Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Geologists and denial of human-caused climate change

There's an interesting post at Real Climate about a session on climate change at the International Geological Congress. Apparently, the session included quite a few speakers who are skeptical about human-caused climate change, which led Rasmus Benestad (the Real Climate contributer who wrote the article) to ask:

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?

To be honest, I don't know. I do know geologists who are skeptical about human-caused climate change. Most of them are retired petroleum geologists. (That may be due to sampling bias, however; Durango is one of those places where geologists go to retire, and the Four Corners Geological Society is affiliated with AAPG, so I drink with retired petroleum geologists about once a month.) But last fall, I also saw a talk by a petroleum geologist who tried to explain why he was convinced that humans are affecting climate, and saw a number of industry geologists thinking about what he said.

Here's an edited version of what I said in a comment on Real Climate. I'm curious what other people think. Why are many geologists resistant to the idea of human-caused climate change?

I’m a solid-earth geologist (structural geology, metamorphic petrology), and I agree with Steve Milesworthy. [Milesworthy observed that the arguments of skeptical geologists tend to be, essentially: 1) there have been natural warm spells in the past, so the current climate change is also natural; 2) life has survived climate change in the past; and 3) climate science is just modeling and can't be trusted.] But I think there's more too it than that.

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, for instance, 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, not because models are inherently useless.) 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.


A Life Long Scholar said...

I'm good with the concept of climate change, as I geologist I am aware that it has been changing up and down for as far back as such things show in the rock record. I'm also ok with the fact that what we do as a species can influence those changes one direction or another (and that lately we've been favouring one over the other).

However, I'm not terribly concerned about the fact that it is changing--to me it simply means that the environmental niches which were present for the past few hundred years will be different over the next few hundred. Some species will flourish as a result of the change, some will suffer, that is simply what happens during times of change in a global ecosystem.

It may yet be possible for our species to stop the swing and encourage the climate to hold to what we consider "normal", but I'm not going to expect it to happen--as a species we aren't good at working together in very large groups for a common goal, nor do most humans seem to be able to plan further ahead than next week. Therefore such individuals as care need to take the steps they feel appropriate, and hope...

BrianR said...

I saw that RealClimate thread, saw your comment, and meant to comment earlier today, but then time got away from me.

I agree w/ you completely ... the few geologists I do know that are adamantly and truly skeptical of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are older and from industry. But, it's really not that many people when it comes down to it.

Because geologists are so used to dealing with very long time scales and much more significant changes in the Earth's climate, some are tad flippant about the current fluctuation. They'll say something nonchalant like 'it's changed before, it'll change again, that's nature, who cares' ... or something to that effect.

But, if you press them about the rate of change and, more importantly, the impact on habitability almost all (at least that I've interacted with) acknowledge AGW is an issue to be concerned about.

I'm also getting pretty tired of the perception of all petroleum geologists marching in lock-step with industry executives/lobbyists ... it's over-simplified and just plain wrong. There are several commenters over at RC who are playing this game. Painting an entire discipline and such a broad group of people with a single brush like that highlights their ignorance and/or laziness.

I work in the petroleum industry and virtually everybody I interact with does not fit this stereotype. Maybe it's 'cause i'm in research? Maybe it's because of where I live? I don't know. Either way, I'm pretty sure most of these commenters don't actually know many professional geologists.

Personally, I thought RC's post was lame ... and I typically enjoy their posts and perspective. And I thought your comment was a very good response to Rasmus' query.

Callan Bentley said...

Kim, I think it's good that you took the time to think about and write out these observations. I think you're right. Your post is clear and insightful and it's an important piece of the discussion. Thanks!

Penguindreams said...

A couple cents to the discussion from a different side. I'm not a geologist and do work on climate. I've also been looking at the creation-evolution wars in the US. Over there (newsgroup talk.origins), Salem's Law was developed. That is "If a creationist says they know science, they're probably an engineer." This isn't to say that all, or even very many engineers are creationists. Just that there are few enough scientists who are creationists that the engineering contingent outnumbers them, making engineers somewhat conspicuous.

I'll suggest in climate there's a corollary regarding geologists. It's probably abetted by the expectation that a certain range of geologists would reach a certain conclusion because of their jobs (present or former), without regard for whether they actually do. (The AAPG, iirc, giving Chrichton's State of Fear an award didn't help more accurate understanding.)

The first commenter illustrates a common issue for geologists regarding current climate. Once you get used to 'a million years here, a million years there, pretty soon you're talking real time' events of only decadal duration get pretty blah. Too fast to be serious. To do some kinds of geology you must have that approach, as your dating error bars are much larger than a decade or century.

But it doesn't work so well with current climate change (regardless of cause) because human civilization takes 30 years to be rather a long time and so much of it has been built in the last 30 years. And Assuming an even older (50-60 years) 'standard' for climate.

Silver Fox said...

Kim, thanks for taking the time to comment at RealClimate, and for posting your thoughts and comments here. As usual, your thoughts and observations are pertinent, well informed, and well well written.

I've also noticed more skepticism among geologists (and perhaps the general public?) in older people, regardless of their geological background - geologists who retired several years ago and not those about to retire.

I haven't seen much to the claim that either petroleum or mining geologists are more skeptical than other geologists - as a group, geologists in general and perhaps explorationists in particular, might be more flippant amongst themselves about the subject, but that doesn't indicate skepticism, just as Brian noted. I also get quite tired of hearing how those of us who are in industry are poorly informed, march to company tunes, can't think for ourselves, or are otherwise less intelligent than geologists who happen to be, at present, at academic and research institutions. Some comments like that make us out, as a group, to be blathering idiots. Fostering a split between job types is not productive. If outreach seems necessary to anyone, then make it happen. We, in industry, routinely hire and work with professors and research geologists, and we sponsor students at universities. We aren't exactly out in some dark, isolated little corner of right field working alone. The comment above about "a certain range of geologists" panders to attitudes that don't need to be cultivated.

I'm also with Brian on getting tired of the perception that geologists in industry are stuck in mindsets based on who we work for. I haven't seen that where I work, and I don't work in research. Geologists can be quite irreverent with respect to company policies, their bosses, and things in general. Geologists mostly make up their own minds based on data at hand.

I do have some problem with computer modeling ideas in general, partly because they are (or seem to be) largely inaccessible to anyone not making the models. Presentations of many of the ideas coming from these models (including in the blogosphere) are dry, highly technical and highly statistical in nature. Problems with things of a highly statistical nature are 1) the general public will definitely get lost and 2) you can prove many things by the inappropriate application of statistics, and it is done in all sciences often enough (sometimes by those who don't really understand the application of statistics) that it can be hard to catch the flaws without seeing all the original data.

Nor do I quite get the comparison of geologists as scientists to engineers (at RC), who really aren't scientists. I work with engineers all the time, and scientific they are not, unless they have taken time to have a more scientific background than the average engineer.

Overall, I thought the claims about geologists made at RealClimate were non-scientific and based on very little data - and I noticed that when any reasoned comment like yours was made, very little response was given other than to directly go back to name calling. A bit ridiculous I thought.

Kim said...

a life long scholar:

However, I'm not terribly concerned about the fact that it is changing--to me it simply means that the environmental niches which were present for the past few hundred years will be different over the next few hundred. Some species will flourish as a result of the change, some will suffer, that is simply what happens during times of change in a global ecosystem.

The problem is... well, there are some geologic events that aren't much fun to witness. The eruption of Chaiten, if you happen to live in the town that's been destroyed by lahars. The Indian Ocean M9 earthquake and tsunami. Hurricane Katrina. Fascinating from a distance, horrible when you experience them yourself.

A mass extinction is one of those horrible things, even if it takes longer than a tsunami. We warn people to live in less dangerous places, and we try to give warnings of disasters when we can. (Evacuating New Orleans and Chaiten town, for instance.) So if we are responsible for something that is likely to cause great suffering, and we understand what we are doing, I think we've got a responsibility to try to change our behavior. Whether we can do it or not is another question.

And that's a different question from whether humans cause climate change - and whether geologists should be denying that humans cause climate change.

Penguindreams (Robert) - I think there's more going on than just an association with oil and gas. Maybe I'll post about how I personally became convinced that AGW is a problem worth worrying about - it's just one anecdote, but a few anecdotes might help people concerned about climate figure out how to deal with skeptical geologists.

Thomas said...

I just thought I'd drop in and point out that there is some discussion of a closely related issue here at Gene Expression:


Far be it from me to classify all republicans as GW deniers, or exactly the same in any other form (it happens far too often in the blogosphere), but I do think there's a political influence at hand in terms of GW denial when a large share of geologists name themselves as Republicans.

Silver Fox said...

A lot of lumping and stereo-typing going on, IMHO.

Kim said...

Last year, I participated in a survey about geoscientists' attitudes about climate change. I don't remember who was doing it, although I believe it was someone's Master's work (in one of the social sciences?). I hope that the results of the survey are made widely available - it would be nice to have data rather than speculation.

I also think that geologists look bad when they are perceived as rejecting established research in another field. (The AAPG statement still makes me cringe, though not as much as the old one did.)

Thomas said...

Silver Fox:

Sure, there is some stereotyping going on (by necessity in this case) and I'm not saying that everything said in the response thread was right - some of it made me beat my head against the wall - but the evidence out there does show that Republicans are more likely to deny global warming, and, for that matter that well-educated ones are more likely to deny it than people with nothing more than a secondary school education (try to figure that one out). If you'd like me to pull up the stats on this I can do that.

Penguindreams said...

Kim, I'm not sure what you mean but will look forward to your coming post. I think some (too many) climate folks do presume that because some geologists work in the fossil fuel industry that they (and perhaps even all geologists) are biased against the climate science. Aside from that AAPG (or whoever) statement, I think they're generally wrong.

I had the bonus of my graduate department, atypically, included paleontologists, geologists, as well as meteorology/oceanography types. While I was on the 'fluids' side, I did get to see that the other folks were doing good and interesting work.

Any descriptions of what mindsets are involved is all to the good.

Chuck said...

Well, if we're reposting realclimate comments, here is what I said somewhere in the mid 70's:

From a geologic point of view, carbon dioxide is irrelevant to climate. This is because the CO2 will simply accelerate silicate weathering, drawing it out of the atmosphere and eventually precipitating it as carbonate.

While there may be transient effects, the timescale of those effects is too fine to resolve geologically, so they aren’t worth worrying about.

As for the effects of climate on the biota, that too is irrelevant. species go extinct all the time, and when they do, something else radiates into their niche.

So from the planetary perspective, this whole CO2 thing is just another blip like the PETM. In a few million years, it will be nothing but a curiosity. Narrow-minded activist interested in the survival of particular subgroups such as ice-dwelling pinnipeds or bipedal primates might complain, but to what end? We’re all headed for the fossil record eventually, so changing the extinction time of a particular group by a few tens of kiloyears isn’t going to be detectable in the long run.

Kim said...

Chuck, I loved that comment at real climate. :D Makes the point perfectly.

BrianR said...

Chuck ... the real root of our problems is overpopulation ... and since you don't really care if our species goes extinct, are you volunteering to help w/ that overpopulation problem? Oh wait, you recently created more population! :)

Steve Bloom said...

Just so we're clear, BrianR, Chuck's comment was sarcasm.

Maria said...

The best we can hope for is to be memorialized as the index species for an epoch, so we might as well distribute as many of our sturdy femurs and teeth as widely as we can. If that means breeding past carrying capacity and then dumping all the bodies into peat bogs, well, onwards for glory!