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Review: Heaven and Earth, by Ian Plimer

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 4, No. 4.

Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science, by Ian Plimer. New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2009. 504 pp. $21.95 (paperback).

heaven-earth

Al Gore, the Weather Channel, “environmental activists,” and many politicians claim there is a worldwide “consensus” among scientists that the earth’s climate is about to change drastically due to human activity. On the basis of this alleged consensus, governments are considering coercive measures to head off catastrophe—rationing fuel, regulating carbon dioxide emissions, dictating the kinds of lightbulbs we can buy, and so on. Of course, the idea that man is responsible for impending climatic doom has its detractors. Some say the science is not settled; some say it is settled, and that human activity is not warming the planet; and some say that even if human activity were warming the planet, that might be good. But who among us truly understands the scientific arguments alleged to support the various claims? Wouldn’t it be nice if a scientist wrote a book carefully documenting and explaining, in layman’s terms, the cases for and against man-made global warming? Then, we could determine for ourselves which claims are supported by evidence and logic.

Based on favorable publicity from conservative media and politicians, Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science would appear to be just such a book. Plimer claims to present an “integrated scientific understanding of the environment,” and the book—chock-full of figures and graphs and containing more than 2,300 footnotes in its 504 pages—certainly makes a powerful first impression. Add to that EU President (and noted climate-change skeptic) Vaclav Klaus’s statement that the work is “clear, understandable, and very useful,” and a good grasp of the arguments for and against man-made global warming would seem to be just a few hundred pages away.

Unfortunately, Heaven and Earth utterly fails to deliver on its promise. Rather than clearly presenting the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis and specifying the kind and scope of data necessary to evaluate it, Plimer presents the reader with a disorganized hash of poorly-presented data; repeatedly mocks climate models without providing sufficient evidence or argument to warrant such mockery; dismisses the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a bogeyman “unrelated to science” (p. 20), without adequately explaining why this is so; and generally presents an incoherent argument against a straw-man version of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Plimer does say the theory is false, but he does not address the subject scientifically. His work is sloppy, inconsistent, and frequently self-contradictory. For instance, in discussing a correlation between the Wolf Minimum (a period of low sunspot activity) and the start of a cooler climate, Plimer states that the Wolf Minimum “heralded the end of the Medieval Warming and the beginning of the 600-year Little Ice Age. It took only 23 years to change from a warm climate to a cool climate” (p. 129). But if one checks Plimer’s own dates for the Wolf Minimum (1280–1340 AD, p. 128) against his earlier figure 11 (p. 89), one sees temperature taking at least another century to return to its pre-Medieval Warming value. Similarly, Plimer claims that El Niño “lasts for a month or so” (p. 350), and then, two pages later, says that it “lasts for 1 to 2 years” (p. 352). When discussing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, Plimer claims, “The current CO2 content of the atmosphere is the lowest it has been for thousands of millions of years,” and provides two recent values, 360 and 378 parts per million by volume (ppmv) (p. 425). Elsewhere, however, he estimates CO2 concentration as being between 200 and 260 ppmv within the last 100,000 years (p. 277) and notes drops “below 180 ppmv” at 650,000 and 800,000 years ago (p. 278).

Further, attempting to specify the value used in calculations to quantify how a doubling of atmospheric CO2 increases equilibrium temperature (known as “climate sensitivity”), Plimer explicitly states at least two different values: 0.5ºC (e.g., pp. 366, 371, and 488) and “greater than 1.5ºC” (p. 426). He later writes that during the Cambrian Period “there was more than 20 times today’s atmospheric CO2,” but temperature was “up to 7ºC warmer than today” (p. 490)—which implies a value as high as 1.6ºC.*

In addition to such inconsistencies, Plimer frequently argues from innuendo and authority rather than from facts and logic, makes assertions without providing supporting data or footnotes, and includes diagrams and graphs that are so poorly integrated with the surrounding text that their meaning and purpose are unclear. For example, at the start of the book, in a graph comparing temperature data and climate projections, Plimer misidentifies the data traces as “[f]ive predictions” when two actually show temperature averages, fails to provide citations, and makes an unsupported and sweeping claim that the reader is in no position to evaluate for himself: “This diagram shows that the hypothesis that human emissions of CO2 create global warming is invalid” (p. 11).

Although Plimer dismisses climate models as “computer games” (p. 294) and claims that they take into account only man-made carbon dioxide, he never explains what a computer model is, or how such a model can validly be used in climate science. But he feels free to attack the use of such models and the ways in which they are used, and his attacks frequently miss the mark. For instance, in discussing the climate models cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he falsely claims that “the IPCC models just don’t do clouds” (p. 488)—which would be a reasonable complaint if it were true. He also charges, “Current climate models do not even consider the possibility of another supervolcano eruption” (pp. 213–14). But such a cataclysm is not only extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future; it also differs in kind from such factors as cloud cover and CO2 concentration, because its impact would be immediate and drastic. Plimer might as well complain that the models fail to account for an asteroid strike.

Given revelations from the “ClimateGate” scandal that cast doubt on (among other things) the integrity of the climate modeling computer code, one might be tempted to sympathize with Plimer’s attack on climate modeling. But Plimer’s attack—as presented in the book—is ultimately baseless. Although he presents information that, given a sufficient scientific context, could help the reader formulate relevant questions about the forecasts of the climate models, he fails to provide that context. The reader is thus at a loss to understand why a given piece of information might cast reasonable doubt on such predictions.

In addition to the book’s scientific problems, Plimer’s writing is often rambling, jargon-laced, and soporific. This passage is typical of his style:

A plot of El Niño from the Japanese Meteorological Agency against increased frequency of earthquakes and increase in the Earth’s rotation speed shows a striking correlation. The exception was the 1982-1983 El Niño event which occurred with a higher frequency of earthquakes and a decrease in the Earth’s rotation. In 1982, 203 earthquakes were centered in the eastern Pacific at 3°S 177°E. The area had previously been seismically quiet for 400 years. El Niño ocean warming started in the mid equatorial region (5°N to 5°S, 150°E to 160°E) and then moved eastwards. In the 1900s, earthquakes in the eastern Pacific were more common than in the 1980s. During the 1990s there was a relative slowdown in the Earth’s rotation and, as a result, the frequency of El Niño in the 1990s was higher than in the 1980s (p. 359).

Vaclav Klaus’s praise to the contrary, the power and clarity of Plimer’s prose are quite elusive.

Plimer’s use of graphs is also frequently confusing. For instance, in the chapter titled “Ice,” he employs seven graphs, each with a time axis. In the first two, time progresses from past to present as the reader scans from left to right, but Plimer confusingly reverses this convention for his next four graphs (i.e., present is at left and past is at right) only to return to it for the last (pp. 240, 242, 244, 251, 253, 277, and 287).

As for Plimer’s conveyance of a big picture, he makes it just as hard for the reader to see the forest as he does the trees. How is the reader supposed to grasp Plimer’s explanation of how CO2 affects climate when, for instance, at one point, Plimer states that “there is no observed relationship between global climate and atmospheric CO2” over geological or modern times (p. 130)—and shortly thereafter implies that relationships have been observed between CO2 and global climate, but that they are due to “changes in solar activity” (p. 143)? Does Plimer mean that changing atmospheric CO2 does not cause temperature changes? Apparently not: He concedes that “15–20% . . . of the observed warming of the 20th Century can be attributed to the concomitant rise in the air’s CO2 content” (p. 132). Is it true then that “The carbon cycle does not drive climate, it piggybacks on the water cycle” (p. 131)? Maybe not: “As the westerlies move, the ocean’s circulation increases, releasing more CO2 from the deep ocean. This leads to more warming and an even stronger circulation in a feedback loop strong enough to push Earth out of an ice age” (p. 348). Could such a feedback loop be said to be “driving” climate? If so, Plimer has contradicted himself (again). If not, then he has no grounds for dismissing the claim of proponents of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis that a feedback loop involving CO2—introduced by human activity as against the ocean—can drive climate. Such a presentation cannot help readers to understand the role—or lack thereof—of CO2 in climate change.

Despite its many and deep flaws, Heaven and Earth is not without merit. Because Plimer employs an indiscriminate, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, if anything is out there to discredit the global warming legislation camp (e.g., the Mann “hockey-stick” controversy, the rulings on the merits of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in a British court, the Peiser-Oreskes controversy), or any scientific or scientific-sounding objection to the man-made global warming hypothesis (e.g., that sunspot cycles may have an underappreciated role in affecting climate, that land surface temperature measurements have been gradually raised by urbanization near measuring stations, that clouds are missing from climate models), it is likely to be found in this book. For this reason, Heaven and Earth serves as a sort of catalog of the issues surrounding the subject of global warming, and thus may be of some value to those in need of such a catalog.

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