Saturday, 22 August 2009

Is the Climate Debate Over?

There's nothing like climate change to stir the emotions and arouse controversy! I have had this exchange of emails with a South African academic, and I invite comments:

I refer to your Introduction to Climate Change in the Minerals Industry ’11.

Isn't your text badly outdated? Time Magazine pronounced 2 years ago "The debate is over". I recently listened to the scientific director of the IPCC - we're now into a time of radical action and hard consequences. Where do you get your scientific information from? Please consider updating your text. What you've written can only serve to portray the minerals industry as obstructionist.It looks like you're trying to give a balanced view, but as Barack Obama wrote in his book "The Audacity of Hope" it's actually false media practice to portray two opposing views as balanced if the one is factually correct and the other is not. Thanks for looking into it,

My reply:
Time magazine may have said that the debate is over, but judging by the comments that I receive from many scientists, and discussions on climate change groups on LinkedIn, the debate is very much still on.We are living in an experiment at the moment, the results of which may not be known for decades. Many people argue that climate change is totally due to man, others (including many geologists) that it is nothing to do with man, and is associated with natural cycles etc. My view is that the answer probably lies somewhere between these two extremes, and it would be naive to think that man has no part in climate change. There have been many interesting peer-reviewed papers on the subject recently, a typical one being that of Lillo and Oyarzun in Science & the Total Environment (Vol. 407 Number 11, 2009). It may well be that climate change is totally down to the follies of man, but no one really knows for sure, and scientists have been very wrong before in their predictions - 40 years ago we were about to enter a new Ice Age.What we are trying to say in the conference Introduction is that even if we feel that there is only the tiniest of chances that it is solely man-induced, then we should pull out all the stops to limit CO2 emissions. If we are wrong and we do nothing, then the effects may be too dire to contemplate. The thrust of the conference will therefore be on how we reduce emissions in the minerals industry and what might be the economic impact of this. Maybe this doesn't come over clearly in the Intro?

and his response:
Correctly, the thrust of your conference has to be on how to reduce emissions - but radically, by 60-90%, not relative improvements in eco-efficiency of 5% here or 10% there.

But your introduction still makes it sound like "we'll do our part even though this might not be necessary". This reinforces perceptions of an obstructionist agenda, and this has big implication on how potential young professionals consider applying for employment in this industry.

By citing the article by Lillo and Oryazun in justifying your stance, you display a misunderstanding of the scientific process. Theirs is a scientific commentary (not a research paper!), in a reasonably respected journal, by two authors who are not particularly well known from some backwater Spanish institution. They might be making some valid points - but weigh that relative to the consensus building peer process of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th IPCC assessments!....and in their concluding statement, these authors say that they do not prove or disprove anything with their commentary. So you are wrong to cite it to say that the current theory of human-induced climate change might not hold. They merely point out the complexity of the system, something that all climate scientists acknowledge.

Calling for "proofs" is asking for the "experiment" to conclude. That is the Bush - Oil Industry agenda. The proof is in the models - whether it was Svante Arrhenius' hand-solved calculation model 100 years ago or the latest mega-computing efforts.

and my response:
We are basically saying the same thing- that we should be doing all we can to counter carbon emissions. Our differences lie in the way that we look at it. You obviously feel that the climate models are infallible and that emissions are totally the results of human activity. My feeling, having had experience of relatively simple mineral processing models, is that there may be other factors which have as yet not been incorporated in these models- but I may be wrong, no one really knows. Interestingly, the Australian senate has just defeated that country's version of cap and trade. According to the BBC report, opposition senators who control the upper house feared the legislation would harm the country's mining sector. This decision was no doubt influenced by a new book by Prof. Ian Plimer, a geologist at the University of Adelaide. Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science, totally refutes the claims of human-caused global warming. So I don't believe the debate is over. It will be interesting to see what the state of play is when the conference runs in Falmouth in two years time.

His reply:
Thank you Barry for responding. I can't see how you think we're saying the same thing if you keep mentioning that the science is being "totally refuted". What you cited as evidence yesterday seems to have been weak - at least you haven't answered my critique - do I need to spend another hour or two trying to check on the story you're putting up today? Does a book by a geologist count as peer reviewed science and how does it weigh up with the IPCC's 4 assessment reports? Yes, the public debate and the politics on this is a mess - but I think you owe it to your constituency to represent the science correctly on your website.

And no, I'm not saying that I believe the models are infallible - I am just saying that it is in the nature of this case that if you wait for the proof, it will be too late. So I can't see how you can ignore the models.
We're not talking about simple mineral processing models, but very complex ones that capture a lot of the known non-linearity already.
Thanks for a good debate.

My response:
We are saying the same thing regarding the need to reduce emissions. Some people refute the science (notably Ian Plimer) who is a reputable geologist. OK, his book is not peer-reviewed, but the paper by Lillo and Oryazun was, but you discount this because the authors are from a 'backwater Spanish institution'. Regarding modelling, I was stating that even simple processes such as mineral processing operations are difficult to model, so the complexities of the climate pose even more problems. And yes, I agree with you that if we wait for the proof it may be too late. Exactly my point that we should be pulling all the stops to reduce emissions now, rather than wait until the results of the experiment are finally known.


  1. From Terry Jackson, Maiden Creek Consulting, LLC, on LinkedIn "Minerals and Metallurgical Professionals Globally":

    No the debate is no where close to over. I fear this whole witchhunt is designed to achieve other goals, like profit through cap and trade, or political motives such as pushing environmentalists progressive agenda against corporations.

  2. From Nick Lamb, RMRI, UK:

    I wouldn't take much notice of that South African guy who berated your introduction for been bstructionist. In my experience people like him who are so committed to one side of an argument never listen to reason. His comment about the "backwater institution" betrays his ignorance.

    I think your approach acknowledges that man has a contribution to global warming and actively advocates reductions in carbon emissions.

  3. From Tim Dwyer, retired consultant, Canada:

    I think you were very restrained in your responses to the South African academic. It is he who is being unscientific, as it is the duty of scientists to question accepted dogma, often perpetuated by bad science, the media and politicians.

    To claim that anyone knows whether the rise in global temperature in the past century is the result of human activity or just another blip in the history of our planet is tantamount to claiming that they have the answer to the conundrum: how long is a piece of string?

    His comments on the Spanish paper are insulting, and how can he claim that you are being obstructionist? Who are you obstructing? I would think maybe his lucrative research grants? There is so much money available at present for CO2 reduction work, that to speak out against man-made global warming is heresy.

  4. The motto of the world’s oldest scientific academy, the Royal Society, is nullius in verba, which roughly translated means “take nobody’s word for it”.

  5. From David Weedon,Consultant, David M. Weedon Consultants Pty Ltd, in LinkedIn Group "Minerals Engineers"

    I agree with you Barry. Until we know all the Sources and Sinks of carbon dioxide on the planet, both anthropogenic and natural, it would be unwise to rush into severe economic and legal decisions which may have just as severe an impact on life on earth as global warming. The scientific opinions of geologists must be taken into consideration.

  6. I mentioned Ian Plimer as one of the greatest advocates of non-anthropological global warming. His book, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming the Missing Science, has just been published, and there are interesting reviews at which highlight the fact that nobody, including Ian Plimer, really knows the causes of climate change.

  7. Alex Brassington, Colorado, USA:

    It's a pity that your SA academic didn't identify himself. Such people should be named and shamed, as they give science and scientists a bad name.

    To state that man-induced global warming is factual and any other view is not is unbelievable. Maybe I don't express myself very well, but Galileo would know what I mean!

  8. From Eric Soames, UK

    Prof. John Shepherd, Fellow in Earth System Science at the University of Southampton, who is chairman of the Royal Society's panel of 12 scientists on climate change said yesterday:
    "It is an unpalatable truth that unless we can succeed in greatly reducing carbon dioxide emissions we are heading for a very uncomfortable and challenging climate future, and geoengineering will be the only option left to limit further temperature increases".

    It's interesting that he talks of 'truth' suggesting that there is no doubt that climate change is anthropogenic. It's all very confusing. Who is right? Probably know one knows.

  9. Hi Eric
    I assume your comment above was in relation to yesterday's article in The Times. There are many comments on this at

  10. Dr. J.R. Corsi, RedAlert, USA

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has issued a formal call to the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a public trial on the issue of global warming.

    The call comes just as the supporters of the 200 country Copenhagen Climate Conference scheduled for December have begun to express concerns that the meeting will fail to negotiate a successor treaty for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

    The point of the Chamber of Commerce challenge is to force the EPA to conduct an impartially judged public airing of the "evidence" that proves or disproves what is known as "anthropogenic global warming."

    Anthropogenic global warming is the theory that human activity is responsible for warming the planet to a degree that would be capable of producing climate-change effects dangerous to human beings.

    According to Mark Marano, editor of ClimateDepot, the challenge from the Chamber of Commerce comes because "desperation time has arrived for the promoters of man-made global warming fears, as the science of man-made climate fears continues to collapse."

    Red Alert reported last week that U.S. government climate measures show Earth is cooling after reaching a peak temperature recorded in 1998, a change that many scientists feel related to a prolonged cycle of diminishing sun spot activity currently being experienced.

    Writing in the September/October 2009 issue of the Council on Foreign Relations' Foreign Affairs magazine, Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at CFR, worried about the Copenhagen Climate Conference. He wrote, "The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are vanishingly small. And even reaching such a deal the following year would be an extraordinary challenge, given the domestic political constraints in Washington and in other capitals that make such an agreement difficult to negotiate and ratify."

    Levi notes that China and India have no intension whatsoever of signing any near term carbon-dioxide emission caps for at least another decade.

    Moreover, China and India, together with the developing nations, are asking the wealthier nations to commit as much as one percent of their combined gross domestic product, more than $300 billion annually, to a fund that would help the rest of the world adapt to emission controls.

    That is unlikely to happen.

    Still, Levi laments that the nations of the world should commit to a general aim to cut emissions in half, ideally from 1990 levels, by 2050.

    Even getting a consensus on a long-term mid-century of that nature is likely to prove difficult to do in any meaningful way in Copenhagen.

    The Energy & Environment Network's Clean Skies is reporting that the EPA is threatening to shut down or split up Dr. Alan Carlin's 20-person National Center for the Environment and Economics at the EPA just because Carlin went public with views.

    Red Alert previously reported that the Obama administration had ordered the EPA to suppress the 98-page report authored by physicist Carlin analyzing government data that documents substantial decreases in global temperatures over the past 11 years, directly challenging global warming fears.

    "We have become increasingly concerned that EPA and many other agencies and countries have paid too little attention to the science of global warming," Carlin wrote, pulling no punches. "EPA and others have tended to accept the findings reached by outside groups, particularly the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, organized by the U.N.) and the CCSP (U.S. Climate Change Science Program), as being correct without a careful and critical examination of their conclusions and documentation."

  11. From Linked in Group: AusIMM
    Norris September, Sinclair Knight Merz, Australia:

    Moving away from the climate issue, I have found the exchange very interesting (thank you Barry for sharing this with us). Our scientist friend (professional arrogance comes to mind) however pointed out some back to basics issues, which we should take, note of:
    1.Do not cite technical books, articles in popular magazines, quotes from “experts” as the gospel if it is not peer reviewed. I think it is called the “research shows” fallacy. We all are guilty of this, however normal human conversation and argument will become very tedious if we have to provide back up for every point we are trying to make.
    2.Although Ian Plimer maybe a renowned geologist, his “scientific” credentials with regards “climate science” might not be on the same level as his geology credentials (I do not know Ian and mean no disrespect towards him). Do we accept his work on climate science just because he is an expert and renowned geologist? I think this is called the “appeal to authority” fallacy.
    3.Know your audience. When talking to a scientist, work that is not done according the scientific method and has not been peer reviewed is hogwash.

    Barry Wills, MEI, UK:

    Thanks Norris. I fully agree with you.

    As editor of Minerals Engineering for the past 20 years, I fully support the peer-review process, but also acknowledge that it is not totally infallible. Witness the iconic global warming 'hockey stick' diagram of Mann et al, which is now discredited as being based on bad science. This was originally published in 1998 in the very high impact factor, peer-reviewed journal Nature (392: 779-787) and was adopted for some time as the emblem of the IPCC.

    I can't comment on Plimer's book, but I believe it is essentially a large review of peer-reviewed, and other literature.

  12. I have just read the first chapter of Plimer's book, and at first reading it was very impressive and convincing (just as convincing in fact as the Royal Society's recent report on anthropogenic warming (! However, I went through it again with my editor's hat on, and looked at all the peer-reviewed papers that he was using to refute human input. There were very few, but there were many papers from Energy and The Environment. I had never heard of this journal, so looked it up on Google and found many reports of it being discredited due to poor peer-review, and the reviewers all being of Plimer's ilk.

    So all very confusing. I am still skeptical of totally human induced climate change but am sure that we must have some involvement, so should be doing all we can to mitigate, just in case the models are correct.

    Should be an interesting conference!!

  13. To increase the confusion more, this is an extract from an article by Fred Pearce in today's New Scientist, entitled "World will cool for
    the next decade":

    Forecasts of climate change are about to go seriously out of kilter. We could be about to enter one or even two decades of cooler temperatures, according to one of the world’s top climate modellers.

    “People will say this is global warming disappearing,” Mojib Latif told more than 1500 climate scientists gathered at the UN’s World Climate Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, last week.

    “I am not one of the sceptics. However, we have to ask the nasty questions ourselves or other people will do it.”

    Few climate scientists go as far as Latif, an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a climate physicist at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel, Germany. Yet many now agree that the short term prognosis for climate change is less certain than once thought.

    Latif predicts that in the next few years a natural cooling trend will dominate the warming caused by humans. The cooling would be down to cyclical changes in the atmosphere and ocean currents in the North Atlantic, known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and the Atlantic Meridional Oscillation (AMO).

    Breaking with climate-change orthodoxy, Latif said the NAO was probably responsible for some of the strong warming seen around the globe in the past three decades. “But how much? The jury is still out,” he told the conference.

    The NAO is now moving into a phase that will cool the planet. Latif says the NAO also explained the recent recovery of the Sahel region of Africa from the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s.

    James Murphy, head of climate prediction at the Met Office, agrees and also links the AMO to Indian monsoons, Atlantic hurricanes and sea ice loss in the Arctic. “The oceans are key to decadal natural variability,” he says.

    Another favourite climate belief was overturned when Pope warned the conference that the dramatic Arctic ice loss in recent summers was partly a product of natural cycles rather than global warming. Preliminary reports suggest there has been much less melting this year than in 2007 or 2008.

    The full article can be found on ScienceDirect:

  14. From Australia:
    Garth Paltridge was a chief research scientist with the CSIRO's division of atmospheric research before becoming the director of the Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies and chief executive of the Antarctic Co-operative Research Centre.
    His latest skeptical contribution to the debate on the dangers of carbon dioxide is a book, endearingly titled The Climate Caper.

    I want to focus here on his account of the new green religion. "Perhaps the most interesting question in all this business is how it can be that the scientific community has become so over-the-top in support of its own propaganda about the seriousness and certainty of upcoming drastic climate change. Scientists after all are supposed to be unbiased in their assessment of a problem and are expected to tell it as it is. Over the centuries they have built up the capital of their reputation on just that supposition. And for the last couple of decades they have put that capital very publicly on the line in support of a cause which, to say the least, is overhung by an enormous amount of doubt. So how is it that the rest of the scientific community, uncomfortable as it is with both the science of global warming and the way its politics is being played, continues to let the reputation of science in general be put at considerable risk because of the way the dangers of climate change are being vastly oversold?"
    Paltridge says that behind the climate change debate there are two basic truths seldom articulated. "The first is that the scientists pushing the seriousness of global warming are perfectly well aware of the great uncertainty attached to their cause. The difficulty for them is to ensure that the lip service paid to uncertainty is enough to convince governments of the need to continue research funding, but is not enough to cast real doubt on the case for action. The paths of public comment and official advice on the matter have to be trodden very carefully. The second basic truth is that there is a belief among scientific 'global warmers' that they are an under-funded minority among a sea of wicked sceptics who are extensively funded by industry and close to Satan. The difficulty for them is to maintain a belief in their own minority status while insisting in public that the sceptics, at least among the ranks of the scientifically literate, are very few."
    The Royal Society did its own reputation a disservice by sending a letter to Exxon-Mobil oil corporation declaring an anathema on dissident climate research. It said: "To be still producing information that misleads people about climate change is unhelpful. The next IPCC report should give the people the final push they need to take action and we can't have people trying to undermine it."
    Paltridge says: "The staggering thing is that the society, which in other circumstances would be the first to defend the cause of free inquiry ... seemed not to be able to hear what it was saying."
    He takes a gloomy view of the likelihood that the political class will soon come to its senses. "One suspects that a fair amount of the shrillness of the climate message derives from a fear that something will happen to prick the scientific balloon so carefully inflated and overstretched over the last few decades. But the IPCC doesn't really need to worry. The difficulty for the sceptics is that credible argument against accepted wisdom requires, as did the development of the accepted wisdom itself, large-scale resources which can only be supplied by the research institutions. Without those resources, the sceptic is only an amateur who can quite easily be confined to outer darkness."

  15. The News Scientist article mentioned in the comment of 12th September suggests that the Arctic ice melt could be due to natural cyclic changes and that the world could now be cooling.

    I thought this might be of interest to the Times newspaper, so emailed the article to the newsdesk and the Times Online editor. I have had no acknowledgement, but today's Editorial is "The mystery of the Northeast Passage has been broken, but at a terrible price", and suggests that the route has only become possible as a result of global warming, which has melted enough Arctic ice to allow ships to navigate this passage.

    As the 14th September comment implies, there seems to be a blinkered approach to any opposition to global warming and its human-induced causes.


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