NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Plimer’s Climatology 103


Plimer’s Heaven, our Earth, and the Precautionary Principle

Continuing on the subject of

Heaven + Earth

By Ian Plimer

ConnorCourt, 503pp, $39.95

Acronyms and abbreviations 

AGW Anthropogenic global warming
CC Climate change
CF2Cl2 dichlorofluoromethane or Freon
CFC Chlorofluorocarbon
CH4 Methane
CO2 Carbon dioxide
GHG Greenhouse gas
H20 Water
H2S Hydrogen sulfide
IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
N2O Nitrous oxide
O3 Ozone
YEC Young Earth Creationist


Plimer finishes his book with a section headed ‘What if I am wrong?’, thus maintaining a certain limited flexibile acknowledgement of the possibility, before dismissing even that. Unstated in that rhetorical question of course is a concession that the IPCC, the bulk of the climatologists, and a good many others in the scientific and geological communities may just be right about anthropogenic greenhouse gases and global warming. In the absence of a third alternative, that would flow logically from his conceivable wrongness.  If it is granted as at least possible that the present level of emission from human activities is leading the planet to climatic catastrophe, there is still not a hint that some caution might be in order. 

However, it seems important to all in the AGW denialist camp to never allow the concession that the alarmists might even  have the smallest hope of a chance of a possibility of perhaps being right. So it is allowed by Plimer that:

1. Plimer and the AGW ‘skeptics’ are right and the AGW ‘alarmists’ are wrong, OR

2. Plimer and the AGW ‘skeptics’ are wrong and the AGW ‘alarmists’ are wrong, but never

3. Plimer and the AGW ‘skeptics’ are wrong and the AGW ‘alarmists’ are right, and not even that

4. Plimer and the AGW ‘skeptics’ might just be wrong and the AGW ‘alarmists’ might just at least in part be right.

Consequently for AGW denialists, the anti-AGW case must be argued all the way down to the wire, invoking everything they can muster. The dismissals extend as we have seen in previous units of this course to claims that:

 a. about CO2: there is doubt that atmospheric CO2 concentration is rising;

b. if it is, it is well past the concentration giving significant warming effect;

c. if it is, it does not matter as it has all happened before;

d. CO2 at whatever atmospheric concentration can have no harmful chemical effect on the oceans or marine life, as it forms carbonic acid in water, which then reacts with rock minerals, removing it;

e. CO2, as an essential plant food, cannot be a pollutant.

f. CO2 emission reduction will make life worse for all and bring poverty and death to millions.  

g. that global warming is not happening;

h. if it were, it would be a good thing;

i. if it were, human activities could not be the cause;

j. Oceans: there is no good evidence that ocean levels are rising;

k. if they were, human activities could not be the cause;

l. if they were, it has happened constantly over geological time due to crustal movement,. continental drift, sea-floor spreading and other such factors;

m. scientists who dispute the above claims do so in pursuit of research grants and personal economic security;

n. climatology in any case is not a genuine science;

o. the IPCC reports are mainly political, not scientific;

p. ‘activists’, environmentalists and others who campaign against industrial CO2 emissions and alleged global warming are compulsive dissenters who lost their raison d’etre with the end of the Cold War, but have found a new one;

q. the concern over global warming is a form of religious fundamentalism;

r. Precautionary Principle: there is no such thing in science.

s. computer modelling: absolutely useless for complex systems like the global climate system.

because even if only one of the above is allowed, the whole business-as-usual case becomes very hard to maintain, and the responsibility of those who wish to do so becomes highly questionable.

For example, some AGW ‘skeptics’ who are published along with Plimer in the same right-wing press (notably the Murdoch papers and Quadrant) are still none-the-less ready to concede that there may be something in the Precautionary Principle, even if at the same time they deck its title out with scare quotes and the air-freshening qualifier ‘so-called’. For example, the chemist Sev Sternhell in his piece ‘The Abused Science of Climate Change’  [1]  wrote:

… I put myself in the “sceptics” rather than in the “alarmist” column as I do not believe that any of the catastrophic predictions are well-based. There is, however, a caveat: the alarmist case has one argument going for it, viz., the so-called “precautionary principle”, which essentially amounts to avoiding risks if potential consequences are dire. This, however always requires a quantitative judgement, as otherwise we would never cross roads, sit in a bus or even get out of bed. My considered judgement in this case is that the climate/anthropogenic carbon dioxide nexus justifies watching and research, but it does not justify the currently proposed expensive, probably unnecessary, disruptive and probably futile measures. And yes, I have a stake in the future: 3 children and 7 grandchildren as well as the rest of mankind.

In Sternhell’s view the climatological watching and research is justified, and presumably therefore the government financial support of it. But a moment’s reflection on what Sternhell wrote above  would still allow the possibility that in his considered judgement the undoubtedly expensive measures referred to are possibly necessary and possibly non-futile; in other words consistent with his endorsement of the Precautionary Principle, ‘so-called’ or otherwise.

 As I have discussed elsewhere, [2]  in the course of developing his case, Plimer also denies the existence of ‘tipping points’ in science, which I suppose means his personal recognition of them.  “A popular catastrophist view”, he says, “is that as the climate warms, less and less CO2 will be dissolved in the oceans, and a ‘tipping point’ will be reached when the Earth enters a runaway greenhouse. Another ‘tipping point’ is that the oceans will become acid. Permanently.  In fact there is no such thing as a ‘tipping point’ (or even a ‘precautionary principle’) in science. The use of these words in the popular media and by political advocates immediately advertises non-scientific opinions…” (Heaven and Earth p.338)

The Precautionary Principle is perhaps best expressed in certain time-honoured proverbs: ‘look before you leap’; ’ better to be sure than sorry’, and  ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’.  The Chinese also have a saying:  ‘If we don’t change directions we’ll probably end up where we’re headed.’ Plimer says it is not found in science, and that as we have seen, is partly true.  It is not found in his science.  A bit more precaution on his part and he might have avoided the Ashley review [3]  

Put another way, the Precautionary Principle “is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.” [4]  

As fate would have it, within a month of the release of Heaven+Earth on the retail market a surprise ship came in. According to the Australian of May 27, 2009:

THE P&O cruise ship Pacific Dawn will be quarantined off Willis Island, east of Cairns, tomorrow after three crew exhibited flu-like symptoms.

The crew have been isolated and medical samples will be sent to Brisbane laboratories for testing. …

Swine flu spread on board the Pacific Dawn but has since extended its reach after 1800 of its passengers, who docked in Sydney on Monday, were allowed to travel home, including many with flu symptoms.

The ship was cleared by NSW Health to sail again on a scheduled 10-night cruise to Queensland.

Today, NSW announced it would treat all cruise ships arriving in NSW waters as if swine flu were onboard .  [5]

By June 1 Australia had recorded 303 confirmed cases of human swine flu influenza A (H1N1), fortunately none fatal to that point. According to the UN World Health Organisation however, the global death toll to that date had been 95, with 13,398 people in 48 countries infected.  [6]

Having been very concerned at first, some Australian health authorities started to relax, and are treated it as a variant on the usual winter ‘flu. Apparently it is not as dangerous as was first feared, and provided elements of two separate strains do not recombine into one deadlier than either precursor, the world may avoid a deadly pandemic such as occurred in 1918-19.  [7] Others however, are not in favour of relaxation.  [8]  But unless medicine is no longer included as a branch of science, Plimer’s book-buying public have had served up with the evening TV news a text-book example of the application of the so-called ‘so-called “Precautionary Principle”’. In science.

Swine ‘flu also provides us with an excellent analogy and model for the treatment of GHG emissions and the threat perhaps involved. It may be that we do not face runaway global warming.  It may be that we do. So which is worse: too much caution, or not enough?

If we followed the principle to Sternhell’s extreme, we would never cross roads. If we followed it in the normal fashion, we would never cross a busy road when an underpass or overpass was available, or cross any road blindfolded. That of course is standard practice. It is what we do. It is following of the Precautionary Principle.

So given that the fossil fuels are generally getting more expensive and harder to find, and that alternative technology is already there to take up much of the slack, international agreements such as Kyoto (and Copenhagen hopefully) can force transition to less polluting forms of energy in ways the market is quite reluctant over.

On the oceans:  According to Plimer oceanic life forms, particularly corals, mollusks and other species with calcareous skeletons, are in no danger. 

Carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form a weak acid, called carbonic acid. As the reader will probably know, chemists assess acidity-alkalinity on a 14 point pH scale, with neutrality falling in the middle at pH = 7 and acid conditions rating below 7. According to Plimer, falling pH of any surface water, be it puddle, pond or ocean will easily be countered by reaction of the carbonic acid so formed with minerals of the land, river beds, sea bottoms and ocean floors that come into contact with the water.  Much of the Earth’s rain dissolves CO2 while in the air, and so becomes a dilute solution of carbonic acid, which is chemically the same as very very dilute soda water. Over long periods of time, it is capable of weathering exposed rock surfaces. It has no effect on quartz, but it does slowly convert the olivine, feldspars, and pyroxenes found as minerals in rocks to clays. Its greatest geological short-term effect is on carbonate minerals, particularly calcium carbonate. It slowly dissolves limestone to form limestone caves, with some re-precipitation as stalactites and stalagmites. A measure of the rate of such chemical rock weathering in a given locality can be gained by surveying local cemetery headstones of various ages. These usually have a date of burial carved into them, and from this a calculation of the time elapsed since the tombstone surfaces were freshly cut and polished can be gained.

Athens gets an annual average of 48 inches of rain (around 120 cm).  [9]  Since records began being kept in 1860 this has not varied significantly.  [10] Despite what is in Australian terms a very high rainfall, 2,500 year-old marble (calcium carbonate) buildings such as the Parthenon have not exactly dissolved like lumps of sugar.  Rock weathering by carbonic acid is a slow process, and marble is about the fastest weathering rock there is.

It should come as no surprise then that proxy measurements of concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere show consistent rise since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Photosynthesis, mineral weathering and absorption into surface water have not been able to remove the CO2 as fast as it has been put into the atmosphere.

If for no other reason than the above, I find it highly unlikely that the minerals in the rocks and the plants in the soils and seas are going to be able to counter these rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the short term. Moreover, there is evidence that a very important group of marine invertebrates is quite adversely sensitive to rising CO2 concentration in the waters of their environment. These are the corals. They are organisms with skeletons of mainly calcium carbonate, and are placed quite low on the trophic pyramids of the marine ecology. A huge variety of other animals and plants depend on them for food and/or shelter, and when the corals go, so does the whole reef ecosystem.

Marine biologists have expressed near-unanimous alarm at this situation.  [11]

Denialists commonly dispute any measurement of atmospheric CO2 concentration, just as Plimer disputes the readings made by the Mauna Loa Observatory. As far as they are conveniently concerned, it is one of the great unknowables of nature.

Then we have the matter of alleged oceanic dilution effects, and Plimer’s ocean volume/carbon ratio:

 Exchange of CO2 between atmosphere and ocean is well known. An upper limit on how much the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will rise if all available fossil fuel is burned can be calculated. In order to permanently double the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere and keep the oceans and atmosphere balanced, the atmosphere needs to be supplied with 51 times the present amount of atmospheric CO2. The total amount of carbon in known fossil fuel could only produce 11 times the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Unless we change the fundamental laws of chemistry and change the way in which the oceans work, humans do not have enough fossil fuel on Earth to permanently double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. If humans burned all the available fossil fuels over the next 300 years, there would be up to 15 turnovers of CO2 between the oceans and atmosphere and all the additional CO2 would be consumed by would be consumed by ocean life and precipitated as calcium carbonate in sea floor sediments.

Burning of fossil fuels adds CO2 to the atmosphere and, in turn, to the oceans. Fossil fuel contains no C-14 (derived from cosmic radiation and nuclear bombs) and hence the increase in the C-13 and C-12 of seawater has been used to calculate the addition of CO2 derived from coal and oil burning… [Ignoring other sources ]… CO2 of fossil fuel origin is confined to the near surface of the oceans and totals about 3% of the CO2 of that surface water.


Here are the concentrations (in parts per million by mass) of the eight most abundant elements in seawater after hydrogen and oxygen:

Chlorine Cl        19,400

Sodium Na        10,800

Magnesium Mg  1,290

Sulfur S                    904

Calcium Ca             411

Potassium K          392

Bromine Br             67.3

Carbon C                 28.0


Sodium and chlorine, which precipitate as crystalline sodium chloride (‘sea salt’) when sea water evaporates, have far greater abundance than all the others combined. This is simply because living organisms in the sea have so little use for them. Calcium and potassium on the other hand, tend to get snapped up by living organisms as soon as they become available. The ionic calcium to precipitate the carbonate to the sea floor in the manner Plimer suggests will only come from the decomposition of minerals other than calcium carbonate (which is found in limestone, marble, calcareous sediments, skeletons of corals, molluscs etc). The reaction of calcium carbonate with carbonic acid returns as much CO2 to the sea as hydrogen carbonate ion as will be taken up again by the freed calcium, leaving no net loss of dissolved CO2. This is but one of the reasons that natural sequestration processes cannot keep pace with the rate of addition of CO2 to the air by fossil fuel combustion.

There can be little dispute that those natural processes will restore the balance of CO2 between land, sea and air given enough time. But CO2 concentration is rising in the atmosphere precisely because there has not been enough time, nor will there be before the fossil fuels are exhausted about 300 years hence.  (Forget geosequestration.  ) It is not surprising that Plimer seeks to help his case along by disputing to the point of dismissal the Mauna Loa CO2 readings,  [14]  which happen to find agreement with the main body of other atmospheric readings.

Plimer says that there will be “up to 15 turnovers of CO2 between the oceans and atmosphere” in that period of 300 years. Even if this is agreed, it still leaves the number of turnovers in that time somewhere between zero and 15. What is left unsaid here is that circulation of water in the oceans is extremely slow.  Convection currents form when fluids are heated from below or cooled from above, or both; but not vice-versa. If the ocean water was primarily heated by volcanoes on the ocean floor, circulation would be much faster. But it is mainly heated from above, by the Sun, and so convection currents are not so readily set up. The ocean is cooled to some extent by wind-driven evaporation of surface water, but not sufficiently to compensate for the Sun’s heat.  Ocean water is also cooled by glacial meltwater and contact with sea ice, but this process creates only slow convection. It takes 1,000 years for a molecule of water to make a full circuit of the global circulation system.  [15] Even then, at any one time most of the ocean water is not involved in circulation gyres and currents, and is quite still. It is thus misleading to consider dilution of atmospheric CO2 in the total of oceanic water. The chances of a given drop of it picking up molecules of CO2 diminish markedly as we move down from the ocean surface.

Typical speeds of the flow of ocean currents are 0.01-1.0 m/s; vertical speeds within the stratified ocean are much smaller, closer to 0.001 m/s.

The wind stress acting on the surface layer of the ocean induces movement of that water. This is called Ekman Layer transport, which extends to the surface 50 to 200 meters. … As the wind varies from place to place, Ekman transport can produce divergence (upwelling) or convergence (sinking) of surface water…

As surface water is made denser through the removal of heat or freshwater, the surface layer descends to deeper depths. If the stratification is weak and the buoyancy removal sufficient, the descent would reach the deep sea floor. Such deep reaching convection occurs in the northern North Atlantic (North Atlantic Deep Water) and around Antarctica (Antarctic Bottom Water). The thermohaline circulation engages the full volume of the ocean into the climate system, by allowing all of the ocean water to ‘meet’ and interact directly the atmosphere (on a time scale of 100-1000 years). [16]

There is in other words a slow circulation within the surface 200 metres of the ocean that brings sea water into contact with the air. But as the oceans are on average 3.8 km deep, this circulation only involves about 5% of the water at any one time. If all the world’s 1,150 Gt of fossil carbon was burnt it would form about 4,210 Gt of CO2. This is only about 3.3 billionths of the total mass of water in the hydrosphere, which is about 1.4 x 10^21 kg or 1.4 x 10^9 Gt. If we allow the same time for the burning as the time taken for one full circulation of the ocean water mass, this will hardly affect total ocean acidity.

The total yearly biomass production of the organisms on Earth is on one estimate at around 170 billion tonnes (164 billion tons) [17] , of which a third is oceanic and two thirds terrestrial: say 60 billion tonnes oceanic. Assuming this roughly to be 10% of the total oceanic biomass brings the total mass of all marine organisms to 600 billion tonnes, or 600 Gt. The potential total CO2 addition to the hydrosphere of 4210 Gt (assuming it all finishes up in the oceans) is thus about 7 times the total biomass in the oceans. That is indeed significant.

This has both good and bad aspects.

On the positive side, the return of all the carbon presently locked up in fossil fuels to biospheric circulation means a potentially huge increase in production of oceanic biomass (read ‘food’ if you like), and indeed of production on land as well. Probably the biggest ecological contest across the whole of Earth’s history has been between marine and terrestrial organisms for carbon. The bulk of the fossil fuel carbon produced was as coal produced by terrestrial plants; marine plants such as algae played a negligible role in its production. However, the bulk of the overall fossil carbon is presently in the form of carbonate rocks, mainly limestones.  While the fossil fuel carbon will be returned to the carbon cycle in the course of the next 300 years or so, that in the carbonate rocks will only return to circulation as volcanic and subduction processes in the Earth’s crust convert it to CO2 and other products over the long geological term. Much of it will eventually return to the hydrosphere and atmosphere as CO2 emitted from terrestrial and submarine volcanoes.

Again on the positive side, the ocean, overall and finally, will never be even remotely as acidic as soda water, which is itself only a one percent solution of CO2 in water. However, due to the slow circulation the top 300 metres or so of the ocean, where most of its life is found, is acidifying at rates which are causing detectable changes in oceanic life, and which have marine biologists worried.

The huge mass of water in the ocean can lull one into a false sense of security. In the early phase of the Cold War, both sides thought nothing of dumping high level radioactive waste at sea, on the ground that currents would soon dilute it to infinitesimal concentrations in the ocean overall. What those optimists failed to take into account was the tendency for radioactive elements to be absorbed by life forms, and to be forced back to ever increasing concentrations as they passed up the trophic levels of the oceanic food chains.

Similarly a molecule of H2CO3 (carbonic acid) can hang around indefinitely in the ocean until it finds something to react with. While some of it decomposes to the CO2 and water from which it was originally formed, that reaction is readily reversible. Its permanent removal from the ocean will either be through algal or cyanobacterial photosynthesis, or by reaction with a mineral to form a highly insoluble calcium, magnesium, iron or other carbonate. Till then, swarms of H2CO3 molecules in surface waters can do a lot of damage to the shells of ostracods and other zooplankton, and in shallow coastal and reef environments, to corals. As we have seen, there are 600 Gt of oceanic biomass facing a total potential addition of 7 times that mass of CO2 to the hydrosphere by the time the fossil fuel reserves are gone.  That will form a significant mass of H2CO3 for them to deal with as best they can.

From the figures above, we can see that there are approximately 1.8 x 10^6 Gt of calcium ion dissolved in seawater, to deal with an eventual total of 4.2 x 10^3 Gt of incoming CO2. Over the next 1,000 years or so, most should be precipitated to the seafloor as calcium carbonate. There is about 430 times more calcium by mass than there will ever be carbonate in the ocean. How ocean life will be affected over the time it takes to get rid of the excess dissolved CO2 is the question of concern.

.So on the negative side, we live at a choke point in this geohistorical process. CO2 is being added to the air and ocean faster than it can be removed by the natural systems that deal with it. The surface of the ocean in contact with the air is absorbing more CO2 than it is able to pass to the rest of the oceanic water,  as  vertical and horizontal circulation are on 100 to 1,000 year time scales respectively. A similar situation holds for the surface of the ocean in contact with rock minerals other than carbonates as far as its removal is concerned. The process is orders of magnitude slower, by which I mean hundreds or thousands of times slower.

If however, the addition of the CO2 to the atmosphere brings a decrease in total rainfall and precipitation over the continents in the short to medium term, it will be the oceans that have to do most of the job of clearing the CO2 from the atmosphere.


TO Plimer’s Climatology 104: Climatology vs Plimertology >>>


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TO Plimer’s Climatology 105: Lord Franklin’s Dream turned nightmare  >>>

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[12] Heaven+Earth p 325







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