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.