How climate change sceptic Ian Plimer dodges valid criticism by James Randerson

14/12/2009 Guardian How climate change sceptic Ian Plimer dodges valid criticism.His book Heaven and Earth has fuelled sceptics the world over, but when I talked to Professor Plimer
he sidestepped vital pointsComments (…) Buzz up! Digg it 
Ian Plimer at the Copenhagen conference with his book Heaven and Earth.
Photograph: Jens Dige/AP
A few days ago I interviewed the prominent climate change sceptic Professor Ian
Plimer for a piece ahead of the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Very
little of our half-hour conversation made it into the final story but it was a
revealing interview. This blog is an attempt to put some of what we talked about
on the record.
It is important to do so, because the Australian mining geologist’s book Heaven
and Earth – on what he calls the “missing science” of global warming – has
proved extremely popular. It has been reprinted six times in the UK since its
publication in March and has sold more than 30,000 copies in Australia. In July,
the Spectator ran a fawning cover feature about the book under the headline
“Relax: global warming is all a myth”.
The new Australian opposition leader, Tony Abbott, was converted to the sceptic
cause by reading the book, or so Plimer says. And the backbench Tory MP Douglas
Carswell said it overturned his belief that climate change is a human-caused
But it has also come in for stinging criticism from scientists and others. Bob
Ward, director of public relations and policy at Lord Nicholas Stern’s Grantham
Institute at the London School of Economics said the book is “full of inaccurate
statements and misrepresentations of global temperature data”.
Plimer has refused to answer a series of questions put by George Monbiot about
specific claims he makes in the book, but our interview gave me the opportunity
to put some of those - and others’ questions - to him.
I found him to be one of the most difficult and evasive interviewees I have
spoken to in my career, frequently veering off on tangents rather than answering
the question I had put.
Strangely, Plimer was only vaguely aware of the criticisms that have been
levelled at Heaven and Earth and appeared to have little interest in dealing
with them. He gave me the impression that engaging with his critics was beneath
him. That seemed to me an odd attitude for a scientist to take. He did say
though that when he returned home from promoting the book he planned to write a
less technical follow-up to Heaven and Earth that would address some of the
The first figure in Heaven and Earth makes a bold claim:
  This diagram shows that the hypothesis that human emissions of CO2 create
  global warming is invalid.
It is a graph running from 1990 to 2025 and shows five different plots of global
temperature. One of these plots is the so-called HadCRUT temperature series
produced by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre and Climatic Research Unit at the
University of East Anglia.
Plimer’s first mistake is to refer to this plot as a “computer prediction” of
temperature when this is in fact the measured global average temperature. But
more significantly, the final point on his graph is a long way from where it
should be. The figure for 2008 is placed much lower than the correct figure (at
0.1C above the 1961-1990 average instead of 0.437). That might not sound like
much, but it wrongly gives the impression there has been a massive recent
cooling – something Plimer says the climate modellers have not predicted.
His broader point appears to be that if climate models cannot predict warming
over the course of a decade, what hope do they have of getting the forecast
right for 2050 and beyond? Leaving aside the misplaced data point, Plimer
appears to have misunderstood what climate models can and can’t do. It may seem
paradoxical, but predicting the year-by-year fluctuations in global temperature
is actually a lot harder than predicting the general trend. No one who
understands climate modelling would expect a perfect fit on such a short
“His premise that the models do not represent the [real data] is flawed,” said a
spokesperson for the Met Office. “The models never claim to predict the
individual variability from year to year. However, they do clearly show the
trend over longer periods of time.”
Elsewhere in the book, Plimer appears to have conflated a US temperature record
and the global average temperature. On page 99 he writes “Nasa now states that
[…] the warmest year was 1934.” The Nasa dataset he is referring to covers the
US only but he seems to be referring to the world average.
Again, Plimer does not appear to accept that the world is warming. But in fact,
the hottest year on record is 1998 and eight of the 10 hottest years ever
recorded have occurred this century.
When I put the mistake to him he responded: “The 1930s in North America and
probably the rest of the world were a hot period of time.” But what about
increased global average temperature since then? “That has been disputed by many
of my colleagues who I have a great regard for because they’ve been the people
involved in putting measurements together … I do dispute that as do many other
people who are far more qualified in atmospheric sciences than I.”
He appears to be taking the bizarre position that the world has not warmed since
the 1930s. Even global warming critic Lord Nigel Lawson doesn’t say silly things
like that.
Now Plimer is not a climate scientist so you can perhaps forgive his glaring
errors when writing about that field, but one thing he might hope to get right
would be his own field of geology. Sadly not.
On page 413 of the book he repeats the old canard that “Volcanoes produce more
CO2 than the world’s cars and industries combined”. It was a claim that he
famously made in a recent interview by Justin Webb on the BBC’s Today programme.
Webb did not challenge him, but I put it to Plimer that the website of the US
Geological Survey (USGS) states: “Human activities release more than 130 times
the amount of CO2 emitted by volcanoes.”
Plimer’s response was that the USGS is only talking about terrestrial volcanoes
and has not incorporated CO2 produced by undersea eruptions at mid-ocean ridges.
“85% of the world’s volcanoes we neither see nor measure,” he said. “They leak
out huge amounts of carbon dioxide… That does not come into the USGS figures
nor does it come into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s figures.”
If he is right, that is an astonishing omission and an oversight that would
force a huge reassessment of climate science.
But when I check with the USGS they are very explicit. According to
volcanologist Dr Terrence Gerlach:
  I can confirm to you that the “130 times” figure on the USGS website is an
  estimate that includes all volcanoes – submarine as well as subaerial …
  Geoscientists have two methods for estimating the CO2 output of the
  mid-oceanic ridges. There were estimates for the CO2 output of the mid-oceanic
  ridges before there were estimates for the global output of subaerial
These are just three of the many criticisms that have been made about Heaven and
Earth. Plimer dismissed them as “pathetic nit-picking” but if his book is
influencing politicians and public opinion around the world then I think his
arguments deserve close scrutiny.
He likes to argue that his position on global warming is dismissed by mainstream
scientists because they are part of a “fundamentalist religion” and a “mafia”.
In fact, his arguments are rejected because they are just plain wrong.

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