“Heaven and Earth” by Ian Plimer

“Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science” by Ian Plimer is a multidisciplinary synthesis of scientific research around the questions raised by the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Anthropogenic global warming is the theory that changes in climate are due to the activities of the civilization of mankind.

I consider myself to be an environmentalist and a skeptic. Just as with all other propositions, particularly those with political solutions attached, I apply my powers of skeptical enquiry to a claim in order to arrive at my opinions based on the evidence available to me. Some of that evidence is scientific in nature, some of it is based on “yesterday’s weather”, some of that evidence comes from the reputation of the claimant and some of that evidence comes from personal experience. Occam’s razor is a device that is well known to me.

Having been a software engineer for the 30 years of my entire working life, begun when I was barely a teenager and therefore encompassing more than my entire adult life, I am also aware of the psychological power of the computer. If I write out a ridiculous proposition by hand and send it to the editor of my local paper, I will most likely be written off as a crank. If I create an elaborate computer simulation that prints out a ridiculous proposition and manage to publish it in a scientific journal, I will be taken seriously. The computer is able to impute an air of authority to everything that comes out of it.

However, as a longtime practitioner of computing I live by the aphorism “garbage in, garbage out”. As a longtime student of science and mathematics, I am also aware that computer simulations are not experiments. They are not science. They are not observations of the objective world that can be independently verified by other observers. Computer simulations say as much about their authors as they do about the subject they purport to simulate.

That such simulations would be used to bolster particular political points of view and thereby impute an air of authority to the prescribed political positions became known to me when I learned about a 1972 book called “The Limits to Growth”. In this book, the authors used a crude simulation of resource consumption and generation by a civilization using a FORTRAN program published with the book as an appendix. As usual, the simulation spoke more about the assumptions of its authors than it spoke about reality. The authors assumed a Malthusian point of view and therefore assumed that resource depletion is the inevitable outcome. It is no surprise that their simulation agreed with their assumptions. Had their simulation disagreed with their expected outcome, then surely they would have considered it to be a flaw in the simulation and not a surprising contradictory result.

Fortunately, we don’t need a competing simulation to invalidate their thesis of imminent resource exhaustion and the ensuing famine, disease and death. We simply need to look at the history of the past 40 years to see that instead of resource exhaustion we have had an ever rising standard of living among humans across this planet. All other things being equal, even the poorest of the poor today are better off than their counterparts from 40 years ago. Liberty—economic freedom in the form of capitalism and political freedom in the form of democracy—truly has been the rising tide that has lifted all boats. In cases where people have gotten worse off, it can easily be seen as a consequence of their reduced liberty—Ethiopian famines are not a result of a failure of capitalism, but a result of a failure of liberty. Even if you disagree with my thesis on liberty as the cause for human prosperity—I acknowledge that there are those who dispute this—the imminent resource exhaustion and consequent global catastrophe predicted by the Malthusians has not happenned. It didn’t happen in the early 19th century when Thomas Malthus was alive and it hasn’t happenned yet.

The core of the hysteria and fear around the theory of anthropogenic global warming is the same as the core hysteria and fear built up around the Malthusian propositions in the Limits to Growth: computer simulations. When you read about global warming and somewhere in the story is a claim about “climate models”, just remember that its a fancy term for a computer program. A computer program written by whom? A computer program that is known to be true because of what? A simulation validated against what observables? Who can independently vouch for the accuracy of these simulations? If our very lives and future depend on the results of this simulation, why can’t I see the source code? The air of authority is at work once again.

In 1963, MIT mathematician Edward Lorenz published a paper titled “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow” whose abstract reads as follows:

Finite systems of deterministic ordinary differential equations may be designed to represent forced dissipative hydrodynamic flow. Solutions of these equations can be identified with trajectories in phase space. For those systmes with bounded solutions, it is found that nonperiodic solutions are ordinarily unstable with respect to small modifications, so that slightly differing initial states can evolve into considerably different states. Systems with bounded solutions are shown to possess bounded numerical solutions.

A simple system representing cellular convection is solved numerically. All of the solutions are found to be unstable, and almost all of them are nonperiodic.

The feasibility of very-long-range weather prediction is examined in the light of these results.

This work is the basis of understanding many non-linear feedback systems, such as climate, and why attempting to make long-term predictions about them is nearly impossible. Lorenz coined the term the butterfly effect to describe the sensitivity to initial conditions on any long-term simulation. Lorenz was analyzing a simplified model of atmospheric convection when he made his discovery about the sensitivity to initial conditions in a non-linear feedback system. I can’t think of a system with more non-linear feedback loops in it than a climate model. We routinely read how authors use their climate models to make predictions not just weeks, but years, decades and centuries into the future. If we can’t simulate simple atmospheric convection a few weeks into the future with any confidence, why should we listen to people prattling on about their climate models that project their results decades and centuries into the future? “Because the computer said so” isn’t convincing in the least.

Each chapter of Plimer’s book is devoted to a particular subject area and begins with a series of questions and a concise answer to each. The chapter then explores those questions in depth, citing the research from a variety of scientific fields to support each answer. In total the book has over 2300 citations to support the case being made.

I bought this book in the Seattle airport while flying back from a visit to Microsoft. At about 500 pages, you wouldn’t think a citation heavy scientific book like this would be a page turner, but I was sucked in nearly instantly. Over the next few weeks, I poured over the pages and devoured them voraciously, always a sign of a good read for me. I also learned a few interesting things along the way. For instance, did you realize that there is evidence that the “Dark Ages” actually were darker than today in terms of more cloud cover? A historical study of landscape paintings showed a statistical correlation between the dark ages and a depiction of increased cloud cover. Who would have thought that art history could lend some insight into climate science? Another surprising fact was that there is evidence that movement of the solar system through the spiral arms of our galaxy affects climate on Earth by adding to the total load of dust particles in the atmosphere as our star traverses arms of the galaxy. Get ready for the next galactic winter!

If you’re a skeptic about the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, read this book to arm yourself with data. If you’re a believer in the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, read this book to understand the data you must refute. Do I think that this book will change anyone’s mind? Sadly, I think only a few people have an open enough mind to be able to reverse their opinion of something based on a presentation of evidence. I find it much more common that people examine evidence and discard evidence contrary to their existing opinion and latch on to evidence in favor of their existing opinion—including myself, on occasion. I never claimed to be perfect anyway. But there have been a number of points of “commonly accepted wisdom” on which I’ve had to change my mind after becoming more educated about them. Reading this book is definately an education in the disparate scientific disciplines that all have a piece of the climate story.

Here are the questions Plimer asks and answers in detail:

  • History
    • Q: Are the speed and amount of modern climate change unprecedented?
      A: No.
    • Q: Is dangerous warming occurring?
      A: No.
    • Q: Is the temperature range observed in the 20th Century outside the range of normal variability?
      A: No.
  • The Sun
    • Q: Does the Sun influence the Earth’s climate?
      A: Yes.
  • The Earth
    • Q: Do volcanoes change climate?
      A: Yes.
    • Q: Do wobbles in the Earth’s orbit change climate?
      A: Yes.
    • Q: Have past climate changes driven extinction?
      A: Yes and no.
  • Ice
    • Q: Is warming melting the polar ice caps and alpine valley glaciers?
      A: Yes but no.
  • Water
    • Q: Do human emissions of CO2 create sea level rise?
      A: No.
    • Q: Will the seas become acid?
      A: No.
    • Q: Does sea level rise kill coral atolls?
      A: No.
    • Q: Are humans forcing changes in ocean currents?
      A: No.
  • Air
    • Q: Do thermometer measurements show the planet is warming?
      A: No.
    • Q: Do other temperature measurements show the planet is warming?
      A: No.
    • Q: Is atmospheric CO2 of human origin increasing?
      A: Possibly.
    • Q: Is atmospheric CO2 approaching a dangerous level?
      A: No.
    • Q: Do higher sea temperatures cause more hurricances?
      A: No.
    • Q: Do clouds influence climate?
      A: Yes.

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