Beyond Carbon-Centric Climate
Geology is my favorite science. This is partly because it is the pan-science of hard sciences, featuring physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology — and other sciences, if you wish, such as paleoclimatology. But my favoritism is also because geology is so freaking difficult. The geological time scale alone boggles the human mind. When I first studied geology, I felt a little better when one of my professors said, “I earned my doctorate thirty years ago, and the geological time scale still boggles my mind.”
Having said that, geologists are merely people, and people invariably reflect their contemporary cultural milieu with all sorts of subjective views. We cannot help it. How we were raised, our economic concerns, religious and political leanings (or lack thereof), popular media, and countless other factors color our worldviews. In this sense, objectivity is a philosophical ideal that we may aim toward, but never reach. That’s fine. At least being aware of these inevitable shades of subjectivity is important, and there remains a huge difference between those trying to be objective versus blind advocacy of one stripe or another.
Today’s media and popular culture have over-simplified the topic of climate to a focus on anthropogenic carbon emissions (with occasional mention of anthropogenic methane). This is how we get phrases and concepts like being “carbon neutral,” carbon trading, and the cliché involving the magnitude of our “carbon footprint.” There are many problems with this carbon-centricism.
First, throughout geological history and up to the present moment, many factors have influenced and will continue to influence the earth’s climate. Here is a short list:
- varying degrees of solar radiation
- Milankovitch cycles
- continental configurations (affecting where cold and warm ocean currents flow)
- levels of atmospheric water vapor and long term cloud cover patterns
- geological emissions of water vapor, sulfur dioxide, methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other gases
The first two items are of an astrophysical nature and obviously beyond human control. Many take solar radiation for granted, but like everything in life, the sun evolves and one day (in another five billion years or so, we think) will begin to die. In the meantime, magnitude of solar radiation varies. The Milankovitch cycles involve variations in the earth’s orbit and its axis-tilt in relation to the sun. Imagine the Arctic Circle moving down to a place like Anchorage for even a few thousand years (a blip in geological time), and you can appreciate how profoundly this would affect climate.
Maybe it is because of these sorts of daunting geological factors out of our control that we focus so much on anthropogenic carbon.
Water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane are contingent upon the greenhouse hypothesis, which some scientists insist is irrefutable scientific fact. As recently as the 1970s, a significant number of climate scientists thought we were cooling the planet with human activities, such as air pollution, and thus hastening the advent of a new ice age. So let’s keep calling it a greenhouse hypothesis until we are sure otherwise. That’s the way science is supposed to work, by the way. Most scientific endeavor ends at the hypothesis stage; scientific theory (as in evolutionary biology) is a comparatively rare advancement.
So far we have preliminary and frankly quite crude technology fully capable of capturing and sequestering carbon, so we are already having some influence on this atmospheric gas, though barely so compared to anthropogenic carbon emissions. Capturing atmospheric methane remains a scientific and technological dream, though we have made some progress capturing it from specific human-made ventilation sources, such as at landfills and at fossil fuel well caps — but not at volcanoes, fumaroles, or seismic vents, from where it has been spewing at highly variable rates (both undersea and on land) for at least hundreds of millions of years.
Of all people, one might expect geologists to emphasize this larger picture.
But focus on anthropogenic carbon and other contemporary environmental concerns surely tints some recent geological science, perhaps to a distorting degree. Granted, no shortage of scientists make very poor philosophers of science. On the other hand, politicized science and agenda-driven science violate the very tenets of the scientific procedure, rendering rather unscientific results.
I’m sure Kirk Johnson is a very smart geologist. Johnson is also a talented narrator and excellent host for geology documentaries. So I was disappointed to find him propagating carbon-centric climate science in a 2020 episode of PBS’s Nova, called “Polar Extremes.” This film reveals the potential misdirection in agenda-driven science. Ironically, in some ways, the documentary’s own base narrative contradicts its agenda. The base narrative demonstrates how purely geological forces drove alternate “hot house” and ice ages in the geological past. But the latter parts of the documentary overly focus on anthropogenic carbon emissions within the greenhouse hypothesis.
“Polar Extremes” succumbs to all the latest environmental clichés, from the doomsdayists’ “tipping point” to the unscientific wishful thinking for habitat “equilibrium,” both indicating the myth of “balance” in nature. There is no balance in nature. Instead, biologically speaking, nature is a dynamic competition conforming to all we know about evolutionary biology. The “balance” myth fundamentally contradicts evolutionary biology just as it evokes a static Edenic worldview.
“Polar Extremes” also pretends that we are still in an ice age, despite the globe warming for the past 11,000 years. Granted, 11K is barely an eye blink in geological time, but the past 150 years (when the Industrial Revolution began in earnest) is an even shorter blip. It’s entirely possible that we’re enhancing geological warming now, but the joke would be on us if it turned out that the trend in geological forces was far stronger than the anthropogenic influences. We just don’t know. Geologists can no more predict the future than anyone else, and to pretend otherwise (as they recently did regarding the L’Aquila earthquake) is pure folly.
And none of this helps us understand a supposed correlation of atmospheric carbon dioxide with past hot house eras; even this might be more conjecture than scientific fact, given legitimate skepticism over agenda-driven science. Besides, Johnson doesn’t mention other obvious climate factors like the Milankovitch cycles or solar radiation. Some of these other factors may indeed be impossible or exceedingly difficult to glean from the geological past. Current concerns, whether legitimate or not, do not excuse pretending (as “Polar Extremes” does) that we have any idea how much carbon dioxide is currently venting into the atmosphere from continental fumaroles, much less so oceanic fumaroles. And what about all that geological methane? Never mentioned.
Johnson is hardly alone in reading current philosophical values into the scientific past and present.
In the 2017 book The Sea Floor: An Introduction to Marine Geology, Eugen Seibold and Wolfgang Berger express the standard concerns about anthropogenic carbon dioxide. After admitting that computer modeling is only as good as its users’ assumptions and data, Seibold and Berger cite Steve Schneider’s cautionary warning about anthropogenic carbon dioxide, and how “throwing doubt on expert opinion is dangerous in this case.” But this is an appeal to the ad verecundium fallacy, which is an appeal to authority rather than to evidence and reasoning therefrom (or missing evidence and the inevitable faulty reasoning therefrom).
The ad verecundium fallacy shows up frequently in climate debates. These are “experts” trying to throw their weight around. The better scientists never succumb to it; instead, they reveal their results and invite replication. Of course, when you’re relying on computer models, replication becomes practically irrelevant, since anyone can enter the same data points in what amounts to a very elaborate and expensively-funded Rube Goldberg toy. The toy’s results are only as good as its data.
For example, recently Ben Houlton and others discovered that previous climate modelers had neglected to include accurate measurements of terrestrial nitrogen. Houlton argued, quite rationally, that this nitrogen could have profound effects on flora growth and thus biological carbon sequestration. Climate alarmists preoccupied with anthropogenic carbon emissions immediately denounced this study as bogus, Houlton as a climate change denier, and all the usual noise we have come to expect in the collegial spirit of environmental scientific inquiry.
Houlton’s nitrogen question is intriguing in and of itself, but also raises a rather obvious question: if climate modelers are neglecting something so potentially profound as the effects of terrestrial nitrogen, what other factors and their magnitudes might they also be omitting from their models? Ultimately, of course, it is impossible to infuse the climate models with all the climate influencing factors, along with the infinite combinations of these factors involving their timing, magnitude, and interaction.
The fact is, there is a great deal about climate we simply do not know.
As geologists Frederick Lutgens and Edward Tarbuck acknowledged, in the geological past (before the advent of humans), atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide have periodically mysteriously declined. Geologists are still trying to figure out how and why. Obviously we need further study.
Marine geologists and oceanographers have mapped well under 10% of the ocean floor in any detail, and the magnitude of undersea seismic vents and fumaroles remain only guesstimated in terms so vague as to render all climate modeling inaccurate. Collecting gases from erupting volcanoes above or below the sea is notoriously difficult, dangerous, and expensive. It is ultimately impossible with any precision at any given time — and absolutely impossible regarding any long term (much less constant) monitoring.
In 1991, science writer Joseph Cone guessed that undersea geological vents might account for 20% of the earth’s heat. But this was only a guess, and besides, such vents are notorious for weekly or even daily variability. Over the next century, are they going to increase or decrease in their release of heat, carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur, and other gases? No one knows. Until the 1960s and 1970s, obvious technological limitations prohibited undersea exploration in the first place. Like climate science, marine geology is still in its infancy.
Carbon-centricism is not the only contemporary concern that shows up in recent geological science. In 2006, geologist and photographer Ellen Morris Bishop published a great book called In Search of Ancient Oregon. The state-specific geology she describes is always within a global context, so don’t let the title dissuade you. Her landscape photographs illustrating geological features are second to none. Bishop describes many standard subjects in her field, such as the Permian extinction, late Eocene meteor impacts, the middle Miocene climate, and so forth. The geological science in this book is solid and accessible, but contemporary values also show up, often in rather harmless (yet indicative) ways.
For example, Bishop wrote, “A lingering malaise of hot climates and low biological diversity would persist for at least 10 million years into the Triassic. Coral reefs would not recover for almost 20 million years.” (p. 37) Hot climates are a malaise, why? Because we humans don’t want them. Why is “low biological diversity” a negative? Because a certain school of human philosophy dictates such, not because of any inherent scientific criteria (pure science is indifferent to such variations). Coral reefs are, of course, one of the poster children of contemporary environmental concern.
Here’s another example from the Triassic: “The atmospheric composition returned to a more normal balance gradually as polar regions warmed, sea levels rose, and carbon dioxide levels fell.” (p. 38) First, there is no “normal,” only constant change. “Balance” is (again) the wishful thinking of humanity, going back to notions of static Eden. We cannot blame ourselves for this; it is only natural that we would crave stability and security for our species and all those other species we favor (but not the “bad” ones; let those corona viruses go extinct!).
In the last few pages of Bishop’s book, all the “presentist” values come out regarding biodiversity, species invasion, an objection to contrails, and an insinuation that humans are incapable of planting trees in new habitats as climate changes. In conclusion, Bishop wrote, “We can and must work to maintain and enhance biodiversity, for biological systems along with tectonics, are part of the engine that has kept Earth running for the last 3 billion years.” In reality, biological systems will continue to evolve with or without humans, and geological change is indifferent to our species’ survival. As Lao Tzu wrote millennia ago, “Heaven and earth do not act from benevolence; they deal with all things as straw dogs.”
Me? I adopt a sort of geological fatalism within which I celebrate tremendous wiggle room regarding free will and human ingenuity. If our species lasts long enough, geology and astrophysics will eventually overpower all of us. But in the meantime we have the brains to do our best regarding any number of matters that currently concern so many people: cleaning up toxic chemicals that we previously dumped, improving farming methods (including returning previous agricultural land back to wildlife habitat), capturing and sequestering the carbon we are emitting (just in case!), learning how to capture atmospheric methane on a massive scale, and that long, ongoing marathon of seeking a viable replacement for fossil fuel energy. The latter probably includes exploring a new generation of safe nuclear reactors that actually consume extremely dangerous nuclear waste! Leslie Dewan, Transatomic Power, and others have been designing such nuclear technology for some time now.
So, as I used to tell my worried students, “If you are really concerned about the environment, please consider leaving the protest march and majoring in something like green engineering or green chemistry.”
And then prepare for a lifetime of very difficult but immensely rewarding work.
Copyright © 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.
REFERENCES and FURTHER READING
Jacques-Marie Bardintzeff, Volcanology (Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 2000), 40, 41.
Ellen Morris Bishop, In Search of Ancient Oregon: A Geological and Natural History (Portland, OR: Timber Pr., 2006), 37, 38, 256, 258.
Joseph Cone, Fire Under the Sea: The Discovery of the Most Extraordinary Environment on Earth — Volcanic Hot Springs on the Ocean Floor (NY: Wm. Morrow, 1991), 84, 85.
R. Allan Freeze, The Environmental Pendulum: A Quest for the Truth about Toxic Chemicals, Human Health, and Environmental Protection (Berkeley: University of California Pr., 2000).
Ben Z. Houlton, et al, “Convergent Evidence for Widespread Rock Nitrogen Sources in Earth’s Surface Environment,” Science 360, no. 6384 (April 6, 2018): 58–62.
Kirk Johnson, host, “Polar Extremes,” Nova, season 47, episode 1 (PBS, Feb. 5, 2020).
John C. Kricher, The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Pr., 2009).
Lao Tzu, Dao De Jing, ch. 5.
Frederick K. Lutgens and Edward J. Tarbuck, Essentials of Geology, 9th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), 263.
Eugen Seibold and Wolfgang Berger, The Sea Floor: An Introduction to Marine Geology, 4th ed. (Cham, Germany: Springer Pubs., 2017).