Global Warming Beliefs by Religion – by lpetrich

This subject straddles science, politics, and religion, so it can be difficult to classify.

Jesse Galef, a guest contributor to Hemant Mehta’s blog Friendly Atheist, has posted How Does Religion Contribute to Views on Global Warming? drawing from this recent Pew Forum survey.

From the graph:

Who Yes-HA Yes-NP Yes-DK No ???
Total US population 47 18 6 21 8
Unaffiliated 58 11 6 18 7
White mainline Protestants 48 19 6 19 8
White non-Hispanic Catholics 44 20 6 22 8
Black Protestants 39 36 5 15 5
White evangelical Protestants 34 17 7 31 11

The abbreviations of the positions:

Yes-HA Yes, because of human activity
Yes-NP Yes, because of natural patterns
Yes-DK Yes, but don’t know cause
No No
??? Mixed evidence / Some evidence / Don’t

The connection is likely in what other beliefs they are likely to have alongside their religious beliefs.

White evangelicals tend to be Religious Right, and global warming not happening is a big part of right-wing Political Correctness. Right-wingers regularly make “Algore” into some great villain, and they insinute that the idea was invented by left-wing enemies of the American people who want to deprive us of our precious SUV’s and reduce us to a Third-World standard of living.

As to black Protestants, they tend to be poor, and they may thus find it difficult to believe that we are powerful enough to do something that can significantly warm our planet.

It’s interesting that the Unaffiliated are the most likely to believe that human activities cause global warming. Since education and the more fundie forms of religion have a clear negative correlation, that may be a result of their greater education.

There is a nonreligious demographic that is likely to be skeptical about global warming: right-libertarians. But from that poll’s results, there are not enough of them to make much of a difference.

Plant Talk: Seeding the Future – by Octavia

“Give me half a tank of iron, and I’ll give you an ice age.” So said John Martin, the former director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, in a famous off-the-cuff remark.

Whether or not this is an exaggeration, we live in a science fiction age. Our species – just by going about our daily lives, with no intent to do anything else – is capable of drastically altering our world in a sort of unintended terraforming programme. Some people find the thought of this upsetting, especially when we begin to talk about doing it deliberately. It is one thing to knock an entire ecosystem off-balance accidentally, but quite another to risk it in cold blood. It is one thing for the Industrial Revolution to trigger climate change, but quite another to try and deliberately reverse-engineer it in a global marine bio-geo-engineering scheme. It really is like something out of science fiction, and we all know what happens there when humanity gets too big for its boots.

But we shouldn’t let squeamishness blind us to the truth. Bloating the atmosphere with CO2 may have started off as an accidental result of industrialisation, but today we no longer have the excuse of ignorance. We damn well know what we’re doing when we drive the car to work instead of taking the bus, when we don’t bother to use our green supermarket bags. As a deeply interconnected society, we are already engaged upon a deliberate bio-geo-engineering programme. We were just dumb enough to pick the wrong one.

It’s hard for people to actually care that we’ve done so, to realise the effect our species is having on the climate – difficult because it doesn’t seem as if we are individually responsible. It’s the “Why should I if you won’t?” effect. Given human nature, it’s unrealistic to expect that people are going to deny themselves the right to take part in this global tragedy of the commons – except here we’re not destroying the village green by all grazing our individuals cows on it. We’re altering the climate so that we can live our individual lives to the extent that we see fit as individuals, rather than as a community holding our environment in trust for future use.

This attitude is going to lead – is already leading – to trouble in the Pacific region: migration due to ocean level rise in the islands and along the coast of South-East Asia, higher transport costs, water shortages in Australia, and food shortages as agricultural patterns change due to changes in climate. All these things will lead to conflict between communities that will further exacerbate the environmental problems. Many of the Pacific communities will be hardest hit by any climate change. Thus the responsibility and the incentive to lead the research on the application and – crucially – dissemination of technology that mitigates the causes and effects of climate change falls on us. An example of this is seeding iron through the world’s oceans – especially the Pacific – to sequester atmospheric CO2. Looking to strategies such as this is not a “quick fix”, nor is it indulging in science fiction fantasies. It is acknowledging that the will-power necessary to retrench standards of living in response to global climate change may be insufficient, and adjusting our responses accordingly.

There has been a 6% annual decline in Pacific plankton over the past 20 years (Gregg et al. 2003). Warmer oceans stratify more easily, and the reduced mixing that comes from increased surface temperature reduces the available nutrients needed for planktonic productivity to increase. There has also been a 25% fall in oceanic iron levels, resulting from a decrease in the amount of atmospheric iron deposited in the ocean by dust clouds – itself a result of anthropogenic changes in land use (Bettwy 2007). The inherent difficulty in effectively seeding social change ensures that we may not do enough to significantly cool the warming oceanic surface temperatures by limiting our output of CO2… but increasing the availability of iron in prime planktonic breeding grounds like the central Pacific Ocean may be something we can help.

We know that past changes in dust deposition have affected atmospheric carbon. Levels in atmospheric CO2 fluctuate strongly between glacial (CO2 decreases) and interglacial (CO2 increases) periods. Admittedly, the roughly 100ppm change in atmospheric CO2 found in Antarctic ice core samples from the last 420,000 years is not all explained by changes in dust deposition. In fact, decreased deposition accounted for a maximum increase of only 20ppm during the last glacial-interglacial transition period (Röthlisberger et al. 2004). Even if we assume that this remains constant in today’s environment, it is still a 20% increase – not the majority, but not to be sneezed at either. So should we be concentrating more strongly on mitigating this portion of the CO2 budget now, or do we wait until the effects of climate change become more apparent?

The earliest laboratory experiments indicate that seeding the entire Southern Ocean might counter-act up to 25% of the global carbon emissions each year, and that every ton of iron could remove anywhere from 30,000 to 110,000 tons of CO2 from the air (FOI). Recent experiments are much more conservative – a 2004 research expedition in the Southern Ocean found that seeding 1.26 tonnes of iron sequestered about 900 tons of CO2 (Buesseler et al. 2004). A 2007 study on the naturally-occurring blooms about the Kerguelen plateau proved to be ten times more efficient at sequestration than induced blooms (Blain et al. 2007). This suggests that iron availability may not be the only limiting factor, and that other contributing nutrients – such as silicon – may be needed to increase the efficiency of seeded blooms.

There are downsides even past the sequestration efficiencies. The possibility of seeding toxic algal blooms is distinctly unattractive, especially when they may gut the fishing industry that so many Pacific Islands depend upon. There may be ecological outcomes that we just can’t see right now, and ethical considerations in continuing our habit of bio-geo-engineering without enough thought for the consequences. The perception of over-reliance on technology at the expense of common sense solutions such as consuming less and consuming smarter also seems counter-intuitive – especially when we forget about the tragedy of the commons.

But it’s foolish to rely on any one solution, and to ignore alternative options because there might be reasons against them. Combating climate change – both globally and in the Pacific – is going to need a hybrid effort: changes in consumption habits linked with cleaner and more restorative technologies. We live in a world where the science fiction, think-big solution is a way of life. John Martin could see this. It’s time for us to do the same.

The Pacific marine and geological research communities have an extraordinary opportunity to continue to work, right on their doorstep, on the flaws in the seeded sequestration process. Longer observations, larger scales, deeper measurements, and different types of iron additions (multiple versus singular, and with other added nutrients) are desperately needed. Conflicting results – some giving much more efficient sequestrations than others – are a fact, so further research from the Pacific community on the climatic and ecological effects of seeding the Pacific Ocean with iron is absolutely crucial.
Bettwy, M., 2007. Ocean Plant Life Slows Down. 1 May 2008. vision/earth/environment/ocean_plants_21.html

Blain, S., Quéguiner, B., Armand, L., Belviso, S., Bombled, B., Bopp, L., Bowie, A., Brunet, C., Brussaard, C., Carlotti, F., Christaki, U., Corbière, A., Durand, I., Ebersbach, F., Fuda, J-L., Garcia, N., Gerringa, L., Griffiths, B., Guigue, C., Guillerm, C., Jacquet, S., Jeandel, C., Laan, P., Lefèvre, D., Lo Monaco, C., Malits, A., Mosseri1, J., Obernosterer, I., Park, Y-H., Picheral, M., Pondaven, P., Remenyi, T., Sandroni, V., Sarthou, G., Savoye, N., Scouarnec, L., Souhaut, M., Thuiller, D., Timmermans, K., Trull, T., Uitz, J., van Beek, P., Veldhuis, M., Vincent, D., Viollier, E., Vong, L., and Wagener, T., 2007. Effect of natural iron fertilization on carbon sequestration in the Southern Ocean. Nature. 446: 1070-1074. doi:10.1038/nature05700

Buesseler, K.O., Andrews, J.E., Pike, S.M., and Charette, M.A., 2004. The effects of iron fertilization on carbon sequestration in the southern ocean. Science. 304.5669: 414-417.

Fertilising the Ocean with Iron. Oceanus. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 1 May 2008.

Gregg, W.W., Conkwright, M.E., Ginoux, P., O’Reilley, J.E., and Casey, N.W., 2003. Ocean primary productivity and climate: global decadal changes. Geophysical Research Letters. 30.15: 1809, doi:10.1029/2003GL016889.

Ocean Iron Fertilization – Why Dump Iron into the Ocean. Café Thorium. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 1 May 2008. MCG/cafethorium/website/projects/iron.html

Röthlisberger, R., Bigler, M., Wolff, E.W., Joos, F., Monnin, E. and Hutterli, M.A., 2004. Ice core evidence for the extent of past atmospheric CO2 change due to iron fertilisation. Geophysical Research Letters. 31: L16207, doi:10.1029/ 2004GL020338.

Plant Talk! – by Octavia

Welcome to Plant Talk! In this new column, we’ll be looking at new and interesting pieces of plant science and research, and what they mean. This month, I’ll be telling you about how we can use fossil pollen assemblages in salt marshes to reconstruct past climate change.

The Jigsaw within the Rubik’s Cube: Using Fossilised Pollen Assemblages as an Indicator for Sea Level Change.

Science is full of puzzles. Unfortunately, in some cases many of the pieces that look like they should fit together actually come from different boxes. When dealing with something like the history of sea level change (itself part of the larger oceanographic and climate puzzles) there are contributing pieces from the geological, geographical, biological, and other jigsaw puzzles. When pieces from each of these separate jigsaws are muddled together in a single box, it can be difficult to sort out which pieces belong to which puzzle. Instead of one enormous jigsaw, it’s actually easier to think of these larger conundrums as a giant Rubik’s Cube, with each coloured square forming a piece of a disciplinary jigsaw. When each jigsaw is put together correctly, and connected to the other completed jigsaws, the Cube (and the puzzle) is complete.

One of the little squares within the Rubik’s Cube puzzle of sea level change is palynology – the study of pollen. Pollen is an exceptionally good palaeobotanical resource for several reasons. It gives an extensive record due to abundant production. Its hardened outer sheath of sporopollenin helps to protect it from damage resulting from the fossilisation process. Finally, pollen from different species is often very distinctive, allowing for easy identification. The one disadvantage to using fossilised pollen as an indicator species is dispersal – because pollen is very light and often wind-borne, it can travel large distances and spread far from its point of origin. Thus, any palaeobotanical assemblages indicated from fossilised pollen must be interpreted in the light of possible disassociation from the parent plant.

Palynology has often been used to reconstruct past vegetation patterns, which is itself an indicator for sea level and even climate change. A recent example of this can be seen in the salt marshes of South Carolina. Working with fossilised remnants, Pamela Marsh and Arthur Cohen were able to recreate assemblages that could be used to determine regional models of past sea level rise. Pollen fossilises well in estuarine sediments, and so the environment of Marsh and Cohen’s study site – the coast along South Carolina, which, like much of the south-eastern United States, is mostly characterised by tidal inlets, barrier islands and salt marshes – is ideal for recording palynological records. Unfortunately, this is complicated by the fact that salt marsh plants are often insect-pollinated, thus producing less pollen than the wind-pollinated plants seeding the salt marsh from a distance. Also, some salt marsh plants such as Juncus roemerianus reproduce primarily through rhizomes rather than pollen (while simultaneously producing pollen, flowers, and seeds). This complication can be partially mitigated by analysing palynomorphs – when pollen is extracted from a sample of sediment, other tiny organic remains such as spores, insect parts, fungal and algal remains are also extracted, and these are called palynomorphs. This broader analysis can help to provide context and supporting evidence to the vegetation reconstruction. Together, the various pieces fit together like a jigsaw to build a palynological “fingerprint” – a profile representing various ecological habitats on a local and regional scale.

Different types of vegetation can be found within the salt-marsh environment, as vegetation patterns change according to tidal movements: the lowest zones on the marsh are frequently inundated with salt water, while the highest marsh zone is only immersed in spring and storm tides. When patterns of vegetation within the marsh zone change, it can indicate a change in exposure to salt water. For instance, if the vegetation types that typically inhabit the highest zone in the salt marsh move even higher up the shore, it is an indication that sea level has risen, and the less tolerant salt marsh plants have had to migrate even further landward in order to survive.

Because the highest salt marsh plants are least exposed to the turbulence of the ocean waves, the sediment in which they grow is less disturbed than the sediment of the lower marsh plants. This means that their pollen assemblages are less muddled. If these “unmuddled” fossil assemblages can be identified, they give a means of tracing the geographic migration of the highest marsh zone – which is in this case a proxy for sea level rise. Thus, fossilised pollen from salt marsh plants can indicate the rise and fall of sea level along a coast. This is not necessarily an indicator of climate change (other factors, such as geology, may be in play) but this particular pollen “jigsaw” can mesh with other squares from the climate Rubik’s Cube.

In the South Carolina salt marshes, Marsh and Cohen tested palynomorph assemblages from three typical ecological groups, each characterised by a specific type of grassy or herbaceous vegetation: low-level salt marshes (Spartina alterniflora), high level salt marshes (Juncus roemerianus) and salt pannes (Salicornia virginica). Samples were collected from the top two centimetres of sediment, so as to represent a contemporary assemblage. Marsh and Cohen were unable to distinguish a consistent or distinctive jigsaw from either the low level-salt marsh or the salt panne ecologies. However, the high salt marsh areas with a preponderance of Juncus gave a distinct jigsaw pattern for three reasons. Firstly, there was a high diversity in palynomorphs in the Juncus dominated sediments, a diversity that was consistently almost double that found in the other marsh vegetations types. Secondly, over 10% of the palynomorph count was composed of what Marsh and Cohen referred to as Fungal Spore Type A, an unidentified spore found at all tested high-level sites (in contrast, Fungal Spore Type A was found in less than half of the low-level marsh sites, and at only one of the salt panne sites). Finally, a second fungal species, Atrotorquata lineata, was only found in sediments beneath high-level Juncus marshes.

This distinctive assemblage, found beneath Juncus grass, gives a key to a method for tracing sea-level rise over time. Given that this particular jigsaw effect – the Juncus jigsaw – exists, it can be used to identify other high-level salt marsh sites. Whenever this particular conglomeration is found within a sediment sample, there is a strong likelihood that when the palynomorphs were being deposited, they were deposited in an environment characterised by Juncus grass – in grasses that only occurred in high-level salt marsh sites.

Useful assemblages can vary from region to region. In the tropics, for example, mangrove pollen is a useful indicator of sea level change. Pollen assemblage clues like these help to establish the biological jigsaw that makes up one side of the sea level rise – and possibly the climate change – Rubik’s Cubes. And when those little bits of colour connect on the side of a very large, very complicated puzzle, we are amazed and delighted to find something as tiny and everyday as pollen has been the key.


Engelhart, S.E., Horton, B.P., Roberts, D.H., Bryant, C.L., Corbett, D.R. Mangrove pollen of Indonesia and its suitability as a sea-level indicator. Marine Geology, 242 (1-3) pp. 65-81, 2007.

Marsh, P.E., Cohen, A.D. Identifying high-level salt marshes using a palynomorphic fingerprint with potential implications for tracking sea level change. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 148 (1) pp. 60-69, 2008.

So you want to be a Scientist? – by Octavia

And you’re so interested in climate change, you read all the (very long) arguments about it in your nearest freethinking science forum, but the thought of trying to break into doing that sort of science yourself gives you the cold shivers?

(The graphs do look pretty complicated sometimes.)

Well, today’s your lucky day, because Nexus is about to tell you how you can take part in modelling climate stuff, and we’re going to do it without PowerPoint (sorry, Mr. Gore). Our budget doesn’t run to forklifts, you see. All you need is an internet connection, and a link to…

ClimatePrediction is the largest weather forecasting experiment around at the moment. It uses your computer to help run climate models – complicated representations of the Earth’s climate system. ClimatePrediction uses GCM models (otherwise known as General Circulation or Global Climate models) – in effect, they’re trying to represent every single factor involved in the general climate system. Naturally, the more factors you try to include in your climate model, the more complicated it gets. GCMs try to simulate as many things as they can, including radiation, air movement, and changes in vegetation cover and ice sheet size. Because GCMs take into account so many factors, they can often give better representations than the simpler models. A good overall introduction to climate modelling can be seen at ClimatePrediction’s site, here.

However, this all takes a lot of computing power.  Because there are so many contributing factors, and because the range within each factor is so large, ClimatePrediction is running hundreds of thousands of slightly different models in order to represent the entire possible range of results. Because the amount of computing power needed to do this is so huge – beyond the available resources of supercomputers, according to ClimatePrediction – it’s more efficient to get distributed computing systems involved.

And that’s where you come in.

To get involved, you need to download BOINC. You can trundle along on your own, or join or start a team to inject some competition into your forecasting. The work units you get are a bit bigger than similar projects like SETI@home, but you get credit as you go along. They’re big because each model spans anywhere from between 45-200 model years, depending on the simulation you get. The model will run in the background any time your computer is on, and you can see the weather patterns change as it works.

ClimatePrediction works with schools and runs a course with the UK’s Open University, as well as fulfilling its primary aim of modelling complex long-term simulations, as the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change suggested as a priority work in their 2001 report. If previous “So You Want To Be A Scientist?” suggestions haven’t done it for you, consider giving this one a go.

Al Gore will thank you for it.