A few late votes have still been trickling in, possibly people returning from summer holidays to catch up on their VC. But this is a good time to call the results on our CO2 polls.
In total, 200 people voted. The system was set to catch multiple submissions by the same person, although if someone really wanted this probably could be circumvented. Their opinions were as follows:
Human activities have released much more CO2 than volcanoes: 38%
Humans and volcanoes have released about the same amounts of CO2 4%
Volcanoes have released much more CO2 than humans 39%
Don’t know / open mind 19%
During the voting, there was a bit of a change: initial responses favoured human emissions by a small margin, later votes favoured volcanoes, also by a smallish margin. If you have read the second CO2 post you will know now that humans outperform volcanoes by a factor of 34. We did not ask whether people had changed their opinion based on the posts.
The second poll had a decisive outcome, albeit not the correct one.
Volcanoes emit more CO2 than people produce in their breath: 66.3%
People breath out more CO2 than volcanoes emit: 13.6%
Don’t know: 20.1%
The correct answer is that by breathing, people produce a few times more CO2 than volcanoes do, something that does seem hard to believe!
It is not surprising that there was such a diversity of responses. The facts are obscured by the many opinion pieces, on both sides of the arguments, which quote numbers that the authors prefer rather than numbers that have a basis in science. Science has no opinion: it deals with measurements, models and predictions. Of course scientists themselves do have opinions and the trick of the trade is to separate your data from your opinions. The major point of peer review is to ensure this happens. Science is not perfect, but the internal arguments means that over time, it does converge to a consensus.
Why is CO2 such a hot potato? Volcanoes have become embroiled in a discussion that has nothing to do with them. It is not the level of CO2 that is the issue, it is its effect on the climate. If volcanoes dominate the CO2 output, it would be hard to see why our emissions are a problem. This was a tempting argument to some, and they jumped on the chance. In fact it is irrelevant. If CO2 has no major effect on climate, than it doesn’t matter who wins the CO2 output battle. If it does, and if volcanoes are dominant, we should consider our climate to be potentially unstable – one major eruption could be a worldwide disaster, something we should be prepared for.
The fact is that volcanoes have rather little effect on climate. A very large eruption (VEI7) can cause worldwide cooling, by 0.5-1C, lasting a few years. Now this amount is significant: 1C less would turn France into the UK (a disaster, climate wise!). The worst occasion was around 540 AD when two such eruptions in quick succession, followed by bubonic plague, caused empires to fail. But this was an exception. Locally, smaller eruptions can be significant. Laki affected the northern Atlantic badly, but had little effect further away. Equatorial eruptions are worse than high latitude ones, because they spread their effects over much wider areas. Some volcanoes are falsely accused: the winter of 1601 was not caused by a volcano, but by a worsening climate. A sign of a volcanic winter is snow in summer, rather than freezing winters, which is why they impact food supplies more than a cold winter would.
Of course, volcanic winters are not caused by CO2 but by sulphates. But the point here is that climate change cannot be attributed to volcanoes, and volcanoes do not destabilize the climate. Both left-wing and right-wing politics can go off the rails on these points. In the worst cases, facts are changed (or carefully selected) to suit a purpose.
Left and right
But why has this become a left-right issue? The first question in the poll was copied from a survey a couple of years ago. In that survey, people were also asked for their political views (which we did not do). In the US, people who indicated a republication affinity voted overwhelmingly for volcanoes to be the dominant CO2 producers, whereas others did not. Why is that? Volcanoes don’t do politics! They take no note of views on the role of the state, social care versus personal freedom, trade, security, war or peace. How did this particular debate become a political hot potato?
It appears to have happened in the last 10-15 years. Before that, the science of humanity’s CO2 was accepted by both sides of politics. In the time of the presidency of the younger Bush, you could still be a green republican. No longer. I have seen the same transformation elsewhere.
So who is at fault? To scientists, it seems clear-cut. The outrageously wrong numbers mentioned in the post are evidence of a willingness to distort the facts. It shows a contempt of science. Some have argued this happened because science is an international endeavour, and politics is in the end nationalistic. But it is not so clear: sport is equally international, but it does have strong national support which science may lack. In the UK, there are special visa categories for visiting sports people, but not for visiting scientists. Sporting success is a matter of national pride. Scientific success isn’t.
But science is not blameless. Scientists can present their personal opinions as ‘better’ because they are scientists and see themselves as somehow above the fray. But many political issues deal with people, their lives and dignity. Science has no remit there. As one example of science going off the rails, I have heard scientists argue that Downes babies should not be allowed to live. Clearly, they have a worse quality of life, and supporting them is costly. But they have no less value. If they are given respect, people with Downes syndrome can be a delight to be around. Science makes no friends by attacking people’s value and dignity.
So what is the bottom line on CO2 and climate? The science is actually rather simple, and the numbers for the global amount of warming that a CO2 change gives have not changed by much over the past century. The uncertainties are overstated by the ‘right wing’: they are mainly in local effects, and in how fast things change. The ‘left wing’ side often overstates the impacts. CO2 has been much higher in the distant past, and although climate at that time was warmer (roughly in line with predictions), the Earth was not an uninhabitable hot house. With enough warning and preparation, we can probably adapt to warmer weather. (As an example of preparing, warmer air contains more moisture, and therefore can produce more rain. Houston and New Orleans should take note.) Sea level rise may be the most important issue. When CO2 was higher, sea level was also higher – by quite a lot. Adapting to five meter of sea level rise requires major planning. (The Dutch experience suggest you can adapt to one meter of sea level rise per century, but rivers may be harder to tame.)
The discussions involving climate can become vitriolic. Both sides can distort the facts. VC’s role is to present the science and to push the facts, irrespective of political opinions. We invite your comments, contributions and opinions and will continue to do so; the only proviso is that those comments should respect science and each other. Volcanoes don’t do politics. They stand above the fray: passionate, explosive, but impartial.
This was posted on the VC facebook site. The wording suggests that funding for climate change related projects was explicitly excluded in the budget for this grant scheme, but I do not know any particulars of the case. Censorship of science? Or an alternative way of preparing for the future – eyes closed and full speed ahead? Do note that this grant was approved for funding, and the request is only to list it on the funder’s web site without the forbidden words, possibly to safeguard against government interference. The person who wrote the request was caught in the middle.