Saturday, 22 August 2009

Heaven and Earth by Ian Plimer

A new book by a prominent Australian scientist claims that global warming is nothing to worry about — but perhaps he should get his facts right first
Bob Ward
The failure last week of the Australian Senate to pass new legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions follows hard on the heels of another potential obstacle presented by the country to international progress on climate change, namely the publication of an angry and bitter new book on the subject by one of its most prominent scientists.
Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth disputes almost every big finding from climate research of the past 20 years, complaining that it “lacks scientific discipline”. Instead, he argues, we should be listening to geologists such as him, who are uniquely placed to reassure us that global warming is natural and nothing to worry about, and that measures to tackle greenhouse gas emissions pose far more threat to our wellbeing and prosperity.
It is easy to see why this book has attracted attention, particularly from right-wing commentators who have long believed that man-made climate change is a conspiracy theory. But this book is so full of errors that readers who believe its content could be seriously misled about the causes and consequences of climate change.
In the opening chapter, Professor Plimer, who is based at the school of civil, environmental and mining engineering at the University of Adelaide, describes his work as “a scientific book about climate change”. With more than 500 pages filled with facts, figures, footnotes, scholarly references and graphs, it looks like a learned tome. But it is nothing like as robust and rigorous an examination of the scientific evidence on climate change as it would seem.
The first chapter contains a number of blunders and some highly contentious statements. In the second paragraph, he claims that “depopulation, social disruption, extinctions, disease and catastrophic droughts take place in cold times and life blossoms and economies boom in warm times”. On this extraordinary logic we should, presumably, be doing all we can to promote global warming.
The most insidious feature of the book is the way in which it deals with some of the scientific evidence in it. The very first diagram purports to show “five computer predictions of climate made in 2000”. In fact, it shows only three lines that are supposed to be predictions of “temperature increase” between 2000 and 2025, and two lines show, respectively, surface thermometer and satellite measurements between 1990 and 2008.
The diagram indicates that the thermometer readings are taken from a database of global annual temperature measurements compiled by the UK Met Office and the University of East Anglia. However, none of the values on the graph matches the official data. As a result, it shows computer models predicting ever-rising temperatures after 2000, departing from the temperature record, which plunges after 2005. Hence 2008 wrongly appears as much colder than any previous year back to 1993, when in fact it was warmer than 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999 and 2000. Yet the caption states: “This diagram shows that the hypothesis that human emissions of CO2 create global warming is invalid.”
A few pages on, Professor Plimer makes the curious statement that “the year of 2008 was an exceptionally cold year”, with a footnote reference to an online US newspaper article that doesn’t appear to exist. Yet 2008 was the tenth-warmest year since records began in 1850, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
Possibly the funniest howler in the book also occurs in the first chapter. It is a graph that is supposed to show the global temperature record since 1880, with a marked and highly exaggerated phase of cooling between 1940 and 1975. Again, no source is cited for this figure, and it cannot easily be found in any textbook or scientific paper. However, one eagle-eyed blogger pointed out soon after the book was published in Australia that the graph was identical to one in The Great Global Warming Swindle, broadcast on Channel 4 on March 8, 2007.
The makers of the programme, which was subsequently ruled by the broadcast regulator Ofcom to be biased and inaccurate, conceded after its first showing that the graph had been extended by taking an original figure showing temperature up to the mid-1980s and stretching it to make it look as though it went up to the time of the research. They also acknowledged that the original figure was obtained not from an acknowledged scientific paper but from a pamphlet posted on a US website set up in 1999 to collect signatures on a petition against the Kyoto Protocol.
The book is littered with mistakes. Professor Plimer appears to believe that geologists have been ignored by all those assessing evidence on climate change. But even those chapters that deal with past climates, which are supposedly the author’s strongest areas of knowledge, contain mistakes. For instance, he suggests that “by AD300, the global climate was far warmer than at present”, with temperatures between two and six degrees Celsius higher than today. A supporting footnote references a book published in 1977.
Unfortunately for Professor Plimer, the study of ancient climates has progressed in the past 30 years and the latest research suggests that the last time global average temperatures were more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels for a sustained period was three million years ago. Maybe he should have read the chapter on palaeoclimatology in the last assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.
Possibly the most confusing part of the book is the section on volcanoes, in which the author discusses at length the huge volumes of carbon dioxide and other gases that have been released into the air during eruptions over the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history. The reader may gain the mistaken impression that volcanoes are responsible for the rise of more than 30 per cent in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide that has occurred since pre-industrial times. In fact, they have produced a negligible volume of CO2 compared with human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, over the past 100 years. However, volcanoes have periodically produced large amounts of sulphate aerosols, which have reflected the Sun’s rays and temporarily cooled the Earth during the past century, as was seen after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991.
In other chapters, on issues ranging from sea-level rise to solar activity, Professor Plimer uses geology as an excuse to conclude the opposite of mainstream climate science. It is hard to work out how and why he managed to produce such a controversial and flawed account. One could assume, charitably, that he simply overextended himself and strayed beyond his own technical knowledge and competence into areas, such as atmospheric physics, that he may have been unable to grasp properly. But he has a solid academic reputation, with awards for his research and membership of a number of learned bodies.
Perhaps his forays into public debate provide a better guide to his motives. The book’s preface describes Professor Plimer as “Australia’s best-known geologist”, primarily because of the publication of his book Telling Lies for God and other efforts to tackle hardline creationists.
His apparent distaste for spirituality and faith is evident in the final chapter of Heaven and Earth (published in the UK by Quartet), in which he rails against just about everybody who accepts the overwhelming evidence that greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change today. He calls on environmentalists to “recognise the religious aspects of their stance”, and cautions that they are “no different from creationists who claim that their stance is scientific when their very foundations are religious, dogmatic and fraudulent”. Yet the strength of feeling emanating from the pages of this book suggests the author’s frustration rather than of a cool, dispassionate analysis.
Although it is unclear whether his book influenced any of the Australian senators who voted last week to defeat new climate change legislation, Professor Plimer intervened in the debate with an article that argued against “this legislative time-bomb that will destroy productive industries in rural and industrial Australia”.
I do hope readers will not be taken in by Professor Plimer’s error-strewn polemic.
Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science