AUTHOR: Ian Plimer – Is a Geologist and a professor at the University of Adelaide and is a director of several mining companies. His distinguished career is outlined on the page “About the author”.
REVIEWER: Brian Harrisson
APPROXIMATE LENGTH: 3,500 WORDS.
DATE: 30th June, 2011
OUTLINE OF BOOK: The author’s stated aim is to show that an understanding of climate requires an amalgam of 17 separate disciplines. The introduction sketches his main arguments. These are that climate science can only be understood by understanding what has gone on historically. As the only extended records of climate are in the earth’s surface and few “climate scientists” have knowledge of geology, they are not qualified to comment on climate change. Climate is affected by numerous variables that do not include atmospheric CO2. Hence the theory that changes in atmospheric CO2 drive global warming is flawed. He further claims that as predictive climate models cannot take the large number of relevant variables into consideration they predict simplistically flawed outcomes. The use of models lacks scientific discipline in the sense that true science requires evaluation of climate fact and not so called “projected fact”. These flaws are accentuated by the politics of climate change. Reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and those by Stern and Garnaut are not the result of scientific consensus but a consensus of Governments with different agendas appropriately doctored to eliminate dissenting opinions by people who aren’t qualified in the climate science discipline. The end result is that the IPCC reports and those that followed are flawed and do not support the claim that human activity creates global warming.
The succeeding chapters provide detailed arguments and data that purport to justify these assertions:
a) History: The author claims after the end of the last glaciations period (-116,000 to -14,000 years) there have been a continuous cycle of warming and cooling culminating in a period of warming since about 1850, interspersed intermittent cold periods. We live in an interglacial period. The point being made is that warming and cooling climates are natural and that anthropogenic warming does not exist.
b) Sun: Is a major driver of climate and this has not been adequately considered by climate science. Additional drivers include cosmic ray forcing and planetary perturbations called Milankovitch forcing. The effects of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere piggy-back on the principal drivers of climate and may amplify changes. The implication is that greenhouse gasses cannot cause changes in climate.
c) Earth: The notion that the carbon cycle is controlled by chemical reactions between water air and rocks is valid as is the theory that these processes have stopped runaway icehouse or greenhouse effects. The notion of tipping points is however a non scientific myth. During the Ordovician-Silurian glaciations period CO2 was more than 4,000 ppmv showing that CO2 does not drive warming. Since multi cellular life first appeared there has been a constant draw down of CO2 from the atmosphere. There was once more than 100 times the current levels indicating widely fluctuating levels of atmospheric CO2 are normal. There have been extinctions and migration of flora and fauna. Super volcanoes have shaped the earth and the content of the atmosphere. The affects of changes to the earth’s angle of rotation on climate have not been considered adequately.
d) Ice: Ice ages have dominated climate for 20% of the time and their size has waxed and waned. Surging armadas of icebergs is a permanent feature of glaciations and does not indicate global warming. There is a perennial polar sea saw.
e) Water: Sea levels have varied massively over time and store massive amounts of CO2 which correlates with temperature. A lot of this emanates from undersea volcanoes and cycles through the atmosphere, life, soils and rocks according to systems that are non-linear, chaotic and turbulent and because of this is not susceptible to computer modelling. There has not been any noted acceleration of sea level rise during the period of industrialization.
f) Air: There is no such thing as a greenhouse affect. Competition between evaporation, convection, precipitation and radiation create an energy balance in the atmosphere. The measurements of temperature by thermometer, on which much of the climate warming theory are based, are flawed and the more sophisticated and accurate satellite and balloon measurements show that the planet is not warming. The carbon inventory is distributed between the atmosphere, oceans and rocks respectively in this way: 800, 39,000 and 65,000,000 billion tonnes of carbon. As carbon cycles between life and the oceans atmospheric carbon represents only .001% of the earth’s total carbon inventory (my words). He is implying that its influence on atmospheric warming can only be small. Each year 18% of the carbon is exchanged with life and oceans so carbon produced today stays in the atmosphere for 4-5 years. Much of the carbon inventory is ignored by the IPCC in its models as are the clouds which have a significant influence on climate.
The author believes that error engendered views have permeated the world community such that global warming has now become an ideology (my word). This has obsessed Governments, distorted the science, and ostracized scientific professionals who do not embrace the ideology. This has limited scientific freedoms except for those scientists who accept the doctrine of the faith. The system becomes self perpetuating in that only scientists who conform receive grants and can publish. The result is that virtually all published work supports the false ideology. Other people who support the ideologically driven views include Governments, presumably operators in carbon markets and others who benefit from the massive expenditure spent on combating non existent global warming. The author considers the expenditure would have been better spent alleviating poverty in third world countries. He asserts that this situation developed because climate scientists relied on their unreliable computer models and would not admit that they don’t really know what is likely to happen to climate in the future.
On the basis of this reality he successively attacks the Kyoto protocol and the various IPCC, Stern and Garnaut reports. Finally he asks the question “what if I am wrong?” He canvasses the need to use the “cautionary principle” but rejects it as unnecessary. He is essentially arguing that he is not wrong and that humanity created climate change does not exist.
REVIEW COMMENTS: As a natural sceptic I was eager to read Professor Plimer’s book. I had been told that the author was a climate sceptic and had developed a case that opposes conventional climate science and I was asked to give my opinion of the book. The book tries to build a case against human induced warming and in doing so covered a remarkable scope in pursuit of the author’s aims. The author is to be congratulated on his apparent mastery of such a wide range of climate related disciplines. My interests were more focussed. I wanted to ascertain what he had to say about the four key climate change issues. This review will focus on these four points and related matters:
1. Are global temperatures rising?
2. Does it matter if they are?
3. If it does matter, is the increase in atmospheric CO2 a major cause?
4. If so, is humanity generated CO2 a major driver of that increase?
Until reading the book, I accepted the widely held view that human activity is causing the planet to warm. The book has done nothing to change that acceptance. It is an interesting read albeit an irritating one. The author talks about scientific issues and the politics of global warming. His narrative is such that it can reasonably be concluded that he has a second and unstated aim namely to demolish the notion of anthropogenic warming. There is nothing wrong with this provided the attempted demolition is evidence based and rigorous but I don't think that it is.
This may well be because the book is not the constructive contribution to the climate debate I had, perhaps naively, expected it to be. It lacked any semblance of balance. I could not identify anything associated with conventional climate science that the author regards as commendable. This comment is not intended to challenge the right to dissent nor the notion that scientific academics are entitled to hold dissenting opinions from the conventional science wisdom. Rather, the issue is that public comments by community leaders, experts or people of standing in the community on issues of community importance like climate change will be absorbed by the public and possibly acted upon. As a result they should at least be accurate and balanced. In the opinion of this reviewer, the book falls short on these counts also. The following selected examples show why:
a. Bases his claim that “climate is not warming” on ambiguous evidence.
This point is illustrated using a simplified example from the authors data: If “movement in temperatures over a defined period” is the method used to measure whether warming has occurred, there would be two lots of input for each of two variables: Temperature at start = (A), Temperature at end = (B), Start date = (1), End date = (2) the temperature movement would be measured by (B2 –A1) where a negative result means a decline in temperature and a positive result means an increase. Assuming that the data is correct, that method applied to the author’s data would give the following answers to the question ‘Is climate warming?” for varying periods.
i. Last 150 years – yes
ii. Last 200 years – no
iii. Last 50 years – yes
iv. Last 800 years – no
Two outcomes from his own figures contradict the authors assertion. This of itself is not terribly significant as all such outcomes typically depended on how a problem is defined, how it is measured, the data used, how it is analysed and how it is interpreted and this should be made clear. The author’s assertions would have had more credibility had he recognized this principle, avoided the dogma, made his conclusions conditional and recognized that there are other valid methods to determine whether the planet is or is not warming.
b. Asserts that “Global warming is good” but this fails the common sense test.
Global warming can sometimes destroy life. Take two examples. The effect of warming during the Cretaceous period (-146my to -65my) was mild as it occurred over millions of years and gave life time to adapt. During the Palaeocene /Eocene (PE) epochs (-65my to -34 my) warming took place over thousands of years. Life had less time to adapt and there were extinctions in the sea but life on land had time to adapt.
What of the future? The author asserts that the future cannot be predicted. In any event as warming is not seen to be the problem and all warming is good, the future is not problematical as claimed by conventional climate science. In contrast conventional climate science has tried to get a firmer hand on the future by modelling climate outcomes for various scenarios. This was done after acknowledging that outcomes will depend on uncertainties within the “complex system” called climate. These scenarios indicate that expected outcomes will fall within the range from “modest to catastrophic” over six areas of vulnerability namely, water, food, health, land, environment and people. It recommends that climate action be taken. This recommendation has strategic merit (see g.) and its value is confirmed by a common sense test.
I asked myself the question: “If the effects of warming spread over millions of years has had little affect on life, while warming spread over thousands of years destroyed a lot of marine life but left land life largely unaffected, what do you think the effects would be on marine and land based life if warming is spread over a period of only tens of or perhaps hundreds of years as is now occurring?” Common sense suggested to me that accellerated global warming is likely to do more extensive damage than that done by historical warmings. The effects are likely to extend to land based animals and people with potentially adverse consequences that can only be guessed at. Experience has taught this reviewer that wild and broad generalizations in any context are never true. The wild and broad generalization by the author that "warming is always good” should be evaluated in exactly the same way.
c. Bases his assertion that “CO2 can not cause climate change” on flawed evidence.
The author asserts that, “CO2 can not produce climate change”. His apparent proof is of this kind: “very high atmospheric CO2 readings existed during periods of high glaciations so CO2 cannot be a driver of global warming”.
The logic is flawed. The coincidence of high atmospheric CO2 levels with extensive glaciations could show, but does not necessarily show that atmospheric CO2 does not cause warming. Other influences may be greater than that of CO2 or they may mitigate its effects. This is historically illustrated. The author fails to acknowledge that that long periods of very high atmospheric CO2 levels coincided with low levels of solar activity. During these periods the “cooler” sun, would have led to the earth becoming a frozen ice-ball were it not prevented by the warming effect of the atmosphere containing relatively high levels of CO2.
His claim would have had more substance had it been supported by data from tests that established the relationship between the two under different conditions, test periods and systemic changes. His reliance on crude historical data indicates that he has not done the required work.
d. Fails to substantiate his claim that human generated CO2 can not affect climate.
He puts forward a series of arguments. One argument is to deny that CO2 has any material affect on climate. This assertion has not been proven (c. above).
The second is to claim that there is no such thing as a greenhouse effect. This claim is based on the notion that “competition between evaporation, convection, precipitation and radiation create an energy balance in the atmosphere”. He does not produce any evidence to support that statement, does not explain the mechanism by which these factors create an “energy balance”, he does not explain what precisely an energy balance is, does not explain its relationship to either naturally or anthropogenic levels of atmospheric CO2, how those factors interrelate, nor the how his system relates to current climate science models. Essentially he has not given scientific meaning to what he is on about. He certainly does not show that there is no such phenomenon as a "greenhouse effect".
The third is that that the amount of CO2, as a proportion of total atmosphere, is miniscule, therefore any affect it can exert on climate is likely to be equally miniscule. No evidence was adduced to demonstrate that this claim is true. More importantly the author did not address the key change issue. This is the potentially significant but unknown “marginal” effects that human CO2 intrusions into a natural climate system from outside the system can have on the climate systems natural operation and equilibrium. There is simply no historical precedent by which to judge the likely effect of this phenomenon. The issue is not one of size but relevance of effect. The principles of nuclear fission show how under the right conditions the collision of a few tiny particles can have a very large affect on their much larger environment.
e. Proposes ideas that are not capable of implementation.
Based on accepted science, conventional climate models (CCM) explain how climate works and are rigorously enough defined to be expressed mathematically and programmed. They are complete within themselves, albeit in a somewhat flawed form if the author’s assertions are ever substantiated.
The author talks about the (CCM) but does not describe them in his book and does not demonstrate that he understands them. He would know that scientists who challenge an accepted scientific paradigm, like he does, need to show that they understand the work that their work is intended to topple. He has not done this. His ideas are not fitted into any coherent, rational climate framework so even if his ideas were immediately accepted they could not be used. He does not or perhaps cannot suggest how and where the CCM should be modified to incorporate his ideas and does not put forward his own climate model to replace the existing ones. This may indicate an intention to destroy but not rebuild.
f. Misconceives the role of computer based modelling
Computer models simplify reality and give users a “feel” for a range of possible outcomes for a range of scenarios. This is not prediction as the author indicates. He would well know that such models are used to test and develop theories, aid research and help professionals understand how complex systems work. Unlike the author implies, modellers are, capable and can handle a range of challenges like chaotic possibilities and non linear events. Although he considers that climate scientists should dispense with computer based climate models, he does not suggest how the activities they cover should be otherwise dealt with.
Climate modellers no doubt have a lot to learn about the intricacies of the complex systems within their professional domain. If there are flaws in their output as the author asserts, modellers should be encouraged to work towards getting them right. His assertion that drawing conclusions from computer modelling outcomes is future stuff and by definition is not valid fact based science is a trivial semantic point.
g. Rejects the “precautionary principle” (PP), using flawed assumptions.
The author asserts that as he can’t be wrong on climate change, the use of the PP is superfluous. This comment is imprudent and potentially dangerous given the possible adverse future affects of climate change. It is also strategically flawed.
The PP postulates that players should avoid a course that may involve serious harm to people, even if the probability of harm occurring is low, thus making the welfare of people paramount. It is used in game theory and in business and government decision making. A simplified example illustrates its wisdom: Option 1 is: To assume that the author is right and so do nothing to reduce the emissions of CO2. The potential consequences of a wrong decision are likely to be in the range modest to catastrophic. Option 2 is: To assume that the author is wrong and take action to avoid the potential consequences. This option will involve a significant cost to implement. If we adopt option 1 and the author is wrong humanity will bear consequences that range up to catastrophic. If we adopt Option 2 and the author is right there will be a significant cost unnecessarily incurred as it turns out, but there would be no catastrophe. Assuming that people are more important than money, Option 2 which follows the PP is the strategically rational way to go.
h. Fails to substantiate his assertion that “Tipping points” don’t exist in the climate system.
A “tipping point” is also referred to as critical mass, threshold or boiling point. The concept of the “Tipping point” has been shown to exist in physics, sociology and economics so there is reason to believe that it could also exist in climate science. The anthropogenic influence is “historically new” so the author could not have used history to conclude that climate does not have tipping points yet he does not explain how he arrived at the conclusion. One can only wonder about the motives of an author who describes the climate system as chaotic and turbulent in one part of his book yet so adamantly denies possibility of a tipping point existing in such a system, in another part.
i. Appears to obfuscate.
He claims that a key IPCC report was doctored, that Climate scientists are inadequately trained, that global warming is the new scientific ideology, that results in scientific papers by honest scientific journeymen and women are being unjustly rejected by the peer review system, that there is a conspiracy within and between Governments, that many scientists, economists and other professionals have prostituted themselves and their professions in support of the new climate ideology and there are others. Taken as a whole, the author is asserting that there has been a world conspiracy of unimaginable proportions; so much so that is unlikely to be true. Some individual criticisms may well be true but they too will be discredited by association with the excesses in a book that itself can hardly be described as balanced. I hope the author has not missed the irony of this situation.
The strategy of obfuscation is one approach used by the carbon lobby in the United States. It mixes truths with half truths and untruths then injects that potpourri into the public arena with the intention of creating maximum confusion. Those familiar with the climate debate in Australia will know that this strategy has been eminently successful. On reflection, the author’s book is likely to have contributed to that outcome in no small measure.
I did not find the book to be at all persuasive. My responses to the four key climate issues set out at the start of this review are still: likely, yes, likely, likely.