Climate Mammoth

10 04 2010

Former French science minister Claude Allègre is perhaps the most prominent global warming skeptic in my homeland. He is one of the few to have scientific credentials – but unfortunately, not in the right kind of science. Allègre is a specialist in what is called high temperature geochemisty, where he was noted (and decorated) for his celebrated work on the age of the Earth, for instance. No doubt Allègre knows his stuff, as attested by his publication record and numerous medals. Unfortunately, his climate credentials are a little thinner, which is a problem when you start publishing several books essentially calling the entire climate science community a bunch of idiots, or worse – mobsters.  His latest outcry (L’imposture Climatique, “Climate Fraud) has upset so many of my colleagues that a  petition was doing the e-rounds this week, in which the French climate science community is asking current Minsiter Valérie Pécresse  to hold an objective and fair debate at the Académie des Sciences. The full story is here ,and the debate looks like it will indeed happen soon.

Why is such a debate necessary? Well, Allègre is known to be a bully, and got famous as a minister for calling the French educational system a “mammoth” that needed to lose some fat. Needless to say, this phraseology and a legendary lack of tact (his temper literally got him defenestrated at a political rally in 1968, which old timer French professors always liked to joke about),  did little to garner support in favor of  his policies, no matter how necessary they might have been. Still, I’m not one to cast the first stone when it comes to dealing untactfully with opponents, so why should I even mention this?

The problem is that Allègre and his long-time colleague  Vincent Courtillot have used their clout at the Académie (of which they are  bona fide members) to organize  some fake debates on the issue, where they failed to invite people who know anything about climate, or censoring their response. So the people who do know about climate understanbly felt  left out, and would like a seat in the debate. This would just be petty academic disputes, if it weren’t for the fact that the French media seem very hungry for Allègre’s presence. This is apparently as much because of his aggressive communication style (which always makes for a heated debate, therefore a healthy amount of  prime time drama during news hour) than for his current position in this fake debate. I say current because apparently, he wrote 20 years ago in a book (Clés pour la géologie) “By burning fossil fuels, man increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which, for example, has raised the global mean temperature by half a degree in the last century”. Now the tone has changed drastically: we hear the familiar refrain that warming is barely discernible or, when it is (for example, in the melting of the snowcap of Mt  Kilimanjaro), that this is simply due to “natural causes”. A strange feeling of déjà vu?

As usual with climate skepticism, we have to go beyond personal motivations and analyze the arguments in their own right. This was done masterfully by the inimitable Ray Pierrehumbert in a 2-part blog post on RealClimate, which rank among my favorite  posts of all time. Part 1 is here, Part 2 there. You would think that the Flat Earth Knights (that’s what they are now called in the climate community, referring to their omission of the Earth’s  rotundity  in elementary radiation budget calculations) would have stopped embarrassing themselves after top-notch climate scientist Edouard Bard patiently debunked all of their arguments. Alas,  far from an end, it seemed to have only ushered an era of growing media attention for Allègre and Courtillot, who tell the skeptics just what they want to hear under a varnish of scientific credibility that few care to question. In Courtillot’s case, scientific misconduct is beyond doubt. Allègre seems to be more subtle, but the fact that he is using his prominence and weight in the media to hijack the debate is troubling. The reason why I blur the line between the two is that they are clearly tag-teaming, with Allègre handling the book (non peer reviewed) and television PR campaign, while Courtillot is very active  in the peer-reviewed literature, with the success that we know.  To his credit, Courtillot  recently made the news for his association with two publications in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, which aimed at establishing a statistically-significant correlation between solar activity and the recent warming. The papers are here and here.  A well-argued critique of their methodology, lead by statistical climatologist Pascal Yiou can be found here.

While the peer-reviewed literature is indeed a venue of choice for scientists to debate arguments, it may not be the most transparent to the general public. As a scientist and signatory of the aforementioned online petition, I look forward to a free, open and impartially moderated debate at the Académie des Sciences, where I trust that the considerable knowledge, integrity and  intelligence of some of the most noted French climate scientists will give real scientific arguments a fair chance of being heard. Then, let the people decide what to believe, but at least on the basis of sound arguments.

If, as seems unavoidable, our mammoth ends up losing a few tusks in the battle, I hope he will (this time) respect scientific ethics when intervening in a scientific debate where (so far) ignorance and arrogance are his only medals.

J.E.G.

PS: The quixotic claims from Allègre’s latest book are debunked here (in French) and honestly they are so pathetic that I won’t waste my saturday afternoon on an English translation!