The constancy of change and the new catastrophism: a personal reflection on crisis-driven science

by Nick Eyles and Andrew D. Miall – Department of Earth Sciences, University of Toronto

Disclaimer: This post is a guest reflection piece and is not intended to represent the Society’s official position on climate change.

In 2010, we published what is now a best-selling (and award-winning) book Canada Rocks-The Geologic Journey aimed at telling the dramatic story for a public audience of how Canada (and North America) has evolved over the last 4 billion years. It was a milestone in our professional and personal lives as we went on many field trips to fill in gaps in our own understanding and in the process stepped well beyond our own areas of expertise. We learned much about this fantastic country and its geology.

What is patently obvious from reviewing Canada’s ancient history is that scientists still do not have an adequate understanding of Earth’s complex systems on which to base sound economic and environmental policy. From the upper reaches of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans onwards to the deep interior of the planet our knowledge of complex earth systems is still rather rudimentary. Huge areas of our planet are inaccessible and are little known scientifically. There is still also much to learn from reading the rock record of how our planet functioned in the past.

In so many areas, we simply don’t know enough of how our planet functions.

And yet……

Scarcely a day goes past without some group declaring the next global environmental crisis; we seemingly stagger from one widely proclaimed crisis to another each one (so we are told) with the potential to severely curtail or extinguish civilization as we know it. It’s an all too familiar story often told by scientists who cross over into advocacy and often with the scarcely-hidden sub-text that they are the only ones with the messianic foresight to see the problem and create a solution. Much of our science is what we would call ‘crisis-driven’ where funding, politics and the media are all intertwined and inseparable generating a corrupting and highly corrosive influence on the scientific method and its students. If it doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead is the new yardstick with which to measure the overall significance of research.

Charles Darwin ushered in a new era of thinking where change was expected and necessary. Our species as are all others, is the product of ongoing environmental change and adaption to varying conditions; the constancy of change. In the last 15 years or so however, we have seemingly reverted to a pre-Darwinian mode of a fixed ‘immutable Earth’ where any change beyond some sort of ‘norm’ is seen in some quarters as unnatural, threatening and due to our activities, usually with the proviso of needing ‘to act now to save the planet.’ Honest scientific discourse and debate is often rendered impossible in the face of the ‘new catastrophism.’

Trained as geologists in the knowledge of Earth’s immensely long and complex history we appreciate that environmental change is normal. For example, rivers and coastlines are not static. Those coasts, in particular, that consist of sandy strand-plains and barrier-lagoon systems are continually evolving as sand is moved by the waves and tides. Cyclonic storms (hurricanes), a normal component of the weather in many parts of the world, are particularly likely to cause severe erosion. When recent events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy cause catastrophic damage, and spring storms cause massive flooding in Calgary or down the Mississippi valley, and droughts and wildfires affect large areas of the American SW these events are blamed on a supposed increase in the severity of extreme weather events brought about by climate change. In fact, they just reflect the working of statistical probability and long term climate cyclicity. Such events have happened in the past as part of ongoing changes in climate but affected fewer people. That the costs of weather and climate-related damage today are far greater is not because of an increased frequency of severe weather but the result of humans insisting on congregating and living in places that, while attractive, such as floodplains, mountain sides and beautiful coastlines, are especially vulnerable to natural disasters. Promises of a more ‘stable future’ if we can only prevent climate change are hopelessly misguided and raise unnatural expectations by being willfully ignorant of the natural workings of the planet. Climate change is the major issue for which more geological input dealing with the history of past climates would contribute to a deeper understanding of the nature of change and what we might expect in the future. The past climate record suggests in fact that for much of the Earth’s surface future cooling is the norm. Without natural climate change Canada would be buried under ice 3 km thick; that is it normal state for most of the last 2.5 million years with 100,000 years-long ice ages alternating with brief, short-lived interglacials such as the present which is close to its end.

It is self-evident to us that the public debate concerning environmental change largely lacks an understanding of natural variability. Since the last Ice Age ended, some 12,000 years ago, Earth has been through several periods lasting hundreds of years and possibly longer when it was either warmer or colder than at present. Several earth scientists have suggested that a study of natural variability over recent geologic time should be completed in order to provide a baseline against which anthropogenic change may be evaluated, but this important history has not been introduced fully into the public debate, and is a long way off. It has to be said that the natural variability of the last few thousand years or hundreds of years or tens of years has formed almost no part in the ongoing discussion of climate change which in some circles assumes that any change since 1940 is largely man-made. This opinion is uninformed by geologic science.

The way forward it strikes us is for more scientific honesty and less politics, less grandstanding. ‘We don’t know’ is an honourable credo for scientists. In this regard, we need more science to be directed to the environment, particularly toward better planning of the world’s communities to make them more resilient in the face of change. And it is an increasingly urban face that our planet presents. The many large supercities of the rapidly-approaching future world will be absolutely massive consumers of resources and producers of wastes; they will be the biggest determinants of our global environmental footprint; and it is surely there that much of our effort should be spent. Today, the rate of change of some parts of the world, especially in regard to urbanization and the ‘rush to the city’ is taxing our abilities simply to map and assess the environmental repercussions of transforming a natural environment to a built landscape. There is no simple technological fix either. Satellite and other monitoring data for example still has to be collected, interpreted, ground truthed, and acted on; steps available only to wealthier countries. In large areas of the planet the lack of human and financial resources, equality and personal freedoms and political choices trump any global environmental concerns and hobble international co-operation. To these people our obsession with saving the environment must ring hollow. The onus here is on the wealthiest nations with the largest scientific academies to put forward credible notions of how our planet is changing and to discuss the possible origins in an intellectual environment where data gaps are fully acknowledged free of catastrophic overtones.

23 thoughts on “The constancy of change and the new catastrophism: a personal reflection on crisis-driven science

  1. The following quote covers the situation in paleoclimate studies and global warming science best:

    “When later generations learn about climate science, they will classify the beginning of the twenty-first century as an embarrassing chapter in the history of science. They will wonder about our time and use it as a warning of the core values and criteria of science were allowed little by little to be forgotten, as the actual research topic of climate change turned into a political and social playground”

    Atte Korhola, Professor of Environmental Change, University of Helsinki.

  2. Goodness, a well-reasoned scolding of scientists-turned-activists certainly has a touched a nerve with some folks. It is obvious that the calls to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions are completely unworkable, certainly on any scale of time and effectiveness that has meaning. As the planet changes (and as we change it) it is immeasurably more effective to adapt and prepare than to impoverish the populace by removing the most efficient form of energy on the planet. Yes, yes, more work should and will be done to create new technologies for energy production and use, but there are none on the horizon than are anywhere near feasible replacements for hydrocarbons.

  3. 1. Natural climate cycles have been around for many hundreds of millions of years, it is called climate change. Somehow something – climate change – totally natural has morphed into something very scary for the stupid proletariat.

    2. The present inter-glacial period, known as the Holocene, is similar, albeit cooler than most of the the dozen or so which preceded it over the past 2.65 million years of the Pleistocene Age. In other words, what is happening today in our climate is not in the slightest bit unusual.

    3. Natural climate cycles did not stop in 1950, as per one of the cornerstones of alarmist theory.

    4. Geothermal activity can, and does, melt ice.

    5. In the Arctic, there are three geological hot spots/zones, which are too deep to have a direct effect on the Arctic ice cap, but however could cause up wellings of saline water to the relatively low saline areas near surface. These high saline up wellings would reduce the freezing point of water and may be one of the reasons for the contraction in the extent of the Arctic ice cap up until a few years ago.

    6. Almost all geologists in the private sector (government / NGO geologists have to follow the party line or there are employment consequences) firmly believe CAGW theory is a complete crock.

    7. Our Sun, like evry other star, is a ‘variable star’, which means that its level of radiation varies over time – we are all aware of a 11 year cycle, but do not know the impact of any longer cycles the Sun may, or may not, have.

    8. There is no evidence of CAGW in the geological record.

    9. In the ice core records of the past one million years, changes in carbon dioxide levels always follow changes in temperature and not vice versa, as per alarmist theory.

    10. The geological record clearly shows we are in an abnormally cool part of the Earth’s history.

    11. The wind does not blow, or the sun shine, consistently, so it is insane to rely on expensive, unreliable, intermittent, renewable energy for your electricity generation.

    12. Species extinctions are the natural order of things in the process of evolution – although I do not think for a moment there has been one instance of species extinction due to ‘man made climate change’.

    13. Without CO2, life would be impossible on our planet. CO2 is a life giving, not an evil, gas!

    Read this somewhere and it totally applies to the situation we have today.

    1. “changes in carbon dioxide levels always follow changes in temperature and not vice versa, as per alarmist theory.”

      WRONG! ‘Theory’ predicts that CO2 levels will FOLLOW temperature changes in the glacial cycles. In THIS CONTEXT CO2 magnifies the warming/cooling caused by changes in the planets orbit.

      “There is no evidence of CAGW in the geological record.”

      Well of course there can’t be. At least not the A – Anthropogenic – part; we weren’t around.

      But CGW – Catastrophic Global Warming – without us but due to CO2 – plenty of evidence.

      Start with the end-Permian mass extinction event 252 million years ago. Sea surface temperatures at the equator of around 36-40 Deg C. 96% extinction of ‘families’ of marine life, 75% on land, no coal formed for 10 million years after the event – the ‘Coal Gap’. Triggered by an estimated 3 trillion tone injection of carbon into the atmosphere caused by the Siberian Traps Large Igneous Province (LIP). Peak emissions occurred over a 2,000 to 18,000 year period.

      Fast forward to the end-Triassic mass extinction. The break-up of Pangaea into Laurasia and Gondwana created the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) another LIP, Another mass extinction event.

      Skip backwards in time to the Cambrian, the Botomian mass extinction, at 517 million years ago at the same time as the Kalkarindji LIP in Australia.

      Or the end-Ordovician where the geology of the Taconic Orogeny triggered a major draw down of CO2 levels, causing a major ice age and a mass extinction.

      Fast forward to the End Cretaceous extinction event at 65 million years ago that wiped out the Dinosaurs. At the same time that the bolide struck another LIP was occurring – the Deccan Traps in India. The dinosaurs were killed by a one-two punch.

      Forward again to the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) at around 56 million years. Another mass extinction occurred. And CO2 levels climbed sharply.

      And often with these events we see major Anoxic events in the ocean where Hydrogen Sulphide builds up rapidly to toxic level. We cn see the results clearly in layers of sulphur-rich mudstone deposited when they occur.

      Also frequent ocean acidification events -we can see the damage done to marine creatures in the fossil record.

      The most extreme events don’t occur just because of the amount of CO2 that is involved, but also how fast the change was. The end-Permian added 3 trillion tonnes of carbon in 2000 to 18000 years.

      At the rate we are adding carbon we would add 3 trillion tonnes in just 300 years, much shorter if our rate of emissions keeps rising. And a recent study shows that CO2 is rising 10 times faster today than during the PETM

      During the Glacial cycles CO2 varies by around 100 parts per million over 20,000 years. That’s 0.5 ppm per century. We are adding CO2 at 250 ppm/century and rising.

      We are in the middle of probably the fastest rate of change of CO2 levels in the entire history of the planet, certainly since complex life evolved.

      And climate doesn’t necessarily have ‘natural cycles’. It has changes. And these changes happen for reasons not just by randomness. And we understand a lot about many of the factors that drive these changes and always have. And CO2 is one of the big factors.

      1. Glenn Tamblyn Says:

        “changes in carbon dioxide levels always follow changes in temperature and not vice versa, as per alarmist theory.”

        WRONG! ‘Theory’ predicts that CO2 levels will FOLLOW temperature changes in the glacial cycles.”

        Well Mr. Tamlbyn, Sir, the theory is only a predictor IF it has been repeatedly tested and proven. Has it? Uncertainty on that point exists.

  4. I thank the authors for their sanity . It is astounding what politically useful hysteria has been created over a 0.3% change in our temperature associated with a greater than 33% change in the available carbon to the biosphere over more than a century .

    The “climate science” community is an embarrassment to the tradition of “science” much less “applied physics” of which it is but a particularly retarded branch .

    I’ll start believing that they are serious about understanding planetary temperature when they repudiate James Hansen’s quantitative howler that Venus is an example of a “runaway greenhouse effect” .

    And for David Appell , Crisp has not yet gotten back to me with even URLs to his Venus spectra . I have posted my attempts in the Disqussion on my page and also mention them in my current newsletter which is largely about nailing down the basic physics with an open succinct APL planetary model so that such nonscience as Hansen’s will be relegated to the ash heap of historical falsehoods .

    1. Bob Armstrong: I’m not surprised Crisp didn’t reply — most scientists don’t want to get involved with wackos who think Venus’s extreme temperatures come only from internal heat. David Crisp has, in his papers, repeatedly written that they come from a strong greenhouse effect.

      1. Then all he has to do is send me URLs to his spectra . It’s taxpayer paid data after all .

        And I never would claim that Venus’s extreme surface temp , 2.26 times the gray body temperature in its orbit , comes only from internal heat . What I claim is that it is impossible to even approach that with a “greenhouse effect” .

        I have just sent Crisp another request , and posted it at .

  5. I agree that continued palaeoclimate research is invaluable for context. But what about the excellent work that has been done already? Have the authors read the PALEOSENS group’s output (doi:10.1038/nature11574) ? What about the other research on using palaeoclimate restraints for climate sensitivity?

    What about physics? We have decades of work on fingerprinting that clearly identifies that changes are consistent with human cause, but not natural causes.

    The authors don’t mention any of this, despite their opinions contradicting the results of studies that have been done. By not addressing any actual research, and not explaining why the palaeoclimate and fingerprinting work is wrong, this article comes across as very poorly-informed opinion.

    The statement that recent warming is often “assumed” to be human-caused could be interpreted as a sign of profound ignorance about the topic. Shouldn’t there be at least a passing reference to the extensive literature on climate change attribution that explains why it is now commonly accepted?

    The implied arguments “it’s changed naturally in the past so it’s probably natural now” and “we don’t know everything about the past, so we can’t make confident statements about the present” are not logical to me either. It’s like seeing film footage of a person being shot, then getting the forensics and coroner’s reports and suggesting we shouldn’t be looking to prosecute because “people have died naturally in the past, so this death might be natural” and “we can’t explain this one until we know the causes of all past deaths throughout history”.

  6. It’s sad to see otherwise well-respected Earth scientists step boldly and confidently outside of their own areas of expertise and fall flat on their faces.

    Late in 2014 are Eyles and Miall really so clueless as to fail to notice that the climate ‘debate’ is NOT occurring between groups of researchers arguing over the details of science in good faith, but between a broad group of multidisciplinary scientists on the one hand and those willing to use any tool (from selectively misrepresenting research findings to deliberate lies to defaming individual researchers) in order to sow doubt and misunderstanding over a critical issue of global public interest on the other?

    The best I can say about this opinion piece is that it is woefully naive. The worst I can say… I’ll keep to myself.

  7. Eyles and Miall (E&M) are badly misinformed about current research on global climate. They claim a ‘lack of attention’ to past changes during the last 10,000 years, which they suppose would show that current changes ‘are normal’.
    Reply: E&M seem unaware of dozens of studies that have explored natural Holocene variability versus anthropogenic overprints (for example, Lohmann et al., 2013, COP 9: 1807-39, and references therein). Temperature changes from 7000 years ago to 1850 were small and gradual, in striking contrast to the abrupt 0.85oC fossil-fuel warming since then.
    E&M also ignore the 2013 GSA Climate statement that cites the major influence studies of past climate have on interpretations of current warming. This new statement mostly repeats the one compiled by a 2010 GSA panel of world-recognized experts on this subject: Eric Barron, John Kutzbach, Thure Cerling, Peter Clark, Julie Brigham-Grette, Cathy Whitlock and me as chair. We did not ignore past changes.

    E&M also see a ‘crisis-driven catastrophism’ that has ‘corrupted politics and science’.
    Reply: The only people I know who have profited on this issue are the small minority of skeptics who are outspoken against climate change and accept ‘hard-wired’ money from energy conglomerates. The ugly assertion that scientists in this field are corrupt is insulting to hundreds of fine committed people I know, most working in academia and government labs and drawing modest salaries. I agree that some corruption exists in politics, but opposite the kind E&M imagine: many U.S. Republicans receive major campaign contributions from energy conglomerates and reject the basic findings of climate science. Despite overly alarmist statements about future catastrophes by some non-scientists, the 97% of climate scientists who acknowledge the basic truth about global change have if anything been too reticent about speaking out.

  8. GSA has a fairly clear Position Statement on Climate Change
    Adopted in October 2006; revised April 2010; March 2013.
    Perhaps the authors of the post will clarify whether or not they reject that position, as they seem to.

    The major revision in 2010 was generated by this panel, for whom I’ve added links.
    William F. Ruddiman Chair
    Jean M. Bahr Geology and Public Policy Committee Liaison
    Eric J. Barron Member-at-Large
    Julie Brigham-Grette Member-at-Large
    Thure E. Cerling Member-at-Large
    Peter U. Clark Member-at-Large
    John E. Kutzbach Member-at-Large
    Judith L. Lean Member-at-Large
    Donald L. Paul Member-at-Large
    Cathy Whitlock Member-at-Large

    1) In 2009, I checked the panel’s bios, and found they’d already published 1,000+ peer-reviewed papers, many relevant to climate issues.

    2) That is obviously a distinguished group of geoscientists with relevant expertise,

    3) GSA members have contributed strongly to the increase in knowledge of climate change, including both natural and human variability on the relevant time scales, and helping sort out which is which during the Holocene. See for example:

    a) The Holocene August 2011

    b) Ruddiman’s Tyndall Lecture, AGU 2013.
    I suspect a few of the audience were also GSA members.

  9. The authors write:
    “It has to be said that the natural variability of the last few thousand years or hundreds of years or tens of years has formed almost no part in the ongoing discussion of climate change which in some circles assumes that any change since 1940 is largely man-made. This opinion is uninformed by geologic science.”

    Your own position is uninformed by climate science. Climate scientists don’t “assume” any change since 1940 is largely man-made — that’s what the science shows. If you’re unaware of that science, you have no business writing about the subject.

    Natural variability has been thoroughly discussed. (Ever hear of the “hockey stick?” This is near the beginning of the IPCC’s First Assessment Report (1990), p. xiv:

    “Thirdly, measurements from ice cores going back 160,000 years show that the Earth’s temperature closely paralleled the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere (see Figure 2) Although we do not know the details of cause and effect, calculations indicate that changes in these greenhouse gases were part, but not all, of the reason for the large (5-7°C) global temperature swings between ice ages and interglacial periods.”

  10. Jean-Paul Liégeois Says:
    “…I agree with them: of course climatoligists know that climate changed in the past but this is rarely presented.”

    Popular books on paleoclimatology:

    I especially like “The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change Paul Mayewski and Frank White (2002). It has temperature data from ice cores, which have since been found to the last 800,000 years.

  11. As a GSA member who uses paleoclimate data in his academic work, I cannot begin to describe how disappointing this Gish gallop of nonsense is.

    It reveals an almost aggressive ignorance of the actual role paleoclimatic changes and natural variability inform our understanding of the present, human-driven climatic change and its potential and already-occurring impacts.

    That GSA has chosen to promote such misinformation has me seriously considering canceling my membership. How the Society proceeds next will determine whether or not I will leave the organization.

    1. It seem to me that GSA is trying to be balanced on scientific topics by allowing diverging interpretation to be made public. That’s what a PROFESSIONAL SCIENTIFIC Society is supposed to do and it is in keeping with the US First Amendment. GSA also provides the opportunity to comment and Mr. Jacobs has chosen to do so.

      However, there is no justification for threatening to leave the organization when it provides a forum for diverging interpretations whether one agrees with them or not.

  12. If I understand properly the authors, I agree with them: of course climatoligists know that climate changed in the past but this is rarely presented. And so this is poorly present in people’s mind and during discussions in the pub. Where is it possible, for example, in literature accessibe to the public, to find the temperature curve for the last million years with the present bias resulting from anthropogenic activities?
    The fact that we should produce less CO2 is obvious, for different important reasons, this is not the point, the point is incorporating all parameters in the discussion.

  13. “It has to be said that the natural variability of the last few thousand years or hundreds of years or tens of years has formed almost no part in the ongoing discussion of climate change which in some circles assumes that any change since 1940 is largely man-made. ”

    This is utterly false as any casual glance at the literature or the recent IPCC reports would reveal. As the authors correctly say, there is no shame in admitting ignorance on scientific matters. However, it is embarrassing when scientific ignorance is so clearly revealed.

  14. Not sure why the authors think that climatologists aren’t aware that the climate has changed before. The Earth’s climate has certainly been sensitive to perturbations in the past, so dialling up its main thermostat (CO2) through industrial activity bound to have an effect.

    One doesn’t need perfect knowledge to act responsibly, only the moral conscience to do so.

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