Broadly Misleading

By the time one gets back to the Permian, the error bars are huge. At earlier times, the estimates are even more problematic. Broad’s article does make reference to a very interesting paper by MIT’s Dan Rothman, writing in PNAS. This paper attempts a peek at the CO2 over the past 500 million years, using a clever and novel reconstruction technique. It is innovative, but far from the last word on the subject. Broad inappropriately cherry-picks Rothman’s statement that there appears to be no clear connection between warm climates and CO2 (except in "recent" times, about which more anon). However, Broad’s article neglects all the caveats in the paper, which clearly point to the real problem being that the reconstructions of CO2 and climate over such time scales are so uncertain that it’s not clear that the data is up to the task of teasing out ssuch a connection.

Even in Rothman’s reconstruction, during the past 50 milllion years — when the data is best and continents are most like the present — the long term cooling trend leading into the Pleistocene is clearly associated with a long term CO2 decline. This is not our main reason to infer that increasing CO2 will warm the climate in the future, but insofar as the data supports CO2 decline as a main culprit in the long slide from the Cretaceous hothouse climates of 60 million years ago to the cold Pleistocene climate, it also lends weight to the notion that as industrial activity busily restores CO2 to levels approaching those of the Cretaceous, climate is likely to turn the climate clock back 60 million years as well. From Broad’s flip dismissal of the CO2-climate connection in the "recent" part of the record, the reader would never guess at the length and particular significance of this period.

And then, too, the tired old beast of Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) raises its hoary head in Broad’s article. The GCR issue has been extensively discussed elsewhere on RealClimate (e.g. here and here) On one level the GCR idea is another instance of the problem that Phanerozoic climate variations may have had many causes, giving rise to a false appearance of decorrelation between climate and CO2. Whatever role GCR may have played in deep time climate, the climate of the past century and its attribution to CO2 is a wholly different kettle of fish, since in modern times we have direct observations of GCR and they are not doing anything of a sort that would cause the observed warming — to say nothing of the fact that one would still have to argue away the basic radiative physics which makes CO2 affect the planet’s radiation budget. We repeat: There has been no recent trend in cosmic rays that could conceivably account for the recent warming, even if the GCR proponents were right about the physical mechanism underpinning their theory. This is made abundantly clear in this recently published article. Further, whatever was going on in the past, the present observations do not support the supposed cloud-GCR connection that is supposed to mediate the climate effect. That’s not the end of the story, for there are also severe methodological difficulties in the way the GCR proponents have attributed Phanerozoic change to GCR rather than CO2, and also severe conceptual difficulties in the supposed physical link between clouds and GCR.. Some of these difficulties may ultimately be resolved and allow a more fair test of the possibility that GCR influences played some role in the past. Surely, the play given to Veizer and Shaviv in the context of Broad’s article is an instance of false balance of the worst sort. The possibility that the GCR theory may play some role in deep-time Phanerozoic climate is eminently worthy of further consideration, but the way its major proponents have used the theory in attempts to undermine forecasts of near-term warming is unjustified.

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