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.


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!




7 responses

4 09 2010
Robert Blyth

You are accusing Allegre of exactly the same thing as the climate scientists are guilty of. Tell us why Al Gore refuses to debate his position. In our country the same situation exists. What is the point of peer review when it is done by people of the same mind? Why not get members of the opposite side to participate?

There are far too many eminent scientists who are sceptical of the claims of the AGW brigade for them all to be wrong. Get a real debate going because a great deal hangs on the outcome. The solutions to the issue will be very different depending on which outcome is finally agreed. In the end the problem is not climate but energy.

4 11 2010
El Niño

Climate scientists have degrees in climatology, hence are little more qualified than the average joe to make comments on it. This of course doesn’t mean we’re always right (in fact, the nature of science is that most of it is “wrong” at any given time, meaning that it will eventually be improved upon). But it does mean that we can investigate the climate system with far more insight than armchair AGW deniers. I don’t know your field, dear sir, but if I were to jump into it without doing my basic homework, aggressively and arrogantly asserting that you and all your colleagues are “imposters” who don’t understand a thing, you’d probably be dismiss me as a lunatic – and you’d be right. That’s my issue with Allègre.

Since when has Al Gore refused to debate his position? I think he’s been doing that all over the country for years now. If you’re asking why he won’t agree with you, that’s a very different question.

As for peer-review, like many things it could be improved. Peer-review is to the scientific publication process what democracy is to government : “the worst of systems, with the exception of all the others”. It should be clear why we don’t have astrologers review for the Astrophysical Journal, or why painters don’t review Technometrics. So why should crackpot pseudo-scientists review climate science? That being said, in my part of the field, a great deal of statistics are used, and it would indeed be good if professional statisticians reviewed our work.

Now: “There are far too many eminent scientists who are sceptical of the claims of the AGW brigade for them all to be wrong”, is like saying “There are far too many eminent engineers who believe 9/11 was an inside job for them all to be wrong”. Besides, none of the “eminent scientists” on the famed list know much about climate. What does their signature prove?

I agree that the problem is related to energy, and the way we use natural resources in general. Climate is only one epiphenomenon of the systemic problems of our “pre-sustainable” society.

14 11 2010

El Nino,

Perhaps then you could point us to video of debates where Al has taken on so called “deniers”?


15 11 2010
El Niño

Well perhaps you could point us to videos where he has refused to do so?

3 10 2010

Remarkable that you critcize Allegre for stepping out beyond his expertise, yet feel qualified to comment on the causes of Killimanjaro snow loss. Are you even remotely as qualified on the subject as Pepin et. al.?

4 11 2010
El Niño

I am no glaciologist, but I did read the paper and understand its terminology – that’s more than I can say for Allègre, who still doesn’t know the difference between an initial value problem and a boundary value problem. Is there a specific reason why you wanted to bring this paper forth?

2 11 2010
El Niño

The debate did happen on Sep 20, albeit enshrouded in mystery: somehow the Académie thought it would be “more serene” behind closed doors, which only opened the doors to more controversy and speculations. Allegre & Courtillot played their regular game, and lost. They invited the “Rabbit out of the hat” Richard Lindzen to perform his usual muddling on greenhouse warming, but was efficiently countered by Sandrine Bony.
A month or so later, the Académie finally published a report saying what everybody knows: yes, anthropogenic climate change is real; yes, it’s a big problem, and no, climate models aren’t perfect yet, but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of predictive skill.
Here is nature’s perspective on it:

The moral of story is that the Mammoth didn’t entirely get his way – but only time will tell if he still holds any credibility in the French and international press. His attempts at explaining why he signed a text that refutes most of his outrageous claims have at least given giggles so those of us who were no longer laughing at his idiocies. Smiles are back on !

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