Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 13, 2007

Alexander Cockburn on global warming

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

I have a dismaying sense of déjà vu reading Alexander Cockburn’s global warming articles. Around ten years ago, I and my good friend, the late Mark Jones, had an ongoing debate with one James Heartfield about these very questions. James was a militant of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain, to be distinguished from the American sect by its love of DDT, nuclear power and genetically modified crops rather than Mao’s Little Red Book. Taking some of Marx’s early writings in an extreme direction, the RCP propagandized for what amounted to better living through chemistry in their magazine LM. Nowadays, the RCP operates under the rubric of Spiked Online, where their denial of global warming dispenses with Marxism altogether and sounds much more like CNN wack job Glenn Beck.

Cockburn’s hostility to the global warming alarmists, especially Al Gore, is driven by a kind of conspiracy theory of the sort associated with vulgar Marxism. He believes that all the global warming alarms are meant basically to push nuclear energy. While I have much more respect for Alexander than I do for the 9/11 conspiracists, something tells me that there is a common methodology at work. Vast conspiracies operate in order to promote the hidden energy goals of the ruling class, whether to scare the population into supporting a war for oil or to accept nuclear power like a herd of sheep.

This involves major leaps of the imagination. Just as I always found it difficult to picture CIA agents agreeing to planes (or cruise missiles) being flown into the WTC or the Pentagon, I can’t quite get my mind around the idea that scientists are involved in a huge con job.

One of the interesting things about this global warming “debate” (this is tantamount to referring to a debate over whether HIV causes AIDS) is the infinitesimal number of participants who cross over to the opposing side after considering the data and arguments. For example, I doubt that anybody at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty is going to wind up changing their minds at this point. However, you do find a number of skeptics changing their mind. One of them is Ronald Bailey of “Reason” magazine, an outfit that is more or less the American counterpart of Spiked online. The two publications cosponsored an event at the New School about 5 years ago that amounted to a trade show for the petrochemical industry.

But Bailey has changed his mind. In an August 11, 2005 article, he stated:

Anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up. All data sets—satellite, surface, and balloon—have been pointing to rising global temperatures. In fact, they all have had upward pointing arrows for nearly a decade, but now all of the data sets are in closer agreement due to some adjustments being published in three new articles in Science today.

Returning to Cockburn’s article, there is something else that he has in common with Spiked online besides the belief that global warming is not caused by greenhouse gases. The Counterpunch publisher and the British libertarians both would prefer to challenge the Al Gore and Laurie Davids of the world than they would the Marxist ecologists, like John Bellamy Foster. When I was at the Spiked online/Reason Magazine conference, I made this point. Where were the Marxist panelists? If the debate consists solely of mainstream or “deep ecology” types on one side and pro-industry spokesman on the other, you are ignoring the sizable community of revolutionary-minded environmentalists who have developed a critique of capitalism.

Here is how Foster approaches the question. It is an alternative to both mainstream environmentalism and the kind of backhanded support to unbridled capitalist development espoused by Spiked online and Alexander Cockburn:

Most climate scientists, including Lovelock and Hansen, follow the IPCC in basing their main projections of global warming on a socioecnomic scenario described as “business as usual.” The dire trends indicated are predicated on our fundamental economic and technological developments and our basic relation to nature remaining the same. The question we need to ask then is what actually is business as usual? What can be changed and how fast? With time running out the implication is that it is necessary to alter business as usual in radical ways in order to stave off or lessen catastrophe.

Yet, the dominant solutions—those associated with the dominant ideology, i.e., the ideology of the dominant class—emphasize minimal changes in business as usual that will somehow get us off the hook. After being directed to the growing planetary threats of global warming and species extinction we are told that the answer is better gas mileage and better emissions standards, the introduction of hydrogen-powered cars, the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere, improved conservation, and voluntary cutbacks in consumption. Environmental political scientists specialize in the construction of new environmental policy regimes, embodying state and market regulations. Environmental economists talk of tradable pollution permits and the incorporation of all environmental factors into the market to ensure their efficient use. Some environmental sociologists (my own field) speak of ecological modernization: a whole panoply of green taxes, green regulations, and new green technologies, even the greening of capitalism itself. Futurists describe a new technological world in which the weight of nations on the earth is miraculously lifted as a result of digital “dematerialization” of the economy. In all of these views, however, there is one constant: the fundamental character of business as usual is hardly changed at all.

As much as I admire Alexander Cockburn’s critique of the evils of the capitalist system, it is on questions such as global warming that I find him lacking. It is understandable that a radical journalist would shy away from getting involved with full-bore Marxist analyses of the kind that Mike Davis is famous for. They would require you to be committed to a system of thinking that might seem too binding, like a pair of shoes that doesn’t fit.

In any case, I find that much of the writing that Counterpunch produces, either by its esteemed publishers, or by the stable of volunteers they rely on, is quite good. As Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon immediately after proposing marriage and learning that he was really a man, “Nobody’s perfect.”


  1. Cockburn also believes, in the same contrarian/libertarian vein as his views on Global Warming, that Peak Oil Theory is false – that somehow there’s plenty of oil being created by bacteria deep inside the Earth:


    Gold argues strongly that oil is a “renewable, primordial soup continually manufactured by the Earth under ultrahot conditions and tremendous pressures. As this substance migrates toward the surface, it is attached by bacteria, making it appear to have an organic origin dating back to the dinosaurs.” Oil, Earth’s renewable resource!

    Comment by eugene — May 14, 2007 @ 12:17 am

  2. You might be interested in checking out this article by ZNet’s Justin Podur taking on Cockburn and a couple of other leftist contrarians on the climate issue, including links to places where some of their claims are rebutted in greater technical detail.

    Comment by Scott — May 14, 2007 @ 2:43 am

  3. Actually, Cockburn does accept that there is global warming. He just doesn’t accept that human beings are responsible for it.

    Comment by Tony — May 14, 2007 @ 12:33 pm

  4. The concept of human-caused global warming has played into the preconceptions of those (mostly, but not entirely, on the left) who would like to impose a kind of asceticism on other people. These folks regard mass distribution of consumer goods as somehow wicked. There is, of course, another strain on the left that has no problem with mass consumption other than the fact that goods are unevently distributed.

    Given the environmental record of the soi-disant socialist régimes up to now, to have faith that socialism is the answer to environmental degradation requires a belief that, as Chesterton said of Christianity, true socialism hasn’t been tried yet.

    The substitution of poltiical control of the economy for market mechanisms, does not guarantee any particular outcome. A socialist régime could as easily initiate a Stakhanovite orgy of carbon emissions in the interest of industrial development as a”deep ecology” sort of austerity. Each supporter of socialism imagines a utopia that embodies his own predilections.

    Whatever choices a socialist state might make, the rejection of market mechanisms makes it likely that the choices woould be imposed inefficiently, and very likely by force.

    PS — Louis, your glass bead game is not one I choose to play, but I appreciate your movie reviews and enjoy your writing.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — May 14, 2007 @ 3:08 pm

  5. “Whatever choices a socialist state might make, the rejection of market mechanisms makes it likely that the choices woould be imposed inefficiently, and very likely by force.”

    Large-scale state- and between-state- intervention may well be the only way to forestall the coming crises in Global Warming and Peak Oil.

    As far as “by force”, I assume you were opposed to the creating of the US Interstate Highway System, constructed with tax dollars expropriated by the IRS backed up by the threat of force?

    Comment by eugene — May 14, 2007 @ 5:25 pm

  6. […] says global warming is a plot by capitalists to bring back nuclear power. Louis Proyect says that’s ludicrous, saying he sounds like 9/11 conspiracists. This involves major leaps of the imagination. Just as I […]

    Pingback by Politics in the Zeros_archi »Blog Archive » Global warming as capitalist conspiracy — May 16, 2007 @ 4:15 am

  7. It’s hard to accept that someone who is usually so right could be so wrong. In any case, most of the “solutions” I’ve heard from (bourgeois) scientists/experts/Al Gore-types don’t involve nuclear power but lobbying for more recycling, giving companies pollution credits (that they can buy and sell), or trying to make clean energy profitable. So I’m not sure what Cockburn’s beef is.

    Comment by Binh — May 16, 2007 @ 4:08 pm

  8. Cockburn is rather selective about these things, he loves the idea of climate change and peak oil as conspiracies but hates the idea of jfk/911 ones. Witness the ‘disappearing’ of bill christison and kurt nimmo over their opinions on such matters. His favourite, the largely unreconstructed and odious reaganite, Craig-Roberts must be troubling him as he flirts with the dark side.

    Comment by paul — May 22, 2007 @ 10:03 am

  9. I remain astounded at Alexander Cockburns ignorance of the vast amount of scientific evidence that anthropogenic global warming is real and an imminent danger. What is more staggering is that his arguments are similar to, and as ignorant as those of rightwingers like Rush Limbaugh. Anybody doubting that there is a vast amount of scientific evidence on the subject should checkout http://www.realclimate.org, a website and blog maintained by a group of eminent scientists actually doing research in the field. They have posted excellent refutations of all the demented, unscientific arguments that show up in Cockburn’s writing on the subject. Paid lackey’s of Exxon/Mobil publishing through rightwing “think tanks” have tried all these fallacious arguments already.

    Whatever good he is doing for progessive causes with CounterPunch has been negated by his ignorance of the scientific proof behind the theory of anthropogenic global warming. He is giving comfort and support to the energy industry and to the rightwing shockjocks that normally he opposes. Their propagand now quotes him “liberally”. (pun intended)

    Comment by Larry Saltzman — May 31, 2007 @ 12:01 am

  10. Cockburn has discovered, as have many scientists, that when one actually looks at the “vast amount of scientific evidence” (as opposed to simply invoking it like some kind of mantra) one sees mostly vague hypotheses supported by computer models that show clear signs of not converging to solutions of the underlying equations they were built on. Despite the models being tweaked by falsifying the input data (e.g., using 1%/year CO2 increase instead of the 50+year record of

    Comment by Bob Cormack — June 6, 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  11. The text from Ronald Bailey linked above only assents to global warming, not “anthropogenic global warming”. That Cockburn accepts GW, and is expressing doubt about AGW. [I just noticed that Tony makes this point above]. COCKBURN HAS BEEN DOING THIS FOR TWENTY YEARS, see the very first issues of Zeta Mag, when they still permitted Marxists to write, for some memorable discussion. I don’t follow him on this, for sure, but the fact is Cockburn’s been studying the matter for a very long time, not as a scientist obviously. That Mr Proyect is incapable of grasping even the ultra-elementary GW/AGW distinction tells us how little his attacks on Cockburn are worth.

    Comment by Michael T — June 20, 2007 @ 6:30 pm

  12. Of course I can grasp the difference between GW and AGW. GW based on water vapor, stepped up sun rays, etc. characterizes the skeptical literature. It is very hard to argue with the data, especially with the dramatic meltdown occurring at the poles. A radical version of AGW focuses on curtailing big business and timber-cutting in rainforests, etc., while the Al Gore AGW focuses on carbon credits, using fluorescent lightbulbs, driving Priuses, etc. Cockburn simply pretends that the AGW camp consists exclusively of Al Gore and company. For an example of radical AGW, I recommend:


    Comment by louisproyect — June 20, 2007 @ 6:49 pm

  13. Yes, few disagree that there is warming, but a few more of those who do agree that there is warming, think people aren’t an important cause of it, or not so far, or that we don’t really know. This is not a political position to be styled “radical” or not, it is a question of applied, predictive meteorology or climate science. Cockburn does not pretend that Gore and company are the only friends of an “anthropogenic” account of the perceived warming. On the contrary, his attack, as far as I know, began during the previous fixation of media attention on this topic twenty years ago – well before the apotheosis of Gore – and has always been on the threat that left-wingers will attach themselves to this hypothesis as the final and ultimate and best and perfect argument for socialism. Thus will the critique of capital turn on a question of meteorological fact.

    I was just reading Joshua Frank, who writes for Counterpunch, engaging in a labored attack on the moral character of the people Cockburn mentions, as “interested parties” so to say. Grasping for a big picture that will give sense to the moralistic mire he is secreted around himself, he concludes his wannabe refutation of Cockburn with the sentence:
    But if global warming serves as a gateway for people to openly criticize our global economy, and God forbid, industrial capitalism — all the better.
    That’s not quite as bad as AC might have feared, its just that I read it ten minutes ago.

    What Frank fails to notice is that after a laborious Proyectite demonstation that a non-anthropogenic account serves the interests of Hertzberg and P. Michaels and so on – thus saving himself the trouble of working through their arguments, and moreover committing himself to an unverifiable psychological hypothesis about why these people hold the views they do – a nice ‘labor saving epistemology” in a phrase Cockburn used against George “If it isn’t peer reviewed it isn’t science” Monbiot – still Frank lets slip the link between his commitment to a critique of capital and his attachment to the anthropogenic account. There is a beautiful and satisfying harmony between them. I have in fact seen this again and again over the years, and it freaks me out, the same as it does Cockburn … though not to the extent of inclining me to deny the anthropogenesis of the perceived warming!

    There is a secret satisfaction in the post-soviet left-winger’s reception of the anthropogenesis of the percieved warming. That he sees this is the true and profound basis for Cockburn’s having gone around the bend. His concern is not with Gore and company but with the souls of leftwingers, to put it a bit crudely. This is why I don’t blame him. Anyway bringing moral categories and attitudes to bear on this sort of material is too exhausting. Who cares what his private meteorology contains?

    I wonder – I’m not sure it matters – but I wonder: Suppose it turned out that the climate was warming and would continue to warm for a bit, but it really was just because of an increase in sunspots or something. And this warming would cause the seas to rise and island nations to vanish and countless species to go extinct. – But then peer-vetted top scientists convinced us that there was a really complicated technical fix available – namely taking all the fossil fuels, atomizing them, and delivering the coal dust and oil drops out to the belt where they put satellites … to shade the planet, I guess. –Would our left wing climatologists then recommend “socialism” as a way to put the Plan in place to maintain the environmental status quo, or would they say, “This is the path of Nature, it is sunspots” and let it go? Either way we have cretinism.

    Comment by Michael T — June 21, 2007 @ 6:08 am

  14. I am a computer scientist, not a climate scientist, but I tell you there is no real scientific proof of AGW, at least the catastrophic version where we will be up to our eyeballs in water.

    All things being equal, a doubling of CO2 will increase global temperature by around 1 degrees Fahrenheit (less than 1 degree C). Once CO2 has doubled, no further warming can be expected because the wavelength it absorbs will be saturated. The effects of this kind of rise in temperature would be minimal, and mostly beneficial (longer growing seasons and such).

    Predictions of large temperature increases that we hear from the IPCC are based on the output of computer models. Computer models do not count as empirical evidence because computer programs are subject to errors on many levels, and computer models that try to predict unknowns in highly complex systems like the earths atmosphere can never be definitively tested for accuracy. Also, computer models are based on abstract models which can overlook, overestimate, or underestimate many important factors. The IPCC computer climate models assume a run away water vapor feedback that will amplify the warming from CO2. This is unproven and in fact highly doubtful. It’s obvious to anyone who has half a brain that the hysteria is being driven by politics, NOT SCIENCE.

    Comment by limboaz — June 29, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

  15. AGW is non existent. I don’t agree with Cockburn about the Kennedy assasination and I see him as a phony leftist, but he is the only one on the left that is accurate about AGW. AGW has nothing to do with pollution. Oil is the second most abundant substance on earth and is not derived from fossil fuel it is a “abiotic.” The green movement is in the hands of conpanies like BP, Exxon,General Electric and Westinghouse who all stand to profit from “AGW” Furthermore the “free media” would not promote “AGW” if no one stood to profit off of it. The media are mouthpieces of State Capitalist policy. Very high caliber scientists are speaking out about the hoax of all three of these global issues.

    “HIV” is not the causative agent of Aids. The tests are completely non specific and the “anti-viral” drugs are causing symptoms of AIDS. Aids is caused by Redox. It’s an energy deficienty not “immune” deficiency. (the “immune system” is nothing but a Fata Morgana anyways) It’s well documented that Gallo, the CDC and the NIH, tools of corporate capitalist, fabricated the whole “HIV” = Aids construct. This is one of the most glaring examples of the commoditization of science to serve the moneyed interests. I would check out what Science Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis has to say about both “HIV” and AGW. http://www.healtoronto.com is a good place to start your awakening about “HIV”

    Here is Kary Mullis on “HIV” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dL3cAS3YUKM&feature=channel_video_title

    911 was a typical false flag to keep US capitalist hegemony going at a 3% compound rate. I’m a conspiracy realist If you don’t believe in conspiracy theories then maybe Michael Parenti can disabuse you of it here:

    http://arabesque911.blogspot.com/2008/06/michael-parenti-conspiracy-phobia-on.html (Conspiracy Phobia on the Left)

    Michael Parenti said “technology is in the hands of very powerful interests that gain great dvantage from it’s development” Now why in the world would this not apply to Science or “official” science?


    Kary Mullis from What Happened to the Scientific Method? “Very little experimental verification has been done to support important societal issues in the closing years of this century. Nor does it have to be done before public policy decisions are made. It only needs to be convincing to the misinformed voter. Some of the big truths voters have accepted have little or no scientific basis. And these include the belief that AIDS is caused by human immunodeficiency virus, the belief that fossil fuel emissions are causing global warming, and the belief that the release of chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere has created a hole in the ozone layer. The illusions go even deeper into our everyday lives when they follow us to the grocery store.”

    I find it strikingly odd that a Marxist like you does not see through these Capitalist hoaxes. The neo-liberal agenda hijacked science in the late 70’s on.

    Comment by Lucien — April 9, 2011 @ 10:50 am

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