Commentary: Climate change’s ‘consensus?’

The adage “history repeats itself” could have been invented to describe the science of geology. As it is axiomatic that present geological processes are for the most part, replays of past events, deciphering the ancient geological record — which includes frequent earthshaking convulsions — can be predictive of the future.

The title of a current CNN news segment, “Planet in Peril,” is appropriate for planet Earth, but it is all about alleged anthropological causes for these perils, with no mention whatsoever of natural forces. Though most humans view the Earth as stable, geological history reveals a small planet constantly in motion, and constantly changing, both inside and out. In fact, Earth’s environment has always been in peril, and always will be, largely from its own self-destructive impulses and those originating in the solar system and beyond. As one small example: a relatively short period of intense volcanic activity can spew out more toxins, aerosols and particulates than human activity has created throughout the entire Industrial Revolution.

This brings us to the current panic celebre, human-caused global warming, which has been stirred up to a crescendo by some scientists led by the UN-sponsored International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) feeding information to a worldwide cabal of environmental organizations, politicians and mass media, which molds it to promote its own agendas. The message, which has been incessantly drummed into our heads, most recently by scary documentaries, is essentially this: a consensus of selected scientists and political scientists has concluded that it is 90% certain that the global warming over the past 50 years has largely resulted from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, caused by the ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels, logging and other human endeavours. (Translated for public consumption by environmental organizations and the media: global warming is caused solely by humans, and this issue is beyond scientific debate). If these human activities are not abruptly curtailed, the planet will continue to warm to catastrophic levels over time, bringing a horrendous rise in sea level, storms of great intensity, drought, pestilence and extinctions of flora and fauna. If these human activities are abruptly terminated, global warming and all of its postulated calamitous results will be stopped over time.

Any layperson or scientist who might question these ideas, in whole or in part, is at the very least a “court jester,” or to put it in the terms of its more strident non-scientist supporters, a treasonous liar — or, as designated by modern-day Madame Defarge, syndicated Boston Globe columnist, Ellen Goodman — “the equivalent of a Holocaust denier.”

In presenting this thesis, the consensus scientists, environmental groups, supportive politicians and particularly the U.S. media make little or no mention of geologic history, and, indeed, if they do, deliberately distort scientific findings that might dispute their ideas. So let’s look back at a few events in the geologic past and their likely causes.

But before embarking on this journey, let me tell you that geoscientists are able to decipher geologic history particularly by study of fossils contained within and by sensitive chemical analyses of ancient lithologies. Also let me say that Earth’s history is marked by numerous climate changes, to a point where one could say that climate change is the rule rather than the exception.

There have been six mass extinction events recognized throughout the hundreds of millions of years of the Phanerozoic Eon, the oldest of which occurred 488 million years ago, and all of which were likely the result of catastrophic climate changes. The largest of these extinctions happened about 251 million years ago during the Permian-Triassic transition. The period from about 65 to 55 million years ago was a particularly perilous time for life on Earth.

Perhaps the best-known wipeout occurred 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Era, when the dinosaurs rather suddenly succumbed after having thrived on Earth’s environment for the previous 230 million years. There is good evidence that their demise resulted from either catastrophic volcanic activity, large meteorite impacts, or possibly both, the pollution from which drastically cooled the climate, destroying food sources.

Thermal Maximum

Then, about 55 million years ago, came the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, thought to be one of the most rapid and extreme global warming events in geological history. Studies by marine scientists James Kennett and Lowell Stott indicate that sea temperatures rose between 5C and 8C over a period of a few thousand years. Arctic sea temperatures reached a sub-tropical 23C, and warming penetrated through to the ocean depths causing severe changes in submarine chemistry.

The continuing effects of the dinosaur-killing volcanic activity might also partially explain the basic heat sources for this later drastic warming, which released enormous amounts of carbon contained in methane hydrates under ocean depths, as well as from cooking of organic sediments. This great emission of carbon led to extremely high atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (CO2 levels reached 3,000 parts per million, compared with the present 380 ppm). This further exacerbated the warming event, severely affecting flora and fauna, and it took 200,000 years for Earth to cool as carbon gradually collected back into the oceans.

As an interesting sidelight to the relationship between increased atmospheric CO2 and warming, research by scientists Jan Vizier of the University of Ottawa and colleagues has determined that 440 million years ago, during Paleozoic time, when CO2 levels were thought to be 16 times higher than at present, it was a time of glaciation, not warming. Throughout the whole Phanerozoic Eon, these scientists have not found consistent correlation between high atmospheric levels of CO2 and warming. Moreover, throughout geologic history, it appears that the chicken/egg scenario of first high CO2 levels, then warming, as is postulated by the “consensus” for current warming, occurred in reverse, as one might expect.

Now, let’s look at more recent times. Four major ice ages have been recorded in Earth’s history, the most recent of which is called the Great Ice Age, which began about 1 million years ago, and which we technically are still in. I must mention that ice ages include glacial and interglacial periods. We are currently somewhere in between, as two continental landmasses, Greenland and Antarctica, are still covered by glaciers. During the peak of what is called Wisconsinian glaciation, about 20,000 years ago, much of Asia, Europe and North America, was blanketed by thick continental ice sheets. In North America, glaciation reached southward to about latitude 45, and what is now Chicago was under ice about one mile thick. For the past 10,000 years, there has been a very general Earth warming causing recession of the continental ice masses, but as I will show you, this has not been a smooth ride.

Let’s briefly visit time intervals which are called, respectively, the Medieval Warming Period, roughly from the 10th to the 14th century, and the Little Ice Age, which took place from the 14th century through the first half of the 19th century, both documented by human historical accounts. During the “Medieval Climate Optimum,” the northern latitudes warmed to such a degree that the Vikings were able to colonize Greenland and easily subsist on local agriculture, while in what is now the American West, there were drought conditions.

And then, rather abruptly, came the Little Ice Age, which brought long, intense winters and very short summers. No longer could the Vikings survive in Greenland, and indeed, survival became a problem throughout the Northern Atlantic region. An ice cap grew around Iceland so that its ports were no longer navigable. There were severe storms with more snow than has ever been
seen, before or since; mountain glaciers grew rapidly covering agricultural lands; and normally free-flowing rivers froze solid during the winters. Following the violent 1815 eruption of the Tambora Volcano in present Indonesia, 1816 became the year of no summer in Europe and North America.

And then, around 1850, the Little Ice Age suddenly ended. So what caused these severe and often sudden climate variations in relatively recent times on the geological time scale? Most likely, it was variation in solar irradiance, possibly, changes in the tilt of earth’s axis, and importantly, variations in ocean conveyor systems. Also, such violent volcanic eruptions as Tambora and later, Krakatoa, have played a role, along with lesser-known submarine volcanism.

Since the late 19th century humans, have enjoyed more or less comfortable climate conditions, though there have been some bumps. For example, extreme warming occurred, particularly in the U.S., in the early 1900s and again during the 1930s. And cooling was so notable from roughly 1940 to 1974 that many of the same groups that now decry global warming shouted the alarm about impending global freezing. As we all know, we have been in a general warming trend since 1974, but in North America, this warming has been slightly less intense than that experienced during the 1930s and early 1900s.

The truth

So, what’s the point of this brief Earth climate history tour? Perhaps it can best be summarized by a quote credited to historian and philosopher, Will Durant; “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

We have some very plausible theories about the causes of the events described above and other earth-shaking catastrophes, but in reality, the only absolute truth that can be stated is that they all resulted from natural planetary and/or cosmic processes of unimaginable power, which dwarf human endeavour, and are for the most part, totally uncontrollable by humans. Such forces have always been operative, and always will be, so any honest discussion of past or present global climate change must consider these phenomena.

And now a word about scientists and scientific consensus. Though scientists are generally revered, they are not that different from society as a whole. Some, less than honest, can fudge data to enhance their theories, while others with inflated egos are not averse to calling those who might disagree with them nasty names, and when political expedience is factored in, there can be a tendency toward a herd mentality. Science never has been about consensus. Far more often than not, the oddball, deemed crazy by the majority, has turned out to be correct in scientific debate. And those who have been right have often suffered far more than insult for expounding their correct theories. Poor Galileo, who was admonished as a heretic and put under house arrest by the church for publicly stating his support of Copernican theory, would likely have been burned at the stake by the current environmental Sanhedrin.

But one doesn’t have to go back to Galileo to debunk scientific consensus. Before the theory of Continental Drift — the movement of Earth’s landmasses relative to each other — was proven to be fact, a broad consensus of scientists, greater than 90%, ridiculed the few proponents of this “preposterous” idea as kooks and quacks, as there was no conceivable Earth mechanism that could possibly cause continents to move. Then in the 1960s, when sea floor spreading was observed under the Atlantic Ocean along the Middle Atlantic Ridge, this very fundamental planetary process and keystone of earth science finally became universally recognized by geoscientists, along with the very real concept of Plate Tectonics.

The dissenters

The current dissenters from the human-caused global warming theories (labelled as “deniers”) are not just talk show blabbermouths. They include many skeptical geologists like myself, and a cadre of very distinguished climatologists, geoscientists and astrophysicists, some of whom have conducted extensive research and experiments to back up their theories. Certainly, their ideas deserve every bit as much consideration as those of the proponents of the human-caused theories.

Among these accomplished scientists are Nir Shaviv, astrophysicist from the Racah Institute of Physics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, one of Israel’s leading scientists; Nigel Weiss, Professor Emeritus, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, and past president of the Royal Astronomical Society; Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of the Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory, Russia; Henrk Svensmark of the Danish National Space Centre; Robert M. Carter, marine geologist at James Cook University, Australia; and climatologists Richard Lindzen and Carl Wunsch of MIT, among many others.

As reported in a Financial Post article called “The Deniers,” all of the above astrophysicists believe that while human emission-related atmospheric CO2 concentrations do affect Earth’s climate, by far the most important control is variation in solar radiation caused by changes in the sun’s magnetic field, while the MIT scientists are critical of the hype and oversimplification of the current media warming campaign, believing that future climatic events are very difficult to predict. Both Shaviv and Svensmark have conducted extensive research on the influence of cosmic rays on Earth’s climate.

Svensmark believes that during the 20th century, the sun’s magnetic field has been in a strong cycle that has led to deflection of cosmic rays causing a decrease in Earth’s cloud cover, which results in warming. Weiss points out that this high solar magnetic field usually runs in 11-year cycles, but that there has been a hyperactive cycle for the past 50 years, and that such hyperactive cycles can last from 50 to 100 years. When these cycles end, the Earth can be subject to rapid cooling, as happened during the coldest part of the Little Ice Age.

Abdussamatov points out that there has been simultaneous recent warming both on planets Earth and Mars that can only be the effect of one common factor, which he believes to be solar irradiance. He also suggests that high solar irradiance cycles cause Earth’s oceans to warm, resulting in large CO2 emissions. He believes that the current high solar irradiance cycle has peaked, and predicts Earth cooling for decades as the irradiance decreases.

And then there are variations in oceanic conveyor systems (thermohaline circulation). Global warming from whatever sources causing rapid melting of glaciers, as we are told is currently happening, can bring large influxes of fresh water into the oceans. This can slow or stop temperature modifying conveyor systems such as the Atlantic Ocean Gulf Stream, which brings warm currents northward and returns cool water southward. The fresh water can cap the normal current, preventing evaporation of warmer water in north latitudes, simultaneously lowering ocean salinity. The resulting decreased water density can prevent the normal sequence of denser cold water sinking to the depths and returning southward, thus interrupting the whole conveyor system. It is suspected that this phenomenon caused rapid and severe cooling of large portions of the Earth in the past such as during the cool periods of The Little Ice Age.

In 2003, Robert Gagosian, president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, presented a report warning world leaders that global warming might create climate scenarios that are directly opposite of what might be predicted. He warned that global warming altering ocean currents can bring on rapid cooling, that this cooling can affect large portions of the Earth, and that it can last for decades or centuries. Moreover, he warned that recent ocean studies indicate the possibility of this scenario.

And to add further uncertainty to the “consensus” on a most fundamental issue, Steven Schwartz, senior scientist with the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the U.S., points out that burn
ing of fossil fuels, just like volcanic eruptions, produces particulates and aerosols, and these substances in the atmosphere, which reflect solar radiation, have the direct opposite climatic effect as greenhouse gases. He laments that although there has been extensive research on greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, there has been very little documentation of resulting aerosols, and these aerosols are not properly considered in the consensus’s calculations.

So what can I conclude from this investigation of Earth and scientific history?

Past climate changes have resulted from numerous fundamental planetary and cosmic causes and combinations of these phenomena. Historically, there is strong evidence that cycles of stronger solar radiation have coincided with warming periods, and vice versa. Periods following large meteorite impacts and/or intense volcanic activity, resulting in massive emissions of particulates and sulphates, have caused rapid cooling events because of reflection of solar radiation.

Extreme greenhouse gas emissions have resulted from increased solar radiation and/or submarine volcanic activity warming the oceans and releasing enormous amounts of methane contained in clathrates. Perhaps a most relevant natural phenomenon to recent history and present time are the variations in oceanic conveyor systems, because they have occurred rapidly, and have very quickly transformed large portions of the Earth from a warming climate to severe cooling.

Where do I stand on the current debate between the “consensus,” which promotes the theory of human-caused global warming vs. the minority, which believes that global climate change is caused by natural forces, and that anthropological-caused greenhouse gas emissions have little effect on Earth’s climate? I have equal respect for legitimate scientists on both sides of this issue, and I believe in the contention of “consensus” scientists that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are significant, and could, if not abated, have a serious impact on possible future global warming, particularly if natural warming forces prevail for an extended period. But I have no respect whatsoever for those who ignore natural climate change in their “science.”

Best guess

My best guess is that the warming we are now witnessing is mainly natural, exacerbated to some degree by human-caused emissions. I am particularly galled by the environmental Sanhedrin’s propagandist contention that somehow natural forces, which controlled climate throughout all of Earth’s history, suddenly became irrelevant in 1957, to be supplanted by human controls.

This absurdity, which infers that if humans take certain remedial actions, then they can control Earth’s climate, is a false and dangerous assumption. I am particularly contemptuous of the many scenario predictions conjured by “scientists” of temperatures, sea levels, and extinctions of this or that life form 100 or 200 years from now, generally based upon fanciful computer entries, which infer that natural forces will remain constant.

If I were a gambler, I would bet the farm on two points. First, looking into the future, I would put everything I have on the premise that natural forces will be neither stable nor predictable over the next century or two. And second, major natural forces will trump human-caused emissions every time. It’s a no-brainer, even more certain than picking the Indianapolis Colts over the Baptist Church Sunday School team. Unfortunately, none of us, no matter how brilliant we might be, is capable of accurately predicting geological or cosmic forces that might severely affect the planet’s climate 10 years ahead, much less 200. On this matter, Jimmy The Greek’s forecast would be just as good as head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James E. Hansen’s.

Based on study of geological history, I bet Jimmy would put his money on an eventual change (sooner rather than later) in the solar magnetic field and/or changes in ocean currents, which will reverse the “irreversible” human-caused warming predicted by the “majority.” And when that happens, watch out! Then we will have real problems.

As for the majority’s contention that the science is settled, I hope that my above discourse at least puts that notion to rest. But my disagreements with the “consensus” on causes of climate change does not mean I believe that unabated human-caused pollution is acceptable.



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