If I’ve learned anything on LinkedIn, it’s that a lot of geologists fancy themselves climatologists. Expert ones, even.
Almost weekly, one or another of my connections likes, shares, or comments on a post that either questions anthropogenic climate change or outright denies it.
Some of these articles are obvious partisan rants, borne of frustration and fear at the current state of the petroleum industry, particularly in Alberta. That doesn’t justify the content in my mind, but I’m at least sympathetic to the motive. After all, what’s the point of social media if not to attest your tribal bonafides.
Most, however, are surprisingly earnest attempts at righting perceived errors and/or indoctrination in the current climate change consensus. Peppered with proclamations of using “science” and “critical thinking” to get “facts” out to the general public, something only geologists are apparently capable of doing truthfully, this proselytization reeks of god complex.
The latest example to earn the affection of my geological peers (it’s really popular) is this simple expose on recent glaciation in North America. Including a cool animated GIF showing the retreating Laurentide Ice Sheet from its most recent maximum 20,000 years ago, the piece explains away climate change as nothing more than continued warming from the last ice age.
In other words, it is entirely natural and there is nothing we can do about it. The author then goes on to chastise our naiveté in thinking we could possibly slow or alter this natural progression, tosses in an “it’s real” presumably to counter any claims of denial even though that’s exactly what his argument implies from an anthropogenic standpoint, then concludes with an odd, emphatic “just look at the changes to the Atlantic shoreline.” I can picture them mimicking a mic drop when finished.
It’s so wonderfully uncomplicated. And entirely true. It’s also over-simplified, disingenuous, and unbelievably patronizing, with healthy doses of bias and self-interest. It would be embarrassing to see my fellow professionals promote such drivel if it wasn’t so infuriating.
That these efforts to obfuscate the global climate change discussion are created, liked, and shared by petroleum geologists should come as no surprise. They stand to lose a lot in a world transitioning away from hydrocarbons.
My network is thick with them because I used to be one. I’m even trying to be one again. My wife still is one. Consider my LinkedIn feed a statistically invalid representation of the geology profession, though I’m willing to wager a majority of all geologists are supportive. Those in mining, certainly, though I’m less sure how environmental geologists would place their bets.
I used to be one of those too, for a short time, before selling my soul to the oil industry. In fact, it was the environment that led me to study geology in the first place. Hydrogeology, to be precise; the science of groundwater.
During my last year of high school, as I struggled to discover a passion worth studying in university, crisis hit the town in which my high school was located. The town had long been home to a chemical plant owned by Uniroyal. It produced many nasty herbicides and such for decades, including Agent Orange for the United States military. Lots of this stuff had been buried on site in barrels that eventually leaked and contaminated the aquifer (ironically deposited by those same advancing and retreating glaciers) from which the town and many area homeowners sourced their drinking water. It was quite a shitstorm at the time and it steered me towards a career in environmental hydrogeology. I was going to save the world!
But life gets weird as your thirties approach. All that righteous ideology of your teens can fade away as the lure of money and the demands of adulthood absorb your life. Toss in some serious disillusion with the realities of the environmental industry (I wasn’t even saving my neighbourhood, let alone the world) and next thing you know, I’ve sold my eco-warrior cred for a juicy paycheck in the oil and gas industry.
Sure, I knew this was a dramatic change from what I had set out to do with my life. People change, as do priorities. Besides, being a geologist in the oil patch was great work, both financially and intellectually. I loved it. It was challenging and fascinating and, quite frankly, a hell of a lot more stimulating than the hydrogeology work I was doing right out of school. It paid way better too.
But I never felt I was outright abandoning my appreciation and concern for the planet. And I thought all earth scientists felt the same way. That deep down, beneath it all, we were all planet lovers. Dare I say, environmentalists.
I don’t know why I thought that. It sounds pretty silly, in retrospect. Especially when you think about all the stuff geologists actually do to the planet. I just assumed that if you were fascinated by the earth to the point of studying it at university and then making a career out of unlocking its puzzles, then you must also love the planet enough to resist causing irreparable harm.
Whatever the case, I unquestionably underestimated the appetite for denial and self-preservation in the geological community. I am not so naïve as to be unaware of the human propensity to resist change, I just never expected it to be so steadfast and pompous coming from fellow scientists.
I think what bothers me most is the subtle arrogance underlying many of these arguments. An unspoken intimation that geologists have some deeper understanding of how the climate actually works that not only the general public doesn’t comprehend, nor the media, but even expert climate scientists fail to grasp. It’s a testament to the proverb that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.
All earth scientists have some basic understanding of climate and the influence it has had on the planet over hundreds of millions of years. We would be fools not to. From glaciation to volcanology to continental drift, the earth has influenced the climate and the climate, in turn, has influenced geology. It’s a fascinating, dynamic system with complexities we continue to strive to understand. But in no way are most geologists experts in climate science.
I liken it to your physiotherapist. He or she is an expert of the human body, having obtained university level education in physical therapy or kinesiology. Through their studies and careers, they have undoubtedly gained at least a passing familiarity with the basics of medical science.
But would you visit your physiotherapist to examine a skin lesion you are worried might be cancerous? Or to treat the cancer? What about a sore throat? A persistent headache? Of course not. Even a chronic shoulder pain will eventually take you to a doctor’s office.
So why do so many geologists, skilled professionals in disciplines only peripherally related to climate science, believe they have the credentials to not only comment on the topic of anthropogenic climate change but to challenge and refute those that do? And do so with such generalized, patronizing claptrap as that presented in the article above.
Do we honestly think climatologists are unaware of interglacial warming and therefore have never even contemplated it as a possible cause, let alone researched it? Such brazen disrespect towards climatologists, accomplished scientists in their own right, is shameful.
It’s akin to telling a hydrogeologist that aquifers are “underground rivers” or a telling a geologist that oil reservoirs are empty caverns filled with black fluid and that we “dig” wells. I know full well how quick geologists are to eye roll when they hear such uneducated statements. And they’re just as protective when disciplines encroach upon their turf; hello reservoir engineers.
Me thinks some humility is warranted. Science thrives on healthy skepticism, not glib dismissal. We can do so much better than this. We must!
I personally see no naiveté in accepting that eight billion humans consuming 20 million metric tons of coal, 16 million cubic meters of oil and 11 billion cubic meters of natural gas EACH DAY is having some impact on the earth’s climate. In fact, the specialists in the field of climate science have said it does, almost unanimously. It takes an inordinate amount of self-interest and hubris to claim they’re wrong.
This too, is a geologist’s perspective on climate change.
Steven Bloemendaal says
Thanks for your interesting paper.
I am too a geologist, but I am not a writer, so I will keep it short
Climate change is real and, the geological history shows that there can be many natural causes that drives that change. I think that knowledge of the geological history gives us a perspective of the world as being in a constant dynamic change (the biological evolution through time, the evolution of ecosystems, the evolution of land and sea masses, the evolution of climate etcetera). This change is not necessarily good or bad, it is just the nature of the world we are living in, which is at the same time fragile and resilient.
The human impact of the world is also very real, and we are changing the world at an increasingly rapid pace. Only in the last century have we become aware of our impact on the world as a whole With this awareness of the consequences of our behavior comes a moral question of the good and bad of our behavior and of taking responsibility for the consequences.
Globalization has made the world a small and interconnected space and for many of these challenges we will need a coordinated global response to do something about it. Humanity has made enormous progress in Science and Technology which makes positive global change a real possibility (reforestation, green-energy, irrigation, education, family planning, disease eradication, clean water, sanitation, ecological restoration etcetera) to solve many of the global challenges. A lot of our negative impact on the world are unintended consequence of our behavior and it remains to be seen if we have made enough progress on the Moral, Political and Social front, to take responsibility and face these global challenges.
My view is that any change in society start with education to become aware of the challenges we are facing. I think that the geological perspective is a useful perspective of which many are not aware. It shows that we live in a dynamic world where change is the common currency. However, this perspective should not be used as an excuse to deny the reality of the often detrimental effects of human activity on the natural world.
On our own, we cannot do much about global climate change and environmental degradation, but together we will be able to face this challenge. We can learn from each other’s viewpoints to find solutions to make this a better world.
You seem to be a pretty good writer afterall.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
I like this!
Brilliantly written and worthy antidote to the constant bombardment I suffer in my Link’d In feed. After years of diligently reading fellow oil industry geologists’ scientific rants about the non existence of climate change, researching the posts that were once again ‘undeniable truths’, only to find either flawed science or, more often than not, articles that actually concluded the opposite of the posts intentions, I eventually just stopped following the worst offenders because it was taking too much time!
When did so many geologists (and geophysicists) stop being scientists?
That’s an interesting question.
With answers surely to ruffle feathers further.
Being human inevitably trumps all else.
Mark Adamski says
1) Congratulations on graduating from Waterloo in hydrogeology. Arguably the best hydro school there is. I too graduated with an MSc in Hydro (B.Sc. in Geological Engineering) and worked for Amoco and BP as both an environmental engineer and petroleum systems modeler switching between those two fields twice in the last 26 years. So I have that career path in common with you. I don’t view it as soul selling as while I was in Highschool I became intrigued by the migration of water and oil in the subsurface. Luckily I have had the opportunity to study that my entire career.
2) I do think geologists are uniquely qualified when it comes to paleo climates on the planet and the causes for those changes. After reading your post I tried to find a course curriculum that one completes to get an advanced degree in climatology. It appears there are seven schools that offer a 4(+) yr degree in Climatology (based on this site: https://study.com/articles/Schools_that_Offer_Climatology_Programs_How_to_Choose.html ).
I took a look at the University of Miami’s curriculum because it was the most expensive and Miami likely has the most to lose if the sea level rises a meter or two. Here is a link to Miami’s courses for a Minor in Climate Science:
And for a MPS (Masters of Professional Science?) in Climate and Society:
I am not seeing course work that would give Climate Scientists deep understanding of paleo climates. It is very possible I am wrong and you have many examples of experts in this field having this understanding?
3) If Climate change can be controlled by man to what degree does fossil fuel use need to be reduced? What is that impact on modern human society?
What course work do typical geology undergrad programs include that provide “deep understanding of paleo climates”? I certainly don’t recall mine including any such thing, though what constitutes a “deep understanding” isn’t clear in this context.
What in the daily life of a petroleum geologist working for any sized oil and gas company provides a deeper understanding of paleo climate let alone involves study/research of recent climate science?
Why do so many of us think those genuinely studying/researching climate change are so unbelievably ignorant of the fact there has been climate changes in all of geological history. This is the epitome of disrespect in my opinion. These scientists are not idiots nor are they ignorant of Earth history. And the Geological Society of America agrees with them which, you know, strongly suggests that climatologists are aware of geologists.
Mark Adamski says
Your point “Why do so many of us think those genuinely studying/researching climate change are so unbelievably ignorant of the fact there has been climate changes in all of geological history” I have not heard them discuss temperatures in the Cretaceous or Eocene. Can you point me to cases where they discuss these?
Thomas Bath says
What I have never seen presented in Media is the results of the models. It answers must be there. For example:
1. How much CO2 emissions from Human activity including farming and raising animals for food, must be reduced to stop global temperature increases.
2. How much CO2 emissions from Human activity must be reduced to cool the planet back to “pre” global warming, which I believe has been pushed back to the mid 1800s (the time when glaciers started receding). Any higher CO2 level will only slow the impending global disaster, not stop it. We actually should probably below that number to allow the planet too cool, not just be stable.
I think the answer is “impossible”.
No matter the debate, the public seems to already made their choice. I have been in the Denver area for a few days. Freeways are choked with new gas-guzzling SUVs, commutes are long, huge homes being constructed everywhere, and massive lines at the International Airport where people use huge amounts of jet fuel to fly to meetings instead of using the internet.
I see no slowing of fossil fuel use, let alone going back to the mid 1800s when there was no oil and natural gas production and very small amounts of coal produced. Oil and natural gas consumption is up week after week to record levels worldwide with no end in sight. I think it would be better to stop construction from below 30′ above mean sea level, relocate people from low-lying areas and get them prepared for the impending sea level rise.
I would love to be around in 10,000 or 1,000,000 years to see this little temperature blip on the chart of worldwide temps the last million years.