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Are geologists different?

Filed under: — rasmus @ 19 August 2008

rockThe International Geological Congress (IGC) is sometimes referred to as the geologists’ equivalent of the Olympic Games and is an extremely large gathering of geologists from all over the world, taking place at 4-year intervals. This time, the IGC took place in Lillestrøm, a small place just outside Oslo, Norway (August 6-14). The congress was opened by the Norwegian King (before he continued to the real games in Beijing), and was attended by some 6,000 scientists from 113 countries. Even the Danish Minister of Energy & Climate participated in a panel discussion on climate change. In other words, this was a serious meeting.

opera.jpg I didn’t attend the meeting myself, but the scientific programme for the session on climate, shows that the ‘climate contrarians’ were quite well represented. The organizers probably wanted to give room to “other views”. Together with web cast of the panel discussion on climate change (by the way, you may need Windows to view this because of the video format…), the proportion of attendees with a skeptical attitude to the notion of anthropogenic global warming appeared to be notably higher than in other conferences, such as the European Geosciences Union or European Meteorological Society, or indeed the scientific literature. So be it.

Svensmark was there, even though he’s not a geologist, and said that he didn’t understand what he was doing on the panel. He didn’t say much during the panel debate, apart from that clouds are not well described by GCMs (which is true and discussed in the latest IPCC report), and that the 90% confidence in the human influence on recent trends is derived only from models (not true). There is an irony in that, whereas detailed microphysics in clouds are not well understood (hence the uncertainties in the GCMs), Svensmark’s own hypothesis hinges entirely on the cloud response to cosmic rays (which is even less well understood).

Robert Carter said a great deal more than Svensmark on the panel. He made a point of the last couple of years being cold. But he did not appear to understand Jansen’s explanation of the difference between trends and natural variability (see here). What really struck me was not who was saying what, but the intellectual level of discussion: the debate often got stuck at misunderstood trivialities which for a long time have been regarded as solved or explained in the climate research community. When you keep starting at square one, you’ll never make much progress.

Other statements did not have a scientific basis (e.g. Morner popped out from the crowd and said that the sea levels are not rising – not true – and then saluted the panel). Thus the debate seemed to be a step backwards towards confusion rather than a progress towards resolution.

What is going on? Is there a higher proportion of geologists that have a completely different view on climate change, or was this a biased representation of the community? The thought of stifling a scientific debate by insisting on outrageous or ignorant claims also has struck me.

Update: Marc Roberts sent along this mildly relevant cartoon:

314 Responses to “Are geologists different?”

  1. 1

    Very disturbing.

    As AGW ramifications and scenarios become more severe and difficult to apprehend, it is human nature that we see stronger and more irrational denial.

    Ideology trumps logic. But this polite tolerance of acts of stifling sabotage must stop.

  2. 2
    Bob Kopp says:

    This seems like a rather unfortunate distortion of the views of the geological community — or at least, of the academic geological commnunity — by the organizers of the panel. While the Geological Society of America has a slight old (2006) and weaker climate change ststaement than AGU at the moment [], it’s in the process of revision.

    The petroleum geologists, however, may be off in their own private world. In 2006, AAPG gave a journalism award to Michael Crichton, as I believe was discussed on RealClimate at the time; and their tepid climate change statement bears the strong signature of their sponsors [].

  3. 3
    Bob Ward says:

    As a geologist, let me make the contentious statement that it is no coincidence that many geologists still rely on the fossil fuel industries for employment and funding. However, I do not think that is the whole story. The geologists I have met who are ‘sceptical’ are not particularly well-informed about current climate science, and tend to overweight the relevance of their own knowledge and experience. In that respect, they are a bit like civil engineers, among whom there also seems to be a preponderence of ‘sceptical’ views (in the UK anyway).

    However, in this particular case, I think the gathering of climate change ‘sceptics’ (what is the collective noun for climate change sceptics – a denial? an argument?) may be due to ratehr clumsy conference organisers who have sought to liven up an otherwise dull conference by trying to provoke a big row. Not very productive and rather clumsy, but hey, that’s geologists for you.

  4. 4
    Nick Gotts says:

    I think it’s fairly simple: a large proportion of geologists, particularly those working in Norway (hence those most likely to attend the conference), work in the oil industry. It is highly uncomfortable to acknowledge to yourself that your career has, in effect although of course not in intention, been devoted to bringing about potentially disastrous anthropogenic climate change. The best way to avoid this discomfort is not to admit the facts, sometimes by outright denialism, more often probably by downplaying their importance and certainty, avoiding thinking about the subject most of the time, and/or preferring to discuss it only in “safe” company – such as other oil-industry geologists.

  5. 5
    Steve Milesworthy says:

    Having “debated” with a number of sceptical geologists on forums, the following is a characterisation of a sceptical geologist’s view:

    The climate has always changed in the past due to natural variability, and life on earth has survived very well. In fact, life proliferates more during warm spells.

    Since the climate has always been variable, recent warming is not unusual and therefore probably natural. Life will benefit, as it has in the past, from the warming.

    Climate scientists have their heads stuck in models and observations of the last few decades and don’t look at the bigger picture.

  6. 6
    John Mason says:

    Put it this way – if I wanted a complex problem involving rocks explaining, would I ask on RC or at a geological congress?

    My geological speciality is mineralogy and mineral deposits by the way. Very few palaeontologists have a clue what I’m on about when I get going!

    Cheers – John

  7. 7

    “When you keep starting at square one, you’ll never make much progress.” I suspect that is the intention.

  8. 8
    pete best says:

    Very worrying but are geologists climate scientists ? Are climate scientists geologists or does climate science take knowledge from geology only. Why are geologists discussing climate science anyway ?

  9. 9

    In areas of research that are tangentially related to climate science, the relative number of contrarian viewpoints seems to be larger than amongst climate scientists themselves. I think this has a lot to do with professional deformation: “We are all best impressed by evidence of the type with which we are most familiar” (Charles Richter, as quoted by Oreskes in It is no surprise that many of them will initially be skeptical towards claims that humans are responsible for the current changes, when they are acutely aware of the massive changes that have always taken place without humans around. (Never mind the logical fallacy that arises when using this as evidence against anthropogenic influence.)

    Likewise, an astronomer or solar physicist is more likely to emphasize the role that the sun plays in climate change. And a meteorologist may focus on the (importance of the) effect of boundary layer dynamics. Acknowledging that one’s own area of expertise may not be terribly important for a high-profile theme such as climate change is psychologically not easy; emphasizing (or even exaggerating in the worst cases) its potential importance is psychologically favored.

    Oreskes (in the same presentation as linked above) argues that instead of only thinking in one dimension (i.e. one’s own field) you have to look at the consilience of evidence, and the big picture, when forming an opinion about a multi-disciplinary issue such as climate change.

  10. 10
    James Allan says:

    Out of all my personal friends, the one that I’ve had the most trouble convincing about global warming is one whose background is in geology. As far as he was concerned, Milankovitch cycles cause climate change and nothing else and he refused to see it any other way. I guess when you occupy a world where the last few hundred years of history are nothing more than an afterthought, it gets easy to see things like that.

  11. 11
    Greg Smith says:

    In response to #8

    Geologists have an appreciation of time and change over time and we don’t need to rely on computer models that change every year to accomodate previously unrecognised influences on climate. [edit]

    The world changes constantly and you can’t ignore that big ball of fire in the sky or the odd volcanic eruption or meteor strike!)

    [Response: Greenhouse gases are ‘previously unrecognised’? Only if you lived in the 18th Century….. – gavin]

  12. 12
    Christopher says:

    Adrian Midgley:
    > “When you keep starting at square one, you’ll never make much
    > progress.” I suspect that is the intention.

    Sure, it is. But … have You ever considered how hard it is to progress from an erroneous square one. You will always find many scientists ready to repeat stubbornly:
    “Carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant”
    You must wait for generational change in science community to silence them.

  13. 13
    John Ransley says:

    The link to the “webcast of the panel discussion” doesn’t work.
    PS Thanks for your excellent blog
    John Ransley

  14. 14
    pete best says:

    Re #9, Indeed who are the high oracles of earth science who put it all together into a single coherent whole? The IPCC I would imagine do this job correlerating all fo the earth science knowledge to work out what the climte is doing and going to do in regard to it being out of its energy balance/equilibrium?

    Only a certain amount of Geology is relevant to the atmosphere. I mean have many ocean scientists deny warming as well or meterologists for that matter ?

  15. 15

    Well I’m quite new in the game but my experiences is the same as expressed above, they know that the temperature have changed in the past so why not now… and far from all geologists are paleo types.

    However not all of them are very stubborn and agree that it is the published record over time that counts. (depending on if they are researchers or not)

  16. 16
    Rod B says:

    rasmus, or anyone, I find the difference in the observed leaning of the IGC compared to the other geophysical organizations/conferences (Two were mentioned; are there others?) quite curious. Do you have any explanation or thought why this is so? I’m not asking for the generic throw-away retort that they’re owned by the bad oil companies, but what might be characteristic of the IGC that would make them different? Might they have purposely done that to, maybe, explore the skeptic position? Might it be just an example of the rule of societies and conferences that the bigger and more popular they get the more they pursue show over substance? What? Any thoughts? It seems odd.

  17. 17
    Alan says:

    I’m a computer scientist with a major in operations research (stats/logistics) and 20yrs experience talking to other experts on all sorts of esoteric fields. Some of the details in RC articles make my head hurt but that’s far outweighted by other more succint logic such as the wonderful irony you point to in the cosmic ray/cloud thing.

    As for the meeting, I assume many who attended have scientific skills if not the right expertise, perhaps you could reply to the ‘debate’ in a geological publication. Sure they showed some ignorance but OTOH raising (and sustaining) the ‘debate’ amoungst scientists who are likely to be sub-consiously biased will ulimately fuel ‘cross polination’ of knowledge and a better picture for all.

    On the plus side a $1 billion solar generator has been announced here in Australia, the company hopes to build another 30 similar generators in the next 15yrs.

  18. 18
    Andy Revkin says:

    Having interviewed quite a few geologists over the years, my sense is that many (certainly not all) are much more attuned to the enormous natural fluctuations in both climate and atmospheric composition over the ages that they see the building anthropogenic component as minimal by comparison.

    Mind you, the Geological Society of America statement on humans and climate, while more cautious than those from the AGU and AMS, does accept the basics:

    The Geological Society of America (GSA) supports the scientific conclusions that Earth’s climate is changing; the climate changes are due in part to human activities; and the probable consequences of the climate changes will be significant and blind to geopolitical boundaries.

    Still, as was clear in a huge comment thread on Dot Earth on climate views of scientists, such statements are not always the result of broad consensus.

  19. 19
    Ken Miller says:

    I am Chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers, a co-author of a paper in this IGC session (Barrett, Crowley, and Miller), attended this session and attended an even more skeptical session at the 2007 Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting. The thesis of Barrett et al. is that Cenozoic climate changes suggest that even modest temperature changes can have large amplification. At GSA, I was lead author of a paper (Miller et al., in press, Global and Planetary Change) that establishes that pre-anthropogenic sea level was rising 0.75±0.25 mm/yr and thus humans are responsible for the bulk of the current 3.3 mm/yr change (Rahmstorf et al., 2007). We suggested that an 80 cm global rise was likely by 2100 (Rahmstorf et al., 2007), not the 40 cm predicted by IPCC. (I would update that today to likely over a meter by 2100). I tried to ask a question at the IGC session noting that Nick Morner was quite incorrect (and to note that it is not man causing the change but humans; women are equally to blame). It was hard to break through the fractious divide between skeptics and believers.

    The GSA symposium was even more fractious, with Bill Gray leading the skeptics with his glorification of Senator Inhofe (Bill, where was the science?). This leads us back to the question posed here: are geologists skeptical?

    Yes, geologists have more than their share of skeptics and many opinions offered by the audience here and at GSA were uninformed. Yet, the geological community represented by the speakers in the IGC session (Jansen, Barrett, and Haug to name three) were quite informed, balanced, and supported the IPCC. Part of the problem is one of education of our community to data sets that they are not familiar with. I think that sessions such as these, though they may be a lightning rod for skeptics, are actually quite good. We must stand up to shoddy science.

    The best example of this are two of the skeptic talks in the IGC session. Willie Soon’s talk on solar variability and climate was easily seen by the audience as lacking scientific content on the subject of climate (though replete in science about galactic evolution). Svensmark’s talk was more polished and to the uninitiated, seemed like solid science. Thanks to RC, I was able to pull up numerous rebuttals to this on the wireless during his talk. One climate scientist stood up after Svensmark’s talk and called it trash. This was not helpful, but we are all human. I highly respected Terry Sloan from Lancaster for his comments on Svensmark, who in turn replied by calling Sloan’s work meaningless.

    My impression is that the convenor, Jorn Thiede, simply wanted to let skeptics have their day in court.

    My other impression is that geologists have more skeptics than atmospheric scientists, but probably not more than many other fields. Paleoceanographers are much more closely aligned with the IPCC results (see the section of the IPCC edited by Jansen on Paleoclimate.)

  20. 20

    Re 16. One of the bigger (biggest?) geochemical conferences, Goldschmidt when I attended did not have a single talk on “other warming theories” but lots on CCS, pH in oceans… corrals and other Climate related stuff… so judging from that yes, this seems different I had some colleges that haven’t got back yet I will ask them what they think later.

  21. 21
    Alex de Marothy says:

    I think Andy Revkin’s onto something there. But by the same coin, geologists might also lose sight of the fact that during most of the time-periods they study, the earth was not only uninhabited by humans, but also _uninhabitable_.

    But all in all, I don’t think the opinion of geologists is very relevant. I’m a chemist, and I don’t think _my_ viewpoint is particularly relevant. However, I only know a single global-warming sceptic in my line of work. (and his speciality is NMR spectroscopy.. very unrelated)

    OTOH, I can tell y’all that my boss (the department head) came in to work after having seen “An Inconvenient Truth” and practically ordered everyone in the office to go see it. He was quite shocked, he said, and had gone over to the Earth Sciences department to fact-check it. Which he summarized as: “In all, it pretty much all checks out”.

    I think natural scientists in general support the theory of climate change. Not necessarily because they know more, but rather because they’re better at knowing what they _don’t know_ – and correspondingly readier to acknowledge the expertise of others.

    As a chemist, all I’m prepared to say is that the bit about CO2 absorbing IR radiation (heat), is absolutely true. :)

  22. 22
    Hank Roberts says:

    It can be pretty amazing. I recall having quite an argument with a magazine editor couple of decades ago — who had a very good general science educatinon.

    He was printing a book review of a seafloor atlas, and decided to include its illustration of the mid-Atlantic ridge and the pattern of parallel magnetic lines in the seafloor.

    He captioned it as illustrating the “ever-expanding Earth.”

    And I could not convince him he’d gotten captured by a religious notion. He was sure he’d learned it that way in his geology class. Heck, maybe he did ….

  23. 23
    SomeBeans says:

    It’s not only the geologists: if you look at the house journal of the (British) Institute of Physics (Physics World) then it has a bit of a skeptical slant. This *may* be due to the influence of a small number of skeptics, and an editorial team who are not so on the ball or who deliberately court controversy. The same seems to happen in the American Institute of Physics

  24. 24
    Kim Hannula says:

    Naomi Oreskes probably has the best insight into the attitudes of geologists. (Before she started studying the history of climate science, she worked on the history of plate tectonics and continental drift, and she has interesting things to say about the reasons why US geologists rejected continental drift in the early 1900’s. In other words, Oreskes knows her cranky geologists who turn out to be wrong.)

    I’m a solid-earth geologist (structural geology, metamorphic petrology), and I agree with Steve Milesworthy (#5). I would go a bit further, though. The fundamental assumption of geology is uniformitarianism: the present is the key to the past. We’ve recently been trying to convince the world that we’re relevant to humans because the past can also say something about the future: earthquake hazards, volcanic hazards, flood hazards – geology can give a longer-term perspective than history, and tell us that a 5000-year-old volcano is potentially dangerous.

    Geologists can get misled by uniformitarianism, though. The past helps us understand the future, but only if the same physical and chemical processes are operating. It’s hard for geologists to accept that humans are more than temporary, surface-scratching creatures – that we can affect the underlying physical and chemical processes that drive the geology that we study. And it’s hard to trust ideas that come out of physical and chemical models when they aren’t confirmed by something that we see in rocks. (Geologists will often dredge up the example of Lord Kelvin’s attempt to determine the age of the Earth from heat flow calculations – Kelvin was very wrong, because his model was incomplete.) And geologists have known for a long time that climate changes, so if it was natural in the past, there’s no reason to blame humans…

    …except that there are good reasons to blame humans, and climate scientists have built a convincing case based on many different lines of evidence. (Geologists should respect that; it’s essentially the same way that solid earth geoscientists build big ideas.) You can’t test whether humans cause climate change by looking at a time when humans weren’t around… it’s like proving that magma doesn’t cause metamorphism by looking at metamorphic rocks that were heated by other processes. Geologists should get that, because we think that way, too.

    And most geologists who have been in grad school since the late 80’s do accept and respect climate research. If we’re in the same departments, or have climate researchers coming to department seminars, then we hear and understand the arguments. But people who work in government agencies that separate geology from climate, or who work in oil & gas or mining, or who work in academic departments that are strictly solid earth – well, those people aren’t directly exposed to the current thinking of climate researchers. And they are perfectly capable of thinking about climate like geologists did in the 70’s. (Milankovitch, Milankovitch, Milankovitch.)

    So geologists should accept climate change, but there are lots reasons why some don’t. The reasons are bad, but they exist.

  25. 25
    thingsbreak says:

    I would imagine the number of geologist contrarians drops off quite sharply the more related their field is to climatic change. Those who work on sedimentary or speleothem proxies or silicate weathering probably don’t count too many among them, for example.

  26. 26

    Perhaps geologists should return to discussing their recent adoption of the term “Anthropocene” which is, after all, a geological term. Is that widely accepted by geologists?

    “…define it as the era in which humans first began to alter the earth’s climate and ecosystems.”

    ( I just worry about the denyoclypse and skeptinctions. )

  27. 27
    Don Healy says:

    Perhaps it would be beneficial to refine the geological perspective to the paleo-botanical perspective and examine the history of the plant community. When vascular plants first evolved. about 425 million years ago (Cooksonia), CO2 levels were about 3000 ppm. Gymnosperms evolved between 385 and 365 million years ago under CO2 concentration of near 4000 ppm and angiosperms evolved with CO2 levels of 2200 ppm about 165 million years ago. These earlier plant forms used C3 photosynthetic pathway better adapted to higher CO2 concentrations. However, as CO2 levels approached present day levels of 274 to 400 ppm, many of the C3 plants exhibited stress due to CO2 starvation. As a result of this environmental stress, two new photosynthetic pathways evolved; the C4 pathway and CAM. C4 plants first evolved up to 50 million years, they did not reach significant numbers until about 8 million years ago Crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM, which is typically of the cactii, evolved even more recently, apparently to counter the effect of CO2 starvation. As CO2 levels rise above recent lows, most plants grow more efficiently and harbor water resources more effectively. Hot houses typically increase CO2 levels to 1000 to 1500 to promote growth rates.

    As the animal kingdom, including human beings, is entirely dependent upon a healthy plant kingdom, it might serve climate researchers well to step back and examine this issue from the geologic perspective, rather than continue the rather myoptic view that the models are right and anything counter to the models predictions must be erroneous.

    Another question that comes to mind is if earth did not experience a runaway greenhouse effect when CO2 levels were 4000 ppm or higher in earlier geologic history, what has changed to create such alarm at levels ten times lower? Just some random thoughts from one whose background is in forestry and plant physiology.

    [Response: No one is predicting a runaway greenhouse effect in that sense (this is one of those trivial talking points alluded to the post). However, perhaps you’d care to speculate on sea levels during the last geological period where CO2 was significantly higher than today? (try the Pliocene, or certainly the Eocene, or perhaps the Cretaceous?). As for trusting the plants over the models, what does this have to do with changes in tropical rainfall, the expansion of the Hadley Cell, ocean acidification or Arctic sea ice declines? Please be serious. – gavin]

  28. 28
    Bob Arning says:

    Sure, it is. But … have You ever considered how hard it is to progress from an erroneous square one. You will always find many scientists ready to repeat stubbornly:
    “Carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant”
    You must wait for generational change in science community to silence them.

    This is a good example of how the different interpretation of words can lead us astray. Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant in the same sense as PCB’s or dioxin: no sane person advocates removing all CO2 from the atmosphere. Yet too much seems quite harmful, so we can image the argument:

    person 1: CO2 is NOT a pollutant (meaning it is essential for life)
    person 2: CO2 IS a pollutant (meaning too much may kill us)

    Well, they are both right, but until they pick their words more carefully, we may be stuck in square one.

  29. 29
    cat black says:

    I might be flamed shortly for saying it, but my impression is that geologists are more “engineers” than “scientists”. And while I’ve never gone through the earth sciences college curriculum, I suspect it is less about teaching the scientific method and more about teaching engineering and materials science. The difference in geologists who refuse to consider the data and modeling around AGW/CC and those who are willing to may be the difference between those who are strictly engineers sampling materials verses those who have done some data analysis and modeling of their own.

    Just because someone is an “ologist” does mean they understand science or the fundamentals of research. Engineers in particular (and I know a few) seem woefully unaware of the difference between measuring and categorizing verses synthesis. The science behind our understanding of AGW/CC represents perhaps the most difficult and interesting act of synthesis the human mind has ever attempted, and we’re maybe 10% into the task at our present level of understanding after 50 years, with maybe just 20 years of runway left to land civilization safely.

    I fear we will need the help of all the “ologists”, including the geologists, before the end.


  30. 30


    Robert Carter = Bob Carter in the post above?

    [Response: Yes. – gavin]

  31. 31
    John Lang says:

    Geology is a long established field of science with a long history of proven techniques, debate and proven processes. Climate reconstruction has a long history as a field within geology (with ice age cycles etc. first being proven by geologists.)

    Climate science, by comparison, is a relatively new field in which scientific techniques and scientific processes still need to be fully developed and proven as reliable.

    In that sense, the views of geologists and geology in general should not be so summarily dismissed.

    [Response: No one is dismissing the views of geologists or geology. Indeed, paleo-climate has many lessons for today’s climate issues. But that doesn’t mean any respect should be given to statements that are patently false (i.e. there is no sea level rise, CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas) just because it comes from a geologist. – gavin]

  32. 32
    A.C. says:

    “this polite tolerance of acts of stifling sabotage must stop.”

    a pleasant thought that can’t be executed. the debate, even though it seems pointless to the initiated and the knowledgeable (neither of which I am) is necessary to persuade the interested novices that what climate scientists say is rigorous and reliable. if/when climate scientists turn to procedures characteristic of politicians to end these debates (pointless and unproductive though they probably are) before the novices (and geologists) are persuaded….well, they’re going to end up saying to everyone who isn’t a climate scientist “hey, just take our word for it.”

    the trouble is, some of us have been lied to enough to know the risk involved with taking anybody’s word for it, especially when it comes time to decide how to spend the Christmas bonus or weigh out whether or not the cost of new windows and siding is really going to be worth it.

    so, big props to the RC (and other) scientists who take time away from advancing their fields to make their case to the novices the hard way. and i think we can all agree that this whole climate change issue is far too serious to try to resolve by taking shortcuts.

  33. 33
    jules says:

    indeed there were thousands of geologists on the congress : how many of the participants can be regarded as “sceptics”. How much would that be in % ?

    I’m a bit surprised by the high level of witchhunting this topic in my opinion has & how some people seem to be willing to create whole theories of why geologists are “incompetent” to discuss the subject; a conclusion depending on the grounds there might be a couple of them rejecting AGW.

    I’m sorry guys, but the level of this post is FAR below the level i do expect to find on RC.

  34. 34
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Here’s one geologist who doesn’t agree with the deniers:
    This link says in part:
    “Gosnold and colleagues have detected changes in ground surface temperatures over the last 500 years by measuring the change in temperature vs. depth (T-z) in boreholes drilled in the ground, sometimes up to 700 meters deep.”

    I would think that any geologist worth his salt would be aware of bore hole studies that add to the other proxy methods of studying past climate change.

    Another study,this one by Pollack et al lead to similar results:
    The above study states in part:
    “The geophysical methods used to generate bore hole temperature. reconstructions do not permit annual or decade resolution, but only the century-scale trend in temperatures over the last several centuries. Nonetheless, this record, totally independent of data and methods used in other studies, shows the same thing: the Earth is warming dramatically.”

    Not all geologists have their heads in the sand. Some are looking into bore holes with interesting results.

  35. 35
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John Lang, Horse puckey! The average geologist knows no more about climate science than he does about string theory. Do you propose that Brian Greene and Ed Witten consult them before publishing their next paper. If geologists have something relevant to say about climate scienc, great. They should say it–in peer-reviewed publications. If their insights do not rise to that level, why the hell should we pay them any more attention than we do to any other ignorant food tube?

  36. 36

    Re #32 AC, I will stand by my words.

    We all welcome novices, students and even skeptics. Denialists, ideologues, obstructionists and disruptors have no place here. And you know it.

    The simple example is the classroom where no unruly student is allowed to prevent the class from getting an education. This is a class about climate change, why do you insist on injecting economics philosophy into a science discussion?

    Much more significant, how much should we tolerate voices that prevent us from knowing and describing dangers to our future?

  37. 37
    Ike Solem says:

    Towards an anthropological perspective on scientific institutions…

    Nature doesn’t care at all about the academic distinctions within university research departments, or the struggle for funding among the various branches, or the other more human behaviors, i.e. the struggle for one’s place in the ivory tower.

    However, such things matter a lot if one wants to run a government-funded science program. The question then becomes: what controls governmental decisions to fund or not fund science? How do governments make such funding decisions?

    The best way to do it is to set up independent bodies of scientists, chosen from universities, who will be given lump sums of money to distribute based on a transparent peer-review process to the most deserving research programs. That’s how the U.S. science program was structured initially – a public endeavor.

    At the same time, large businesses set up private research labs (Bell Labs) – but these labs have always been focused more on engineering commercial applications from basic scientific discoveries – and thus we have the silicon-based transistor, the silicon photovoltaic cell, the integrated circuit, the light-emitting diode – quite a list.

    However, when independent scientific bodies start coming up with results that are very troubling to large industry, large industry often starts pressuring politicians to cut off funding for the science. This is a well-known fact, and since we are talking about geology, the institution in question is the USGS.

    In the 1990s, the USGS began funding a large amount of science related to environmental contamination and similar issues, which led to a huge backlash in the Republican Congress, which threatened to dissolve the USGS entirely. In any event, the budget was slashed and with it the focus on environmental pollution, and the USGS is now back to being a quietly obedient. Look at their news releases, for example:

    Not much on climate or global warming – basically, the theme is “we don’t want to have our funding slashed again”. The basic theme is continue to use fossil fuels, just sequester the carbon (wave the wand), and “adapt to impacts”.

    90 Billion Barrels of Oil and 1,670 Trillion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas Assessed in the Arctic open in new window podcast icon, 7/23/2008
    The area north of the Arctic Circle has an estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of technically recoverable natural gas liquids in 25 geologically defined areas thought to have potential for petroleum.

    “Carbon farm” project will study ways to capture atmospheric CO2 open in new window, 7/23/2008
    Imagine a new kind of farming in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – “carbon-capture” farming, which traps atmospheric carbon dioxide and rebuilds lost soils.

    “New Findings on Contaminant Threats in African Dust to the Future of Coral Reefs to Coral Chemical Defenses”- 7/7/2008
    That’s the title of this press release – even though most of the reports listed in it focus on the link between high sea surface temperatures and coral bleaching.

    In any release on global warming, the phrase “anticipate and address the impacts of climate change” is always used – never anything like “slow the rate of global warming by ending the use of fossil fuels.”

    I would say the most disingenuous press release was this one, however:

    “Two 500-Year Floods Within 15 Years: What are the Odds?”

    No discussion of the fact that global warming is making the atmosphere moister, or that models have been steadily predicting greater rates of precipitation for a long time now. Not even any basic discussion of how the very concept of a “500 year flood” relies entirely on the assumption that the climate is stable!

    In that model, the notion is that weather events are just generated at a constant average rate, and every once in a while, several line up on top of each other to create “The Perfect Storm” – which is true in a stable climate. However, if the climate is changing, then those weather events are not constant and average over time – you see noise superimposed on an increasing trend, so you can forget about notions like “500 year floods”. A far more reasonable explanation is that the flooding is becoming more intense due to global warming.

    That’s what happens when the politicians and private industry gain control of the scientific bodies. It is a little like the whole Church-State issue in previous eras.

  38. 38
    a geologist says:

    As a geologist, one of my biggest criticisms of the science is that a large proportion of geologists are overly focused on the descriptive and qualitative. When you lack quantitative skills and do not understand the modeling process, it is natural to mistrust results derived from computer models.

    That said, my guess would be that most of the skeptics in the geology community are either older or employed in the extractive industries. Those are the same groups that resisted the plate tectonics revolution in the 20th century, so perhaps this is simply history repeating itself…

  39. 39
    Matti Virtanen says:

    Re 31. “But that doesn’t mean any respect should be given to statements that are patently false (i.e. there is no sea level rise, CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas) just because it comes from a geologist. – gavin]”

    Please, Gavin, could you name the geologist who made the second statement, about CO2 not being a greenhouse gas? Such was not mentioned in Rasmus’ post, so one may get the impression that, you are dealing with straw men.

    [Response: Conceded, it was just an example. But substitute in the almost equivalent “CO2 can’t be a climate forcing because it lags temperature in the Vostok ice core”, and there are plenty of cases. – gavin]

  40. 40
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I would that denialism is not the exclusive province of geologists. I work with a lot of electrical engineers, and the level of denial there is pretty amazing. We have seen that there are denialists willing to open backdoors to ignorant diatribes at the APS, and we are regularly confronted with denialists who are computer scientists, chemists and on and on. The one thing these folks have in common is that they have some expertise in a remotely “related” field to climate science. However, rather than taking the time to actually learn the science, they have assumed that their experience gives them sufficient insight to pronounce with authority on something they haven’t looked into very deeply.

    Climate science is not simple. It is a multi-disciplinary endeavor, and fitting all the pieces together is a subtle endeavor. That is why I appreciate this site so much. If more “scientists” and “engineers” would have sufficient humility to take advantage of this resource, we would have a lot fewer ignorant “experts” out there

  41. 41
    Mark A. York says:

    Don Easterbrook is another geologist in this camp.

  42. 42
    Food Tube says:

    Per ‘ignorant food tube?’ I’d advise keeping your day job and leaving the PR to the professionals. Why pay attention to the masses? Because their cooperation is required to solve the problem.

  43. 43
    Keith says:

    Ray, as a multi-disciplinary field, climate science should pay attention to the responses from “related” fields, because sometimes, the people out in left field actually do know something that you, sitting at home plate, may not have noticed. If you don’t take into account the point they are trying to make, and it is actually more valid than your argument in the long run, you are the one with egg on your face, not them. Tycho Brahe was executed for the heliocentric model, Galileo was imprisoned and forced to recant, but Copernicus was lauded. When the preponderance of evidence eventually supports you, you become the hero. Prior to that, the steamroller flattens you. Don’t claim skeptics do not know anything, because if they are proved correct, then you become the new “flat earth crowd”. Be tolerate of both sides of the debate, because based upon several comments to this post, it is beginning to grow.

    [Response: If I were you, I’d consult a little more with historians. Brahe died of a bladder infection (or maybe mercury poisoning), and didn’t accept heliocentricism in any case. Copernicus was lauded decades before Galileo’s trial. – gavin]

  44. 44
    Chris Colose says:


    I’m very scared. I have watched the hour + long video that you linked to, and I think the most intelligent comment (and one of the only ones) was from the gentleman in the audience who used the “insurance principle,” and this includes both the panel and the audience.

    There was a vast degree of ignorance in the statements/questions posed by the audience, and IMO very poor answers or statements by the panel. This highlights a large problem for me– the climate science community has not communicated this issue in an accurate and convincing manner to people in other fields, or to the general public.

  45. 45
    chris sg says:

    Easterbrook is glaciologist, to boot. Beyond the geo’s who work in mining or oil and gas, you get a lot of quaternary geologists who are also on the skeptical side. Take Tim Patterson, for instance. He’s a paleoclimatologist who ascribes all the variation he sees to solar forcing. Not a whiff of a background in statistics, fourier series, power spectrum, atmospheric physics, etc. He makes squiggly lines and visually compares them to time series of sunspots, or solar output, or whatever. He writes op-ed’s in the Globe and Mail (Canada’s principal national newspaper) saying things like “as a paleoclimatologist, let me tell you that anthropogenic climate change is wrong because CO2 was way high in the Cretaceous”. Talk about disingenuous. But people lap it up because he has apparent credentials, and they don’t have the tools to assess the argument.

  46. 46
    Phil Scadden says:

    Better speak up as a geologist/geophysicist. Close to 300 of us here and if there are any denialists, then they are pretty quiet. (and incidentally Bob C was my teacher for 4 years. Given what I gained from him, it is very disappointing to see his current stance).I also work in oil/coal (though govt moratorium on thermal power stations has seen coal work die), but it would surely be dishonest to deny AGW on basis that it may affect your job! I think we have to keep exploring for oil or we going to make transition to other energy more difficult but we certainly dont want any expansion in production – we want substantial reduction.

    While life might have expanded during warm periods, my colleagues are studying the hypothesis that extinction rate is strongly affected by rate of climate change. The evidence for this should not give anyone comfort.

    I salute IGC for at least putting the debate on table. If there are a lot of geologists that misunderstand trivialities, then hoping the debate would inspire some deeper reading.

  47. 47
    Russell says:

    Geologists spend more time outside than your average scientist. It has been getting cooler each year now for several years, and that is obvious to anyone that spends a large portion of their time outside.

    [Response: Hmmm…. – gavin]

  48. 48
    Robert Reiland says:

    Re # 27 (Don Healy): Hundreds of millions of years ago the solar output was a few percent lower than it is now. With the carbon dioxide concentrations of that time and today’s solar output, mass extinction would quickly follow.

    You’re talking about “the geologic perspective,” but you should be thinking in terms of evolution. If plants have evolved adaptations to lower concentrations of CO2, they won’t suddenly become the plants of 300 to 500 million years ago if CO2 concentrations grow to the levels of that time period. Most of them would in fact not survive. The plants of the distant past are extinct.

    Just as the biological world of hundreds of millions of years ago is a different world than we have today, the future world under much higher levels of CO2 would also be a different world. Such radically new ecosystems might be wonderful for some future sentient beings, but I doubt that they would seem wonderful to us.

  49. 49

    No, geologists are no different from anyone else. They will not admit that their oil industry is destroying the world. They have worked hard to obtain their degrees and doctorates, so find it impossible to accept what they are doing can be in anyway wrong.

    Not only geologist take this view. Here is an excerpt from someone posting on the newsgroup, justifying his success and dismissal of the threat from global warming:

    Shame your envious of others with a bigger car and pxxxs than you. Some work damn hard for that money ,and through their endeavors employ more people and enrich them ,its called capitalism. [slightly edited to avoid spam trap]
    I fly all over the world and believe me its a big place as you well know.
    I find it hard to believe that the pollution man puts out can really effect the planet ,ie weight of CO2 in atmosphere against weight of CO2 put out as pollution is 1,000,000,000,000 : 1 Kgs , ,figure I read in Scientific America mag last year. So how can we on these figures cause the hockey stick effect on those CO2 charts unless either the readings are wrong ,or inconsistently taken ,or the way the CO2 is measured has changed or there is a natural climate change going on with a miniscule help from us.

    So just like the geologists, this capitalist grabs at straws to justify himself.

    But are climate modellers any better? They too refuse to accept that their industry is leading mankind to disaster. Global warming is advancing far faster than the models predict, yet they stick by them.

    When told “that clouds are not well described by GCMs” Rasmus replies that it “… is true and discussed in the latest IPCC report)…” So that is all right then. We need not worrry about the clouds in the models being wrong because it says so in the IPCC report! And what about the other errors in the models like the double ITCZ, and the tropical lapse rate problem? What about the Arctic sea ice that instead of taking 100 years seems more likely to disappear in ten?

    Rasmus continued his denial by writing “that the 90% confidence in the human influence on recent trends is derived only from models”. He cited Gavin’s post “The CO2 problem in 6 easy steps” In it is argued that global warming is bound to happen because climate sensitivity is “Climate sensitivity is around 3ºC for a doubling of CO2”

    No one knows what climate sensitivity is. 3ºC is the best estimate using models. That hardly disproves that it is derived only from models.

    But here we do come to a difference between climate modelers and geologists. The modelers have all been trained in mathematics or physics. They believe that when it is proved that Pythagoras’ Theorem is true it stays proved, and when climate sensitivity is found it will be true for all eternity, but geologists are not so easily fooled.

    They know for every rule they make there are exceptions. The basic law of superposition is good example. It states that “Sedimentary layers are deposited in a time sequence, with the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on the top.” So the deeper the fossil is in a succession of rocks the older it is. But if, as occurs, the rocks are overturned later then this no longer applies.

    Similarly, it is easy to find a sensitivity by producing a relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature using the data from the ice cores in Antarctica, but that relationship does not hold for ice cores from Greenland. If it does not apply for two regions of the earth over the same time period, why should it apply over the whole earth for different time periods?

    So the geologists, capitalists, and climatologists are each no different. Each live in their own idioverse where they are right, and everyone else is wrong. Sound familiar?

    Cheers, Alastair.

  50. 50
    Michael says:

    Interesting-a climatologist consensus is validation of AGW, while a geologist consensus must means what? Corruption, ignorance, cronyism, cranky old men following the herd? Its time to throw out the consensus argument once and for all, and turn to more legitimate means of scientific verification.

    [Response: A geologists’ consensus on a kind of rock, or mountain range formation or sea floor spreading is certainly worth listening too. But an endocrinologist’s opinion on the same thing – not so much. To each field their own consensus. – gavin]