[Coral-List] Climate change debate

Michael Risk riskmj at univmail.cis.mcmaster.ca
Tue Nov 21 11:03:31 EST 2006

Hello Gene.

It's always a pleasure to debate issues with you. We are substantially
in agreement on most things: the mendacity of governments, the need for
high-quality ethanol mixtures for ensuring the quality of life, the sad
tendency of scientists to read only material they can access in .pdf
form, and the drastic lack of geological perspective in much of what
to-day is called coral reef science. We are also saddened to be
witnesses to the disappearance of our favorite ecosystem, a decline
that has been linked to global warming.

And so it is that I will not so much debate issues with you, but
exchange ideas. This may be of interest only to a small slice of the
coral-list, but you and I have both seen the best of reefs and our
viewpoints are not irrelevant.

First, to your most recent posting-to get that out of the way. You
refer to Terence Corcoran, writing in the National Post. The Post is
what passes for a "right-wing" newspaper up here. In the US, it would
be slightly left of centre...Mr. Corcoran is well-known here for his
views. His "rebuttal" of the CBC special seems to hang on the fact that
one of the people featured, James Hoggan, had actually acted for
companies doing research in alternative energy! The horror! but hold
on, didn't your President just recently commit the USA to just such a
course? I'm so confused...

In short, more mud-slinging garbage. 
As a fellow geologist, I realise as well as you that the climate
wriggles around all the time, and always has. Much of this is related
to solar activity, something beyond our control.

I'm not sure we need go back through the entire Phanerozoic, because
the pictures become fuzzier the further back we go. We know that the
Cretaceous was very warm, so much so that there were no icecaps. What
this means for the modern world, of course, is: sea level plus 10m.
Sell your place in St Pete (we have a spare bedroom).

In general, sea-level rises have produced terrestrial mass extinctions
(habitat loss), whereas drops in sea-level have resulted in marine
extinctions. People rabbit on about the K/T boundary-never mind that,
the largest marine extinction event in the history of the planet was
the end-Permian event, caused by a catastrophic drop in sea-level.

We know a fair amount about the Quaternary record. There are warming
events and cooling events. The largest warm event was the Medieval Warm
Period, and there is no doubt of its existence. Warmer climates were
one of the reasons for the Norse discoveries in North America, although
the deterioration in climate was only one of the reasons for the
failure of the Norse colonies in Newfoundland and Greenland. (See
COLLAPSE, Jared Diamond). 

This is the event to which the nay-sayers point when they say "See, it
has been warmer!". Recent work on the Medieval Warm, however, suggests
that it was somehow confined (see "thermohaline", elsewhere) to the NE
Atlantic-most of the rest of the globe was undergoing a more typical
deglaciation sequence.

So I think we need to take a leaf (not Lief) from Hutton, and accept
that the past is the key to the future. 

I take your point that the conclusive link between CO2 and warming has
not as yet been made. But this may be a moving target. Recall that the
nay-sayers have in their employ those PR firms that stickhandled the
cigarette debate for decades. My fear is that the modellers will be
held to an impossibly high standard. People who have built entire
careers on the basis of p<0.05% will find themselves hauled before
Senate panels, asked "Can you state without any doubt that...?" and of
course they will not be able to do so.

My concern is that we are not doing enough of the sort of hard science
that would convince both of us: we need more proxy records. We need to
be able to view, say, a 2,000-year record of ocean chemistry from the
Northeast Channel. (That's where the Gulf Stream leaves North America
and heads east.) The models are only as good as the data, and right now
90% of the data come from 20% of the globe. And from <1% of Quaternary

No, really, we do have a spare bedroom. You're welcome. Just don't
bring a lot of friends...let them keep treading water.


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