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Ian Plimer

Ian Pilmer, an Australian geologist, wrote a book of which its premise is described as pointing out that climate research is driven by the prospect of research funding. Generally speaking, institution and government scientists make the same amount of money no matter what they study. Grant funding, unlike bailout money, goes to equipment and research work, not salaries and golden parachutes.
Ian Plimer

Ian Pilmer, Geologist

Rather than explain Pilmers position we opt to allow his arguments, and the well reasoned scientific response to his arguments stand as testament to the absurdity of his premise.

Plimer’s homework assignment

Some of you may be aware of George Monbiot’s so-far-unsuccessful attempt to pin down Ian Plimer on his ridiculous compendium of non-science. In response to Monbiot’s request for explanation and sources for some of Plimer’s more bizarre claims, Plimer has responded with a homework assignment that is clearly beyond even his (claimed) prowess. This is quite transparently a device to avoid dealing with Monbiot’s questions and is designed to lead to an argument along the lines of “Monbiot can’t answer these questions and so knows nothing about the science (and by the way, please don’t notice that I can’t cite any sources for my nonsense or even acknowledge that I can’t answer these questions either)”. (Chris Colose and Greenfyre have made similar points). It’s also worth pointing out as Andrew Dodds has done that each question is actually referencing a very well known contrarian and oft-debunked argument, but dressed up in pseudo-scientific complexity.

However, as a service both to Plimer and Monbiot (as well as anyone else interested), we give a quick scorecard on the relevance, actual scientific content (whether the questions can actually be answered) and sources for discussion for each of the, to be charitable, ‘odd’ questions. For relevance, we grade each question on a scale from 0 to 5, 0 being irrelevant to the issue of detection and attribution of 20th Century climate change, 5 being extremely relevant. For scientific content, we rate the reasonableness of the question posed (i.e. does it make any sense at all), from A to F (A being a very well posed question, F making no sense). For sources, we generally point to a paper or discussion that addresses the real issue.

  1. From the distribution of the vines, olives, citrus and grain crops in Europe, UK and Greenland, calculate the temperature in the Roman and Medieval Warmings and the required atmospheric CO2 content at sea level to drive such warmings. What are the errors in your calculation? Reconcile your calculations with at least five atmospheric CO2 proxies. Show all calculations and justify all assumptions.
    • Relevance: 0 – poor. Basic logical fallacy. The existence of prior warm periods that may have been caused by different effects (such as solar changes, orbital variation, continental configuration etc.) does not imply that the human-caused increase in CO2 is not causing warming now.
    • Scientific Content: D – phenology (the distribution and timing of species) can potentially be useful for tracking climate changes, but it is just one of many different types of proxy information available, and has it’s own regional, temporal, and seasonal limitations. Even more problematic, it is well known that the patterns of surface temperature variability during the “MWP” – more accurately, the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA) – and LIA periods were spatially quite heterogeneous, and a record at one or two locations generally tells us very little if anything about global patterns. Even a cursory examination of the relevant recent literature (for instance, Osborn and Briffa, 2006) reveals that the pattern of warmth during the Medieval era was far regional in nature, and does not approach the truly global scale of warmth evident in recent decades.
    • Sources: Greater extent of vineyards today in England than in medieval times. Ice core records. Incoherence of the Medieval warm period.
  2. Tabulate the CO2 exhalation rates over the last 15,000 years from (i) terrestrial and submarine volcanism (including maars, gas vents, geysers and springs) and calc-silicate mineral formation, and (ii) CH4 oxidation to CO2 derived from CH4 exhalation by terrestrial and submarine volcanism, natural hydrocarbon leakage from sediments and sedimentary rocks, methane hydrates, soils, microbiological decay of plant material, arthropods, ruminants and terrestrial methanogenic bacteria to a depth of 4 km. From these data, what is the C12, C13 and C14 content of atmospheric CO2 each thousand years over the last 15,000 years and what are the resultant atmospheric CO2 residence times? All assumptions need to be documented and justified.
    • Relevance: 0 – pure misdirection.
    • Scientific Content: F – We know what CO2 and CH4 levels have been over the last 15,000 years and they oscillated within about 10 ppmv (CO2) and 100 ppbv (CH4) of their Holocene values since the start of the current era – until the industrial period (around 1750) since when CO2 has increased by 35%, and methane concentrations have more than doubled. In each case the values being measured today are way higher than anything measured in 800,000 years of ice core records, and likely higher than anything since the Pliocene (~3 million years ago). The idea that bacterial methane production at 4km in the Earth’s crust has anything to with this is laughable.
    • Sources: IPCC FAQ is all that is required. Do volcanoes produce more CO2 than human activity? Not even close.
  3. From first principles, calculate the effects on atmospheric temperature at sea level by changes in cloudiness of 0.5%, 1% and 2% at 0%, 20%, 40%, 60% and 80% humidity. What changes in cloudiness would have been necessary to drive the Roman Warming, Dark Ages, Medieval Warming and Little Ice Age? Show all calculations and justify all assumptions.
    • Relevance: 3 – clouds certainly have an effect on climate and understanding their variability is the subject of much research.
    • Scientific Content: F – The question makes no sense. Clouds at 0% humidity? Is humidity supposed to be globally uniform? And where should these cloud changes occur? The change for low-level clouds will be of the opposite sign to changes in high level clouds, and changes in the Arctic will give different answers than changes in the tropics. It should go without saying that Plimer is mistakenly assuming that he has accurate information for global temperatures over 2000 years.
    • Sources: Cloud Feedbacks in the Climate System.
  4. Calculate the changes in atmospheric C12 and C13 content of CO2 and CH4 from crack-seal deformation. What is the influence of this source of gases on atmospheric CO2 residence time since 1850? Validate assumptions and show all calculations.
    • Relevance: 0 – completely irrelevant.
    • Scientific Content: F – for those that don’t know ‘crack-seal deformation’ is a geologic process that causes the veins of crystals/minerals etc. in many rock types. (see here). Its relevance to atmospheric concentrations and isotopic composition is absolutely zero. It has no influence on atmospheric residence time – whether since 1850 or at any time in the past.
    • Sources Discussions of the actual carbon cycle and the real influences upon it.
  5. From CO2 proxies, carbonate rock and mineral volumes and stable isotopes, calculate the CO2 forcing of temperature in the Huronian, Neoproterozoic, Ordovician, Permo-Carboniferous and Jurassic ice ages. Why is the “faint Sun paradox” inapplicable to the Phanerozoic ice ages in the light of your calculations? All assumptions must be validated and calculations and sources of information must be shown.
    • Relevance: 0 – (again). The acknowledged climate changes in the past caused by natural events in no way implies that human effects are negligible today. Does the existence of forest fires caused by lightning imply that arson can never happen?
    • Scientific Content: C – There is a lot of interesting science related to deep time, but any discussion of such changes must be prefaced with the acknowledgment that our knowledge of greenhouse gases, temperatures or any other potential forcing or response is very limited compared to what we know about climate today or even in the last ice age. Given that we don’t know precisely what CO2 levels were (let alone CH4, N2O, ozone, aerosols, ice sheet configurations, vegetation distribution etc.), the attributions of climate change at this distance is speculative at best.
    • Sources: The faint young sun paradox.
  6. From ocean current velocity, palaeotemperature and atmosphere measurements of ice cores and stable and radiogenic isotopes of seawater, atmospheric CO2 and fluid inclusions in ice and using atmospheric CO2 residence times of 4, 12, 50 and 400 years, numerically demonstrate that the modern increase in atmospheric CO2 could not derive from the Medieval Warming.
    • Relevance:1 – There are amplifying feedbacks between climate and CO2 – which are most evident in the long ice cores from Antarctica, but this argument is trivial to dismiss without any recourse to ocean current velocities etc.
    • Scientific Content:D – You can calculate the change in CO2 per deg C global warming over long (multi-centennial) timescales from the ice age data – it’s roughly 100ppmv/5ºC = 20 ppmv/ºC. The increase in atmospheric CO2 in the last 200 years is now about 110ppmv, implying that any natural driver would have need to have been more than 5ºC natural warming in recent centuries. This would have been noticed by someone.
    • Sources: None required.
  7. Calculate the changes in the atmospheric transmissivity of radiant energy over the last 2,000 years derived from a variable ingress of stellar, meteoritic and cometary dust, terrestrial dust, terrestrial volcanic aerosols and industrial aerosols. How can your calculations show whether atmospheric temperature changes are related to aerosols? All assumptions must be justified and calculations and sources of information must be shown.
    • Relevance: 4 – aerosols are an important climate forcing, and their history through time (even in the 20th Century) are quite uncertain.
    • Scientific Content: C – Calculating the impacts of aerosols is quite hard, first because we don’t have great records for their distribution through time and space, and secondly there are uncertainties in how the mix with each other and how they interact with clouds. Forcing estimates for the human-caused changes in aerosols over the 20th Century therefore have quite large uncertainties associated with them and are a principle reason why attempts to constrain climate sensitivity from the recent record along have not been very successful. Volcanic effects are however quite well characterised, and actually provide one of the many lines of evidence for why GCM simulations are reasonable since they get the right magnitude and character of the volcanic effects on climate. However, there is no evidence whatsoever for large changes in interstellar dust changes in recent millennia and trying to pin recent warming on that is really grasping at straws.
    • Sources: Climate sensitivity and aerosol forcings.
  8. Calculate 10 Ma time flitches using W/R ratios of 10, 100 and 500 for the heat addition to the oceans, oceanic pH changes and CO2 additions to bottom waters by alteration of sea floor rocks to greenschist and amphibolite facies assemblages, the cooling of new submarine volcanic rocks (including MORBs) and the heat, CO2 and CH4 additions from springs and gas vents since the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. From your calculations, relate the heat balance to global climate over these 10 Ma flitches. What are the errors in your calculations? Show all calculations and discuss the validity of any assumptions made.
    • Relevance: 0 – again more misdirection. The throwing around of irrelevant geologic terms and undefined jargon is simply done in order to appear more knowledgeable than your interlocutor. The argument appears to that climate is changing due to tectonically slow changes the direct heat input from ocean sea floor spreading. This is absurd.
    • Scientific Content: F.
    • Sources: Definition of ‘flitch’.
  9. Calculate the rate of isostatic sinking of the Pacific Ocean floor resulting from post LGM loading by water, the rate of compensatory land level rise, the rate of gravitationally-induced sea level rise and sea level changes from morphological changes to the ocean floor. Numerically reconcile your answer with the post LGM sea level rise, oceanic thermal expansion and coral atoll drilling in the South Pacific Ocean. What are the relative proportions of sea level change derived from your calculations?
    • Relevance: 2 – pretty much irrelevant.
    • Scientific Content: C – isostatic issues in sea level are important on long time scales, and there is still an effect today from the deglaciation 15000 years ago. It contributes a decease of about 0.3 mm/yr to the global sea level rise, compared to 3 mm/yr total (i.e. about 10%). If the idea was to imply that current sea level rise is simply the response to the deglaciation, then it was completely misleading.
    • Sources: Reconciliation of the sea level rise, thermal expansion and ice melt.
  10. From atmospheric CO2 measurements, stable isotopes, radiogenic Kr and hemispheric transport of volcanic aerosols, calculate the rate of mixing of CO2 between the hemispheres of planet Earth and reconcile this mixing with CO2 solubility, CO2 chemical kinetic data, CO2 stable and cosmogenic isotopes, the natural sequestration rates of CO2 from the atmosphere into plankton, oceans, carbonate sediments and cements, hydrothermal alteration, soils, bacteria and plants for each continent and ocean. All assumptions must be justified and calculations and sources of information must be shown. Calculations may need to be corrected for differences in 12CO2, 13CO2 and 14CO2 kinetic adsorption and/or molecular variations in oceanic dissolution rates.
    • Relevance: 5 – the carbon cycle is actually a key issue.
    • Scientific Content: A – understanding the carbon cycle given multiple constraints on the carbon fluxes (including some of the issues raised in the question) is important in showing that the ~35% rise in CO2 since ~1750 is in fact anthropogenic. This has been shown numerous times to be consistent with the known human emissions, increases in oceans and terrestrial carbon, the decrease in 14C content of the atmosphere, the decrease in 13C content in the atmosphere, the decrease in O2 in the atmosphere.
    • Sources: Read the FAQ.
  11. Calculate from first principles the variability of climate, the warming and cooling rates and global sea level changes from the Bölling to the present and compare and contrast the variability, maximum warming and maximum sea level change rates over this time period to that from 1850 to the present. Using your calculations, how can natural and human-induced changes be differentiated? All assumptions must be justified and calculations and sources of information must be shown.
    • Relevance: 4 – detection and attribution of climate change is an important issue.
    • Scientific Content: B – First principles calculations of climate variability are most closely approximated by GCMs and multiple modelling groups have done various Holocene simulations. Attribution of any climate changes requires model simulations with and without each particular forcing and for the Holocene, this involves changes in the orbit, greenhouse gases, solar, meltwater regimes, ice sheet change, aerosols etc. and a comparison of the signature of the responses with patterns observed in the real world. However, comparable data to 20th Century sea levels or temperature changes are not available going back to the beginning of the Holocene.
    • Sources: Attribution of mid-Holocene hydrologic changes to orbital forcing. Attribution of patterns of cooling at 8.2 kya to drainage of Lake Agassiz. Attribution of pre-industrial variability over the last millennia to solar and volcanic forcing (IPCC Ch8, p680+).
  12. Calculate the volume of particulate and sulphurous aerosols and CO2 and CH4 coeval with the last three major mass extinctions of life. Use the figures derived from these calculations to numerically demonstrate the effects of terrestrial, deep submarine, hot spot and mid ocean ridge volcanism on planktonic and terrestrial life on Earth. What are the errors in your calculations?
    • Relevance: 1 – irrelevant. Has nothing to do with current causes of species extinction nor sources of CO2.
    • Scientific Content: D – insufficient data exist to infer atmospheric composition, nor the sources of any hypothesised fluxes. We think that it is likely that mass extinctions are probably bad for “planktonic and terrestrial life on Earth” with very little error.
    • Sources: This is a good intro to the P/T extinction event which is fascinating even if mostly irrelevant to today.
  13. From the annual average burning of hydrocarbons, lignite, bituminous coal and natural and coal gas, smelting, production of cement, cropping, irrigation and deforestation, use the 25µm, 7µm and 2.5µm wavelengths to calculate the effect that gaseous, liquid and solid H2O have on atmospheric temperature at sea level and at 5 km altitude at latitudes of 20º, 40º, 60º and 80ºS. How does the effect of H2O compare with the effect of CO2 derived from the same sources? All assumptions must be justified and calculations and sources of information must be shown.
    • Relevance: 3 – radiative transfer is a key issue.
    • Scientific Content: F – the question as it stands makes no sense. How can using fossil fuel emissions of CO2 allow you to calculate the impact of total H2O? And why only three wavelengths? You would need the whole atmosphere distribution of water (in all three phases and which doesn’t exist outside a model) in order to calculate the radiative fluxes, and a full GCM to calculate all the other fluxes that influence the temperature. If Plimer is actually alluding to the impact of the direct injection of water vapour into the atmosphere from the combustion of hydrocarbons, then this makes even less sense since the perturbation time for water vapour is measured in days (rather than decades to centuries for CO2) and the relative importance of anthropogenic fluxes is much much less.
    • Sources: Importance of water vapour and clouds compared to CO2 for the total greenhouse effect (roughly, 50%, 25% and 20% once overlaps are apportioned). Complete irrelevance of anthropogenic addition of H2O. Calculation of radiative forcing for anthropogenic CO2.

In summary, the relevance of these questions is extremely low, and even when the basic question deals with an issue that is relevant, the question itself is usually nonsensical and presupposes many assumptions that are certainly not a given (at least in the real world). In fact, for the couple of cases where the scientific content is high, the answer is in contradiction to Plimer’s unstated assumptions. The most obvious use of these questions to support a ‘we don’t know everything, so we must know nothing’ type of argument, which is a classic contrarian trope, and one that is easily dealt with.

These questions have as much to do with a debate on human caused climate change as tribbles have to do with astrobiology. Both are troubling, but for very different reasons.

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