Welcome to Quadrant Online | Login/ Register Cart (0) $0 View Cart
August 28th 2012 print

Bob Carter

A bumper week for climateers

We have just seen two more reports about global warming from government agencies – and two more lost opportunities to detail a sensible climate policy

Last week saw the release of a CSIRO report card entitled Marine Climate Change in Australia, and a Climate Commission Report The Critical Decade – Victorian climate impacts and opportunities.

Both reports contain a maximum of self-interested spin and a minimum of sound science or assessment, and they continue advisory agencies’ now ingrained habit of telling the federal government what it wants to hear about the global warming issue. Predictably the mainstream media promulgated the reports in “me too” fashion, dubbing the CSIRO document, in particular as a new and major scientific report.

Which it is not; the CSIRO Marine Report Card has the structure, content and importance of an ephemeral publicity flyer. Much was made of the fact that scientists from 34 organisations stand behind the statements made in the report card, which simply provides another egregious example of the belief that scientific matters are to be determined by consensus, i.e., by opinion poll amongst a self-selected group of claimed scientific experts.

On the contrary, science progresses by the documentation of evidence in order to test hypotheses about the natural world around us.

We live on a dynamic planet in which change is the only constant – and that whether the natural process in question is chemical, physical or biological. So it is not surprising that earlier scientists have long since studied all the nineteen types of change listed in CSIRO’s marine report card, which range from ocean temperature warming and sea-level change, through biodiversity issues such as sea grass and coral reef health, to hot-button conservation issues such as dugong and turtle numbers.

Earlier still, in mediaeval times, scholars devised a method whereby scientific explanations could be assessed as to their value, which they did by adopting a general principle of simplicity of explanation (also called Occam’s Razor, after the writings of a 14th century English Franciscan monk and philosopher). This method is implemented by erecting what has come to be called the null hypothesis as the prima facie explanation for any given change – that hypothesis corresponding to the simplest possible interpretation of the facts in hand.

For example, the CSIRO marine report card alleges that ocean temperatures have warmed by 0.68 deg. C since the early 20th century, for which the appropriate null hypothesis – noting again that dynamic change permeates nature at all levels – is that this warming resulted from natural causes, unless and until direct evidence accrues otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, null hypotheses receive no mention in the CSIRO report, which also fails to provide any evidence at all that the nineteen events and changes that it lists lie outside the bounds of normal environmental variability. No documented evidence is provided for the many statements that the report contains, and no references are cited.

The Marine Report Card contains statements of astonishing scientific vacuity, such as that Climate change is already happening; or of deliberate emotional content, such as that southeast Australia is a global warming hot-spot; or that are at best weakly arguable, such as that sea-level (is) currently increasing at 3 mm/yr; and implications that are simply wrong, such as that humans have the required level of understanding and technological tools to successfully manage climate change.

Some press commentary focused on the views of CSIRO’s Dr Elvira Poloczanska, who, whilst noting that a lot of uncertainty attended her conclusions, nonetheless expressed concern that warm ocean water penetrating further south might deleteriously effect marine biodiversity, or interfere with turtle breeding.

The reality is that throughout the European occupation of Australia, as well as long before, warm water marine species have regularly been delivered to southeastern Australian waters by fluctuations in the warm, southward-flowing East Australian Current; and similarly to southwestern Australian waters by the analogous Leeuwin Current that flows down the western Australian coast.

Indeed, knowledge of the former fact is doubtless what inspired the happy tale of Nemo the clown fish making his temporary home in Sydney Harbour — knowledge understood by the film makers, but apparently not so well by our current crop of marine scientists.

Furthermore, these warm water oceanographic transport systems have operated even more strongly at times in the past, including most recently during the warm Pliocene Period (say 3-6 million years ago). For abundant fossils of warm water marine organisms occur in Pliocene limestones and other sediments from around the southern Australian margin.

In short, tropical marine species appearing further south is neither scientific news, nor anything to be worried about, and is a completely normal part of Australia’s environmental variability. And, needless to say, no evidence whatever exists that Australian carbon dioxide emissions have anything at all to do with the matter.

To summarise, the new CSIRO Marine Report Card is a beautifully designed and expensively reproduced publicity brochure that carries no scientific standing. The authors of the report appear to hold the naïve view that nature is static, which they combine with the environmental evangelistic assumption that any and all of the changes that they describe must have been caused by human factors.

As long ago as 1941, the distinguished British biologist Conrad Waddington wrote:

It is …. important that scientists must be ready for their pet theories to turn out to be wrong. Science as a whole certainly cannot allow its judgment about facts to be distorted by ideas of what ought to be true, or what one may hope to be true”. 

Like Occam before him, Waddington was right.

Professor Bob Carter is a geologist, environmental scientist and Emeritus Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.