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November 10th 2009 print

Tim Curtin

Rudd contra science

The Prime Minister’s speech to the Lowy Institute appears to have been drafted by one of Australia’s many climate change bloggers. It certainly marks a new low in the standard of political debate.

The PM’s address to the Lowy Institute 

The Prime Minister’s speech to the Lowy Institute appears to have been drafted by one of Australia’s many climate change bloggers. It certainly marks a new low in the standard of political debate by never rising above the abusive tone of such Blogs, with Mr Rudd’s repeated references to “climate change sceptics”, “climate change deniers”, and “opponents of climate change action” as a “powerful minority invariably driven by vested interests”. In Mr Rudd’s view these “climate sceptics are quite literally (sic) holding the world to ransom, by provoking fear campaigns and blocking or delaying domestic legislation in every country … with the objective of slowing and if possible destroying the momentum towards a global deal on climate change”.  

Having set up this apparently formidable group of bogeymen, it might be thought the Prime Minister would then seek to engage with their contrarian opinions by pointing out the presumably manifest errors of their scepticism. Surprisingly, Mr Rudd did set out some of the key beliefs of Liberal Senators that he includes among the “deniers”, including that carbon dioxide is vital for life on earth (Sen. Bernardi), CO2 is not by any stretch of the imagination a pollutant… This whole extraordinary scheme is based on the as yet unproven assertion that anthropogenic emissions of CO2 are the main driver of global warming (Sen. Minchin).” He also quoted the United States’ House minority leader (John Boehner) as saying The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. 

Yet the Prime Minister made no attempt to rebut these statements, perhaps because he believes they are so obviously false as to need no correction. But are they? 

Carbon dioxide is indeed vital for all forms of life both on the land and in our seas. Everything we eat and most of what we drink largely consists of carbon compounds that have all been produced by photosynthesis from atmospheric CO2. For example, if Mr Rudd’s breakfast cereal is Organic Spelt Flakes it comprises 79% of carbohydrates including sugars, if it is Rice Flakes, 82% consists of carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are what explain Mr Rudd’s impressive energy, as they deliver 392 calories per serving of 100 grams. But using up that energy even just by staying alive produces the CO2 emissions from exhalation mentioned by the Republicans’ John Boehner. These have been calculated by the US Government’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) at no less than 1 kg of CO2 per person per day, which for nearly 7 billion people amounts to 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, FIVE times more than Australia’s total emissions of greenhouse gases in 2005 (Australian Greenhouse Office (now DCC), National Greenhouse Accounts p.19). 

Likewise the PM made no attempt to rebut Sen. Minchin’s comment on “the as yet unproven assertion that anthropogenic emissions of CO2 are the main driver of global warming”. But he cannot be censured for that, as nowhere in the nearly 3,000 pages of the IPCC’s 2007 Assessment Report is there any statistical regression analysis to support its claim of “90% likelihood of a substantial human influence on climate during the last century” (Vol.1, p.671). The salient facts are first, the global temperature data issued by James Hansen’s Gistemp for the period since 1880 are fatally flawed by the almost complete absence before 1950 of any weather stations across the tropics, especially Africa. Naturally that makes the global mean temperature seem cooler in 1900 than it really was – and temperatures since 1950 seem relatively warmer than they really are. 

As it happens Tasmania boasts some of the longest sets of temperature data in Australia, as far back as 1840 in the case of Hobart. It also hosts one of the world’s main atmospheric CO2 measuring stations, at Cape Grim. Moreover Global Warming is supposed to be more severe (or benign?) at higher latitudes like those of Tasmania. Alas! there is no statistically significant relationship between changes in temperature and in atmospheric CO2, for the island as a whole, Hobart, or Cape Grim. In fact there is 99% statistical certainty that there is no such relationship at any time or place anywhere in Tasmania. Pt. Barrow in Alaska and Mauna Loa in Hawaii are the other main atmospheric CO2 measuring stations, and they also show no relationship between observed changes in temperature and atmospheric CO2

None of this would matter if the implications of Mr. Rudd’s plan to join in the follies proposed for Copenhagen were not so serious. Annual net new global biospheric absorption of anthropogenic emissions (by Mr. Rudd’s breakfast cereals inter alia) has averaged 56% since 1958. That means net emissions remaining airborne in the atmosphere have been only 44% on average, so the Copenhagen target of a global 60% reduction by 2050 in total emissions from the 2000 level is already over-fulfilled. The target implies emissions being reduced to less than 3 GtC, while biospheric absorption in 2008 was c. 6.3 GtC. 

Thus if the G20 recommendations for anthropogenic carbon emission reduction targets are adopted at Copenhagen and implemented, they will reduce emissions below photosynthetic CO2 uptakes, and lead to large reductions in agricultural, forestry, and fishery productivity. This will certainly cause more immediate hardship to more people worldwide than Mr. Rudd’s specious claims of climate change damage in Australia.