Posted by: Barry Bickmore | April 18, 2012

NPR–War of the Worlds: When Science, Politics Collide

Here is a nice piece at the National Public Radio site on how scientists and others respond when science and politics collide.  The story quotes me at the end.


  1. I have tried to put the politics of this issue aside because frankly, politicians are only interested in what serves their long term goals and not the interests of the common man unless it can be used for political gain.

    I really want to understand this man-made global warming issue though, because what I see in the long term trends from paleoclimate benthic oxygen and ice core graphs does not bear out what people are saying in short term projections for the future. Paleocene/Eocene global temperatures were 8 to 12 degrees Celsius higher than today, Antarctica was ice free and life roamed from pole to pole at the K/T boundary and then we started cooling off. Antarctica iced up about 30 million years ago then warmed up about 20 million years ago then iced over again 12 million years ago with the temperature trend continuing down.

    Up until about a million years ago, our glacial/interglacial cycle rate was approximately every 40,000 years which matched the Milankovitch cycles almost perfectly. Then, about a million years ago, the unexplained 100,000 year cycles started where we have on average a 93,000 year ice age interrupted by a relatively short 12K to 15,000 year interglacial warm period before dropping back into an ice age. The interglacial warms start with a high temperature spike (ours was interrupted by the Younger Dryas event) and then slowly cools off (trends down over 15K years) and then drops into the start of the next ice age. We have had ten of these cyclic 100K year ice ages in the past million years and we are near the end of our own interglacial. Am I describing any of this inaccurately? If so, I need to know because we, as a society, have spent millions on ice core and benthic paleoclimate research and I don’t want to quote this research if it is wrong. An Ice age limits life to a very narrow band around the planet and will make high latitude places like New York City unlivable under a mile of ice; are you telling me that man has the ability to break this global cycle and prevent the next ice age? God, I hope so.

    • Bill S–According to James Hansen of GISS and his book “Storms of My Grandchildren” pg 36-37, and 49. Another ice-age of no worry because we can add enough CO2 to avert it. As you undoubtedly know it is overwarming that is the urgent danger.

    • Hi Bill,

      You seem to be saying that if climate has changed in the past, and life survived, why would it be a big deal if humans made it a few degrees warmer? The problem isn’t climate change–it’s RAPID climate change. It took the Earth about 10,000 years to come out of the last glacial maximum into the current interglacial (which has been pretty stable for about 10,000 years), for instance. That’s a change of about 5 °C in 10,000 years, or 1 degree per 2,000 years. In the meantime, a bunch of species went extinct because they couldn’t adapt fast enough. In the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, the temperature rose maybe 6 °C over 20,000 years (about 1 °C every 3000 years). Again, lots of species went extinct, large areas of the ocean went anoxic. Curiously, mammals did really well–where there are losers, there are always winners. The point is that life on Earth is pretty adaptable, but it takes time, so rapid changes cause a lot of upheaval, pain, and suffering. Likewise, humans adapt REALLY well, but if we have to move large populations due to drought and sea level changes, and if large swaths of the ocean go dead due to acidification, do you really think we’re going to avoid a massive amount of human suffering? So what, exactly, would happen if we were to cause the global mean temperature to rise by 5-6 °C over, say, 200 years (1 °C every 30-40 years), rather than 10-20 THOUSAND years? Personally, I don’t want to find out, and I don’t want my children to have to find out what happens when you change the Earth’s average temperature 50-100 times faster than nature has done it in the past. (And by the way, in the last 50 years we’ve already changed the temperature by about +0.6 °C, it can’t be the Sun doing it, and we’re just getting started. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere continues to rise exponentially as more countries industrialize. Even if the temperature only continues the present trend, we’d still be changing the temperature 20 times faster than nature has ever done it, to our knowledge.)

      But then you imply that the impending glacial is going to save us, but the current orbital configuration is most like it was about 400,000 years ago, so the best bet is that the next glacial is tens of thousands of years out.

      I hope this helps, and feel free to ask any more questions.

    • “what I see in the long term trends from paleoclimate benthic oxygen and ice core graphs does not bear out what people are saying in short term projections for the future”

      And there is no problem with that. What happened in the past DOES NOT HAVE TO BE WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW.

      What the paleoclimate graphs bear out is that sensitivity CANNOT be below 1.5C per doubling of CO2, and not very likely to be above 4.5C per doubling.

      “Antarctica was ice free and life roamed from pole to pole at the K/T boundary and then we started cooling off. Antarctica iced up about 30 million years ago then ”

      But the earth didn’t decide it needed to cool down. Something changed. CO2 was bound up into dead plants (soon to become fossil fuels).

      “Then, about a million years ago, the unexplained 100,000 year cycles started”

      Nope, the 100k year cycles are explained. Some models can reproduce the 100,000 year cycles as a result of non-linear interactions between small changes in the Earth’s orbit and internal oscillations of the climate system

      But this has nothing to do with AGW, since we already know the causation and can measure it: CO2e production from human activity.

      Since in the past million years, we haven’t had human industry pouring out 30 billion tons of CO2 a year, the past million years won’t show us what happens when human industry pours out 30 bn tons of CO2 a year. But what we DO see in the past 150 years is consistent with around 3c per doubling of CO2, even if that CO2 is from human industry.

  2. Hi Professor Bickmore,

    I am definitely not implying that the “impending glacial is going to save us.” On the contrary, I think a new ice age would be tremendously detrimental to all life that has become adjusted to our interglacial warm period, much more detrimental than any warming.

    Professor, you live in Utah on top of the bottom sediments of pre-historic Lake Bonneville. Each prehistoric lake level is dramatically etched into the surrounding mountains as a testament that these areas can become unlivable again with very narrow shores to try and eke out a meager living. The only saving grace in a new ice age would be the continental shelves that would be exposed once again as the sea level drops several hundred feet as the water gets locked up in the advancing ice as it did in the last ice age.

    I really think this “crisis” is based on our limited time frames and what we consider the “norm” during our particular brief moment in time on this planet. Put yourself in the place of a person living on the exposed continental shelf 15,000 years ago at the terminus of the last ice age just as things started warming up. That fertile plain (now the home of fish) had been our ancestral home for thousands of years. We would be running around like Chicken Little because our camp fires were causing the world to heat up and our homes to be flooded, paying the medicine man to stop it, and we would be lamenting the loss of the Mammoth, Sabre Tooth Tiger and the Short Faced Bear. Personally, I am glad that fauna is gone. I like to hike in the woods and it is bad enough worrying about little black bears, cougars and large grizzlies further north.

    Grapes in England were the “norm” during the Medieval Warm Period but “Little Ice Age” people knew nothing about the grapes that used to be grown there as they walked over the ground they used to grow on; they had to read about it in a book. It just depends on your point of view while you are living and what you perceive as normal. Bringing politicians into this crisis is like ringing the dinner bell for our modern day “medicine men”; they never provide real solutions, they only ask for more of our “shells and beads” and I am frankly tired of constantly shelling out.

    • Bill S., could you please provide references to your claims on viticulture in England. My source says otherwise:
      (note, for example, the book written by John Rose in 1666. What is often ignored by people using viticulture in the UK is the growing ease with which wine could be imported from other places. If your closest competition is your neighbour, you compete on equal premises. If you have to compete with wine from all over Europe and even overseas…well, you lose.

      You have a point about time frames, and yet, you do NOT have a point at the same time. What matters for humanity is not what will happen in about 15,000-30,000 years, but what will happen in the next 100-500 years. We do not have to worry about the earth not surviving, but it is rather problematic if we, on a short time-scale, ruin our immediate environment, and set off evolutionary changes that we cannot control. We are already doing that in many different ways, but we know from history that climate change is a very powerful evolutionary driver. We might be lucky, and we might not be.

      • I read your source and it vindicates what I said and I quote; “Many sources point out that the climate improved for a period of 300 years starting from about the time of the Norman invasion and citing this as a reason why so many vineyards were planted” This is during the climbing temperatures of the Medieval Warm Period. And the quote from the time during the Little Ice Age “It is also said that the British climate underwent some change at this time, becoming generally wetter, with cooler summers and milder winters, leading to less ripe grapes and more fungal diseases, both of which would have been disincentives to profitable winemaking.” These quotes are from “The Normans” and “The Middle Ages to 20th Century” sections of your source which backs up exactly what I said.

        • I am afraid I have to disagree. You claimed, or at least that is the only possible way I could interpret what you wrote, that during the LIA there was no viticulture in England. My link directly contradicts that claim, discussing several vineyards starting and in active production during the LIA.

          You may also want to read the sociological reasons for the viticulture’s increase and decline. Climate may have played a role, but it was far from the only important issue.

        • Bill S.

          I think most clmate scientists agree there was a Climate Anomaly, localised in the North Atlantic area in the period A.D. 950-1250. However, there is no evidence that the global average temperature was warmer than the present at that time. Contrariwise, there is a lot of evidence of the reverse situation.

          Wineries in Medieval England do not say much – there may well have been wineries in warm microclimate areas. From Ireland, I know that a Norman visitor in the 11th century (the middle of the “Warm Period”) wrote specifically that there were no vineyards there, though wine was a luxury item and an expensive import. Ireland, generally, has a milder climate than England (more rain, though).

          And what does it say about today, when England had hundreds of vineyards, and there is also a Welsh, Irish, and Scottish wine industry, not to mention a Canadian one?

    • Remember too that wine is a religious requirement in England at the time, and that importation of Californian wines was impossible (nor were there a local Threshers Wine Store to buy your imported wine from).

      That the wine be drinkable is not a requirement.

      Besides, wine is being grown in far more places and further north than in those days DESPITE a worldwide distribution market for wines from better situated lands.

  3. Bill,
    I would certainly agree with you if there was going to be an imminant ice age and CO2 emitted in the atmosphere balanced that out so that we maintained a climate approximate to the last 12,000 years.
    Your argument about humans bemoaning the loss of beachfront real estate and pleistocene fauna seem rather far fetched. As Barry points out, while there have been some rather fast climate changes in the recent (geological) past, the conservative potential increase of 2-3°C in 150 years , would put many parts of the world into a dangerously stressed position, with potentially disastrous consequences. If we are already seeing some of the effects of a 1°C change, then we are in for some serious problems.
    Also if we completely stopped CO2 emission now, then again the insurance against an ice age (if the experts are wrong and one was imminent) would be worth it, but the politics and economics make that an impossibility.
    So the politics is in fact what is making the problem likely much worse that it could have been. Especially since the politics in the US is the major stumbling block, and has been for the last 20 years toward taking reasonable measures to control the problem.

    • In regards to the beachfront property and pleistocene fauna comment, I used it in caricature to humorously relate it to today. It can be used as an example to back up the species die off concern in the current debate so it is not too far fetched a scenario. You seem to be worried about the rapidity of today’s global warming and use species extinction as the reason to do something about it; why not use the global warming out of the ice age of 15,000 years ago to back up your argument? Conversely, If the global warming didn’t cause the die off of the megafauna 15,000 years ago then what did? The argument that there were enough Clovis men around to eat them all is specious at best and still under debate. Global Warming from the Ice Age is an established fact, megafaunal extinction at that time period is also fact. Why not use it as part of the argument today as proof of what can happen?

      • Bill,
        Again, I am sure that the transition for glacial to the current interglacial was an extremely disruptive event. I have for years fantasized that this was the source of the flood myths from around the world. Your dismissal of the possibility of humans being a major agency for mega fauna die off seems imprudent to me. I am fairly sure that the human population explosion was partly due to that change, and humans with their technology were extremely effective hunters.
        I am not sure why you think me or anyone reticent to use dramatic climate changes like ice age to inter-glacial as an argument for the dangers of the current problems with CO2. I did not use species extinction in my comment as a reason, though it certainly is. Not sure what this has to do with the anti science politics that is undermining efforts to mitigate the problems of future climate change.
        The difference between the climate change happening now and in the past transitions between glacial and interglacial is that the huge increase in CO2 and the forcing resultant of that will likely raise the global temps significantly higher than any interglacial in the past few million years. And it will do so at a much faster rate, with concomitant effects related to ocean acidification and destructive land use that could well intensify the stress on both human and natural ecosystems throughout the world.

      • Ask the Moa, the Dodo and the Mastadon.

        Heck, ask the Bison of midwest america if humans can cause extinction.

        Yet, since the dinosaurs are extinct and we weren’t there, this would (in your world view) prove that humans CANNOT cause extinction of species. How do you reconcile these inconsistencies?

  4. so do you think we should have a carbon tax?

    • Yes, but I favor a carbon tax “swap”, where a gradually ramped carbon tax replaces some income and payroll taxes so as not to create a net increase in government revenue.

      • Mind you, the government need to spend more. Wars don’t come cheap.

    • I have to agree as I believe that the only redeeming feature of a carbon tax is if it includes major tax reform.

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