Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 26, 2007

Alexander Cockburn’s “experts”

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

A modified version of Alexander Cockburn’s Nation Magazine article “The Greenhousers Strike Back, and Strike Out” has just shown up on Counterpunch. The main difference between the two articles is that Counterpunch version puts one degree of separation between our contrarian left journalist and the sleazy Frederick Seitz, who is to climatology as Judith Miller is to the subject of arms control in the Middle East.

Frederick Seitz, the Judith Miller of climatology, took money from RJ Reynolds

Patrick J. Michaels, another Cockburn expert, received money from big coal and mining

In the Nation Magazine piece, Cockburn invoked Seitz’s trashy name directly, while in the Counterpunch article, he allows one Fred Goldberg to do the dirty work. Goldberg, a Swedish scientist whose main area of expertise appears to be welding technology, accuses Bert Bolin, another Swedish scientist and former chairman of the IPCC, with suppressing counter-evidence on global warming. Cockburn cites Goldberg as follows:

Professor Fredrik Seitz, former chairman of the American Science Academy, wrote in the Wall Street Journal already the 12th of June 1996 about a major deception on global warming: “I have never before witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process than the events that led to this IPCC report.” He gave many examples of changes and redefinitions and finished by demanding that the IPCC process should be abandoned.

Had somebody subordinate to Bert Bolin within IPCC made these changes it is reasonable to think that Bert Bolin himself would correct the errors. That he has not done is why I draw the conclusion that it must be Bert Bolin himself who is responsible for the changes and no subordinate person has dared interfere with his boss.

As much as I understand Alexander trying to put a bit of distance between himself and Seitz, we are obliged to provide some background on this shady character:

The first mention of Frederick Seitz in Lexis-Nexis is a November 12, 1980 article that informs us of his inclusion on a panel of scientists that will help President Reagan “strengthen programs in military, industrial and space technology as a means of reasserting American strategic and economic supremacy.” No doubt Reagan felt that Seitz’s involvement with a pro-nuclear group Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy recommended him highly. Throughout the 1980s, Seitz would write articles to the NY Times arguing that a Chernobyl could not happen here. The irony, of course, is that Cockburn now views alarm over global warming as a conspiracy to promote nuclear energy. When he wasn’t pumping for nuclear power, Seitz was making the case for SDI.

At the end of the 1990s, Seitz switched gears and began to take up the cause that global warming was a lie. Long before the ruling class began to wake up to the fact that global warming might threaten the ability of the capitalist system to reproduce itself, the bourgeois press was using Seitz as a cudgel against the environmentalists, just as Cockburn is doing today. An April 5, 1995 Washington Post editorial titled “And Now the Good News About the Environment” cites Seitz:

Despite success, many environmentalists are still “proclaiming emergencies that do not exist,” as Easterbrook writes. Health hazards are routinely sensationalized. The “crisis” of the moment is the “greenhouse effect”: the danger that temperatures will rise because carbon dioxide (a product of carbon fuel combustion) will trap heat in the atmosphere. As Easterbrook shows, the threat may be overstated. Carbon dioxide is a tiny part of air (350 parts per million). Small shifts may not matter; or temperature changes may stay within a range that might occur naturally. A new report from the George C. Marshall Institute — headed by Frederick Seitz, former president of the National Academy of Sciences — goes further; it dismisses chances of a major global warming as “inconsequential.”

Eventually it became difficult for Seitz to exploit his past affiliations with the National Academy of Sciences, especially when current members became upset with his use of stationary that to the casual eye looked like the Academy’s. The April 22, 1998 NY Times reported:

The National Academy of Sciences has taken the extraordinary step of disassociating itself from a statement and petition circulated by one of its former presidents that attack the scientific conclusions underlying international efforts to control emissions of industrial waste gases believed to cause global warming.

The petition, which its backers say has been signed by 15,000 scientists, calls for the Government to reject the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty imposing limits on emissions of gases like carbon dioxide that was negotiated by more than 150 countries in Kyoto, Japan, last December.

The petition was accompanied by what appeared to be the report of a scientific study concluding that emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, pose no climatic threat and instead amount to “a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution.” The article was attached to a letter by Dr. Frederick Seitz, a past president of the academy and president emeritus of Rockefeller University, urging people to sign the petition and calling attention to the article.

Many atmospheric scientists and ecologists who believe global warming to be a serious threat had expressed anger and alarm over the article because it was printed in a format and type face similar to that of the academy’s own journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In his letter, Dr. Seitz, a longtime skeptic on the question of global warming, also identified himself as a past academy president.

On Monday, citing “confusion” created by the petition and the unpublished article, the Council of the Academy, its governing board, disassociated itself from them and said in a statement that the petition “does not reflect the conclusion of expert reports of the academy.”

Of course, in Alexander’s contrarian universe, this might actually bolster Seitz’s credentials since his detractors are those typical fake scientists who use those phony computer models as part of a secret plot to pave the way for nuclear power.

Seitz was never one to pass up an opportunity to make a buck. Consulting fees for his “expert” advice on global warming was supplemented by payoffs from the tobacco industry that was anxious to find a scientist friendly to their cause. In the May 2006 Vanity Fair, Mark Hertsgaard reported:

Call him the $45 million man. That’s how much money Dr. Frederick Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, helped R. J. Reynolds Industries, Inc., give away to fund medical research in the 1970s and 1980s. The research avoided the central health issue facing Reynolds—”They didn’t want us looking at the health effects of cigarette smoking,” says Seitz, who is now 94—but it nevertheless served the tobacco industry’s purposes. Throughout those years, the industry frequently ran ads in newspapers and magazines citing its multi-million-dollar research program as proof of its commitment to science—and arguing that the evidence on the health effects of smoking was mixed.

In the 1990s, Seitz began arguing that the science behind global warming was likewise inconclusive and certainly didn’t warrant imposing mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. He made his case vocally, trashing the integrity of a 1995 I.P.C.C. report on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal, signing a letter to the Clinton administration accusing it of misrepresenting the science, and authoring a paper which said that global warming and ozone depletion were exaggerated threats devised by environmentalists and unscrupulous scientists pushing a political agenda. In that same paper, Seitz asserted that secondhand smoke posed no real health risks, an opinion he repeats in our interview. “I just can’t believe it’s that bad,” he says.

I should also mention that there is one other rogue that Alexander relies on to build his case against global warming, Pat Michaels of the University of Virginia. In a December 1995 Harper’s Magazine article titled “The Heat Is On: The Warming of the World’s Climate Sparks a Blaze of Denial,” Ross Gelbspan reports:

But while the skeptics portray themselves as besieged truth-seekers fending off irresponsible environmental doomsayers, their testimony in St. Paul and elsewhere revealed the source and scope of their funding for the first time. [Pat] Michaels has received more than $115,000 over the last four years from coal and energy interests. World Climate Review, a quarterly he founded that routinely debunks climate concerns, was funded by Western Fuels. Over the last six years, either alone or with colleagues, Balling has received more than $200,000 from coal and oil interests in Great Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. Balling (along with Sherwood Idso) has also taken money from Cyprus Minerals, a mining company that has been a major funder of People for the West-a militantly anti-environmental “Wise Use” group.

In the past Alexander Cockburn would have not made common cause with anybody connected to the Wise Use movement, just as Christopher Hitchens would have avoided lining up with the CIA or the State Department. Somebody more expert in the field of abnormal psychology might have an explanation for this peculiar evolution, but I will just stick with the facts.


  1. Another well reasoned challenge from Proyect. As always, he gracefully avoids personal invective while marshaling the known information to support a reasonable, important, insufficiently understood point.

    Comment by J. Marlin — May 26, 2007 @ 7:01 pm

  2. I was happy to read your post about Seitz. I heard of him only recently from a Drudge headline.

    A tendency called Spike Online, which grew out of a group called “Living Marxism” has a similar position as Cockburn. See: http://www.spiked-online.com/

    At the Unitarian Soc today I ran into old SWP member Jim Krahn. He said he retired from his job and politics.

    I posted about Chavez and RCTV at my blog.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — May 28, 2007 @ 1:10 am

  3. Please submit to CounterPunch, the Nation, Znet, ZMag, Monthly Review, and Monthly Review Online so that it can get a wider hearing beyond your blog.

    Comment by Binh — May 29, 2007 @ 7:54 pm

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