Hansen v. Cockburn in the The Nation, With Nothing at Stake

The global warming debate goes nowhere in this slow-motion battle of wits.

The folks at The Nation offer readers an intriguing new punch-counterpunch this month. The current online issue includes a short essay by Dr. James Hansen, the politically engaged climate scientist who first explained global warming to Congress in 1988, that delivers Hansen’s usual fix-it list for avoiding the worst predicted impacts of man-made climate change. Next week comes something of a response from Alexander Cockburn, the truculent journalist who has been picking fights in print for at least that long, which argues that there is “zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend.”

Neither article, by itself, is groundbreaking in any way. Hansen’s list is generic and Cockburn is wrong. But there is a likeable tension in their collocation that has not existed on news pages in some months.

The problem (in fact it’s really the opposite of a problem) is that there has been a perceptible shift in the climate-change debate in the wake of this year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the mitigation chapter of which was released on Friday) and the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency must revisit greenhouse gas emissions. That change is hard to measure, but it is reflected in newspapers and magazines that have devoted increasingly large chunks of real estate to environmental issues. Where climate is concerned, optimism about our ability to correct our mistakes is pushing skepticism off the page. This is not to say that contrarian opinions are unavailable to readers (see New York Post), or that opposing views are not juxtaposed in the press (see The Wall Street Journal). But the global warming debate has matured, focusing now on specific aspects of climate science, mitigation, and adaptability.

Perhaps that is why Hansen and Cockburn’s showdown in The Nation is so compelling—it carries the stench of a dead horse.

Hansen’s essay, with its five-point list of climate recommendations, is very much in vogue for science writers, but it badly needs elaboration. The list includes: a moratorium on coal-fired power plants, a price on emissions, national energy-efficiency standards, polar ice sheet sustainability measures, and greater communication between scientists and the public. These are all worthy suggestions, but ones that have been discussed in much more detail (sometimes by Hansen himself) in other publications. The most unique and practical item is a call for Congress to direct the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an ice sheet study in advance of the IPCC.

Cockburn’s essay, meanwhile, forsakes novelty entirely. Even his opening paragraph, which likens carbon offsets to papal indulgences, is borrowed, having appeared last Sunday on the cover of The New York Times’ Week in Review. Rebutting the remainder of Cockburn’s pseudo-scientific argument is unnecessary (a fine job was done by The Plank), except to say that he relies on two well-refuted arguments that climate-change skeptics have leaned on for years—one concerns the apparent lead-lag contradiction between temperature and atmospheric carbon in the climate record, and the other is about a perceived lack of scientific consideration for water vapor’s influence on climate. Indeed, Cockburn hangs his argument on a single scientist who has some meteorological training, but actually specializes in explosives.

It is not necessary to agree with either Hansen or Cockburn to recognize that their arguments are bland and weathered, respectively. It’s not that Hansen and Cockburn are na├»ve—even a year ago their essays would have seemed more novel and momentous contributions to the climate debate. But that was a year ago. Now their offerings are a reminder of how much the global warming discussion has changed in a short period of time. Together, Hansen and Cockburn’s work harkens back to the sort of no-more-coal/burn-it-all pugilism that existed on op-ed pages when most people were still trying to figure out whether or not the planet was actually warming, let alone what to do about it.

Eventually, readers will see fewer and fewer of these essays. Hansen’s side will refocus on the agonizing details of exactly what it will take to mitigate climate change. Cockburn’s side will attempt to controvert the more specific facets of climate science, such as hurricanes, Saharan dust, and cloud formation. But it’s important to remember how the language and tone of the debate have evolved.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.