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July 25th 2011 print

Bob Carter

Malcolm Turnbull’s climate politics

One might as well stand under the shower and tear up billion dollar notes for all the effect that cutting Australian carbon dioxide emissions will have on future climate.


Which “science” and which “morality”, Malcolm?


In a Sydney lecture last week, shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull again shared with us his strange views on the scientific method, and his doctrinaire opinion that a market-based carbon dioxide scheme should form the core of national climate policy.

Mr Turnbull positions himself as a moderate on the issue of dangerous global warming, but in fact he supports the same extreme view as do environmental activists on the hard left.

His rusted on belief that dangerous global warming is being caused by human-related carbon dioxide emissions probably dates back to his days as Minister for Environment under Mr Howard. Then, like all new recruits to that portfolio, his views on iconic environmental issues will have been captured by the usual “”Yes, Minister” clique of bureaucrats and official science advisers – doubtless wielding the snazzy computer simulations that are so loved by science junketeers.

The scientific method

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, political journalist Michelle Grattan says that no one could doubt that Mr. Turnbull means what he says about the science of global warming, which is this:

As Liberals, we have to state our environmental case, and our position on the right approach to deal with climate change, on the basis that we are supporting the science – that is our policy.

There is, of course, no such thing as “the science”, on either global warming or anything else. What Mr. Turnbull was presumably trying to express was his belief that public policy should be based upon application of the scientific method.

Such a governance policy did not originate with Mr. Turnbull, and nor is it restricted to the Liberal Party or just to our own, modern times. Rather, application of the principles of science, sound engineering and logical analysis to the governance problems of the day is a precious gift that has been passed down to us ever since the Enlightenment. 

Today, however, these principles are under challenge as never before, as is particularly strongly reflected in the environmental zealotry that surrounds hypothetical global warming – with which Mr. Turnbull has been anxious to make common cause.

The essence of the scientific method is the establishment of relevant facts, and the testing of hypotheses against those facts. Any inferred conclusion, or “truth”, is always provisional and must be contestable against further experiment, fact gathering and analysis.

Unfortunately, many of the facts of the climate debate have become subject to political manipulation in favour of shaping “evidence” for human-caused global warming, and climate advisory groups around the world are under increasing pressure to account for the flawed data that they have been providing.

In the US, Anthony Watts and Stephen McIntyre have identified grave inadequacies in Jim Hansen’s NASA temperature record. Forced by the Climategate scandal, in the UK the Meteorological Office is undertaking a recompilation of its global temperature record of the last 160 years. In New Zealand, NIWA are defending a case in the High Court regarding the accuracy of their national temperature record. And in Holland, Liberal MP Rene Leegte (VVD party) has called for the dissolution of the highly regarded Royal Dutch Meteorological Service, because of its obsession with carbon dioxide emissions as a cause of temperature change.

Supporting this type of suspect science, and its attendant IPCC paraphernalia, guarantees a political, not scientific, policy outcome. 

Testing the hypothesis of the day

To the degree that Mr. Turnbull intended to say that he supported the use of scientific method for public policy making, that is a laudable intention. Here’s the method in action.

The hypothesis of the day is that dangerous global warming is being caused by human-related carbon dioxide emissions.

Recalling that the mixing time of the atmosphere is about one year, to test the hypothesis we need a record of global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide over a period of several years. Here’s that record, based upon the IPCC’s preferred data sources (the HadCRUT global temperature record and CDIAC atmospheric gas data).

Over the last 10 years global average temperature has decreased by ~0.05 deg. C, and atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by ~5%.

The hypothesis fails, for not only has the increase in carbon dioxide failed to result in dangerous warming, but no measurable warming has occurred at all.

Carbon dioxide is indubitably a greenhouse gas, so it is important to note that these facts do not tell us that our emissions have no effect on global temperature. Rather, they indicate that the theoretical human-caused warming is so small that it cannot be detected against the background of natural climate forcings, feedbacks and variation. Scarcely dangerous then.

Mr. Turnbull tells us that his preferred expert advisors on all this have been scientists from CSIRO and Professor Will Steffen from ANU. Tellingly, he refers to these persons as our scientists and our science”, with a sense of proprietorial ownership, and they are of course the core members of Australia’s IPCC set.

Is this the same CSIRO whose sea-level advice, based on similar computer models to those used to generate alarmist global warming advice, was described on the front page of Friday’s Australian by Dr. Howard Brady of Macquarie University as "in essence ridiculous"? And is this the same Professor Steffen whose scientific advice to the Multi-party Committee on Climate Change has been shown to be grossly flawed by an independent scientific audit?

If so, then perhaps the time has come for Mr. Turnbull to consider seeking advice from alternative, truly independent scientists who do not worship at the altar of the IPCC, and who understand the importance of contestability amongst different working hypotheses in science. There are many such persons to choose from.

Picking “winners” with taxpayers money

Mr. Turnbull also spruiks pouring yet more taxpayers’ money down the global warming drain in pursuit of underground carbon dioxide sequestration.

Apparently the current rage in the electorate over steep increases in power charges has passed him by. The price increases of more than 50% in all states in the last few years result from manifold causes, but one of them is the costs and inefficiencies that power producers have been lumbered with by the MRET scheme.

Supported by both major parties in their pursuit of middle ground voters, the expensive MRET inducements to develop uncompetitive wind and solar energy farms are environmentally damaging and almost entirely without merit.

Yet Mr. Turnbull favours lumbering consumers with the costs of yet another, similarly futile, gesture – that of pursuing the chimera of underground carbon dioxide sequestration.

Such research is not only costly in itself, but also would result in an immoral course of action should a viable sequestration technique chance to emerge.

The reason is that sequestration requires the burning of between 30-40% more coal per unit of energy produced, in order to generate the additional energy needed to separate, transport and pump the waste carbon dioxide back underground. That is a gross waste of both money and of the world’s largest non-renewable and cheap energy source.

Besides, what are the grounds for burying this valuable aerial fertilizer for plants (including food crops) deep underground?

For simple calculation tells us that even were Australia to cease all its industrial emissions, the notional warming averted would only 0.02 deg. C; and a 5% reduction by 2020, which is the aim of both the government and the coalition, goes along with a theoretical and unmeasurable 0.00007 deg. C of warming averted.

Despite being challenged to do so many times, CSIRO and Department of Climate Change adviser Professor Will Steffen, have never confirmed these figures , nor provided alternative “official” estimates. Now would be a good time for them to do so.

The risks of natural climate change

All of which considered, Mr. Turnbull does finally light upon a constructive line of thought when he alleges that "the [climate change] issue is simply one of risk management".

Unfortunately, he then proceeds to ignore the great and actual risks of natural climate events and change, and concentrates instead on the commercial imperative of carbon dioxide trading against the highly speculative and contested eventuality of dangerous human-caused warming.

By far the greatest hazards faced by the Australian people are natural climate events and change, as manifest recently by bushfires in Victoria, floods in Brisbane, NSW and Victoria and cyclones in North Queensland.

Risk management of these, and longer term changes such as droughts, is undertaken through the proper equipping and management of civil defense and disaster relief agencies. In other words, by preparing for and adapting to climatic hazards as they occur.

That we do not do this nearly well enough is surely evidenced by the fact that 173 persons lost their lives in the Black Saturday Victorian bushfires.

A proper national climate policy that is designed to cope with the threats and vagaries of natural climate events is at the same time profoundly precautionary for any human-caused change that might occur in the future – even though no such change has yet been measured, despite the expenditure of more than $100 billion looking for it.

The morality issue

Perhaps the peroration of Mr. Turnbull’s talk was his conclusion, following Mr. Al Gore and many other public commentators, that climate change policy “is an intensely moral issue raising grave moral issues”.

Indeed, though not quite in the way that these guardians of our moral sanctity envisage.

In early 2010, South Africa asked for support from the World Bank to build a large new coal-fired power station, to provide the cheap energy that is essential for economic development and for relief of poverty in 3rd world nations.

The global environmental movement, supported by the United States, the United Kingdom and three other European countries, conducted a campaign against the needed $3.75 billion loan, and urged that the proposal be blocked.

In the event, and in a victory for both justice and the environment, developing country members held a majority on the Board, which therefore voted in favour of approving the loan.

Together with the now revoked United Nations ban on the use of DDT to combat malaria, depriving impoverished nations of the right to develop cheap power has well been termed technological genocide – in that such decisions have as a direct result the avoidable deaths of millions of people.

In addition, we learn on today’s news that millions of people are currently vulnerable to starvation in Somalia, another impoverished country.

Note well, Mr. Turnbull, the real moral issue is this.

If a wealthy western country such as Australia has $100 billion to burn – which is the rough cost of a carbon dioxide tax of $23/tonne cumulated to 2020 – then that money should be used for the direct alleviation of poverty starting now, and to help provide cheap (including coal-fired) power to developing countries, rather than being squandered in a vain attempt to “stop global warming” in expiation of the consciences of latte-sipping environmentalists in leafy metropolitan suburbs.

Cheap energy is the basis for all economic development, which in turn is the basis for generating the wealth required to protect the environment.

One might as well stand under the shower and tear up billion dollar notes for all the effect that cutting Australian carbon dioxide emissions will have on future climate.

Geologist Bob Carter is a fellow of the Institute for Public Affairs, Chief Science Advisor of the International Climate Science Coalition, and author of Climate: the Counter Consensus.