Category Archives: Global warming

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world (review; long)

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press, 2018/2020

There are many excellent overviews for the general reader of how life on Earth has changed over time (see, for a recent example, Neil Shubin’s Some Assembly Required, which I reviewed here recently. The history of the Earth itself has not been so well served, and Timefulness; How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology and environmental Sciences at Lawrence University, is a welcome and timely addition to this badly under-represented genre. [1] The book is beautifully written, in plain language, with complex ideas explained with great simplicity and the use of strikingly appropriate verbal imagery. Behind this transparency of language lies a deep love and knowledge of her subject. The book should appeal to anyone looking for an overview of the Earth as the abode of life, or a perspective on our place in time, and how recklessly we are compressing the tempo of natural change.

The author presents her book as an argument for what she calls timefulness, the perception of ourselves as living in and constrained by time, of time itself as having both extension and texture, of the acceptance of our own mortality, and of our own responsibilities. This she sees as severely lacking in our society. We expect people to know something about distances on the map, but Read the rest of this entry

Why climate skepticism is not skepticism

Sourcing Skepticism … what factors drive questioning of Global Warming?

Copied wth permission of the author, Adam Siegel, from

The original was posted on September 13th, 2007 and attracted 23 Comments

Now it seems more relevant than ever, with such “skepticism” the posture of governments from Australia to Washington while the Arctic ice melts and methane begins to rise from the tundra.

Skepticism … the ability to question unquestioned beliefs and stated certainties is a powerful intellectual tool.

Sadly, “skepticism” is receiving a bad name through association with those ready, willing, able, and enthusiastic about denying the reality before their (and our) own eyes about the global changes in climate patterns and humanity’s role in driving these changes.

Questioner … Skeptic … Denier …

Clearly, not every question, not every challenge to data, not every voicing of concern is the same.  Nor is every motivation the same.  This is not simply about “fossil-fuel-funding” — although it can be at times. This is not simply about seeking Rapture and the end of times — even though it can be.  This is not simply about political beliefs creating thought structures for dealing with science — but it can be. Read the rest of this entry

Truth imitates satire (again) at the Environmental Protection Agency

Trump shakes hands with EPA Administrator Pruitt after announcing intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emission

“Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner.The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue… [C]lear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”

These are among the talking points distributed to EPA staffers this week.

Have you seen this kind of language before? Yes, you have indeed, from Pruitt himself almost actually a year ago.  At that time, I pointed out that Pruitt was following the script of BBC’s satire, Yes Minister. I have now tracked down the relevant episode, where UK Cabinet Minister (later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker, asks his trusted Civil Servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, how to deal with evidence that one would rather ignore. Sir Humphrey’s advice:

Discredit the evidence that you are not publishing. This is, of course, much easier than discrediting evidence that you do publish… You say: (a) that it leaves important questions unanswered (b) that much of the evidence is inconclusive (c) that the figures are open to other interpretations (d) that certain findings are contradictory (e) that some of the main conclusions have been questioned. Points (a) to (d) are bound to be true. In fact, all of these criticisms can be made of a report without even reading it. There are, for instance, always some questions unanswered — such as the ones they haven’t asked. As regards (e), if some of the main conclusions have not been questioned, question them!

That, by the way, was about the safety of a chemical processing by-product.

Jim proving he has elbows

Hacker (L) explaining his dilemma to Sir Humphrey

You might perhaps be concerned about the degree of contact with reality with which the EPA (to quote further talking points distributed this week) “promotes science that helps inform states, municipalities and tribes on how to plan for and respond to extreme events and environmental emergencies, recognizes the challenges that communities face in adapting to a changing climate, [and] will continue to advance its climate adaptation efforts.”

But really there’s no cause to worry, because, according to Reuters, Pruitt has “reaffirmed plans for the EPA to host a public debate on climate science sometime this year that would pit climate change doubters against other climate scientists.” It’s not clear where he’ll find his climate change doubters, but I’m sure he’ll manage, and no doubt the debate will take place with the same level of intellectual content and integrity that we have seen from the Senate Environment Committee, or would expect to see in a debate on evolution organised by Vice President Pence.

So stop making a silly fuss about the Government telling scientists to misrepresent the science.

Image and quotations from EPA talking points via Washington Post, 28 March 2018. Quotation from Yes Minster via Hacker/Appleby image via Temperature image from NASA Goddard via Wikipedia; public domain

What do Christians really believe about evolution?

Most people in the UK think that religious people believe in six-day creationism. Fortunately, they are wrong.

Less than one in six UK believers prefer separate creation to evolution

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 035

The Garden of Eden (Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530)). Note scenes including the creation of Eve, the temptation by the serpent, and the expulsion

A new YouGov poll conducted in Canada and the UK shows two contrasting facts. Among those who call themselves “believers or spiritual”, only 16%, under one in six, rejected evolution in favour of separate creation. A much larger group (39%) thught that “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God”. As an advocate of evolution science, I regard such people as potential allies. “Guided by God” is so vague an expression that it could be taken to include God having set up the laws of nature, which was actually Darwin’s own position, according to his autobiography (here, pp 92-3), when he wrote Origin of Species. (Caveat: the options offered were

  1. Humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form
  2. Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God
  3. Humans and other living things evolved over time as a result of natural selection, in which God played no part
  4. I have another view of the origin of species and development of life on Earth which isn’t included in this list
  5. I don’t know / I do not have a view on the origin of species and the development of life on Earth

Read the rest of this entry

Science matters because it works (but it’s not quite that simple)

Reblogged from The Logic of Science, but with this comment: No one would disagree with these claims on behalf of science, and and that’s the problem.

The climate change denialists, like the smoking science denialists before them, pretend that the science is unsettled. The creationists prattle of “creation science” and “flood geology”. The extremely able and intelligent US Vice President, pandering to his creationist base, did not claim to be anti-science. On the contrary, he used the very fact of a major scientific discovery (Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said) to blur the distinction between the established core and the fast-changing frontiers. And if we are to effectively defend science, we need to understand the emotional appeal of the ideology that leads to the rejection of vaccination, medicines, and GMOs, and to the prejudging of complex arguments in such cases as fracking and nuclear power.*

We need to think very carefully about tactics. If we seem to be saying anything like “Science is a good thing, therefore you should trust the scientists”, we are playing into the hands of our enemies. We are right to demonstrate and protest when science is denied, or ignored,  or muzzled.  And yet people (that’s all of us) believe what they want to believe.  The task  then is, how to persuade people to want to believe  in the evidence?

*This last comment cuts both ways, of course

The Logic of Science

Why should you support science? Because it works! It’s crazy to me that I even have to say that, but this is where we are as a society. Various forms and degrees of science denial are running rampant throughout our culture, and attacks on science are being disseminated from the highest levels. Indeed, it has gotten to the point that hundreds of thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts like myself feel compelled to take to the streets to march for science and remind everyone of the fundamental fact that science works and is unparalleled in its ability to inform us about reality and improve our world.

Image via the CDC

Just look around you. Everything that you see was brought to you by science. The batteries that power your electronic devices are a result of scientific advances in chemistry, as are the plastics that make up seemingly everything in our…

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Reality imitates satire; smoking, climate change, and EPA chief Scott Pruitt

Jim (seated) consults Sir Humphrey

Wishing, as I recall, to evade the scientific consensus on smoking and lung cancer, Yes Minister‘s Jim Hacker turned for advice to his Civil Servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. The conversaton went something like this (I would be glad of a link to the exact transcript):

Sir Humphrey: Say the scientists disagree. Say that more research is needed.

Jim: But I thought the science was settled …

Sir Humphrey: Those scientists are always disagreeing about something, and there is  always a need for more research.

Now this, from Science magazine’s online website: Read the rest of this entry

Not waving but drowning

Adventures in the Anthropocene

Not all the news is bad; but strange times, when we have to welcome leadership from China.

Wandering Gaia is Gaia Vince, author of the award-winning Adventures in the Anthropocene, part of the emerging literature that welcomes the challenge of positively managing the planet.


See also Scientists’ March on Washington and Geneticist launches bid for US Senate

Wandering Gaia

If, like me, you wake everyday with a stone of foreboding in your belly, check the news to discover the world is a little worse, and stumble through your day under the heaviest pall of despair, then you’re not having the best 2017 either – I’m sorry.

Is this a new Dark Ages, this deliberate political, cultural, societal regression?

I’m sure there have been a thousand analyses of how we got into this darkly farcical horror show – and I mean the Trump presidency and Brexit disasters specifically, rather than the continuing awfulness happening to people Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, etc etc – but to be honest, one of my few comforts at the moment is my social bubble made up of kind, intelligent people who are also appalled by this new “post-fact”, mean era.

So what hope, can I give? And, yes, there is always hope!

Even though these recent…

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My fellow ex-pat Americans … easy link to register

global_temperature_anomaly-svgYes, I am a US citizen, and right now this is a responsibility that I feel I must take seriously.

One US political party, from its Presidential candiate on down, is dedicated to the denial of global warming and the headlong exploitation of fossil fuels. For me, this issue eclipses all others.

I therefore urge you: if you think that global warming is not a problem, and that fossil fuels should be exploited as fully and as quickly as possible, vote Republican.

If you think otherwse, vote Democrat.

But vote. Here’s the link. The form will take no longer to fill out than it took you to read this:

Then and now; Darwin, Agassiz, global warming, and lakes that vanish overnight

Glen Roy is a valley in the Western Scottish Highlands, just south of the Great Glen (home to Loch Ness), and draining through Glen Spean to Loch Linnhe, an inlet of the Atlantic. It is remarkable for the presence of the Roads, a series of parallel, almost horizontal, grooves in the hills on the sides of the glen. Clearly shorelines; but of what body of water? And why are there more than one of them?


From Darwin, C. R., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 129: 39-81, 1839. Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin.

Darwin thought the Roads represented vanished marine shorelines, one above the other as the result of vertical movement. Agassiz explained them, rather, as successive shorelines of a glacial lake, now vanished because the retaining glacier has melted away. If so, and if global warming is real, we might expect to see vanishing lakes today, as the glaciers retreat. We can, and we do, as my friend Peter Hess explains.


Sedimentary (greywacke) erratic (approx. height 1 m) on glaciated slopes around Dunglass Crag, near Glasgow, transported from original location some 30 km to the North

Charles Darwin visited the Glenroy area in 1838, two years after his return from his round the world voyage on the Beagle. During that voyage, he had examined the geology as well as the plants and animals of the places he visited, and among them was the coastal area of Chile. This is marked by raised beaches inland where once had been shoreline, and Darwin correctly described these as the effects of uplift, which we now know to be driven by plate tectonics. So it was natural that Darwin should have applied a similar explanation to the Roads, suggesting that the Cairngorms, like the Andes, were a zone of uplift, and that the Roads were ancient beaches of the Atlantic, now some ten miles away. The alternative theory, that they represented shorelines of an ancient lake, ran up against a seemingly conclusive objection; such a lake could only have formed if there had been a barrier across the valley, but there was no trace of this.

Only a year later, the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz visited the area. He had just published his Ice Age theory, and in the Highlands he found plenty of evidence to support it; scratches on bedrock caused by the passage of glaciers, erratics (boulders far from their parent rock formations),  and moraines (piles of rock rubble that had been carried by glaciers, left in place when the glacier melted).


A glacier-sculpted landscape. The hard basalt of Dunglass Crag, an ancient volcanic plug, has protected the softer rock downstream (right in photograph) from erosion

Evidence of this kind is not difficult to find throughout much of Scotland. I saw some of it myself earlier this month a few miles from Glasgow as a student on Glasgow University extension course (see illustrations). Agassiz realised that his ice age theory also provided the correct answer to the mystery of the Roads. Yes, there had been a lake, and yes, the roads did represent the shorelines at different times, carved into the sides of the valley by fierce freeze-thaw cycles. As for the barriers holding the lake in place at different levels over the course of time, they were a series of long vanished glaciers.

We now know that Agassiz was basically correct. Indeed, we can trace a whole series of glaciations, not just a single ice age. And Darwin was right in thinking that the area has experienced uplift; it could not fail to do so as the weight of ice above it melted away.


Poorly sorted rubble deposited by the glacier near the foot of the Crag

Later Darwin was to write of his paper on the Roads as his greatest blunder. He had visited Snowdonia in North Wales in 1831, as a student companion of the noted geologist Adam Sedgwick, who had been looking for fossils. In his Autobiography (p. 70) he laments how

“neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that … a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley.”

But it took Darwin several years to reach this point, and even then he persisted for a while with hybrid explanations, in which icebergs rather than retreating glaciers had deposited at least some of the erratics.


“Darwin’s boulders” in Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia, North Wales. Darwin had recognise these as glacial by 1842

Agassiz rejected Darwin’s concept of evolution when it was published twenty years later, but this does not seem to have diminished Darwin’s respect for him. Belief in the fixity of species was, in the 1860s, understandable conservatism, even if now, 150 years later, it is no more than deliberately cultivated ignorance.

The present is key to the past. It follows that the past can increase our understanding of the present. And so it is in this case. The glaciers of Switzerland are receding. Those of the southern Andes are receding even faster. Among them is Chile’s Colonia glacier, which dams a lake, Lake Cachet 2, some 3 square kilometers in area. As the glacier shrinks and weakens, it becomes progressively less able to hold back the water of the lake, which now periodically bursts through; on one recent occasion, the lake emptied itself overnight.


Lake to sandy valley overnight

The overflow channel through which the vanished Loch Roy must have drained can still be detected as an abrupt narrow valley in the surrounding hillsides. The draining of Lake Cachet II sent 200,000 tonnes of water overnight down Chile’s main river, and caused giant waves as far as the Pacific Ocean, 60 miles away.

Since Agassiz and Darwin examined the roads of Glen Roy, the earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by roughly 1oC, with another 0.5oC in the pipeline even if emissions were to be stabilised at the same levels as in the year 2000.

Which, of course, they won’t be.


Global mean surface temperature change from 1880 to 2015, relative to the 1951–1980 mean. The black line is the annual mean and the red line is the 5-year running mean

Darwin’s drawing of the Roads from Darwin Online.  Dunglass Crag, photos by author. Darwin’s boulders photographed by Michael Roberts. Lake Cachet II images via NCSE. Global temperature anomaly graph from NASA GISS via Wikipedia

More on receding glaciers at World Glacier Monitoring Service  and the US Government’s National Snow and Ice Data Center

h/t Michael Roberts, Dana Nuccitelli, Peter Hess. An earlier version of this post appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

I too would like to simply replace fossil fuels with renewables, but nature doesn’t care about what you or I would like, and renewables don’t have enough power per unit area. If you think you can phase out fossil fuels in densely populated countries without phasing in nuclear, please show me your arithmetic. David Mackay’s full book and 10 page synopsis are available (in English and several other languages) here (free download)

[See however (h/t Michael Reiss); renewables according to this source already generate 24% of the UK’s electricity requirements; not of course the same as total energy requirements, but not negligible either]

h/t Michael Roberts


“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or…

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