April 24, 2009

"Gore’s film is Muzak compared with Plimer’s symphony."

Ian Plimer: A question of faith

History is littered with grand mistakes. Columbus thought the West
Indies looked distinctly oriental, Hitler and Napoleon believed the Russian winter would defrost like a fridge held open, and IBM chairman Tom Watson was convinced there’d be a world market for about five computers.

Then there’s the question of faith: that is, the belief in gods and deities. The world once had thousands of religions, and to challenge these beliefs meant death. Ancient Greeks built temples which started at Aphrodite and ended at Zeus, animists believed that plants had souls, and ancient hunter-gatherers held that rivers and mountains were created by giant crocodiles or snakes.

A giant cod did not dig the River Murray, and we know that because of the work of geologists and geographers. Since the beginnings of religion 300,000 years ago, science has challenged faith. Science is evidence, not belief, and scientists don’t burn other scientists at the stake because they disagree with each other. But the belief in human-caused global warming, says one scientist, has become the new religion.

“The history of the world is written in the rocks,” says Adelaide University geologist Professor Ian Plimer. “We can tell when the earth was born, when the atmosphere developed and the gases which comprised it. We know that continents drift and mountains uplift and erode. If you know the alphabet, if you can read the rocks, you can go back 4.567 billion years to the formation of the world itself.”

Plimer is a genial man, 62 years old and with the energy of a new-born gazelle. He’s rushing from television interviews to appointments on radio. He’s been to his printers and publishers and he’s in Adelaide between trips to Broken Hill and Wagga Wagga. It’s a busy schedule.More...

In the boot of his Mercedes he has a box of books, his new opus Heaven and Earth. He parks the car on a steep hill in Beaumont, hands a copy of the book to his passenger while he meets his wife Jill and a real estate agent. As he inspects the house for sale, the real estate agent’s parked car rolls down the hill and stops with a crunching noise at the first solid obstacle, which the rear of Jill’s car. The professor is unfazed.

“There’s space in that house for a library,” he says gleefully. “I’ve got 75 linear metres of books and Jill has the same. We need a house with space. The cars should have been parked with their wheels turned into the gutter on a slope like that but - there’s space for a library.”

And then the professor moves heaven and earth, literally and figuratively. The book, 500 pages of literature, is an argument against the belief or the faith, as Plimer sees it, that human activity causes global warming. A posse of critics from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, environmental groups and scientists from other disciplines are now out to lynch him. The mild-mannered professor’s Heaven and Earth is figuratively tearing his world apart.

“Start with science,” Plimer says. “Ignore faith. Science is evidence, not belief.” And then he starts with his history of the planet, beginning at the beginning and ending far into the future.

“The world’s climate has always changed and always will,” he says. “The speed and amount of modern climate change is neither unprecedented nor dangerous. The temperature range observed in the 20th century is in the range of normal variability.”

This sounds heretical. Don’t the world’s eminent scientists agree that humans are burning fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate, that this combustion is releasing carbon dioxide at a similarly unprecedented rate, and that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas? Won’t human-made global warming cause wild and unpredictable weather, melt polar icecaps and fry polar bears? Aren’t Pacific Islanders going to be flooded out of house and home? Won’t there be malarial mosquitoes up and down the high latitudes? Aren’t we doomed?

Plimer weaves the Mercedes through the traffic on the way to his next appointment. “Methane is the most potent greenhouse gas,” he says before answering. “The effect of driving a diesel car 10,000 kilometres is equivalent to the amount of methane a cow produces in a day.”

Yes, but what about polar bears? They don’t drive and they don’t chew cud.

Plimer stares through the windscreen, wondering where to begin. A starting point may be his previous book, A Short History of Planet Earth, published by ABC Books before the climate change debate really heated up. It talks about earth’s encounters with the killer asteroids, the rise and spread of the continents, the appearance of life, mass extinctions and really major climate changes that shaped the life and look of earth.

It even makes a passing reference to some minor animals known as hominids.

“For 80 per cent of the earth’s 4600 million years, our planet has been a warm, wet greenhouse planet. Greenhouse conditions are normal. Polar ice caps are abnormal,” he says.

“Even 2000 years ago the earth was considerably warmer than now. The Romans were scantily clad, and growing oranges and grapes in northern England.”

In Plimer’s geological timeframe, 2000 years is less than a modern meteorologist’s mini-second. Plimer sees the climate change much as we see changes in daily weather; it can be freezing in the morning, warming up towards noon with an afternoon thunderstorm, then rain and hail followed by a starry night with another frost.

To a man whose scientific discipline measures millions of years, the world’s climate is always changeable and variable. The reason we don’t notice is our incredibly short lifespan as a species and our incredibly short lives as individuals. If we’d been around as long as algal mats called stromatolites, like those at Shark Bay in West Australia which haven’t changed in 2724 million years, we’d have a truer perspective.

“The Dark Ages between 535 and 900 AD were a terrible time to be alive,” he writes in Heaven and Earth. “Sudden cooling took place. It was cold, there were famines, war, changes of empires and stressed humans succumbed to plague. Around 540 AD it was so cold trees almost stopped growing. This was a global event because it is also recorded in tree rings from Ireland, England, Siberia and North and South America.”

The Black Sea froze. Ice formed on the Nile. South America was gripped by drought; the Mayan civilisation collapsed.

The Dark Ages ended as quickly as they began and the world began to warm. This was the Medieval Warming from 900 to 1300 AD.

“The amount of land devoted to agriculture increased and fields crept up to higher altitudes where farming had not previously taken place. Europe was warm and rainfall was higher. New cities were built and the population increased from 30 million to 80 million. At the same time the thousands of temples at Angkor Wat in SE Asia were built. In China these warmer conditions led to a doubling of the population in 100 years. The Medieval Warming was the zenith of Muslim imperialism, culture and science. Economies boomed.”

And then came the Little Ice Age, and it all went wrong again. As Plimer tells it, the world warms and cools as quickly as a steaming hot bath goes tepid. He writes of giant undersea volcanoes spitting out more carbon dioxide than people have released since the start of the industrial revolution, of terrestrial volcanoes like the Toba eruption on Sumatra a mere 74,000 years ago which threw so much acid aerosols and dust into the atmosphere that the human population was reduced to as few as 4000 individuals. We were nearly wiped out, just like 99.99 per cent of all the world’s species have since life began. Becoming extinct is something most plants and animals do, and which the rest are still practising.

Unlike the ancient Greeks or the Stone Age hunters, Plimer doesn’t believe that gods or beasts created the earth or its life. Nevertheless there’s something of a missionary zeal about the man; he’d love to convert the listener. He talks of glaciers reaching down to the shores of the Mediterranean, of their retreat and the spread of hominids to the very north, of Viking settlements on a lush and pleasant Greenland. All these changes, hot and cold, happened well before Man started his lawn mower, before the internal combustion engine, before the Industrial Revolution or Emissions Trading.

So why is his voice seemingly the only one to argue that humans aren’t responsible for global warming? How can he be right and all the other scientists wrong?

If Plimer is irritated by the question he doesn’t show it. In fact, a smile spreads across his worldly face.

“Now that’s very interesting,” he says. “The media went into years of brouhaha about global warming and fellow travellers boarded the bandwagon at every opportunity. The cause became fashionable especially among climate experts such as Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep and numerous other show business folk. Al Gore went from strength to strength and even compared ‘true believers’ such as himself to Galileo. Those who had other scientific views were attacked.

“The international panel on climate change gathered many climatologists, meteorologists, environmentalists and political activists. Its first report was in 1990. Three working groups had authors who contributed to a series of chapters under the guidance of lead authors. These people are touted as the 2500 scientific experts who constitute a consensus. In the 1996 report on the impact of global warming on health, one contributing author was an expert on the effectiveness of motorcycle helmets. That author had also written on the health effects of mobile phones. Other authors were environmental activists, one of whom had written on the health effects of mercury poisoning from land mines. If a land mine explodes, the last thing one thinks about is the health effects of mercury poisoning.

“The IPCC process is related to environmental activism, politics and opportunism. It is unrelated to science.”

There is much in Plimer’s book which could make the blood boil, if not the oceans evaporate. According to the geologist, deniers of human-caused global warming have become the new sceptics, the distrusted, the heretical.

IN THE EARLY 1980s, a team of palaeontologists and archaeologists was excavating a cave on the banks of the Franklin River in Tasmania. They found there evidence of Stone Age man dating back 22,000 years, the most southerly people on the planet at that time.

“Tasmania then was much colder and drier,” explained ANU archaeologist Dr Rhys Jones during the dig. “People had walked across a flat plain from what’s now Victoria to what is now Tasmania. They arrived in the (Tasmanian) south-west and sheltered in this cave, using it for more than 7000 years.

“Then the climate became much wetter and warmer. The grasslands on which the people depended gave way to thick, impenetrable forest. The forest squeezed out the people, and they were forced to leave.

“The scale of that warming was very quick, and the flooding of Bass Strait incredibly rapid. It would have been possible for a grandfather to sit on the shore of Tasmania, point across the vast sea that’s now Bass Strait, and say to his grandson: ‘I walked across there.’ It flooded in a generation.”

Now that’s climate change. Archaeologists have found the remains of villages on the bed of what’s now the Black Sea before it was either black or sea. There are rock paintings of people herding cattle in what’s now the Sahara Desert. Just a few hours north-east of Adelaide is the Mungo Lakes national park, where there’s evidence of some of the earliest hominid occupation on Australia around what was once a huge inland sea. There was a time when Lake Eyre and Lake Torrens were fresh, when the Murray River flowed out to sea near Port Pirie. And if you really want to imagine climate change, think of the Himalayas as a boring flat plain or of South America smacking into North America and stopping equatorial currents between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The story of climate change is the story of the earth itself, of life beginning and often ending, of asteroids and comets smacking into planets and wiping out up to 96 per cent of all marine genera. Were it not for climate change, we might still be shrews scurrying in the night to hide from carnivorous reptiles. Climate change, argues Plimer, is driven by the sun, by eccentricities in the earth’s orbit and rotation, by geological and astronomical forces so strong that humans’ influence is relatively puny.

But Plimer’s latest book, its kindest critic will acknowledge, stays away from sweeping adventures in geology. Desperate to avoid generalities, eager to explain every scientific nuance, it’s packed with 2311 footnotes, almost all of them scientific. Al Gore’s film is Muzak compared with Plimer’s symphony.

“Most scientists are anarchistic, bow to no authority and construct conclusions based on evidence,” he writes. “Matters of science cannot be solved by authority or consensus. Scientific evidence is unrelated to politics, ideology, popular paradigms, world views, fads, ethic, morality, religion and culture. If you are a Buddhist, Baha’i or Baptist, the speed of light is still about 299,792.5 kilometres per second. If it is dark, the speed of light is still about 299,792.5 kilometres per second.”

And that’s about the speed that human-caused climate change believers will respond to Professor Plimer’s tract. Few arguments ignite the passions as much as this. Religion comes close, and that too is a belief system where adherents of one faith are so convinced of their own god’s supremacy that they will go to war to win converts, is the most grievous mistake to litter history.

Just above Plimer’s own basement office at the University of Adelaide is more salubrious accommodation of Barry Brook, who sits in the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change. They argue, they disagree, and they are equally stimulated by the other’s debate.

After all, we now know that the world’s circumference is three times the size Columbus thought it was, and that a northern summer will be followed by a Russian winter.

And we know IBM’s Tom Watson was wrong. Five computers will never be enough, even just to do climate modelling.

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