Tag Archives: climate change

Climate Debate with a Believer

On an email list maintained by NOAA, a little debate erupted recently over how to argue and convince the rest of the community that anthropogenic climate change is a significant threat. I offered some advice, namely that they should stick to science, use relevant arguments, and avoid hype and hysteria. The reaction was hilarious. Read the exchange with professor Risk for yourselves!

On 2010-11-23, at 08:48, Melbourne Briscoe wrote:

Isn’t the point that what we are doing is not working? So, we do not stop trying, but we have the CHANGE what we are doing….what do we change?

Constant repetition of facts is demonstrably an unsuccessful strategy. Get over it. What do we do instead?

On Tue, 23 Nov 2010 10:28 Ulf Erlingsson wrote:

As long as there are serious scientists who are not convinced, it will be hard to convince all of the non-scientists.

I propose to try to debate with and convince those who consider that the case has not yet been made.

Listen to their arguments. Meet them. And DON’T CALL THEM NAMES.

I think the debate went seriously wrong at the moment when proponents of the hypothesis lost their temper. Bad idea.

Also, look for common ground instead of seeing conflicts. Example:

Nobody is denying that pollution is bad. So why not focus on decreasing the air pollution? After all, the methods are rather similar: Decrease the burning of fossil fuels. What does it matter to nature WHY we decrease it?

There is a difference, but put the difference aside and work for results rather than getting hung up on that difference.


On 2010-11-23, at 11:11, Michael Risk wrote:

Ulf: That won’t work. Many (but not ALL) the scientists on the denial side are well-funded by oil companies. Unless and until someone can break that chain, reason will lose out to self-interest. Examples:

Gene Shinn is an honest man who enjoys keeping the rest of us honest.

Tim Ball is a hack who gets tons of oil money.

Which of these two will “recant” if shown the data?


On Tue, 23 Nov 2010 11:37 Ulf Erlingsson wrote:

The thing is that the MAJORITY of people in my scientific discipline and network are not yet convinced.

Why do you call us deniers? From our point of view, it is you who are acting in an un-scientific way, using hysteria rather than solid arguments. Most importantly, those on your side IGNORE the counter-arguments, and use irrelevant arguments (such as name calling, threats, hysteria) rather than relevant scientific arguments.

At least that is how I experience it. If you are right, then your side needs to improve the communication skills… ūüėČ


On 2010-11-23, at 12:58, Michael Risk wrote:

Hello Ulf.
I know better than to try to convince anyone in this debate. Positions have hardened.

There is NO ONE in my field of research who does not accept the consequences of increased CO2. To me/us this seems so obvious as to need no debate.

All the various arguments erected by deniers (and that is what they are) have been shot down repeatedly.

-yes, CO2 lags temp during interglacials. Because the ocean degasses.
-yes, water vapour is a potent gh gas-it is an effect, not a cause.
-yes, the climate has changed in the past. This is beyond bullshit. OF COURSE it has, we all know this. Some of us even have a handle on rates.
-yes, there is a real hockey stick.
-no, the leaked emails do NOT amount to a climategate, they simply show us that scientists are people. Although the TIMING of the release is suspicious: whoever the hackers were, they held the emails almost a year, until just before Copenhagen.
-yes, of course it’s getting warmer. There are now three huge independent data sets, open to all, that say the same thing.

…and on and on.

As you may or may not be aware, much of the denial material is managed and processed by the same consultants that worked for Big Tobacco, telling is cigarette smoke did no harm. Those same ad agencies were picked up holus-bolus by Big Oil. So you are on shakey ground when you insult me, personally, in this way, accusing me of using hysteria. You are the one who is in bed with the snakeoil salesmen.

If you read some of my papers, you might change your mind-but I doubt it.


On 2010-11-23, at 1:23 PM, Ulf Erlingsson wrote:

What is being predicted? On what assumptions? Are those assumptions realistic? What if the predictions are correct, is that really significant?

Those are the questions that I still haven’t seen answered, after years and decades of debate.


Ulf Erlingsson

On 2010-11-23, at 13:58, Michael Risk wrote:

Ulf, I will do you the favour of not lumping you with the Dollar Deniers, of whom there are plenty. But that still doesn’t get you off the hook. In some ways, you are the worst sort of denier, the logical-sounding scientist who simply wants all the doubt to be removed before he acts. You cannot allow yourself to see the forest for the trees.

These are facts:
-the globe is warming.
-the oceans are warming, and growing more acidic.
-sea level is rising.
-atmospheric CO2 has risen.

You had better have a good story to tell your kids to explain why you didn’t act. This exchange is over.

Dr. Michael J Risk
Professor of Biology and Geology

On 2010-11-23, at 2:22 PM, Ulf Erlingsson wrote:


“This exchange is over”? ROFL

Admit it, you ran out of arguments. You used a plethora of irrelevant arguments towards me, but the one who has to be prepared to explain his actions, or lack thereof, is YOU, professor Risk.

In the last country where I worked in the field, about 2/3 of the population lived below the poverty line. Fully 1/3 suffered from some degree of starvation. Still, that is not their biggest problem: their biggest problem is the rampant violence with a murder rate higher than that in Baghdad in the height of the insurgency – and this violence is fueled by cocaine-users in the United States of America.

And you seriously think that a temperature change of a degree or two several generations into the future should be my main concern?

Your arrogance is mind-boggling, professor Risk. Absolutely mind-boggling. In fact, so mind-boggling that I will write about this on my blog. I just feel sick to my stomach from what you wrote.


Said and done.

Mexican Gulf oil spill may have precedent

When being faced with this disastrous pollution crisis it may be useful to step back and put it into perspective, to avoid overreacting. We don’t want the patient to die of the side effects of the medication, do we? It turns out that we might be able to learn something from a pre-historic event that was similar, or even worse, than this one.

The reports today (e.g., NYTimes) say that about 210,000 gallons of oil is leaking out per day. In more normal measurement units that equals 800 m3/day, or 0.01 m3/s. It’s a trickle, it’s not even a stream. A small river would typically have several, or several tens, of cubic meters per second in discharge. This is just 10 liters per second – but it is oil, not water, so it is 10 liters too much.

Where does it go? Because of its density, it ends up at the water surface, impeding the interchange of gases between the atmosphere and the ocean. With time, driven by winds and currents it reaches land and pollutes one of the most important natural environments on Earth; the coast. It dirties beaches, and destroys the conditions for creatures such as turtles who depend on them. I suppose one could include tourists in “creatures.”

Petroleum is a mixture of different hydrocarbon molecules. A portion of the oil spill is likely to sink after a while, when the lighter fractions have evaporated or been decomposed. It may become buried in the sediments again, with each drop of tar covered with sand grains. Incidentally, there is a new factory in Miami that produces instruments for monitoring this accumulation of sediments, the SediMeter.

When considering the long-term effect of the oil spill, one should keep in mind that petroleum is a natural product, unlike some other compounds that man emits to the environment. In certain parts of the world petroleum slowly seeps out of the ground – or used to, until man came around and drilled into the reservoir underneath.

However, a petroleum reservoir may have been breached naturally at the end of Pleistocene, as I argued last year in a scientific article in Geografiska Annaler, “A j√∂kulhlaup from a Laurentian captured ice shelf to the Gulf of Mexico could have caused the B√łlling warming.” From the Conclusions:

“The Gulf Coast contains vast petroleum reserves. It is arguably very likely that gas and oil was released when the Mississippi Canyon was formed. This might be the source of the increased atmospheric methane concentration recorded in the Greenland ice core at the start of B√łlling and Holocene.

“This chain of events may have acted in a similar way at the end of each major Laurentian glaciation, and possibly also at D/O events. Geological data suggests that it has been repeated at least eight, possibly a hundred times, all in the Pleistocene. It may play a decisive role in bringing about the sudden climate changes that are so characteristic of the Quaternary period, as well as in creating the Mississippi Fan.”

These events took place 14,600 and 11,500 years ago, and possible a first event occurred already 15,500 years ago. It is related to the end of the Ice Age; a giant flood in the Missouri and Mississippi scourged the continental shelf off the present coastline, and eroded a canyon a mile deep. The same thing has happened once or twice at the end of every ice age, 8 times the past million years. The material was then deposited as the Mississippi Sub-Marine Fan, a mile-thick accumulation of sand and mud that has accumulated in a geological instant: A million years.

When these past oil spills hypothetically occurred, the sea level was, however, much lower than the present. Still, at that time there were coral reefs near the water surface from the southern tip of Florida and far up the east coast of Florida, just like today. The oil may have been brought to these reefs by the currents, causing severe harm to them. However, unlike today the reefs will not have been given much chance to recover, because after the megaflood in the Mississippi the world sea level would have risen dramatically. A small rise was caused by the flood itself, but instability in other inland ice sheets, and sudden global climate warming, gave rise to much more sea-level rise; many meters in total each time.

The Mississippi has a fantastic geologic history, and amazingly there is still more geologic research to be done in understanding how this all came about. The thing to keep in mind here is that (with the exception of completely new chemicals) almost nothing man does hasn’t been done already by nature itself. There is always a lesson to be learned by studying geology, and the natural variability of landscape and climate on our planet.

Path of the inferred megaflood, or jökulhlaup.
Path of the inferred megaflood, or jökulhlaup.

Finally, I wish media would listen less to the sensationalists and pay more attention to the scientific fields that have taken on a topic from the ground up, like geology, and not from the vintage point of a specific hypothesis, like global warming.