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Climate Change, Science and the Geological Association of Canada

The Earth is characterized by a significant population of creationist, despite the overwhelming evidence consistent with evolution. Some creationistic thought is attributable to straight out ignorance; some to religious fervor; and some, no doubt, to people who know evolution to be correct but who would never be caught publicly admitting to such knowledge. Regardless of why they are creationist, creationists all have one thing in common: they are forced to ignore overwhelming evidence consistent with evolution. For most creationist this ignorance takes the form of simply not talking about or accepting the data that are best interpreted in terms of evolution. Others, more aggressively, will deny the data. A small minority have gone so far as to fabricate fraudulent data as a means of trying to bring down an idea that they simply know in the hearts to be wrong.

Embarrassingly for geologists, the tactics utilized, and arguments put forward by today's creationists are not unlike those put forward by a fixist geological community between 1912, when Wegener first published his treatise showing that the continents had moved both relative to one another and relative to the geographic poles, and the plate tectonic revolution of the late sixties. That sixty year period was witness to a growing amount of geological and geophysical data that was consistent with Wegener's model of Earth having been characterized by a supercontinent, Pangea, at the dawn of the Mesozoic. Most stunningly, the nineteen-fifties saw paleomagnetic studies confirm the mobility of the continents. And yet the geological community remained for the most part stoically rigid in its opposition to the prospect of drifting continents; mobilism was simply ignored. Papers addressing the topic through the thirties into the fifties are few. Data consistent with continental drift was denied and ignored. Facile arguments against mobilism were accepted with little debate, and road blocks were put in place against discussion of mobilism. For example, many accepted the shallow argument that there could be no debate over mobilism in the absence of an identified process. This tactic effectively cut short debate, but how ironic then that despite the fact that mobilism is today readily accepted, the processes responsible for plate motion remain a matter of debate. Is plate movement a response to top down or bottom up processes?

Have you ever wondered why we haven't come close to generating a computer model that can re-create the break-up of Pangea and which can accurately predict our present day distribution of continents? It is because our understanding of what drives plate motion remains far from complete. None the less, we all understand that plates move. My point is that we geologists don't have to look very far for an analogue of a community (today's creationists) denying an overwhelming amount of data in support of a well defined interpretation (evolution).

It is, therefore, no surprise to find that there is a significant community of scientists who continue to deny evidence and models that show significant, ongoing climate change. And as with creationists and fixists, evidence of significant ongoing climate change is being met with the same familiar tactics, tactics that range from: refusal to address, to straight out denial of, data and models; non-scientific road blocks; and the use of data of dubious merit. The GAC has been witness to these tactics. A symposium (Earth climate: Past, Present, Future) was convened at the 2011 Ottawa GAC meeting. An example of the kinds of statements published within abstracts for that symposium includes the following: "Climate models throw no new light on climate processes". This is straight out denial. The symposium also saw the presentation of flawed data: it was suggested that CO2 outgassing from volcanoes and mid- ocean ridges is significant and may account for much of the atmospheric budget of CO2. However, relative to anthropogenic CO2 emissions, natural emissions are not significant, amounting to about 1/135 of the amount annually produced by human activity (for the latest numbers, see e.php). These are but two examples amongst the numerous flawed and unscientific arguments made during the Earth Climate symposium against climate change and against there being a significant anthropogenic contribution to climate change.

Scientific skepticism is a welcome and necessary part of our occupation. We should be skeptical of climate models; they need to be subjected to the harshest tests possible.

Biologists and paleontologists continue to debate and explore mechanisms, rates, timing and any number of additional aspects of evolution. The biological community recognizes the need to continue to test and improve the evolution model. Geologists continue to map, measure and test plate tectonics: we want to finally determine what drives the plates, and to turn our eye toward extracting the plate tectonic signal from ancient orogens. And climate modellers continue to probe, explore and quantify the processes and factors responsible for ongoing climate change. Their work is crucial. The central question regarding climate change is this: What is the anthropogenic contribution to ongoing climate change?

Answering this question is vital to us all, and we are not going to move toward an answer without a full exploration of climate change through every means available to us, including computer modelling. As with any scientific question, an answer will not be found without trial and error, without skepticism and without a harsh scientific eye. Denial and flawed arguments based on data of questionable merit, are, however, not scientific approaches to the problem, and neither are they a way forward.

The GAC is, first and foremost, a scientific forum: let's keep it that way.

Stephen T. Johnston. Past President, GAC & Professor and Head, School of Earth & Ocean Science, Victoria, BC.