The Extinction of Honest Science

July 25th 2018

Warmists’ predictions of climate doom haven’t come to pass or anything like it, but give them credit for agility and perseverance in always concocting a fresh scare. The latest meme to keep grants flowing and careers on track: the purported mass die-off of species large and small

planet down drainWith no significant warming for 20 years, the climate alarmists need better scares.  The temperature rise of about 0.8 degC in more than 100 years is not only non-scary, it’s been immensely beneficial for feeding the globe’s burgeoning population. Now  the “extreme weather” furphy  is at work, with any storm or flood attributed  by Al Gore and the Climate Council to fossil fuel emissions. There’s the purported “ocean acidification”  but I’m yet to see evidence that it has hurt a solitary crab, let alone a species.

As for sea-level rises, well, check my birthplace, Fremantle, butting the Indian Ocean: its tide gauge shows 12 cms rise in the past 120 years – compare that with 20cm for the length of my hand. To cap it off, the warmists, including the green-colonised CSIRO, have had to recognize that extra CO2  in the 30 years to 2010  has greened the earth to the extent of two and a half Australias in area.[1]

There are two handy scares still slithering around: “The Anthropocene” and “The Sixth Mass Extinction”. Both are fakes. Both are foisted on kids by green/Left educators. Both require as supposed remedies a supra-national enforcement agency run by the Left/liberal crowd, along with a roll-back of capitalist progress.

Here’s an example. I was in Chicago in 2013 and visited its great natural history centre the Field Museum (named after a 19th century $US9m donor Marshall Field). In the “Evolving Planet” gallery for kids, there was a   chart, “The Geologic Time Scale” showing the classic geologic ages (Silurian, Devonian etc) with markers for the first five extinctions. At the top it read “Today” with a picture of a metropolis, and an arrow labeled “Sixth Mass Extinction”. A red-neon “Extinction Clock” ticked over each time another species supposedly becomes extinct. In the hour or two since the gallery opened, the counter had added another 22 supposed extinctions. The count was based not on reality but fanciful modeling 30 years ago by Harvard professor and environmental activist Dr E.O Wilson, who claimed that 30,000 species were going extinct per year. The true number of known extinctions per year among the planet’s reputed 10 million-or-so species and  averaged over the past 500 years is about two, according to the Red List of the International  Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Yet climate activists want to compare this alleged“Sixth Extinction” with the  end-Permian “great dying” (250 million years ago) and end-Cretaceous dinosaur die-off (66 million years ago).

As for  the“Anthropocene”, it refers to the present geological era in which humans supposedly dominate the planetary processes and destroy other life forms. The label was first seriously proposed in 2001 by  co-Nobelist Paul Crutzen, of ozone-hole fame. It supposedly succeeds our 11,500 year old Holocene, the brief warm spell that has fostered our agriculture and civilisation. No such era and label as “Anthropocene” has been endorsed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS),  the global naming authority. An ICS working group (AWG) endorsed the concept in 2016, positing a start date of 1950. Most geologic eras last about three million years, so the ICS is in no hurry to make a ruling.

The AWG argument goes that thousands of years from now, geologists will uncover a fine dividing layer of “techno-fossils”from the late 20th Century, comprised of ball-point pens, CD platters and mobile phone carcasses.[2] My lost car keys may also turn up. If the ICS is unpersuaded, the “Anthropocene” claimants argue that old labeling conventions can be thrown out since we so urgently need to save the planet.

In this debasement of science, thousands of peer-reviewed papers blather about the “Anthropocene”. Publisher Elsevier has even created a learned journal, “The Anthropocene Review” where academics can flaunt their cringe-worthy research. As Canadian fact-checker Donna Laframboise puts it, “Declaring something to be the case before it has actually happened is unethical. A more scandalous example of fake news is difficult to imagine.”[3]

Contrarian papers on the topics are often binned, as biologists Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier have found, because reviewers worry “as much about political fallout and potential misinterpretation by the public as they do about the validity and rigor of the science.”[4]

Meanwhile  “Anthropocene” fans argue that we humans are now more powerful than traditional geologic forces like volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and shifting planetary orbits. At 11am on October 14, 1968, I was home at Gooseberry Hill in Perth’s Darling Ranges when my house began to shake. I’ll never forget it. The cause was a 6.9 force earthquake centred at Meckering, 100 kilometres further east. I don’t think humans can compete  with such forces, now or ever. You may disagree.

Most of the media’s environment writers have mindlessly propagated the Anthropocene concept.  New Yorker staffer Elizabeth Colbert morphed the story into a book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and won a Pulitzer for it.[5] As a sample, she tells New Yorker readers about finding some bat corpses: “It struck me, as I stood there holding a bag filled with several dozen stiff, almost weightless bats, that I was watching mass extinction in action.”

Full credit, however, to Ruth Graham of the Boston Globe for her clear-eyed piece in 2014 exposing the naked activism of the “Sixth Extinction” crowd. UCAL ecologist Stephen Hubbell was surprised by the vehement reactions to his critical paper in Nature (2011) about extinction rates, she wrote. Hubbell said that some conservationists effectively told him, “Damn the data, we have an agenda …” Hubbell continued,The only thing science has going for it is truth and the search for truth. If it loses that, it’s really lost its way.”

Most scientists in this field are also strong conservationists, Graham wrote, and many worry that airing dirty laundry about estimates (such as “40,000 species disappearing each year”) could hurt the cause. A Brazil-based extinction specialist, Richard Ladle, spoke to her of “some enormous exaggerations”. A much-publicized 2004 paper, for instance, warned that climate change could put a million species at risk by 2050. Ladle said, “If you keep on talking about very, very large figures and nothing appears to be happening, eventually that’s going to erode public confidence in conservation science.”

Reporter Graham quoted Nigel Stork, a conservation biologist at Griffith University, Qld., who argued in Science in 2013 that the extinction rate was over-stated: “If you express a view that’s different to some people, they say you’re anti-conservation, and that’s not true. Conservation is working. There have been fewer extinctions because we’ve been conserving a key part of the world.” Graham concluded:  “The swirling controversies demonstrate how even ‘science-driven’ policy can sit uneasily with the workings of science itself. Galvanizing public opinion sometimes demands single dramatic certainties, while science proceeds by estimate, correction, and argument.”

The “Anthropocene” and the “Sixth Extinction” are eviscerated in a 8000-word essay“Welcome to the Narcisscene” by Mark Sagoff in the Oakland, Ca.-based Breakthrough Journal.[6] Enough time has elapsed to run a check on scientists’ gruesome predictions of extinctions, Sagoff says. The predictions of decades ago, treated with credulity at the time, have proved ridiculous. Here’s a few of them, tabulated by Griffith’s Nigel Stork. “If some of these higher estimates were true, then we should have already witnessed the extinction of up to 50 percent of all species on Earth in the last 30 years,” Stork wrote. Samples via Sagoff:

  • Myers (1979): 1 million species from 1975-2000.
  • Lovejoy (1980): 15-20% of species between 1980-2000.
  • Paul Ehrlich (1981): 50% species loss by 2000, 100% by 2010-25. [How does this catastrophist retain any credibility?] [7]
  • Lugo (1988): 9% species loss by 2000
  • Raven (1987-88): 2000 tropical plants per year, 25% plant species loss by 2015.
  • Hubbell (2008): 37-50% loss rate for 5308 Amazonian plants by 2020.

Other predictions (not in Stork’s table):

  • Wilson (1988): 17,500 species  being lost per year (more than 500,000 by now).
  • Leakey (1995): 17,000 to 100,000 species being lost per year.
  • Raven (1990): a quarter of plant species to be lost in next several decades.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature tracks species that have gone extinct. Last year’s Red List database looked at 24,230 plant species, and found only 118 had disappeared since 1500, while another 35 are extinct in the wild but survive in cultivation. To meet the criteria of a ‘mass extinction’, we’d need to lose about 18,000. At the current rate, it would take 70,000 more years.

It’s the same with insects. Take the well-studied butterflies, tiger beetles, dragonflies and damsel flies. Only three of 25,000 types have gone extinct in the past 500 years. A “mass extinction” would take 3 million years.

The IUCN manages data on 67,000 animal types. About 800 have gone extinct in the past 500 years. At this rate, it would take 25,000 years for a “mass extinction”.

All up, of 100,000 plants and animals, about two are lost per year. It would take another 34,000 years for a “mass extinction”.

Sagoff demolishes a subsidiary warmist argument: that current extinction rates are 100 to 1000 times (or even 10,000 times) the “normal” rates in the earth’s history. This seems extra scary, as it is intended to be. But a mass extinction would still take 34,000 years at the present rate, assuming no new species evolve. The argument about “1000 times ‘normal’” means that, normally, the same loss would take 34,000,000 years. It’s a  true-life version of this little joke:

An astronomer in a lecture predicts the earth will be swallowed by the sun in 8 billion years. He asks a distressed lady in the audience: “Why are you upset about something 8 billion years away?”

“Eight billion years? Oh, I thought you said 8 MILLION!”

Australian climate warriors have been influential in the debate. Sagoff’s article cites studies by Will Steffen (ANU and Climate Council) and Clive Hamilton, but wrongly describes the latter, an ethicist and one-time Greens candidate, as an ‘earth system scientist’. Hamilton  argues that  “on the side of responsibility are gathered the armies of scientific insight into Earth’s physical limits.” Against these are “mobilized the armies of avarice intrinsic to an economic structure driven by the profit motive.”[8] Well that’s telling us capitalists.

Steffen, whose research inspired the  2011 carbon tax, was lead author with Nobelist Crutzen in a discussion paper on the “Anthropocene” for the Royal Society the same year.[9] Steffen asserted that we are already at “Stage 3” of the “Anthropocene” era. Conceding that the term is only “informal”, Steffen accused humanity of not just being responsible for global warming but also of meddling with vital nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur cycles, along with fresh water despoliation and “likely driving the sixth major extinction event in Earth history … the first caused by a biological species.”

Steffen digressed into warning of “peak oil”, citing that oil production would need to rise 26% by 2030 to meet demand. “The prospects of achieving this level of increased production in just two decades at prices that are affordable in the developing world seem highly unlikely,” he wrote, suggesting a “significant risk of a peak before 2020.” Oil was then about $US100 a barrel, today $US70 thanks to the abundance of fracked petroleum.

Steffen also warned that we are close to “peak phosphorous”, suggesting some sort of “equitable” rationing to help the third world’s food security. Rock phosphate was then about $US200 a ton, today about $US100. By the way, never take stock tips from climate scientists who claim expertise in discerning the future up to 2100.

Needless to say, Steffen saw the crises’ solution in “effective global governance” run by his like-minded colleagues at the UN or via enforceable treaties. But since the 2009 Copenhagen conference was a flop in terms of “very deep and rapid cuts to emissions” (he was writing before the 2015 Paris flop), he shifts to earnest discussion about geo-engineering to cool the earth. “Only recently a taboo topic, geo-engineering has rapidly become a serious research topic and in situ tests may subsequently be undertaken if the research shows promising approaches,” he wrote.[10] He instances pumping sulphate particles into the stratosphere as cooling agents, but concludes rather sensibly that “ultimately, the near inevitability of unforeseen consequences should give humanity pause for serious reflection before embarking on any geo-engineering approaches.”

His argument surfaces some curious ideas. Sulphur particles in the air cause more than 500,000 premature deaths per year and damage the environment, he notes. “This creates a dilemma for environmental policymakers, because emission reductions of SO2 … for health and ecological considerations, add to global warming and associated negative consequences, such as sea level rise…[C]omplete improvement in air quality could lead to a global average surface air temperature increase by 0.8◦C on most continents and 4◦C in the Arctic.” Not many people would see any “dilemma” in saving lives by cleaning up air pollution.

Steffen then launches a pre-emptive strike against “Anthropocene” and “Mass Extinction” deniers. Like sceptics of the warming doctrine, he asserts they are driven not by “evidence and explanation” but “by beliefs and values and occasionally by cynical self-interest.” Sceptics have cognitive dissonance such that the more challenged they are by facts, the more they cling to their beliefs, he claims:

“This response may become even more pronounced for the Anthropocene, when the notion of human ‘progress’ or the place of humanity in the natural world is directly challenged. In fact, the belief systems and assumptions that underpin neo-classical economic thinking, which in turn has been a major driver of the Great Acceleration [since 1950] are directly challenged by the concept of the Anthropocene.”

What economic system Steffen prefers, he doesn’t say. He finishes with,

“The ultimate drivers of the Anthropocene if they continue unabated through this century, may well threaten the viability of contemporary civilization and perhaps even the future existence of Homo sapiens.”

Others, like University of Wollongong geographer Noel Castree, are even more critical of economic progress.  He writes,

“Even more than the concept of global warming, the Anthropocene is provocative because it implies that our current way of life, especially in wealthy parts of the world, is utterly unsustainable. Large companies who make profits from environmental despoliation – oil multinationals, chemical companies, car makers and countless others – have much to lose if the concept becomes linked with political agendas devoted to things like degrowth and decarbonisation.

… We don’t need the ICS’s imprimatur to appreciate that we are indeed waving goodbye to Earth as we have known it throughout human civilisation.”

I assume Professor Castree doesn’t use a car.

Sceptics have their own version of the current “Anthropocene” such as the “Narcissiscene” and “Greenoscene”. My favorite is the “Adjustoscene” where data has been altered to fit the climate models. Ruder people talk of the “Idioscene” or the “Obscene”. Keep it civil, folks.

Tony Thomas’ book of essays, “That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print” is available here


[1] “We are indeed in a new age, the Anthropocene,” CSIRO author Pep Canadell writes.

[2] The chairman of the AWG, Jan Zalasiewicz  noted that “technofossils such as ball-point pens, CDs, or mobile phones” had “spread rapidly around the world from the time of their first use” and provided “stratigraphic criteria that can be used to identify deposits that post-date the mid-20th century, and this, on current evidence, we consider to be the optimal position for an Anthropocene boundary.”

[3] Laframboise busted the claim of then IPCC-chair and now sex-charge defendant Rajendra Pachauri that the 2007 IPCC report comprised only peer-reviewed work. She counted that 5,587 of 18,531 citations were non-peer reviewed.

[4] Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier, “Uncomfortable Questions and Inconvenient Data in Conservation Science,” in Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Brian Silliman, eds., Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma (Oxford University Press, 2017), 4.

[5] The book blurbed, “Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.”

[6] Mark Sagoff is a senior fellow at George Mason University’s Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy and author of The Economy of the Earth.

[7]   The Population Bomb, a best seller Paul Ehrlich published in 1968, began, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Only last year Ehrlich described the situation as “biological annihilation”.

[8] Hamilton, C., Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (John Wiley & Sons, 2017), 134.

[9] Will Steffen, et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369, no. 1938 (2011): 842–867.

[10] Steffen seems unaware that during the “global cooling” scare of the 1970s, fanciful geo-engineering projects were bruited to make the planet warmer. These included, for example, manipulating warm currents by damming the Bering Strait or a dam from Florida to Cuba.

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