Climate Deniers Versus The Volcano
April 13, 2016 3:01 PM   Subscribe

Anyone reading pundits and politicians pontificating profusely about climate or environmental science will, at some point, have come across the “volcano gambit”. During the discussion they will make a claim that volcanoes (or even a single volcano) produce many times more pollutant emissions than human activities. Often the factor is extremely precise to help give an illusion of science-iness and, remarkably, almost any pollutant can be referenced. This “volcano gambit” is an infallible sign that indicates the author is clueless about climate science.
posted by narancia (22 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
fyi, I got a 503 Service Error on first load. Came back on refresh but might go down again; here's an archived version.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:04 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Good to know. This is exactly the kind of thing someone might bring up but I, having never actually heard of this particular crackpot assertion, could only be like, "That certainly sounds untrue, but I have no evidence to contradict it." Now, like so many things the correct answer is, at least partially, "Reagan was full of shit."
posted by cmoj at 3:20 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


I had a guy try this one on me at a bar. Glad I now have the facts necessary to rebut.
posted by bashos_frog at 3:29 PM on April 13, 2016


Site's not responding so here's this instead.
posted by fleetmouse at 3:44 PM on April 13, 2016


The answer is obvious.

MORE GUNS

LOWER TAXES

DROP THE EPA IN THE VOLCANOES TO SAVE THE WORLD
posted by delfin at 4:31 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Ladies and Gentlemen, Mike Huckabee!
posted by benito.strauss at 4:38 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


TL; DR: Human activity dumps two orders of magnitude more carbon into the atmosphere than even the largest estimate of volcano emissions.

Also human activity essentially new; volcanos have been pretty steady state for millions of years.
posted by Mitheral at 5:29 PM on April 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


Recently it's been striking me how much the anthropogenic climate change debate is just a moot point, on account of how the damn thing changes drastically on its own, as shown by the geographical, archaeological, and historical records.

So even if the human part wasn't real, doesn't matter, still need to deal with the changing climate. On the other hand, reducing carbon emissions can lessen the problem, but does not free humanity from the need to deal with the changing climate.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:48 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


This led me down a rabbit hole.

The Wikipedia page for David Johnston, who died while monitoring Mt. St. Helens at the moment of its 1980 eruption, is a good read. (Skip to the eruption sub-section if short on time.
posted by nobody at 5:56 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is worth it just for the "Degree of wrongness" legend on the graph of "The rise of the Volcano Gambit."
  • Oh Boy
  • Really Wrong
  • Wrong
  • Reasonable
posted by ob1quixote at 6:08 PM on April 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


If it's human caused, then something can be done. If it's an act of nature, it's much easier to dismiss. What have we done to stop tornadoes?
posted by Strange_Robinson at 8:11 PM on April 13, 2016


Strange_Robinson, a meteorologist friend explained to me why cyclones and tornadoes would be on the rise in a warmer planet. Her explanation (mangled by me, this is from memory), is that there is more energy in the sea and the atmosphere, and as it's never uniformly distributed, there is more high scale turbulence, with greater energy differencials to move air around really fast.

This is also the reason why, despite average warming, some places will see colder winters and more extreme snowstorms. The warming is in the average but, like Gibson's future, it's not uniformly distributed.

So yeah, more frequent and more violent bouts of extreme weather also seem to be part and parcel of average global warming.
posted by kandinski at 8:38 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Recently it's been striking me how much the anthropogenic climate change debate is just a moot point, on account of how the damn thing changes drastically on its own, as shown by the geographical, archaeological, and historical records.

This is a problematic statement, largely because of the haziness of the term "drastically." Even people who have spent entire careers thinking in geological timescales can't really conceive of the passage of a thousand, or ten thousand, or a hundred million years in any meaningful sense. Which is why the notion of "drastic changes" to the earth system lends itself so easily to misinterpretation.

Here's an example: what exactly does a drastic change to the earth look like, and how quickly does it occur? When I say "mass extinction," what's the first thing that pops into your mind? In the popular consciousness, the gold standard for a "drastic change" to the biosphere is a bolide impact, such as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. An asteroid impact is cataclysmic and instantaneous, and conceptually simple; it's the stuff of disaster movies (I mean, try making a compelling disaster movie out of global warming). You can't get any more obvious than an asteroid. It's the Michael Bay movie of mass extinction events. And ever since the Alvarez paper came out in 1980, the notion of extinction-level change has become virtually synonymous with an asteroid impact. It's become so entrenched that even other scientists (looking at you, physicists) will periodically piss off paleontologists and geobiologists by attributing other extinction events to bolide impacts, even when there is no compelling stratigraphic or geochemical evidence for it. There's a mental disconnect here for most people: any mass extinction must have an instantaneous, explodey, Michael Bay cause, so an event that takes tens of thousands of years to initiate doesn't intuitively sound like a big deal.

The truth is that cataclysmic changes to the ocean/atmosphere/biosphere can unfold across a wide range of timescales. The most disastrous mass extinction in Earth's history, the Permian-Triassic extinction, did not happen in a single day, or a century, or ten thousand years. Despite the time-resolving limitations of 250-million-year old sediments, radiometric dating of some generously placed ash beds suggests that the Permian-Triassic extinction -- which wiped out 96% of Earth's marine species -- took about 60,000 years to play out. It was probably triggered by massive flood basalt volcanism in Siberia, which released an estimated 0.5 gigatons of carbon per year -- more about that soon. Volcanic trigger notwithstanding, the actual kill mechanisms for the P-T extinction are still not entirely clear, because the biogeochemical domino effects were very complex. They probably involved the acidification and deoxygenation of ocean waters, and the release of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide into the surface ocean and atmosphere.

There was another event about 56 million years ago, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which has gotten a lot of attention as perhaps the closest geological approximation to what's happening to the planet right now. It was a severe global warming event that lasted about 200,000 years and caused mass extinctions in deep sea animals. The PETM is thought to have been triggered by the release of 2,000 to 6,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere over the first 1,000 to 10,000 years of the event. That means that the rate of carbon release that triggered the PETM was somewhere in the ball park of 0.2 to 6 gigatons per year. By comparison, we are currently pumping out 9 or 10 gigatons of carbon per year, and we are doing so while Antarctica and Greenland are fully glaciated. (The PETM happened in a climate that was already warm, with no ice cover, which makes the present disruption even more severe by comparison.)

What I'm getting at is that the real threat of anthropogenic carbon release is the incredible rate at which we are burning the stuff up. It is geologically unprecedented. Short of a bolide impact striking a coal or evaporite deposit, there has never been a more efficient mechanism to disrupt the earth's ocean/atmosphere system than by sucking hydrocarbons out of the ground and setting them on fire. Nature couldn't possibly improve on it. And it's exactly what humans have been doing, with increasing virtuosity, for the last two hundred years. And yes, it's true that there are natural climatic and geochemical cycles that regulate the CO2 content of the atmosphere; over enough time, chemical weathering of silicate minerals will trap carbon in sediments and draw it out of the atmosphere. The problem is that the silicate weathering cycle can only process so much carbon at a time. We have flooded the atmosphere in a geological instant, and a lot of organisms can't adapt that quickly. Even if we completely halt carbon emissions tomorrow, we have just crashed the front end of the train. The rest of the train is going to keep crashing for thousands of years, as the carbon soaks its way into the deep ocean, melts glaciers, and potentially shuts down global deep water ocean currents.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 8:57 PM on April 13, 2016 [67 favorites]


The most disastrous mass extinction in Earth's history, the Permian-Triassic extinction...

There was another event about 56 million years ago, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum...


Makes you wonder what sort of cruel deity would create human life in an environment so patently unsuited to its long-term survival.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:47 AM on April 14, 2016


Could climate change be what caused my brain cloud?
posted by Brackish at 6:54 AM on April 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


This “volcano gambit” is an infallible sign that indicates the author is clueless about climate science.

Yes, but phrasing it like that is a good way to undermine a discussion that people could learn from. Take me for example: I have two science degrees, and took an atmospheric physics course in 1981 where we learned about the mechanisms of climate change. I buy the concept. But I didn't learn about the orders of magnitude difference between volcanoes and human emissions until a few years ago in a discussion on the internet. Was I "clueless about climate science" all that time? There's no doubt it's a basic fact people should know.

Could climate change be what caused my brain cloud?

Threat of climate change found to be key psychological and emotional stressor

posted by sneebler at 7:08 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Recently it's been striking me how much the anthropogenic climate change debate is just a moot point, on account of how the damn thing changes drastically on its own, as shown by the geographical, archaeological, and historical records.

It's a moot point because there IS no debate. We know, without a doubt, that human activity is changing the planet faster than ever before.
posted by agregoli at 7:39 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Was I "clueless about climate science" all that time?

Clearly not, but were you also invested in "debunking" anthropogenic climate change at during that time? Because the Volcano Gambit is really only relevant if you need a way to explain away human actions as irrelevant. If someone (like yourself) already understand and accepts the basic foundation of anthropogenic climate change, then there's no need to start talking about volcanoes.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:49 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Holy cow. I was literally just (as in minutes ago) thinking about this nonsense talking point. It's amazing how hilariously wrong it is and how often it shows up in comment threads.
posted by brundlefly at 8:10 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have this tab open as well as the cars one, which makes an interesting balance. Anthropocentric climate change has been pretty much mainstream news for my entire life, and yet putting the knowledge to work has been a monumental struggle against vested interests, inertia and human nature.

Talking of crashing the train (which is a great analogy), recent research into modelling the melting of Antarctic ice has nearly doubled the predicted sea rise due to the average global temperature rising.
posted by asok at 6:19 AM on April 15, 2016


Personally I am looking forward to our watery future. I imagine all my Fox-watching friends and relatives tossing the right wing pundits out of the life-boats as a backlash against being lied to for so long. Unfortunately, they are more likely to say it is god punishing us for allowing atheists to exist than to admit they were wrong. I guess I better learn how to swim.
posted by ambulocetus at 6:36 AM on April 15, 2016


...putting the knowledge to work has been a monumental struggle against vested interests, inertia and human nature.

I've turned into something of a fatalist when it comes to this whole issue. When I look at the proliferation of humanity -- the rapid disruption of almost every corner of the biosphere, and the incredible population surge that has followed from cheap energy, crop nutrient fabrication, antibiotics/vaccines/pesticides, and other factors -- the thought that pops into my head is, "we are too smart for our own good." There's no getting around it: we all want to be warm and cozy and live nice long lives and fuck like rabbits, and we are smart enough to manipulate our environment to get what we want. What we are NOT smart enough to do is think beyond the scope of our instincts for pleasure and comfort and survival. Nor are we smart enough to pay attention to threats that do not severely disrupt our own lives or the people/places we are personally attached to. We simply aren't built for it; instinct wins 99 times out of a hundred. We lack the mental scope to make sacrifices today so that the caboose won't crash quite so hard a thousand years in the future.

Ronald Wright wrote an intriguing and terrifying little book called A Short History of Progress, in which he talks about the escalating cycle of "progress traps" that humanity has been locked into ever since the glaciers receded 12,000 years ago. His argument is that every solution we come up with, every breakthrough, eventually engenders a more severe problem because we maximize each breakthrough to throw the planet farther and farther out of equilibrium. For example: fossil fuel is marvelous stuff for generating cheap energy wherever and whenever you want, so we can't help ourselves from burning it up. We can stay warm in the winter! Our industrial processes become vastly more efficient! But suddenly our population boom is straining our crop yields; there's never enough food to go around. No problem! Let's invent a chemical process for turning the air itself into fertilizer, then add pesticides and hardy grain cultivars to maximize productivity! Now let's develop vaccines and antibiotics to fight infection! So our population keeps growing, and our impact on the ocean, atmosphere, and land grows along with it. It's a feedback loop with intensifying effects, and like all feedback loops it eventually has to reach some new steady state. But we don't know what that new equilibrium is going to look like, how long it will take to arrive, or how different the Earth and its ecosystems will look when it gets here.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 10:08 AM on April 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


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