25 June 2010


Figure 1. An English garden now (top) and with 2° (middle), and 4° C (bottom) warming. Note the changing the natural landscape in the background.
The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty looks after Britain's historic houses, gardens, natural areas and so forth. Back in March, Mail Online published an article about the Trust's campaign to call attention to climate change. The campaign was based on computer modeling by the Met Office ("we're usually wrong , but we keep crunching the numbers") Hadley Center.

The Mail article quotes Mike Calnan, the Trust's head of gardens and parks.
'We looked at gardens in southern France and southern Portugal and, bearing in mind what we can grow in this country in mild locations, we came up with a list of probably things we could grow in the future.'
Calnan adds the requisite note of caution:
'All of this is unknown and there are a lot of ifs and coulds. We are not saying that this is what the future will look like, but we are asking whether it could look like this. It is a bit of an eye opener.'
Calnan's disclaimer will, of course, be generally ignored, and that, one imagines, is the intent. Still, the paintings (Figure 1) commissioned to support the Trust's fantasy are lovely. In the interest of aesthetics, and by way of illustrating principles of good propaganda, we reproduce them here.

Awful Changes. One is reminded of a passage in Volume I of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology — the book that Darwin took with him on his famous voyage. In 1831, Lyell imagined time without end, an endless cycle in which the earth and the creatures inhabiting it changed, but never really progressed — hence his delight at the discovery of the first Mesozoic mammals. Regarding a future warming of the climate, he wrote as follows:
Figure 2. Paleontology in a future age as imagined by Henry De la Beche in 1830. The famous cartoon lampoons Lyell’s view of geological history. Standing above a human skull (below the rock supporting the lectern) Professor Ichthyosaurus addresses an assemblage of conspecifics. The title and caption read as follows: "Awful Changes. Man Found only in a Fossil State – Reappearance of Ichthyosauri. 'You will at once perceive ... that the skull before us belonged to some of the lower order of animals; the teeth are very insignificant, the power of the jaws trifling, and altogether it seems wonderful how the creature could have procured food.’ " [emphasis added]
"Then might those genera of animals return, of which the memorials are preserved in the ancient rocks of our continents. The huge Iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyle [sic] might flit again through umbrageous groves of tree-ferns. Coral reefs might be prolonged beyond the arctic circle, where the whale and the narwal [sic] now abound. Turtles might deposit their eggs in the sand of the sea beach, where now the walrus sleeps, and where the seal is drifted on the ice-flow." [page 67 of the Penguin edition now available electronically]
Lyell was, of course, spectacularly wrong, not in predicting the eventual return of Mesozoic warmth — who can say about that? — but in his denial of biological progress. In the face of accumulating evidence, he eventually abandoned his views but not before a contemporary geologist had produced the cartoon reproduced in Figure 2. Here a future Professor Icthyosaurus addresses a toothy audience on the inadequacies of human jaws and teeth.

Peter Ward. Enter Peter Ward, a paleontologist at the University of Washington. In addition to his technical publications, Ward also writes popular books, one of which, The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps, is discussed over at An Objectivist Individualist. According to the review, which is actually a review of a review — the original having been published in Scientific American — the book focuses on the social and economic chaos consequent to climate warming and rising sea levels.

I haven't read Flooded; nor am I likely to, my previous experience with Ward's popular productions having been disappointing. Since Ward writes well and with authority, let me clarify this criticism with reference to one of his other books, Out of Thin Air, which I have read, and which is sitting on the shelf in front of me as I write.

Tidal and Continuous Flow Respiration. Out of Thin Air focuses on changing concentrations of atmospheric oxygen down through the millenia. One topic treated in considerable detail is the evolution of "continuous flow" respiration in birds and their dinosaur ancestors. Most land vertebrates have what is called "tidal" respiration — air into the lungs on the first breath; out on the second. But in birds, inspired air goes first to a series of air sacs at the back of the animal, then to the lungs and then to another set of air sacs (at the front of the animal) from which it is finally exhaled. The result is that four breaths (as opposed to two) are required to move a volume of air into, through, and finally out of the animal. More importantly, each breath (in or out) delivers fresh air to the lungs. This is more efficient than "in and out." It' s the reason the mountain climber atop Mt. Everest uses an oxygen pack, while the eagle overhead does not.

Ward's thesis is that declining levels of atmospheric oxygen towards the end of the Paleozoic selected for increased respiratory efficiency in the line that led to birds, which contention bears on the "active dinosaur" question. Active dinosaurs, in turn, bear on the contingent nature of evolution — if not for the impact that ended the Cretaceous, would H. sapiens be here to read and argue about blogs? Probably not — see, for example, Steve Gould's essay, "Dinosaur in a Haystack".

What is exasperating about Ward's exposition is the manner in which it is referenced. To be sure, there are citations for each chapter, but assertions in the text are not tied to specific references. That makes it difficult for the interested, dare I say "skeptical," reader to assess the credibility of particular claims.

Science in the Service of Ideology. Back to Flooded. The problem is not, as suggested by the poster at Objectivist, that Ward is "no scientist." As noted above, he is a paleontologist, whose principal interest is mass extinctions — those much argued about events that periodically wipe the biotic plate clean, thereby setting the stage for the next round of evolutionary diversification. Rather, the problem is that, like many contemporary members of his profession, Ward puts science to the service of ideology. In recent years, this proclivity has become increasingly common. The May 7 letter to Science by 255 (mostly non-climatologist) scientists defending their climatologist brethren (go here for discussion and links) is a case in point. Likewise, the despicable article by Andregg et al. on the relative credentials of anthropogenic global warming proponents and skeptics. That the latter, which effectively establishes a "black list" of "non-believers," should have been published by the National Academy of Sciences gives you some idea as to just how far we've traveled down the road of politicizing science. As noted here, an important contributing factor to this development is money in the form of government grants; another, the new priesthood's defense of proprietary knowledge and its claims to secular authority — go here for historical perspective.

Will the climate warm and the ice caps eventually melt? If we wait long enough, the answer is "probably yes." But then the sun will eventually go nova and incinerate the planet, which is to say that "long enough" may be very long time, indeed.

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