Robert Laughlin’s flawed climate change analysis

Even Nobel Prize winners can say foolish things. This is demonstrated by the recent comments of Stanford University physicist and 1998 physics laureate Robert Laughlin, who has been arguing that human-induced climate change is no big deal, because the Earth has had worse:

Writing in the summer issue of the magazine The American Scholar, Prof. Laughlin offers a profoundly different perspective on climate change. “Common sense tells us that damaging a thing as old as [Earth] is somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish – like invading Russia.” For planet Earth, he says, the crisis of climate change, if crisis it be, will be a walk in the park.

Relax, Prof. Laughlin advises. Let it be. “The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we gaze into the future,” he says, “not because it’s unimportant but because it’s beyond our power to control.” Whatever humans throw at it, in other words, Earth will fix things in its own time and its own way.

The error in thinking here is to equate the continued existence of the Earth with the continued healthy existence of humanity. Yes, the planet has been through a lot, including some cataclysmic extinction events. That being said, compared to the Earth humanity is young and vulnerable. Civilization has only been around for 10,000 years or so, and during a period of unusual climatic calm.

While the greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere do not endanger the planet, in the sense that it might cease to be a huge ball of iron orbiting the sun annually, they do threaten the future health and prosperity of humanity. At the very least, there is good reason to believe that the costs borne by humanity if we allow climate change to run unchecked far exceed the costs of stopping the problem, and moving to sustainable forms of energy at the same time. And that is to say nothing of the suffering that will inevitably accompany dangerous amounts of climate change. Laughlin’s argument is somewhat akin to seeing a baby driving around on a bulldozer and saying: “There’s no need to worry, that bulldozer will be just fine.”

Laughlin also makes the demonstrably incorrect claim that the Earth is just too vast for humanity to affect:

The earth doesn’t include the potentially catastrophic effects on civilization in its planning. Far from being responsible for damaging the earth’s climate, civilization might not be able to forestall any of these terrible changes once the earth has decided to make them. Were the earth determined to freeze Canada again, for example, it’s difficult to imagine doing anything except selling your real estate in Canada. If it decides to melt Greenland, it might be best to unload your property in Bangladesh. The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.

He obviously hasn’t been paying much attention to atmospheric chemistry. James Hansen has repeatedly pointed out how a single factory manufacturing CFCs (chemicals used as refrigerants and propellants, but which are also powerful greenhouse gases) could stave off the ice ages that used to be induced by the planet’s orbital variations. When it comes to the thermostat of the planet, humanity is now firmly in control, though our addiction to fossil fuels means we are doing all we can to twist it towards ‘hot.’

Laughlin is right to point out that the weathering of rock will eventually remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere. What he neglects to explain is the implications of the relevant timescale; this process takes thousands of years, meaning it offers no immediate help for humanity. If, in the mean time, we have burned all of the world’s oil, coal, and gas, we will be dealing with a rapidly changing climate, eventual sea level increase of ten metres or more, and the kind of planet-wide destabilization that humanity has never known. He may take comfort from the Earth’s ability to endure, but shouldn’t suggest that humanity is equally robust.

[Update: 21 July 2010] Please see: Correspondence with Robert Laughlin

28 thoughts on “Robert Laughlin’s flawed climate change analysis

  1. Pingback: The Earth is tougher than us

  2. coyote

    …and it seems that sometime Ottawa Citizen editor and eternal libertarian Neil Reynolds has bought into the fallacy you point out, in today’s Globe and Mail. Confirmation bias, d’ya think…?

  3. Milan Post author

    I wrote a letter to The Globe and Mail.

    Disputing Laughlin’s argument is a task of considerable importance, since if he is correct it fundamentally undermines the key argument of this site. He says:

    On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn’t care about any of these governments or their legislation. It doesn’t care whether you turn off your air conditioner, refrigerator, and television set. It doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car. These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: all the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn. The earth plans to dissolve the bulk of this carbon dioxide into its oceans in about a millennium, leaving the concentration in the atmosphere slightly higher than today’s. Over tens of millennia after that, or perhaps hundreds, it will then slowly transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene. The process will take an eternity from the human perspective, but it will be only a brief instant of geologic time. (Emphasis mine)

    He is arguing that we are never going to abandon fossil fuels and that it will be no big deal if that occurs.

    By contrast, others such as climatologist James Hansen argue that burning all the fossil fuels would be utterly catastrophic for humanity.

    Hansen and Laughlin cannot both be correct, so it is important to critically evaluate both claims to determine which is more robust.

    As explained above, I think Laughlin underestimates how serious a problem it would create if we burned all the fossil fuels. As such, he is wrong to take that outcome as invevitable. Rather, we need to convince the world to abandon fossil fuels early – before they run out – so as to limit the amount of climatic harm that will occur.

    You don’t need to look at worst-case scenarios in order to see an unacceptable amount of harm being imposed on humanity by climate change. If emissions simply keep growing as they are at present, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 equivalent could be pushing 1,000 parts per million by 2100, accompanied by temperature increase of 5.5 to 6.1°C, according to modeling from the Met Office in the UK. I don’t think I have seen anybody seriously argue that change of that speed and scale would not be profoundly harmful for humanity.

  4. Max

    atmospheric concentrations of CO2 equivalent could be pushing 1,000 parts per million by 2100, accompanied by temperature increase of 5.5 to 6.1°C, according to modeling from the Met Office in the UK. I don’t think I have seen anybody seriously argue that change of that speed and scale would not be profoundly harmful for humanity.

    To play devil advocate : wasnt there already 1000 ppm in atmosphere? And wasnt earth quite lively back then as well?

    And by the way world will not stop burning fossil fuels. At least not in this century. Energy needs grow and so will be coal use- as the only realistic alternative (nuclear power) was killed at inception thanks to environmentalists.

    If GW models are correct we will get our 5- 6 C increase. So we better prepare for it

  5. Milan Post author

    To play devil advocate : wasnt there already 1000 ppm in atmosphere? And wasnt earth quite lively back then as well?

    The Earth has certainly experienced periods of time when things were dramatically hotter. That said, human civilization has never experienced conditions that differ sharply from those that exist today. Everything we have built – from cities to dams to agricultural systems – is based around the assumption that next year’s climate will be much like this year’s.

    If climate changes a lot – or changes abruptly – it will strain the ability of humanity to sustain itself. The Vostok ice core provides a dramatic illustration of just how rapidly humanity is altering the composition of the atmosphere, and thus the climate. Certainly, temperature rise of 5- 6°C by 2100 would cause immense suffering.

    At the same time, we have the technologies right now to engineer a rapid transition to zero-carbon energy. Doing so would produce numerous advantages: from reduced toxic air pollution to reduced geopolitical vulnerability.

    We are not pre-ordained to burn all the fossil fuels. We can make a smarter choice.

  6. Max

    Certainly, temperature rise of 5- 6°C by 2100 would cause immense suffering.

    “Immense”? So what if the current system wont work. It doesnt matter much -we already have technology to sustain life at much harsher conditions. If arable lands diminishes drastically we can use aeroponics. We can desalinate and purify water. We have unlimited energy in
    form of breeder reactors (and who knows maybe even fusion by then ) .

    When things will get rough humans will start actually using the technology instead of putting bureacratic roadblocks to it

    We are not pre-ordained to burn all the fossil fuels. We can make a smarter choice.

    No we can not .As a whole humanity is very dumb herd. The drive is ever expanding consumerism economies. It will not stop until it crashes. Human society 101.

    And after crash new system is typically born. – slight variation of the former. And that until next crash

  7. Milan Post author

    With that kind of temperature increase, you are probably committing the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets to eventual disintegration – causing sea level rise of 14 metres. Can you imagine how costly that would be for coastal cities? Or how much suffering it would produce in low-lying states like Bangladesh?

    Quite possibly, you would also be committing a large part of the Amazon rain forest to turn into desert or savanna, which would release even more greenhouse gases into the air. If large quantities of methane started to be released from the permafrost and methane clathrate deposits, an even larger positive feedback could kick in

    Also, rather than burn fossil fuels and then use money and technology to play catch-up, trying to deal with climate change effects, we have an opportunity to invest now in the kinds of technologies that will eventually underlie a zero carbon global economy. Quite possibly, that will involve bridging technologies like nuclear and carbon capture and storage. But eventually we are going to need a global society that runs entirely on renewable sources of energy, such as wind and concentrating solar power.

    I don’t think we need to be fatalistic: we can be clever enough to avoid a crash. We just need to accept the scale of the problem, recognize which solutions are appropriate, and get to work.

  8. Max

    carbon capture and storage.

    You lost me right there. Most ridiculous and inefficient idea ever made. You keep singing the same tune ” holding hands together” under big daddy government we will overcome everything.

    Environmentalists are a fringe which so far done more harm then good for the environment. You keep doing that instead of embracing realistic solutions. That is why no one will do anything you preach

  9. Milan Post author

    I agree that carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been oversold, and isn’t the silver bullet the fossil fuel producers hope it is. The posts in the category I linked above make that argument.

    That said, I don’t think we can automatically reject any technology that could play a significant role in reducing emissions. CCS won’t be the solution, but it is one possible source of emission reductions for which a lot of political will already exists.

    Alongside it, we will need everything from energy efficiency and conservation, to the replacement of coal-fired power stations with those running off gas and biomass, to enhanced geothermal power, to pumped hydroelectric energy storage and the use of electric vehicles to even out supply and demand fluctuations in the grid.

    We can disagree about how promising various technologies are, while remaining in agreement about the importance of avoiding dangerous climate change. Doing that requires us to rapidly place the global economy on track towards carbon neutrality.

  10. maxim

    What I have not seen referred to often in the contentious climate debate is any explanation as to the fact that the earth below the London, Underground (90″ below) & Tube are hating up. In other words the earths’ core is getting hotter, accounting for temperatures of up to 46 Celsius in the Underground in summer. There is no way that mankinds’ activities can make the core hotter. So I ask how much is the core heating, up contributing to to climate change.


  11. mek

    After Saturday’s “endless summer” article which completely failed to mention the possibility of anthropogenic climate change (despite direct references to shrinking arctic sea ice!) the Globe’s denial strategy is painfully clear. It’s a disgrace.

  12. Pete

    Mad Max Milan, you are also so earnest – and quite sad really. Sad bunch of climate doomsayers that is! You make me laugh, but I guess that’s what clowns are supposed to do – elicit a little mirth. Laughlin is so right, and one day the people of the world will turn and bite the hand that feeds them so much AGW bullshit. I’d buy some steel gloves if I were you. Burn more coal – it rules and feeds our needs!

  13. Antonia

    Failure to distinguish between impact harmful to the planet and impact massively disruptive to the biosphere and particularly humans’ niche in it is very useful to those who ignore or wish to confuse the complexity and risk of large-scale environmental change.
    I have no idea what the comment on ‘the earth below the London underground’ heating up refers to. Cities generate trap extra heat at ground level, particularly cities the complexity of London. Deep tunnel systems famously trap heat (look up cooling issues in deep underground mines C19th and early C20th) , but I can assure Maxim that the ‘core of the earth’ and particularly any bits under London are not heating and that no tunnels in London go deep enough through the 30 km (20 mi) to 50 km (30 mi) thick continental crust to be affected by local variations in the mantle.
    The Earth’s core is in the process of gradually losing heat as the planet ages and there is a lot of solid crust but more importantly 2,890 km of mobile mantle between London and the ‘core’ – no core near London. For the liquid outer core and mantle of the earth to affect an area on the surface it has to be on a plate boundary or an cracked area of crust nearby – neither apply to the UK, which has only dead volcanoes from earlier eras in the planets geology before it came to be near the centre of a plate, current volcanoes delivering heat from upper layers of the Earth’s mantle.

    Unlike the sun, the earth’s core is not a heat generating mechanism – it just holds residual heat from when the solar system and planet formed so the idea of it somehow ‘heating up’ to effect ground climate is a misconception. Changes in the mantle affect the crust of the earth but, though poortly understood, overall trends change in geological timescales – tens of thousands of years, not the mere decades of climate studies.

    More info on the geology of the UK may be found free at the British Geological Society’s

  14. Antonia

    Those who brush off AGW remind me, by analogy, of all those who for centuries lived by rivers and the sea and tipped all their rubbish and sewage into, thinking the sea would just deal with it all. In the last century we’ve been able to measure sewage levels in water round coastal towns, the death of underwater marine life around port cities and effluent outflows, and the corruption of shellfish so that it is inedible to humans, massive algal blooms across the Mediterranean – but there are still plenty of people who just chuck their rubbish in the sea and think the planet will take care of it for them before going swimming in it all.

    AGW is not a term I’d use as it is a corruption of the actual scientific arguments – the concerns are
    1. climate change (possibly warming overall but more importantly) – changes in local conditions which radically affect the viability of current human settlements, food sources and agricultural systems,
    2. running out of fossil fuel energy without having transferred our energy use to a viable alternative

  15. .

    The physics of climate change

    As a physicist, I know that we physicists sometimes feel we can comment authoritatively on just about any subject, not necessarily in our sub-discipline in physics. Neil Reynolds states in Please Remain Calm. The Earth Will Heal Itself (July 19) that Robert Laughlin is a co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics. That is correct. He received the Nobel Prize, jointly with two others, “for their discovery of a new form of quantum fluid with fractionally charged excitations.”

    I do not believe a high level of expertise in condensed matter physics, which is Prof. Laughlin’s field, automatically makes him an expert on climate change. Despite that, he is, of course, correct in saying that the Earth will survive human damage to the environment. But will we humans?

    Mass extinctions of species on this planet have happened before and the planet survived. Will Homo sapiens survive the next mass extinction due to climate change?

    Juris Svenne, senior scholar, physics and astronomy department, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg

  16. .

    Neil Reynolds’ column on Stanford University physicist Robert Laughlin’s diatribe on the long-term effects of climate change sounds like an ostrich’s response to danger. It is another form of denial: don’t worry, be happy. This attitude is what got us into this environmental mess in the first place, isn’t it?

    Clearly, human beings are a major cause of climate change, and human beings must own up to their role in solving it. Fiddling while Rome burns is not an option.

    John Pope, Victoria

  17. .

    “Against that good advice, the Globe today serves up a noisy crank, former Canadian Libertarian Party leader and Monday columnist Neil Reynolds, who promises that, whatever damage we humans happen to be doing today, “the Earth will heal itself” without any effort on our part.

    If anyone’s around in 2,000 or two million years, I suspect they will find that Reynolds and his current favourite climate commentator, the Stanford physicist Robert Launghlin, are right. The Earth will still be here – robust as ever.

    But if we humans keep taking policy guidance from the likes of Reynolds in the meantime, that healing process could be a little bruising for many species – perhaps especially those homo sapien free thinkers who are currently taking their own ticket on the good ship Earth a little too much for granted.”

  18. .

    20 September 10
    Climate Scientists React to Bizarre Climate Commentary by Robert Laughlin

    Andy Revkin has posted several reactions from climate scientists to Nobel physicist Robert Laughlin’s essay in The American Scholar in which he asserts that the climate system is “beyond our power to control,” and humanity cannot and should not do anything to respond to climate change.

    Needless to say, Laughlin’s piece – and George Will’s Newsweek commentary about it – have drawn swift and severe criticism from scientists who specialize in studying climate change.

    For example, Matthew Huber of Purdue University’s Climate Dynamics Prediction Laboratory takes Laughlin to task, suggesting that:

    “He needs to take some courses in paleoclimate — I suggest he start at the undergraduate level. I hear there might be something appropriate being taught on his campus. His know-nothing approach hearkens back to the pre-scientific era of the flat earth, vapors and phlogiston.”

  19. .

    September 17, 2010, 6:30 pm
    Scientists React to a Nobelist’s Climate Thoughts

    It’s pretty clear that his Nobel is not in the Earth Sciences. The crux of his argument is that “Nobody knows why these dramatic climate changes occurred in the ancient past. Ideas that commonly surface include perturbations to the earth’s orbit by other planets, disruptions of ocean currents, the rise and fall of greenhouse gases, heat reflection by snow, continental drift, comet impacts, Genesis floods, volcanoes, and slow changes in the irradiance of the sun. No scientifically solid support has been found for any of these suggestions. ”

    In other words he apparently thinks we live in a world of mysterious forces which are utterly incomprehensible and climate has responded like a voodoo doll to invisible hands through time. Perhaps they are incomprehensible to him. He needs to take some courses in paleoclimate — I suggest he start at the undergraduate level. I hear there might be something appropriate being taught on his campus. His know-nothing approach hearkens back to the pre-scientific era of the flat earth, vapors and phlogiston.

    Many of the factors he lists are indeed well known to be responsible for the major climate changes in Earth’s history. He is quite incorrect to say that “no solid support has been found for these suggestions”. There are thousands of studies establishing exactly those processes as being important. It is quite certain that orbital influence, greenhouse gas concentrations, and circulation changes, together with internal Earth System feedbacks, have caused climate change. Greenhouse gas concentrations play a large, and perhaps even dominant role in these changes.

  20. .

    Then, after seeming to comprehend so well the difference between human and geologic time, he goes off the rails and equates them:

    “The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.”

    No. This is like saying that because the earth is sometime struck by giant meteors, it’s pointless to try and avoid nuclear war. Human-caused is different in a very practical sense from natural changes, because natural changes happen over geologic time: that is, from a human perspective, they occur hugely infrequently and usually very slowly. They occur so infrequently, in the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history, that the chances of the next thousand years seeing even one of these natural shifts is tiny.

    Whereas human-triggered changes occur with blinding swiftness by the earth’s standards and, by logical necessity, humans are always around to suffer the consequences.

  21. m. smith

    Has everybody forgotten the Wyoming Dust Bowl and Black Sunday?
    What about the parts of the Middle East that were once fertile and are now deserts. Climate change is cyclical, it is always changing.

  22. Milan Post author

    Yes, the climate is always changing for reasons that have nothing to do with humanity.

    That being said, the greenhouse gases produced by human activity are now by far the strongest force changing the climate. Furthermore, there are good reasons to worry about what effect a rapidly changing climate will have on human welfare.

  23. Pingback: Climate letters

  24. Pingback: “I BELIEVE . . .” « DUCKPOND

  25. Sarah

    Did you consider reading to the end of the article? His suggestion is that people who try to “save the planet” should articulate their goal accurately “save humanity”. We should look at achievable goals to preserve our habitat rather than thinking we are saving the Earth.

  26. Milan Post author

    Laughlin’s overall perspective seems to be that humanity shouldn’t be too concerned about taking action on climate change. That view seems to clash considerably with the advice of the IPCC and other scientific bodies that have studied the question.

  27. Rob

    Milan, you realize that water vapor is by far the greatest greenhouse gas, but it seems to be conveniently ignored, because it’s much harder to create a burocratic construct to inflict further controls over the population. All this hysteria is based on flawed computer models not reality. You will never convince me that we can model the climate with a simulator when we don’t even understand all the variables or mechanisms.

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