Reviewed 11/20/2007

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism, by Christopher Horner

Access to this book courtesy of the
Santa Clara, CA City Public Library
Christopher Horner
Washington, DC: Regnery, 2007




ISBN-10 0-8070-8572-3 350pp. SC/GSI $19.95

This is a Denier on science

The result most frequently cited as a flaw in the theory that humankind contributes significantly to the current warming of Earth is the plot of reconstructed temperatures known as the "Hockey Stick Graph." Jerry Mahlman of NOAA so nicknamed this graph of global mean temperatures since the year 1000 CE because its relative flatness across most of that period, followed by a sharp upturn after 1900, to him resembled an actual hockey stick with its shaft laid horizontal and the blade sticking up.

It is probably the objection at the top of Deniers' lists. (See the sidebar at right for my comments on their other common claims.)

Horner devotes considerable space to attacking this graph, so it seems logical to examine his attack in greater detail.

The Hockey Stick Controversy

Informally known as MBH98, the graph is the work of Mann, Bradley and Hughes, with climatologist Michael Mann being the principal author and as such bearing the brunt of criticism. That criticism began with former mining executive Stephen McIntyre and economist Ross McKitrick. They contended in a 2003 paper that the 20th-century upward spike in temperature was due to flawed methodology, and further that this methodology would produce a similar plot if operated on sets of random data. Mann, Bradley and Hughes published a followup paper in 2004, acknowledging and correcting a number of mistakes but saying their initial reconstruction was not substantially changed.

As a result of the controversy, the U.S. Congress tasked the National Research Council (NRC) of the United States National Academy of Sciences (NAS) with investigating the MBH98 reconstruction. The NRC convened a panel of twelve scientists from various disciplines. Their report, published in 2006, states that "global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries." It also observes that a number of independent analyses have confirmed the 20th-century portion of the MBH98 plot.

A second investigation was undertaken at the behest of Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX), then chairman of the House Science and Commerce Subcommittee, and an ardent skeptic of global warming — second only to Sen. James Inhofe in the Congress in his denunciation of the idea that human activities affect the climate. This investigation was conducted by a team of statisticians led by Edward Wegman, chair of the NAS Committee on Applied and Theoretical Statistics. This team analyzed the statistical methods used in MBH98. It also considered the funding sources Mann, Bradley and Hughes used for their work, the agreements governing that funding, their curricula vitae, and their professional relationships with other scientists. This is not your typical review of a scientific paper; indeed, in my opinion it's arguable that it more closely resembles a criminal investigation.1

It's also noteworthy that, while the Wegman Report does an in-depth analysis of the methods used in MBH98 and even provides an appendix on "The Mathematical Underpinnings of PCA" (Principal Component Analysis), its conclusions and recommendations do not address any mistakes made by Mann et. al. Rather, its conclusions and recommendations flow from the social-networking section of the report. Briefly stated, those conclusions are that Mann and his co-authors were too insular in their collaborations, too secretive about their data and source code, and that they should not have participated in writing the third IPCC assessment.

Horner is correct in saying that the NRC panel did not confirm the MBH98 conclusions that 1998 was the hottest year of the last millennium and that the decade of the 1990s was hotter than any other decade in the last 1,000 years. It merely found these conclusions "plausible." Now, "plausible" is an interesting word. In a political context ("plausible deniability"), it connotes a subterfuge: someone who actually knows about an event can probably get away with saying he doesn't know about it. However, it has a different connotation in science.2 It means that there is no scientific evidence against the conclusion.

In addition to misunderstanding this meaning of "plausible", Horner ignores the other conclusion of the NRC panel: namely that they agreed the last few decades of the 20th century are the warmest in the past 400 years. So on this point I have to give Horner a "close, but no cigar" — and we're not playing horseshoes here.

The truth is that the National Academy of Sciences report, Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, did not invalidate Mann's work. A pre-publication version, released on 22 June 2006, supports Mann's general assertion that the last decades of the Twentieth Century were warmer than any time since 1600.3

But you'd never learn this from reading the 13 pages Horner devotes to demolishing the Hockey Stick. He quotes selectively from the several followup studies, ending by saying that the National Academy of Sciences panel "inescapably indicted the Hockey Stick, the UN IPCC, and the Mann team itself." In addition, he laces his treatment with sarcastic comments like "This dodginess was sufficient that a full-blown controversy ensued, thanks only to M&M's persistence and willingness to subject themselves to the Kyoto establishment's nastiness." (page 126)

(Inasmuch as this took place within the U.S., which is not a signatory to Kyoto, and under the aegis of the Bush administration, it is hard to understand how the so-called "Kyoto establishment" got away with it. But, according to GW skeptics, they have a mysteriously potent ability to silence opposition.)

In short, Horner vastly overplays his hand. He quotes selectively from the several followup studies of the Hockey Stick, most of which were generally supportive. The bottom line is that these followups did find errors in MBH98, but concluded that they had only a small effect on the shape of the 20th-century temperature spike.

Can't beat that with a hockey stick

In addition to using most of the standard Denier arguments I list in the sidebar, Horner comes up with a few of his own. One is to conflate indoor and outdoor pollution:

Consider asthma cases, which are going up despite air pollutants going way, way down. One could draw many inferences from this set of data, but certainly not that air pollution is the culprit; indeed it is more reasonable (though certainly unscientific) to conclude even that declining pollution causes asthma. The regulator's instinctive response, however, is the one we now see occurring, which is to twist the data and squander billions more to expand regulatory fiefdoms.

– Page 44

Horner's problem here is the implicit assumption that air pollution is one single thing. I don't know what's causing the number of asthma cases to rise. I can, however, see that it might be due to indoor air pollution. Other known causes include pets, pollen, dust mites, bananas, and anything with latex: balls, rubber bands, pencil erasers, even rugs.4 This has nothing to do with the kind of air pollution he's referring to. That's outdoor pollution, and — unlike indoor pollution — is subject to federal regulation. It's the regulation he's fighting, as in this next ploy:

As luck or design has it, many environmental regimes, including Kyoto and its progeny, set technically impossible standards and goals, which protects against the risk that industry might actually meet the standards and free themselves from the regulatory reach of the bureaucrats.

– Page 45

Kyoto merely sets percentage reductions in overall CO2 emissions. If these reductions are technically impossible to achieve, what reason does Horner have to hope that industry might meet them on its own? None, of course. But he's on message, hewing to the party line: regulation bad, voluntary compliance good. Too bad the big emitters of CO2 — electric-power utilities — never do much in the way of voluntary compliance.5

Of course, Horner also brings up the matter of how costly prevention measures will be, claiming as usual that they will inevitably bankrupt the world.6 Finally, he trots out the old, tired argument that, while "alarmists" won't shut up about the way the government is preventing them from speaking out, it is actually the skeptics who are being suppressed. Here's what he says about James Hansen, his third whipping boy.

Hansen's shrill cries conjure a picture of Climate Cassandras having mouths stuffed with socks and wrapped with duct tape, crammed into the trunk of an old Buick en route to the Jersey Meadowlands. This is mostly incorrect. In truth, those whose voices have been run out of the debate through one form or another hail from the more sober, "look before you leap" school, and it is the cuddly environmentalists' global warming goons who lord over [sic] an unwritten speech code, which must be enforced in order to maintain the consensus.

– Page 95

The bottom line is that this is all time-tested political tactics. It's high time we thrust it aside and got on with doing something about the real problem of global climate change.

1 A new development is that substantial plagiarism has been found in the Wegman Report. Investigation at his employer, George Mason University, is ongoing. See last link below for more information.
2 Just as consensus in science does not mean coerced agreement with a barely palatable theory, but rather a widespread recognition that the theory best explains a set of observations.
3 The NAS report is now available online: Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years
4 "Most experts agree that typical indoor allergens such as cockroaches, pets, dust mites, and second-hand smoke are largely responsible for the spike in asthma incidence. There also may be a genetic component, says Jack Becker, MD, chief of asthma, allergy, and immunology at Temple University Children's Medical Center in Philadelphia." Asthma Cases on the Rise
5 Actually, that's not strictly true. Many small businesses are going green in various ways. Among large corporations, British Petroleum (BP) is noteworthy for beginning early planning for a shift to clean energy sources. As such, it is one of the companies Horner blasts for being "responsible" — a code word, in his eyes, for defaulting on its responsibility to the stockholders. He spends three pages on BP (pages 199-201) and mentions it in four other places. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil gets a single brief mention on page 201 as the victim of a college professor; and the Exxon Valdez appears only on page 188 where Horner derides the film Waterworld for showing it and its captain Joseph Hazelwood. And the only thing Horner thinks Enron did wrong, apparently, was to support Kyoto.
6 The U.S. Chamber of Commerce surveyed 600 businesses in September (reported 16 October 2007.) It found that although 60% of private companies worry about compliance costs, 56% of them think the government ought to do more to reduce global warming.

Sources of more information

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