by a combination of bad Democrats and, wait for it, the Bush administration. Somehow, Cockburn managed to link climate modelers to biological warfare research.

He reassures us, once again, that humans have nothing to do with climate change. We might as well fill up our gas tanks, and rev up our motors, he advises us in another column, October 15th, 2005, titled: “The Virtues of Gas Guzzling: Why I Don’t Believe in Peak Oil.” For this wild theory, Cockburn has yet another personal expert, the radio physicist Dr. Thomas Gold. Dr. Gold says oil is a renewable resource, constantly replenished by the Earth. Sadly, the dead and dying oil fields of the United States have yet to be refilled by this magical process.

So, what is Cockburn saying now?

It started with an article in Counterpunch of May 2nd, 2007 titled:
“From Papal Indulgences to Carbon Credits Is Global Warming a Sin?”

[www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=57&ItemID=12728]

He writes:

“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. Devoid of any sustaining scientific basis, carbon trafficking is powered by guilt, credulity, cynicism and greed, just like the old indulgences, though at least the latter produced beautiful monuments.”

He then goes into a pseudo-scientific supposed proof that “it is impossible to assert that the increase in atmospheric CO2 stems from human burning of fossil fuels.” Unfortunately, his array of facts is so skewed that the folks at realscience.org, who debate actual climate science, hardly know where to begin, to unravel all the errors.

Where did he get this stuff? He met a man on a boat who told him so.

He writes:

“I met Dr. Martin Hertzberg, the man who drew that graph and those conclusions, on a Nation cruise back in 2001. He remarked that while he shared many of the Nation’s editorial positions, he approved of my reservations on the issue of supposed human contributions to global warming, as outlined in columns I wrote at that time. Hertzberg was a meteorologist for three years in the U.S. Navy, an occupation which gave him a lifelong mistrust of climate modeling. Trained in chemistry and physics, a combustion research scientist for most of his career, he’s retired now in Copper Mountain, Colorado, still consulting from time to time.”

Who is this wonder scientist that confounds the experts world-over?

Hertzberg is an ex Navy man who later worked as an explosions expert for the Bureau of Mines. So he would know. He has been hired as an expert witness by Big Coal, especially when mine workers are killed by explosions. He’s been paid by the coal industry.

According to Hertzberg, and utterly believed by Cockburn, water vapor is the force melting the glaciers of the world, and wrecking outdoor ice hockey in Canada, last winter. Yes, there is much more water vapor in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Yes, water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right. But scientists know that water vapor operates in known cycles, within certain bounds, and cannot by itself force a change in the climate.

Water vapor reacts to changes in the Earth’s temperature. As the Earth heats up, the air will become generally more humid. But that increase in water vapor doesn’t cause itself. Something else changes, namely, all the industrial and agricultural pollution we pour into the atmosphere.

But wait, Cockburn has another explanation. It’s the Sun. He drags out the old idea of the Serbian physicist, Milutin Milankovitch, who proposed that tiny alterations in the Earth’s rotation are responsible for the alteration of Ice Ages and hot tropical periods. This may or may not be true, over vast ages, but it doesn’t explain the rocket-fast changes we are seeing now.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Alexander Cockburn, the newly minted authority on climate, that whole herds of scientists all over the world have carefully considered, and rejected, all these arguments. That is because, wait for it, the world scientific community is just part of a conspiracy, likely led by Al Gore, and maybe even the Jewish bankers behind everything, to fleece the gullible public, with wild stories about climate change.

These scientists, Cockburn claims, wade out into the swamps, and huddle in Antarctic huts, because they are, quote, “the beneficiaries of the $2 billion-a-year global warming grant industry”. Well, it hasn’t been much of an industry up until now. Exxon makes a billion dollars a day, and they have paid out much better money to other climate deniers like Patrick Michaels, who at least was originally a real scientist, rather than an aging political pundit.

[www.counterpunch.org/cockburn05122007.html]

When even his friends on the Left ask Cockburn for answers, all they get back is more name-calling, and even weirder claims to fringe science. Pushed to find another expert, beyond Mr. Hertzberg, Cockburn goes dumpster diving through the Net for backers from the denier camp. He finds Professor Zbigniew Jaworowski, who doubts that ice cores can tell us anything about the previous history of the atmosphere. The paper Cockburn cites was published in 21st century Science and Technology. Despite the impressive name, that isn’t a scientific journal at all, but the long-standing mouthpiece for the Lyndon Larouche organization. Larouche is the grand-daddy of conspiracy nuts, claiming the British Queen heads an international drug organization, and Jewish bankers control the world, presumably including China, India, and Japan.

As each article becomes more strident and defensive, Cockburn finds, quote, a “conspiracy of interest between the Greenhouser fearmongers and the nuclear industry”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is, for Cockburn, an “army of functionaries and grant farmers, and the merest sprinkling of actual scientists”.

Then, Cockburn cites the work of Dr. Patrick Michaels – an American scientist paid by the electricity providers, and big coal, who has fudged other people’s scientific papers, in testimony to Congress. Cockburn believes Michaels, now at the Cato Institute, rather than any of his old friends, or those international experts. We don’t need peer-reviewed scientific papers – that’s all a fixed game for suckers, Cockburn tells us. He throws around figures and isotopes, as though he is the real scientist, lately trained by what he found on the Web.

[www.counterpunch.org/cockburn06092007.html]

As evidence that peer-reviewed science is all a crock, Cockburn steers readers to Canadian University professor David Noble at climateguy.blogspot.com, and Denis Rancourt. A self proclaimed activist whose first year courses were recently dropped, Rancourt argues we can’t really know anything by science, even though he is a physics professor teaching at the University of Ottawa. More on these two will follow in a separate piece.

Cockburn’s other big source is Frederick Seitz, Chairman of the right-wing George C Marshall Institute – funded by Exxon Mobil. Seitz also worked for RJ Reynolds tobacco company, to “refute the criticisms of cigarettes”.

Anyone will do as his witness, so long as Cockburn is right, whatever he says, and you, all of you experts and fools, are wrong.

You can find all the gory details in a column by George Monbiot, published
May 31, 2007, and available either at monbiot.com, or at http://www.zmag.org/.
[http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=57&ItemID=12951

Z Magazine online has a great summary of the Cockburn articles, his two Canadian supporters, and the rebuttals from people like Michael Mann, Justin Podur, and Joshua Frank. That’s at zmag.org/debatesglobalwarming.

[www.zmag.org/debatesglobalwarming.html]
[Podur: www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=57&ItemID=12796]
[Michael Mann: www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=57&ItemID=12763]
[O’Keefe: www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=57&ItemID=13015]

Obviously, Cockburn isn’t just skating on thin ice, the heat has melted everything out from under him. He’s drowning in a ridiculous pose, thrown out, perhaps, to gain more attention. The problem is Cockburn isn’t likely being paid by Exxon, despite his past links to Arab funders. He really believes that whatever he says is true, no matter that the whole world disagrees. That, my friends, is the definition of a crank.

Following weeks of public and private requests for a bit of scientific proof to back up the Cockburn anti-warming rants, columnist George Monbiot has given up. In a June 13th article he writes:
[www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2007-06/13monbiot.cfm]

“I have now learnt that it is pointless to seek to argue with Cockburn. Because he cannot admit that he got the science wrong, he merely raises the volume and widens the scope of his attack. Resorting to grapeshot, he now invokes just about every crazy theory ever raised by those who say that manmade global warming is not happening. It would require an entire website to answer them all. Happily, it already exists – http://www.realclimate.org/ – and, over the years, it has dealt with every new issue he raises, drawing on peer-reviewed papers. But Cockburn will not read these refutations. He has answered none of his critics; he has not even listened to them. For this reason, this will be my last posting in this debate.”I sign off with sadness. I have followed Alexander Cockburn’s writing for many years and I have admired it. His has been an important and persuasive voice on many progressive issues. But I can no longer trust it. I realize that he is blinded by a conviction that he remains right whatever the facts might say. In his determination to admit nothing, he will cling to any straw, including the craziest fulminations of the ultra-right, and he will abandon the rigor and skepticism that once informed his journalism. I feel this as a loss. I am sure I am not the only one.”

Really, I think Alexander Cockburn wrote his own virtual obituary in one of his own columns – this one skewering those who think the Bush administration knew, or benefited from, the 9/11 attacks on America. He speaks of theologian David Ray Griffin as the “high priest” of “conspiracy nuts” whose cult members “disdain all answers but their own.”

Sadly, that is a fitting self-description of this one-time icon, now floundering on the edge, and grabbing for any right-wing supporter he can find. Is Alexander Cockburn falling down the well-oiled slope that took Christopher Hitchens, and former comedian Dennis Miller, into the super-patriotic Camp of Bush supporters?

These pundits always fall to the Right, because that is where the real power, and money, lives.

How strange that a man who began in the 1980’s with a book on wrecking the Amazon Rainforest, now uses his mind and pen to paste over the climatic death of forests right here in North America. It is not Al Gore who issues Papal Indulgences for carbon sins, but Alexander Cockburn.

We need some kind of clinic to bring these old-time intellectuals back to reality, where droughts,floods, and heat determine people’s lives. A kind of Betty Ford clinic for all those pundits who made a buck, or re-stimulated a failing career, by denying the obvious truth.

I’m Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock. Find my weekly radio show on various college and community radio stations, or download it from our website at ecoshock.org.


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