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October 04th 2010 print

Peter Smith

Climate inquiry needed

Our fate seems to be in the hands of true believers, akin to religious fanatics, who have no first-hand involvement with the science. How do they get so sure of themselves?

Coalition climate spokesman Greg Hunt seems like an impressive chap. When challenged the other night, on David Speers’ Sky News program The Nation, to explain why direct action on climate change was better than putting a price on carbon, he was a marvel of pedagogical clarity. He explained that the price elasticity of demand for electricity was extremely low so that you would have to put a heavy tax or price on it to get any material reduction in demand. I think this was too much science for everyone else and his well-made point was lost in the blather.

When you think about it, science and scientists play only a small part in the public debate. It is largely conducted by non-scientists. I know little about climate science. I have a read a bit about it but I can never seem to get on top of it. It is the claim and counter claim and different sets of claims that confuse me totally.

Does the satellite temperature data differ significantly from the ground level data? If it does, why does it? If it doesn’t, why do some say that it does? Are sea levels rising? Have they been rising for a long time? How much have they risen and is the rise untoward? Is Arctic sea ice diminishing? Is Antarctic ice increasing or decreasing? Is whatever is happening untoward? Why can both decreasing and increasing ice be indicators of global warming? Are polar bears becoming fewer or not; would that have anything to do with warming in any event? I have lots of questions and could go on.

Precedents are important to me. Is something happening that hasn’t happened before. Was there a medieval warming period and if so why? Take the weather.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), September saw an average of 49mm of rain Australia-wide, three times above the long-term average of 17mm. This was the highest rainfall since 41mm in 1906. Reportedly, BOM senior climatologist Blair Trewin said there was some evidence that increased levels of greenhouse gases contributed to the increased rainfall. You see this confuses me. What about 1906? What was happening then? We often hear these kinds of things. It was the highest since so and so. It was the driest since so and so. It was the hottest since so and so. What was happening in so and so; is the question which always comes to my mind.

“Do you know Peter”, an ex- colleague of mine who is now farming Victoria, said when we met up again a couple of years back after many years, “people are saying that the drought in Victoria is now the worst since the nineteen forties” (I think it was the nineteen forties he referred to, it doesn’t matter). He regarded this as evidence of global warming without at all spotting the logical flaw.

The more reading I do, the more questions I seem to have. Reading doesn’t do it for me. In the normal course this wouldn’t bother me. Science is contentious. The big bang theory is still, I think, the most popular explanation for the beginnings of the universe among cosmologists. I find that fascinating but if a counter theory came along, I simply would be an interested observer. When Einstein countered those who believed in quantum mechanics by saying he could not accept that God played dice with the universe, it was part of a vigorous and healthy debate among scientists. I am an interested observer. You would never catch me saying I believe in the big bang theory or I believe in quantum mechanics. That would be plain silly. I have no basis for believing or not believing.

You might say, well some people believe in God with no evidential basis for that. Okay, but that is a faith-based belief. Therein is an important distinction. Unfortunately, it is not a distinction believers in global warming seem to understand.

The Prime Minister has told us many times that she ‘believes in’ climate change. Greg Hunt, who I previously complimented for his scientific analysis of prescriptions for tackling emissions, expressed passionate belief in the reality of anthropogenic warming. It wasn’t quite the great moral challenge of our time for Mr Hunt; nevertheless he wanted no misunderstanding to get abroad. He is a true believer. He doesn’t want the Inquisition tapping on his door.

I simply don’t know whether anthropogenic global warming is a material problem. If it is, I tend to lean towards the Bjorn Lomborg solution of increased publicly subsidised R&D spending, a modest tax on carbon ($2 to $14 per tonne rather than the much higher taxes floated by non-scientist luminaries such as Garnaut, Stern and Gore) and the inclusion of nuclear energy as one of the options for conserving and producing cleaner energy. However, before agreeing to anything that will make us voluntarily poorer, I would like a wide-ranging, independent and objective inquiry conducted, with the ability to take evidence. I know that certainty is elusive. At the same time, I would like at least some of my factual questions answered.

What worries me is that our fate seems to be in the hands of true believers, akin to religious fanatics, who have no first-hand involvement with the science. How do they get so sure of themselves?

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics