The way global warming and our efforts to stop it have been discussed in this critical Parliamentary week tells a sorry tale of Australian societys scientific illiteracy, myopia and psychological denial.
According to global warming sceptics and denialists, climate scientists are variously really stupid, prone to irrational herd behaviour, egotists pushing barrows, trying to feather their nests, or all of the above. According to the media they are apparently nerdy pains whose gloomy message is easily trumped by serious, reality-based political dramas. According to politicians they are another interest group to be placated. According to the Prime Minister they are radical greens.
According to most people, the coal industry is apparently the reigning authority on the economic effects of any attempt to reduce carbon emissions. Those effects will be, basically, a dramatic loss of exports and jobs and an impact on the economy ranging anywhere from serious to total disaster. Evidently the motives of the coal industry are considered pure as the driven snow, and their modelling unimpeachable.
Most of these attitudes have been on display as the Government tries to get its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme through Parliament. Senator Steve Fielding chose to find his enlightenment on the subject at a sceptic-dominated conference in America and, surprise, returned sceptical. The Coalition voted to send the Governments legislation to the bottom of the Senates priority list. The media went into a feeding frenzy over some possible irregularities in the OzCar scheme. If there is any corruption involved there it is minute in comparison to the subsidies being handed to the carbon polluters in return for not suffering a villification campaign, but the media have little to say about that. Instant experts continued their steady stream of claims to superior scientific knowledge.
Meanwhile Greens Senator Christine Milne gave a speech at the National Press Club that displayed her masterly and far-sighted grasp of all the issues around global warming, but the only bit reported was that relating to how the Greens might vote on the CPRS, which we already knew.
Regarding jobs and exports, Chinese-Australian Zhengrong Shi, who runs a multibillion dollar photovoltaics industry in China using Australian technology, reported they are about to halve the cost of their product. That industry could have been generating jobs and exports in Australia, had anyone had the wit to support the development of his product here. Our solar thermal technology is being applied in California. We could quickly replace the coal industrys modest quota of jobs and its export income, if only the Government unshackled itself from the coal industrys spin.
Regarding the scientists competence, apparently they werent bright enough to notice that the climate cooled between 1940 and 1960, and to wonder as to its cause. In fact of course they have included many effects in their models, such as variations in the suns heating, El Ninos, variations in atmospheric particles from industry and volcanic eruptions and so on, and a combination of such effects satisfactorily accounts for the cooling period without negating the overall warming trend.
The instant experts claim there as been cooling since 1998. This rates as disinformation. The truth is that three scientific groups have undertaken the not-inconsiderable task of estimating global average temperatures year by year. Only one of them estimated 1998 to be the hottest year ever, the others found 2005 and 2007 to be hotter. When five-year moving averages are taken, all three data sets show continuing warming. This is because 1997 and 1999 were not nearly as hot as 1998, which was an El Nino year. Climate trends are not about yearly fluctuations, which can be quite large, they are about longer-term trends.
Another claim is that carbon dioxide cant be causing global warming because during the ice ages increases in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lagged behind increases in temperature. However there is no inconsistency. The role of CO2 back then was to powerfully amplify fluctuations triggered by small variations in the suns heating. Now we are pushing up the level of CO2 without the suns heating changing much, so its a different situation. The same physics and the same computer models predict warming in both cases. The scientists are not so stupid as to have overlooked this point.
You might say scientists are naive because they dont engage in a sustained public relations effort to explain these things, whereas Exxon-Mobil funds American think-tanks to spray disinformation that finds its way to all the naive sceptics, denialists and instant experts. However scientist struggle to get enough funding to do their science, and they dont have the time or the money to engage in major PR campaigns. Anyway it really would compromise their perceived objectivity to engage in advocacy on that scale.
More importantly, it is the Governments role to stand back from the fray and evaluate the competing claims on their merits. Evidently that is not happening, given the Govenments total failure to appreciate the urgency of scientists current warnings, and the relative ease with which we could transform our economy, compared to the dire warnings of the polluters. The Government is failing in this critical responsibility.
A well-balanced and useful piece. I hope it gets around and is read.
Also relevant reading in this area is Tom Dusevic in Aust Fin Review 20-21 June 2009 on ‘The Miseducation of Steve Fielding”, and Crispin Hull in Canberra Times 20 June 2009 “Problem’s not in the climate science, it’s all in the mind”. Both are excellent analyses of the politics/science interface.
Climate change deniers are getting an easy run at the moment because the governmment is not publicly active enough in affirming the truth of climate science.
As you say, scientists should not have to expend their own time and money in engaging in major PR campaigns against denialism; and if they do, it risks playing into deniers’ hands by enabling the latter to spin that this is ‘proof that a scientific debate is going on’ (which of course is not the case).
It is the government’s job to defend and publicise true climate science, as it does in for example its anti-smoking public health campaigns. Where are the comparable government-funded and managed public education and outreach campaigns on the reality of climate change and its impacts on Australia?
Agree with your comments Geoff. I don’t understand what the Labor MP’s are scared of. Ive realised tha the Greens are the only party with a true ecological vision. Labor are obsessed with (preserving) jobs, even if those jobs are toxic to the future of humanity.
I think it’s time to move to Plan-B…