Geologists, especially those, like me, of a certain age, often have problems with climate science and the idea that humans may be triggering a massive and abrupt change in the climate. Global change, we were taught, occurred slowly and by commonplace mechanisms: sediment carried by water, deposited a grain at a time: erosion effected by water and wind, the hardest rocks slowly ground down crystal by crystal. The great features of the Earth—the canyons, mountains and basins—were built this way and owe their grandeur to Deep Time, geology’s greatest intellectual gift to human culture. In the face of the history of the natural world, geologists feel a certain humility at the insignificance of humans and our tiny lifespans. But we also feel some pride in the role of our subject in piecing together this history from fossils and outcrops of rock. It’s an amazing detective story: diligent scientists patiently working away and uncovering the Earth’s great secrets.
Then climate science comes along and grabs all the headlines. Suddenly, we hear, change is coming fast and the outcome could be ugly. The familiar music of natural geological change is about to be disrupted by a noisy interruption in the form of human intervention. To add insult to injury, many of the people delivering this disruptive message do not seem—at least to some geologists—to be sufficiently deferential to the extensive knowledge about the slow and cyclic changes in the geological past.
This is quite false, as I found out for myself. My initial reaction many years ago to hearing about climate change was one of disbelief, mixed with a strong suspicion that the climate forecasters had neglected to take the lessons of Earth history into account. I soon found out that I was completely wrong about this. I confess also, as I read the scientific literature, that I learned more about modern geology than I had in many years working as an industrial geoscientist. Unknown to me, immersed in my own areas of specialty, geology had moved on, especially in palaeoclimatology.
This information is not hard to obtain and a great starting point is the work of the IPCC, particularly the chapters on the climates of the past. Although much of the IPCC work is pitched at a level that may be difficult for the non-scientific layman to grasp, for those of us with science degrees these reports are an information goldmine. There is no excuse for non-specialist scientists to be badly informed anymore.
This is why a recent blog article written by Canadian geologists Nick Eyles and Andrew Miall and hosted by the Geological Society of America was such a big disappointment. I am not familiar with Eyles, but Miall is well known and respected for his work in sandstone sedimentology, which is of importance in oil and gas prospecting.
The title of their piece: The constancy of change and the new catastrophism: a personal reflection on crisis-driven science pretty much tells you where they are going. “Catastrophism” to a geologist carries not only the familiar sense of “alarmism”, but also the concept of the now largely discredited notion from the formative years of geology: the idea that the geological record reveals evidence of a succession of cataclysms, such as the Great Flood. Ultimately, the model of Uniformitarianism, “the constancy of change” won the day and has become the prevailing heuristic in the geological sciences
Indispensable though it is, uniformitarianism as a rigid doctrine has led to some misteps, with some geologists wrongly opposing, for example, the model of formation by huge floods of the scabland valleys in Washington State . Today, the idea of abrupt climate change is reflexively opposed by some geologists, presumably on the grounds that nothing like this has ever happened before and that there is nothing new under the Sun.
As to what “crisis-driven science” means, well:
Much of our science is what we would call ‘crisis-driven’ where funding, politics and the media are all intertwined and inseparable generating a corrupting and highly corrosive influence on the scientific method and its students. If it doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead is the new yardstick with which to measure the overall significance of research.
Eyles and Miall’s piece is deemed a “personal reflection”, presumably relieving them of the burden of providing evidence for their outrageous claims of bias and corruption in “much of our science”. Let’s remember that concerns of abrupt human-caused climate change are not the domain of a cabal of a few rogue scientists, but rather the carefully considered conclusion of almost every scientific body on the planet, including the Geological Society of America which hosted their article. In addition, some 97% of the recent scientific literature that expresses an opinion on climate change endorses the theory that humans are the main cause.
Then we read:
It has to be said that the natural variability of the last few thousand years or hundreds of years or tens of years has formed almost no part in the ongoing discussion of climate change which in some circles assumes that any change since 1940 is largely man-made. This opinion is uninformed by geologic science.
It is hard to know where to start with a comment like this. Have they never heard of the debate about the “Hockey Stick”, the various attempts to use proxy measurements to determine the climate variability of the past several centuries? Do they really think that the thousands of scientists working in the field simply assume that “any change since 1940 is largely man-made”? When they claim that climatology is “uninformed by geological science”, have they even looked inside Chapter 5 of the latest IPCC report with its 83 pages and hundreds of peer-reviewed references? This amounts to breathtaking ignorance.
Promises of a more ‘stable future’ if we can only prevent climate change are hopelessly misguided and raise unnatural expectations by being willfully ignorant of the natural workings of the planet. Climate change is the major issue for which more geological input dealing with the history of past climates would contribute to a deeper understanding of the nature of change and what we might expect in the future. The past climate record suggests in fact that for much of the Earth’s surface future cooling is the norm. Without natural climate change Canada would be buried under ice 3 km thick; that is it normal state for most of the last 2.5 million years with 100,000 years-long ice ages alternating with brief, short-lived interglacials such as the present which is close to its end.
They really do not get it: it’s not the current interglacial that is at an end, it is quite likely the entire ice-age cycle that we have now disrupted. In the space of a few years we have changed the composition of the atmosphere well beyond the bounds of the Pleistocene. Atmospherically speaking, we are now in the Pliocene and will stay there for centuries even if we close down our industry right now. If we continue to carry on the way we are, we may even recreate the atmosphere of the Eocene hothouse by the end of this century. This is not alarmism, it is observation, plus simple physics and chemistry, informed by a geological perspective of time: we are forcing changes on the atmosphere in the space of decades that took millions of years for similar amounts of change in Earth’s history.
Modified from a figure by Beerling and Royer (2011), showing proxy CO2 estimations, deep-sea temperatures, the formation of the Antarctic ice sheet, the current CO2 level (dashed line) and the range of CO2 variation observed in the ice-age (grey bar on the right) . The unmodified figure, with original caption can be viewed here. The green annotations on the right-hand side have been added to show 2100 CO2 levels in IPCC SRES projections, ranging from the optimistic B1(ecologically friendly growth) to the pessimistic A1FI (rapid growth and reliance on fossil fuels).
Their concluding paragraph:
The way forward it strikes us is for more scientific honesty and less politics, less grandstanding. ‘We don’t know’ is an honourable credo for scientists.
[Snip.] [Despite the “less politics” plea, Eyles and Miall immediately advocate specific research spending priorities and urge a policy focus on making urban communities more resilient.]
The onus here is on the wealthiest nations with the largest scientific academies to put forward credible notions of how our planet is changing and to discuss the possible origins in an intellectual environment where data gaps are fully acknowledged free of catastrophic overtones.
National Academies already have already weighed in on how the planet is changing, as has the IPCC. The IPCC reports are replete with statements acknowledging uncertainty and gaps in knowledge. If, however you chose to define it, “catastrophe” is a possible outcome why would anyone censor any mention of it in advance?
Of course, saying “We don’t know” when appropriate is the only scientifically responsible thing to do. Yet, Eyles and Miall demonstrate an extraordinary lack of knowledge of climate science without ever once admitting it. Their article, accusing many of their scientific colleagues of corruption and dishonesty, is a disgrace and it should never have been published on any GSA-hosted website. The disclaimer that it is just “a guest reflection piece” is insufficient. Educated dissent is surely to be welcomed, but ignorant and accusatory articles like Eyles and Miall’s should have no place on the websites of one of the world’s leading scientific societies.