I went to a geoscience conference a while ago, which Ian Plimer, the darling of the climate change deniers, also attended. While some people were quite happy to be seen with him, a proportion of the attendees (me included) would avoid him lest they be in any photographer’s frame. This is because of Plimer’s denial of climate science. Despite Plimer giving geoscientists a bad name by his denialism, most of them do know we are experiencing anthropogenic climate change, and would avoid being associated with people like him.
Plimer has now written another bizarre piece in the publication of choice by most climate change deniers in this country, Murdoch’s The Australian. He starts this piece off by listing a few epithets used in describing the changing climate and then asserts that it is populist scare-mongering and blames “vote-chasing politicians and rent seekers”1. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
One of the statements which will go down in the history of climate change denialism as being the most laughable is in his second paragraph where he states “There are no carbon emissions. If there were, we could not see because most carbon is black”. There are several aspects of this ludicrous statement which need comment. Firstly, the colour of the element carbon depends on its structure. Graphite, the most stable naturally occurring carbon mineral is metallic grey to black, while the other naturally occurring carbon mineral, diamond, is colourless. Diamonds which are naturally coloured have impurities or defects in their crystal structure which cause the colouration. Secondly, carbon dioxide is a colourless gas. Thirdly, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has recently passed 415 parts per million (0.0415%)2, so even if those 415 atoms in every million was replaced by a tiny Plimer ball of graphite, we’d unfortunately still be able to read the drivel in The Australian. Lastly, Plimer could be simply accused of being pedantic in that it is not emissions of crystalline carbon, but emissions of carbon dioxide which are the problem. However, given his mention of “sulphur and nitrogen gases” earlier in the same paragraph, that defence is unsustainable.
After his bizarre statement, then he gets into the standard denialist lies:
Barrier reef bleaching is “hysteria”1. He correctly notes that bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has been occurring “for hundreds of years”. However, as climate change deniers often do, he is lying by omission. The areas bleached are becoming more extensive, while the intervals between bleaching events is becoming shorter, such that the corals do not have time to recover3.
He accuses someone (anyone?) of ‘fraudulent changing of past weather records’1. Records of global surface temperatures are constantly refined based on the addition of new data, new proxies, new statistical analyses, or new historical insights into the history of a specific source of data. Reporting on such a shift as something to “uncover” betrays a potentially wilful ignorance of how climate science operates. Indeed, it portrays an ignorance of how science in general operates. This lie of fraud seems to come from a single blog site, and like most climate change deniers, it ignores the fact that the reasons for the updating of the data were published (in 1999-2001) and links to these papers can still be found on the NASA website4. Another denialist lie.
He accuses everyone of ignoring data that shows that Pacific Islands and the Maldives are growing rather than being inundated. This is a false equivalence. Sealevel is rising, but that does not exclude the possibility of islands increasing in size. Often the source of increase is the wave and tidal accumulation of sediment and its stabilisation by vegetation or cementation, leading to ‘surface elevation’5. The false equivalence portrayed by Plimer is also demonstrated by the fact that while some islands are increasing in size, others have disappeared. I suppose Plimer could have been sillier, by claiming the islands floated, as the idiotic Craig Kelly did6.
Plimer states that claims the polar ice is melting is unsubstantiated. How Plimer could make such a statement is beyond belief. The decline in polar ice has been measured. Sea ice in the Arctic has decreased dramatically since the late 1970s, particularly during the northern summer and autumn. Since the satellite record began in 1978, the year’s minimum Arctic sea ice extent (usually in early to mid September) has decreased by more than 40%. In winter, the sea ice coverage expands beyond that, but the ice is thinner than it used to be. Sea ice around Antarctica has experiences a slight increase since 1979, but it is suspected that part of the reason for this is an influx of cold fresh water from melting ice shelves and glaciers7. In addition, Plimer does not seem to know that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is measured on a regular basis. We know that since 2000, the ice sheet has experienced a general increase in melting. Despite 2019 having a less-than-record number of melt days, models show that 2019 had a very large net ice loss for the year, at slightly more than 300 billion tonnes, nearly equal to the intense melt year of 20128. The studies of the Greenland Ice sheet and the Arctic sea ice are so extraordinarily detailed, how Plimer could construe them as unsubstantiated is mind boggling. Indeed, there are also indications that Antarctica is melting faster that previously thought9.
Plimer states that Earth has had reefs for 3500 million years, and this is true as long as you define a reef as anything taller than a few centimetres, because up until the last 540 million years (i.e. for almost 3 billion years) that was almost all that the planet had. These were stromatolites, much like those currently in Shark Bay10. Since then reefs have been formed by, among others, a type of sponge called archaeocyaths (early Cambrian; ~540-510 million years ago); rugose and tabulate corals (middle Ordovician-late Permian; ~460-250 million years ago); and scleractinian corals (middle Triassic-today; from 235 million years ago).
Plimer states that the big killer of reefs was because sea-level dropped and water temperature decreased. This is in part true, but as you would expect from a denier such as Plimer, it is a lie by omission. Modern coral reefs are dependent upon being not too far below the ocean surface as some of the corals rely on photosynthetic algae living within the coral. Indeed, while sea level falls have destroyed some reefs, there are numerous instances of drowned reefs being wiped out by sealevel rises11,12. Sealevel is now rising at about 5 millimetres per annum, and some of the large reef-forming corals are unable to grow that fast13.
For Plimer to say that reefs thrived when there was an elevated carbon dioxide content, seems to be a statement extracted from his fundament. However, as if this statement from Plimer was not ludicrous enough, he states that “reef material is calcium carbonate, which contains 44 per cent carbon dioxide. Reefs need carbon dioxide; it’s their basic food.” This ranks with his ‘could not see for carbon’ as an idiotic statement. This is because an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to an increase in carbon dioxide in the ocean, and that increases the acidity of the ocean, and this acidity leads to an effective decrease in the saturation of calcium carbonate in ocean waters. This makes it more difficult for organisms who have calcium carbonate skeletons to precipitate that calcium carbonate. This reduction in ‘calcification’ is already happening14. Plimer’s statement is so bizarre, so idiotic, it makes his other lies seem almost normal by comparison. It is equivalent to saying that because humans are in part potassium, carbon and nitrogen, then potassium cyanide is a human food.
Plimer states that carbon dioxide has never been shown to drive global warming. Given that he earlier said that these emissions didn’t exist, it makes you wonder if he is starting to lose his marbles, or at least has not grasped the importance of reading what you have written. It also demonstrates the low standards The Australian has for its submissions. There are numerous lines of evidence that demonstrate how this is happening. As temperatures started to rise, numerous theories were suggested (many still loved by deniers). However, many of these have been shown to be wrong, and experiments and observations have shown that only one is viable. We know carbon dioxide absorbs energy and re-emits long-wave radiation. The theory of greenhouse gases predicts that if we increase the proportion of greenhouse gases, more warming will occur. Scientists have measured the influence of carbon dioxide on both incoming solar energy and outgoing long-wave radiation. Less long-wave radiation is escaping to space at the specific wavelengths of greenhouse gases. Increased long-wave radiation from those greenhouse gases is measured at the surface of the Earth at those same wavelengths15.
Plimer says that climate models have been around for 30 years. This is wrong, as any Google search will tell you. Climate models have been around closer to 50 years and they have all turned out to be fairly accurate; even some of the earlier versions from the 1970s. An analysis of many of them can be found at the Carbon Brief website16. More disturbing is the fact that some of the more recent data indicates that the rate of change is accelerating and that catastrophe is closer than predicted even by more recent climate models17. This is suspected to be because some of the feedback cycles may have already kicked in, and these have not been factored into modelling by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change18.
While Plimer was apparently once a geoscientist of note, he has become just another liar for the denial industry. Real scientists who haven’t sold their integrity know we are headed for a catastrophic climate emergency19. Plimer should pay dearly for his betrayal of science and of humanity.