Science Tells a Story of Natural Climate Change

Published October 20, 2015

Robert M. Carter, Ph.D., is a paleontologist, stratigrapher, marine geologist, and environmental scientist. He served as professor and head of the School of Earth Sciences between 1981 and 1999 at James Cook University (Townsville). He has had more than 100 papers published in international science journals. Environment & Climate News Managing Editor H. Sterling Burnett interviewed Carter, who was honored at the Tenth International Conference on Climate Change in June 2015. 

Burnett: How did your work in paleontology, stratigraphy, and marine geology lead you to work on climate change? 

Carter: Stratigraphy is the study of the Earth’s layered sedimentary deposits. The layering in most such rocks reflects their deposition on the floor of ancient rivers, lakes, oceans, and ice caps, with each layer corresponding to a particular depositional event. Such events may be seasonal, annual, decadal, centennial, millennial, or longer in recurrence. As such sedimentary layers accumulate one above the other, they build a rock record of ancient Earth environments.

Fossils occur commonly within sedimentary rocks and represent ancient ancestors of today’s living organisms. The study of fossils and chemical measurements of their host sediments can therefore be used to reconstruct ancient environments, including climate.

It follows that stratigraphy lies at the very core of climate research, because it is the only way that the actual history of climate on planet Earth can be reconstructed. Earth’s oldest sedimentary rocks are around three billion years old, and the long climatic record they represent tells us the Earth was not unusually warm at the end of the 20th century. Past changes in carbon dioxide followed changes in temperature. Little correlation exists between major geological episodes of deglaciation, or warmth, and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. And we currently live on a carbon-dioxide-starved planet, with atmospheric levels at 400 [parts per million], well below those optimal for most plant growth. 

Burnett: At Heartland’s Tenth International Conference on Climate Change, you argued the world’s peoples would be better off adapting to climate change rather than trying to mitigate it. Why? 

Carter: The issue is not climate change, which is and ever will be with us, but allegedly dangerous anthropogenic global warming (DAGW).

Despite all the hype, no actual evidence exists for DAGW. Instead, the changes that occurred in the natural world during the 20th century, including two episodes of mild warming, are consistent with the null hypothesis they were caused by natural climate change.

Second, no matter how much money you spend on trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, you cannot mitigate something, DAGW, that doesn’t exist except in the output of computer models. Meanwhile, spasmodic but damaging natural climate events and variation will continue to occur throughout the world on a regular basis—floods, droughts, storms, etc.—and cause great human misery and environmental and financial damage.

Therefore, any money governments spend on “climate change” should be devoted to preparing for and mopping up after such unpreventable disasters. 

Burnett: Degrees of skepticism regarding the theory humans are responsible for climate change and whether its impacts on human well-being will be negative exist. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

Carter: It is undeniable that human activities have an effect on local climate. For example, all towns and cities are accompanied by a heat-island effect, whereby they are up to several degrees warmer than was the natural countryside prior to development. This is because industrial materials, such as steel, concrete, glass, bricks, and [asphalt], all absorb more radiant solar heat during the day—and re-emit it at night—than did the original native vegetation. Conversely, replacing native vegetation by light-colored crops, such as cereals, reflects solar radiation to space and causes local cooling.

It is a complete no-brainer that if you sum all such human effects around the globe, then mankind must have an effect on global average temperature, too. Yet, after thousands of scientists have spent about 30 years and several hundred billion dollars looking for it, nobody has been able to either calculate or isolate and measure the global effect.

Accordingly, my views on climate change are that local climate change caused by human activities is in some cases beneficial and in others deleterious. No accurate global accounting can be made of the net human effect, and neither can the human global signal be isolated and measured. Because damaging local or regional climatic events will always occur, attention needs to be focused on preparing for and adapting to such events rather than on “preventing” a speculative warming that can neither be measured nor shown to be dangerous.

Burnett: What is the most disturbing aspect of the way climate research and climate policy have developed in recent years? 

Carter: Global warming alarmism became entrenched shortly after the formation of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] in 1988. Since then, a rapid politicization of climate research has occurred.

The damage caused by this includes the demonization and economic penalization of the fossil-fuel industry, the waste of trillions of dollars on economically and environmentally farcical “alternative energy” sources, the waste of hundreds of billions of dollars on mediocre and often pointless climate “research,” the degradation of science teaching from top to bottom of the education system, and, worst of all, the shattering of the post-Enlightenment reputation of the scientific method as the best disinterested and effective method of understanding the world.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.