Dreadful GSA blogpost by Canadian geologists

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.

More:

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.

eocene

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.

17 thoughts on “Dreadful GSA blogpost by Canadian geologists

  1. I’m not a scientist having taken only a few science courses in college.
    But I think I have a handle on one important aspect of the scientific process: the hypothesis and how it fits into the scientific process. And I use as my guide the following 1 minute youtube from the ’60s by Richard Feynman:

    There appears to be four stages to the scientific process:
    1- Guess or hypothesis
    2- Calculate the consequences of the guess; that is, predict the future
    3- Compare to experiment; that is, compare the results of your observations of nature to your predictions.
    4-Do the observations agree or disagree with the predictions: yes or no.
    If no, the entire hypothesis is thrown out.
    So, I have applied this to the catastrophic man-made climate change hypothesis as I understand it in my layman’s mind:
    1-The hypothesis is that man-made emissions of CO2 will result in drastically increasing temperatures.
    2-The prediction made based upon this hypothesis: These increases in global temperatures will be on the order of .3 degree C to .4 degree C per decade.
    3-Compare to experiment: observations over the past 18 years have shown the increase to be .1 degree C increase per decade (at the max; because temperature observations were within the margin of error, there may actually have been a decrease in temperature). The predictions made were overexagerrated by 300%-400%.
    4-The observations do NOT agree with the predictions, therefore the hypothesis fails.
    Where is my thinking wrong or incorrect?

    • Feynman’s model of science as presented there is a little oversimplified. In the real world, when observations look like they are near the boundaries of confidence intervals, hypotheses are not simply discarded, but are re-examined and modified. You ask for a yes or no answer to a prediction that had wide error bars and where observations are uncertain and made over a short time period where natural variation adds noise and prevents us from confidently separating the signal from that noise. Sorry, it’s not as simple as yes or no. But it’s certainly true that the recent temperature record has given a lot of climate modellers, well, pause.

      For example, Nic Lewis and Judith Curry recently used the recent temperature record to recalculate climate sensitivity. What they found was a 5-95% confidence interval very close to the IPCC range, but with a most likely value at the lower end of the range. They didn’t just say that the hypothesis that CO2 would cause warming was wrong, rather they explained the recent slowdown in warming by invoking lower climate sensitivity. They may well not be correct in this (there are other explanations for the slowdown), but I bring up their argument (and one coming from two people who are no friends of the consensus position) just to show that, in practice, hypotheses are adjusted rather than junked. More details here:
      http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2014/10/climate-response-estimates-from-lewis-curry/

      There are plenty of other lines of evidence pointing to higher climate sensivity factors, for example, from the study of climates of the past. This is the body of knowledge that Eyles and Miall do not seem to be aware of. Another reason that scientists don’t just toss out hypotheses is that they are constructed on a foundation of a whole lot of previous work. Much of science progresses incrementally, by recognizing and solving small problems, rather than starting from scratch every time the results are surprising.

      You are incorrect in saying that there is a prevailing hypothesis of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change. To the best of my knowledge, no scientist has ever used this expression in the scientific literature and it’s certainly not a mainstream position.

    • Andy, thanks for the response.

      Not sure if I understand all the science about “sensitivity” but I did note a recent article in which the author, Fred Singer, suggested that climate sensitivity may be close to zero:

      http://americanthinker.com/2014/10/the_climate_sensitivity_controversy.html

      As for hypotheses, you write that “…hypotheses are not simply discarded, but are re-examined and modified.” Okay, but wouldn’t the first necessary step before reexamination and modification be to acknowledge that the original hypothesis has failed…or if not totally failed at least that it has been way off from its predictions?

      I don’t think that’s been done yet. Indeed, most “alarmists” that I speak to believe that the planet is warming exactly as all the computer models predicted. Why move on to another hypothesis or — as you say — a reexamination or modification, without first saying: hey, the original hypothesis and the models that were based upon it were WAY off base and it is important that we all state it and acknowledge it.

      It seems to me that (1) skeptics aren’t given the credit that they have been the ones who have been right all along (or at least closer to the reality than the alarmists); and (2) that there should be a concerted effort to welcome skeptics into the debate? The language I read in the press and media and all the name-calling is just horrendous…it is as if skeptics are to be considered responsible for the death of mankind for questioning the party line when, in fact, they have been proven right.

      I’m thinking of the following video I saw between Richard Lindzen and a consensus scientist named Hadi Dowlatobadi: civil, respectful, and entirely relaxed:

      You write:

      “You are incorrect in saying that there is a prevailing hypothesis of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change. To the best of my knowledge, no scientist has ever used this expression in the scientific literature and it’s certainly not a mainstream position.”

      Then why are we (the planet) spending $350 billion a year on this thing if it isn’t “catastrophic”?

    • There are a lot of mistakes in your post. You should use citations to back it up.

      1) Yes, increasing CO2 will increase temperatures, we’ve known this since Tyndall 1861;
      http://web.gps.caltech.edu/~vijay/Papers/Spectroscopy/tyndall-1861.pdf

      2) Citation? it is common in technical discourse to include error margins. Or .2C to .5C in this case. I believe this is 2 sigma, or 95% confidence.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPCC_First_Assessment_Report

      3) There is no statement anywhere stating 18 projections of a particular value. Anywhere. Obvious including short term weather events in your data will taint your understanding. If you wish to look at climate on such short terms, you should consider all that. Here’s Foster Rahmstorf, showing exactly what you are talking about with short term weather volcanoes, and solar variances taken into account.
      http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/6/4/044022

      4) All hypothesis are correct and within their error margins.

      One confusing about the temperature projections, is that they are ensemble averages of many simulations. There are examples in the original data of multidecade pauses and even downturns.

      We still need to consider that climate and temperature predictions are a long term event, and its best to avoid discussions about what exactly is occurring in short term intervals.

  2. Tony, I agree with you that it’s a pity that the discourse on climate change has become polarized and nasty. All we can do, I suppose, is to be as civil as possible. However, in the greater scheme of things, people being rude on the Internet is not such a big deal.

    I will certainly pay attention to contrarians who publish in the peer-reviewed literature, as I did for Lewis and Curry, and I would gladly acknowledge the accuracy of any prediction of the current surface temperature rise slowdown, if I was aware of any reference.

    I think that a lot of recent mainstream publications, including the IPCC report, have acknowledged the problem of the surface temperature slowdown.

    There’s a difference between “catastropic” and “potentially harmful if we continue business-as-usual”. I’m not sure where your $350 billion per year figure comes from, so I can’t comment.

    Thanks for comments.

  3. Tony, sorry about the delay in responding, I’m travelling.

    There have indeed been some economic calculations that show that modest amounts of climate change could be beneficial. The problem is that most of the benefits of minor change are already sunk with the CO2 fertilization effect having limited upside by itself and with all future incremental change being negative. See, for example, the slopes of the curves on Richard Tol’s plots, even before they were revised due to errors he made. Going forward, all climate change is harmful and any benefits are already realized.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/05/23/the-gremlins-did-it-iffy-curve-fit-drives-strong-policy-conclusions/

    As Tol himself admits, the future surprises that continued climate change will throw at us will be more likely negative than positive. The economists don’t even look at the case above 3.5 degrees of warming, which is a possible outcome if we do nothing.

    See Richard Alley’s comments at the end of the video embedded on this blogpost:
    http://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/methane-and-things/

  4. Andy: Most of what I see from Geologists is… Fracking is Safe… Farmers are getting rich.. and wells never leak. It really upsets me.

  5. Your story holds water only if CO2 level is a significant climactic temperature driver. H2O would seem the significant ghg.

  6. Yea, those pesky SkS articles, all backed up, as they are, by refereed, peer-reviewed primary work. Yep, gotta be careful with the gang over at SkS! They get all so….sciencey. 🙂

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