Archive for the 'Peter Gleick' Category

The Heartland Institute Memos

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

I haven’t posted about this yet, though I’ve been following it from the get-go (obviously). But at this point it’s made the jump to mainstream news, so here goes. From the the NYT: Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science:

Leaked documents suggest that an organization known for attacking climate science is planning a new push to undermine the teaching of global warming in public schools, the latest indication that climate change is becoming a part of the nation’s culture wars.

The documents, from a nonprofit organization in Chicago called the Heartland Institute, outline plans to promote a curriculum that would cast doubt on the scientific finding that fossil fuel emissions endanger the long-term welfare of the planet. “Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective,” one document said.

The documents first appeared on anti-denialist blogs after reportedly being emailed to the blogs’ operators by someone going by the name of “Heartland Insider”. The Heartland Institute itself, after taking a day to prepare a response, is now saying that the documents were obtained by a social-engineering hack in which someone phoned them, identified himself or herself as a donor with a recently-changed email address, and requested that the documents be emailed to the new address. For myself, I think it’s quite credible both that someone would have used that approach and that Heartland would have fallen for it. That’s social engineering 101.

One of the documents, a two-page memo headed “Confidential Memo: 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy, has been described by Heartland as “a total fake”, though presumably the rest of the 100-page release is legitimate.

The question of whether the strategy memo is, in fact, a fake, is interesting to me. It certainly seems possible. The document has PDF metadata that differs from that of the other documents, indicating that it was created via a different process and at a different time. Of course, that information was visible to Heartland as well as everyone else once the documents were published, which means Heartland had time to notice and (perhaps) craft the “total fake” line as a way of trying to muddy the waters. Or it could be true that that document was indeed a fake, added to the mix by the leaker in an effort to distill some of the juicier tidbits from the rest of the documents (with which the strategy memo is more or less consistent) into a more readily-digestible format.

I think I’m inclined to go with Heartland on this part of the story, mostly because the claim that the memo is a fake raises the stakes. If the memo is legitimate, then presumably others among Heartland’s board and donors have copies of it as well, which means it would only take one of them to blow the whistle on the Institute’s lie. I wouldn’t put it past Heartland to take that risk, but the benefits of disowning that one document don’t really seem worth it to me. It’s easier for me to think that the malicious hacker who leaked the memos (who was already running a significant criminal risk as a result of the social engineering, assuming that part of Heartland’s story is true), was willing to try to juice the news value of the story via the additional fabrication.

That still leaves the rest of the damning information untouched, though. It’s not like it’s really news that prominent voices in the denialist community have been quietly getting money from Heartland (Craig Idso, $11,600 per month; Fred Singer, $5,000 per month, etc.), but it still puts the discussion on a different level to have the numbers from Heartland’s own budget. And there’s this (from the NYT article):

Heartland’s latest idea, the documents say, is a plan to create a curriculum for public schools intended to cast doubt on mainstream climate science and budgeted at $200,000 this year. The curriculum would claim, for instance, that “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy.”

I loved the Times’ response:

It is in fact not a scientific controversy. The vast majority of climate scientists say that emissions generated by humans are changing the climate and putting the planet at long-term risk, although they are uncertain about the exact magnitude of that risk. Whether and how to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases has become a major political controversy in the United States, however.

This is from a straight news story, people. Damn those pesky facts, with their well-known liberal bias. Kudos to the Times and its reporters for resisting the journalistically lazy practice of granting false equivalence to both “sides” of a scientific “controversy” that is not, in fact, scientifically controversial.

Moving on, I suspect this is the part that is most worrisome for Heartland:

The documents raise questions about whether the group has undertaken partisan political activities, a potential violation of federal tax law governing nonprofit groups. For instance, the documents outline “Operation Angry Badger,” a plan to spend $612,000 to influence the outcome of recall elections and related fights this year in Wisconsin over the role of public-sector unions.

Tax lawyers said Wednesday that tax-exempt groups were allowed to undertake some types of lobbying and political education, but that because they are subsidized by taxpayers, they are prohibited from direct involvement in political campaigns.

For them to lose their tax-exempt status for engaging in political activity would definitely hurt them (while helping the rest of humanity). So I’ll keep my fingers crossed on that part.

More commentary:

On to the comments. Unleash the hounds!

Update: Megan McCardle in The Atlantic makes a fairly convincing case for the strategy memo being, in fact, fake: Leaked Docs From Heartland Institute Cause a Stir—but Is One a Fake? She points out several things I hadn’t noticed in my quick read-through of the whole packet, but which seem in hindsight to be strongly suggestive of fakery by an ideological opponent of Heartland. Also, she updates the posting with an observation that comes close to being a smoking gun: The mischaracterization of Koch’s funding in the strategy memo (but only in the strategy memo), as being for anti-global-warming advocacy, rather than for healthcare advocacy, as seems to be the case based on the legitimate documents.

Skeptical Science on Vahrenholt’s Interview in Spiegel

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Craig seems to have fallen in with the anti-global-warming tinfoil-hat crowd, which is kind of disappointing; I’d always thought he was smarter than that. I guess it’s an indication that as long as you’re willing to consume garbage as input, your output will suffer accordingly.

Craig describes Fritz Vahrenholt as “a significant German warmist-turned-skeptic”; later Craig comments that “a warmist representative who has seen an advance copy of the book, says a ‘number’ of the issues brought up have been ‘refuted’.”

Digression: This term “warmist” bugs me. The implication is that there’s an unreasoning element advancing a nefarious global warming conspiracy. I’ll accept that there’s room for legitimate debate in terms of the policy response to global warming, and I think it’s likely that the actually-criminal tactics of the conspirators on the anti-science side (and, admittedly, the success of those tactics in influencing the public debate) have induced a bunker mentality and more rigid positions from those arguing for warming-aware policies. But to characterize those who accept reality on climate science as “warmists” is to engage in a false equivalence. Setting policy responses to one side, there’s an objective reality in terms of the underlying facts of the matter as determined by science, and the denialism worthy of an “ist” suffix is almost entirely on the anti-warming side. Also, putting “number” and “refuted” in scare quotes is misleading; there are indeed a number of obvious problems with Vahrenholt’s arguments, and those arguments have indeed been refuted.

Anyway, in response to hype that the Spiegel item apparently has been getting recently from the anti-warming conspiracists, Skeptical Science pointed to a previous debunking they did: Fritz Vahrenholt – Duped on Climate Change.

Let’s begin with the book’s authors. Who are they, what expertise do they have, and what possible motive might they have to distort the science?

German electric utility executive Fritz Vahrenholt is co-author (along with geologist Sebastian Lüning) of a book expressing “skepticism” regarding the human contribution to global warming, which predictably has been trumpeted by the usual climate denial enablers. Why should we particularly care what Vahrenholt thinks about climate science? That is something of a mystery – he has a PhD in chemistry and has worked in the energy sector for Shell Oil and wind turbine maker RePower. Vahrenholt and Lüning both currently work for RWE Innogy, Germany’s second-largest energy company (Vahrenholt as a manager, Lüning as a scientist in its oil and gas division).

Vahrenholt admits he has no expertise in climate science, but apparently his status as “Germany’s Top Environmentalist” (a title which Vahrenholt appears to have been awarded just recently by anti-climate think tanks and denialists) and his climate “skepticism” are sufficient for some people to take his climate claims seriously.

Sigh. The credentials of the authors suggest what we’re in for: a Gish gallop of misleading claims about what climate science says from people whose livelihoods depend on getting the science wrong. SkS does the dirty work of going through Vahrenholt’s claims from the interview, knocking them down one by one:

  • Vahrenholt claim: WARNING: BULLSHIT: “The long version of the IPCC report does mention natural causes of climate change, like the sun and oscillating ocean currents. But they no longer appear in the summary for politicians. They were simply edited out.” In fact, as SkS points out, there are many prominent mentions of natural causes of climate change in the report’s summary for politicians. They quote five passages and reprint two prominent figures as examples.
  • Vahrenholt claim: WARNING: BULLSHIT: “It hasn’t gotten any warmer on this planet in almost 14 years, despite continued increases in CO2 emissions. Established climate science has to come up with an answer to that.” Except that it has gotten warmer, though on short time scales that warming is hidden in land-based measurements by the noisy oscillations resulting from land-ocean heat exchange. “And of course,” continues SkS, “there’s the fact that the odd timeframe choice of 14 years conveniently begins at the peak of the strongest El Niño in a century (a.k.a. cherrypicking of short-term data).” See the “down the up escalator” graphic I ran recently, or any of numerous “hockey stick” graphs produced using various methods by various independent research teams over the last few decades, demonstrating that recent warming is an anomaly unrivaled in the past 800,000 years.

The SkS piece goes on to point out Vahrenholt misstatements on solar radiation, galactic cosmic rays, and research on cloud formation at CERN. In each case, SkS gives links to supporting information on the actual science that refutes Vahrenholt’s claims.

I find it hard to escape the conclusion that Vahrenholt is a hack, someone willing to blatantly distort and mislead as part of a disinformation campaign aimed at confusing the public about the facts uncovered by scientists.

Gleick on Cherrypicked Climate Trends

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Not to beat a dead horse, but here’s a nice piece from Peter Gleick in Forbes about how deniers cherrypick data in their effort to show that the climate isn’t warming: “Global Warming Has Stopped”? How to Fool People Using “Cherry-Picked” Climate Data.

The current favorite argument of those who argue that climate changes isn’t happening, or a problem, or worth dealing with, is that global warming has stopped. Therefore (they conclude) scientists must be wrong when they say that climate change is caused by humans, worsening, and ultimately a serious environmental problem that must be addressed by policy makers.

The problem with this argument is that it is false: global warming has not stopped and those who repeat this claim over and over are either lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth.

So, deniers, which is it: Are you lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth? There really aren’t any other options.

BS and Anti-BS

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Kevin Drum talks today about the inherent silliness of people spouting bullshit economic theories, and other people debunking it, and how the whole process just goes on forever without actually getting anywhere. But he thinks it’s still necessary: Fighting the bullshit.

So sure, it’s kabuki. All of us who write about politics for a living understand that 90% (at least) of what we do is just shadow boxing. Controversies are invented, then debunked, then invented all over again, and debunked. Sometimes the inventors know perfectly well what they’re doing, while other times they’ve talked themselves into actually believing their own nonsense. In either case, these things are mostly just proxies for the issues that really matter.

But so what? The Reichstag fire was wholly invented too, and look what happened after that. As demeaning as it is, fighting back against bullshit is every bit as important as fighting back against the real stuff.

I think I was on-board with Mr. Drum all the way up to the last sentence, at which point I balked. “Every bit as important”? Really? I’m not convinced of that.

Which isn’t to say that fighting back against bullshit isn’t important. Case in point, the recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece claiming global warming is a sham. It’s exceedingly dishonest, and worthy of being fought back against. But is fighting back against it as important as fighting against the real stuff? I think maybe it’s only 38% as important. The real stuff, after all, is real.

Anyway, I know from The Debunking Handbook that I’m at risk of reinforcing the bullshit in your minds just by mentioning it, but so be it. I think that ship has already sailed, as least as far as is concerned. I’ll try to prominently flag it, at least, as they recommend.

For what it’s worth, then, here’s the (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS BULLSHIT!!) original WSJ opinion piece:

And here is the first in an ongoing batch of reasonable, well-informed, honest debunkings to fill the hole in your brain left by the removal of the previous bullshit. NOTE: NON-BULLSHIT: