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March 26th 2013 print

John Dawson

Professor Bolt and the dunce Quiggin

The columnist and Climate Authority panelist have been locked in a long-running dispute about each other's inability to grasp some relatively simple numbers concerning CO2 reductions. If errors were fact an arrogance an asset, Quiggin would have won at a canter


A minor dispute over a minuscule measurement came to a head this month, with government advisor Professor John Quiggin declaring himself winner on points over his opponent Andrew Bolt. At issue was the projected effect of the carbon tax on the world’s temperature.


It all began on July 2, 2012, when Bolt wrote a column in the Herald Sun under the headline: No Gain for all the Pain, and a blog under the heading: What’s the point of the tax, if it makes no difference? In support of his argument that the effect of the government’s program would be next to nothing Bolt wrote: 

"Professor Roger Jones, a warmist and lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, puts it at a minuscule .0038 of a degree – and that is the most generous assessment I’ve seen anywhere. The peer-reviewed formula devised by Professor Damon Matthews, of Oregon’s Concordia University, suggests the difference would actually be less than a 10th of that – just 0.00024 degree."

In an update Bolt clarified the calculation of Professor Matthews as follows:

"If you emit that tonne of carbon dioxide, it will lead to 0.0000000000015 degrees of global temperature change.

Thus if Julia Gillard boasts of [plans] to cut Australia’s emissions by 160 million tonnes, it is basic arithmetic to work out what difference that would make to the otherwise expected temperature: 0.00024 degrees."

The 160 million tonnes was the amount of CO2 Gillard claimed her program would be abating by 2020. Bolt’s basic arithmetic calculated that its cooling effect would be 0.000 000 000 001 5 x 160 000 000 = 0.00024°C

This calculation was at the heart of the dispute between Bolt and Quiggin, but it was not itself disputed. Its assumptions were the government’s own, its arithmetic was correct, and at no time did Quiggin challenge it. It’s what he and Bolt did with it that fueled the feud.

On July 4, Quiggin addressed Bolt’s argument on his blog under the heading: Quiggin and Bolt agree. He had no problem with Bolt’s calculation as far as it went, but had more calculations to make:

Bolt stops there, perhaps having run out of time, so I’ll complete the calculation for him. Obviously to compute the impact of the carbon price we need to estimate the effect, not just for the year 2020 but for the entire period the policy is in place. That’s a complicated task, but let’s simplify by supposing that the policy stays in place until 2100 and that the 2020 reduction in emissions is maintained over this period. That gives a reduction in equilibrium temperatures of about 0.02 degrees, which coincidentally or not, is exactly what I estimated using a different method in a recent comments thread.

It is this calculation of a 0.02°C effect by the end of the century that was disputed, along with Quiggin’s interpretation of Roger Jones’s calculations:

"Bolt also links to this article by Fairfax’s Michael Bachelard which states that the carbon price would reduce emissions by 5%, relative to 2000, and gives an estimate by Roger Jones that this would reduce equilibrium temperature by around 0.004 degrees. As I’ve pointed out quite a few times now, the relevant comparison, and the one I’ve used in my calculations is between the carbon price and business as usual. That comparison yields a reduction of 25%, and an impact of 0.02 degrees using Roger’s sensitivity assumptions. So, it looks like agreement all round."

There was no agreement, however, just confusion. On July 5, in his Herald Sun blog, Bolt conceded his calculation based on Mathews’s figure had to be extrapolated to give an end-of-century effect, but insisted his Jones quote showed that Quiggin’s extrapolation was five times too high:

I actually gave two estimates, one of which I accept needs to have the accumulated effects worked out. But I also gave another by Professor Roger Jones, who worked on exactly the methodology Quiggin recommends, and calculated a cut in temperature of just 0.0038 degrees by 2100 - less than a fifth of Quiggin’s estimate.

On July 13, Quiggin presented his comeback in a blog headed: Quiggin and Bolt: One last try for agreement on the numbers. He insisted that the projected effect of the government’s program on global temperatures by the end of the century was 0.02°C and that Jones had confirmed that when his calculations were analyzed correctly they concurred with that projection. 

Quiggin’s analysis of Jones’s figures went like this: Jones’s calculation of 0.004°C (0.0038 rounded up) was the effect of a 5% reduction of what Australia would be emitting if we continued business as usual, but since the government’s program was going to reduce emissions to 5% of Australia’s 2000 emissions, a much bigger reduction, it would have a much bigger effect on the temperature, not 0.004°C but 0.02°C.

On July 14, in a blog post headed: No, really, Quiggin is overheated, Bolt insisted that Quiggin’s argument was “nonsense”.

Jones hadn’t calculated the effect of a reduction of 5% below what Australia would be emitting if we continued business as usual, he had calculated the effect of 5% below what we were emitting in 2000, because that was the government’s 2020 target. Quiggin had misread and misunderstood Jones.

On July 20, Jones himself made the following statement:

Last year for the Sunday Age/Our Say 10 questions about climate, I made two calculations to assess the potential benefits of Australian climate policy. One applied the policy of both the government and opposition of a 5% reduction in emissions from 2000 by 2020. The other was to estimate a 80% reduction by 2050 – the target within the Clean Energy Act. The first produced a 0.0038 degree reduction by 2100 and the second a 0.02 degree reduction by 2100.

On July 22,  Quiggin backed down. In an "update" to his blog he wrote:

I appear to have misinterpeted my conversation with Roger, though I need to check on a number of issues before making a final assessment. So, I’m going to withdraw my claim that Bolt and John Humphreys [are] in error on this point, and discuss the estimates with Roger in more detail. I’ll report back when this is complete. 

On the same Sunday, Bolt presented his case again on his blog under the heading: Quiggin, our new tax Commissar admits error. But, but, but. He concluded his analysis of the fiasco as follows:

More than your calculations need to change, John. Your attitude needs some alteration, too.

And should you really be advising government on emissions reductions, given the above?

Quiggin’s derisory attitude did not change. Instead, he added the following to his blog:

Further update: Unsurprisingly, Andrew Bolt has enjoyed a bit of a gloat on the subject, and some of his fans have joined in. So, it’s worth reminding everyone that he was out by a factor of 100 in his own calculations, presenting the impact of one year’s emissions reductions as if it was the total effect over the next 100 years.

This retaliation abandoned all pretense of objectivity. Bolt was not out by a factor of 100 in his calculations; his calculations were 100% correct. What Quiggin was referring to was Bolt’s presentation on July 2 of two calculations alongside each other as if they referred to the same thing, whereas Mathews’ referred to a 2020 effect and Jones’ to a 2100 effect. This was not a miscalculation, although it was misleading – as Bolt acknowledged three days later.

That was the one and only point scored by Quiggin in the course of the debate. Given that Bolt is a tabloid journalist who writes to a daily deadline, not a professor employed by our government to investigate and advise on matters critical to the country’s economic future, it is hardly the knockout blow Quiggin tries so desperately to make of it.

Quiggin and Bolt moved on to more pressing matters, but the dispute over the wee numbers simmered in the background, awaiting Quiggin’s promised report. That report finally came on March 14, 2013. Under his “Bonehead stupidity” banner Quiggin posted a blog headed: Motes and Beams. This is the way he set about setting the record straight:

The starting point was this post by Bolt who used a calculation by Damon Matthews that each tonne of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere changes the equilibrium temperature by 0.000 000 000 0015 degrees, that is 1.5*10^-12 in scientific notation. Noting that the carbon price is expected to reduce emissions by 160 million tonnes per year by 2020, Bolt made the calculation that the emissions avoided in the year 2020 will reduce equilibrium temperature by 2.4*10^-4 or 0.00024 degrees, and treats this as an estimate of the impact of the policy.

This is an amazing howler on Bolt’s part. He’s only counted one year of emissions reductions for a policy that is supposed to permanently reduce emissions. I made the very quick calculation that, if the policy stays in place until 2100 and that the 2020 reduction in emissions was maintained over this period, the number used by Bolt would imply a reduction of 0.02 degrees. I did another rough calculation that came out the same way.

Bolt came back with a lower estimate by Roger Jones, who suggest that the policy would reduce temperature by only 0.004 degrees, lower by a factor of 5 than my estimate, but higher by a factor of 20 than Bolt’s silly calculation.

But the howler was Quiggin’s. Bolt had made no such silly calculation — Quiggin was misrepresenting him, perhaps to smokescreen his embarrassment at being corrected by a mere journalist he routinely ridiculed as a “delusionist”. Of course, most of Quiggin’s followers were more than willing to believe whatever abuse was flung at Bolt, and this set the scene for Quiggin’s admission that:

At this point I slipped up. As a result of a misunderstood conversation with Roger, I gave an incorrect explanation for the discrepancy.

So, Quiggin had finally conceded he misread, misunderstood and miscalculated by a factor of five. He then presented a three-part explanation as to why he had made his five-factor miscalculation, concluding as follows:   

Those three factors, taken together, would account for the discrepancy in the two estimates. I don’t claim that I’ve got them exactly right and there may be points I’ve missed. But for someone like Bolt to pontificate on a subject like this, when he is incapable of avoiding or correcting even the most absurd errors, brings to mind Matthew 7:3-5.

In fact, Bolt’s only “error”, a misleading inference made on July 2, was corrected on July 5, when he agreed that his Matthews calculation would have to be extrapolated out to the end of the century to be comparable to the Jones calculation. But to classify this as a beam in Bolt’s eye was, to use one of Quiggin’s favourite invectives, silly.

What Quiggin considered a mere mote in his own eye, on the other hand, was his calculation that was five times too high, then his blind misinterpretation of Jones’s calculation to make it concur with his, then taking eight months to confirm that he got it wrong. This from a professor hired at considerable public expense to advise the government as to how much carbon tax we must pay in order to achieve its target.

If Matthew 7:3-5 and its observation about motes and beams is to be applied, it is most certainly Quiggin with the beam in his eye. But I would be more inclined to apply Proverbs 16:18: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."

Quiggin concluded his March 14 post as follows:

A couple of minor points

First, Bolt’s behaviour in crowing about a minor mistake on my part, while ignoring his own total absurdity, is par for the course among delusionists…

Second, as Cut and Paste notes, I said when I took up the Climate Commission position that I’d try to refrain from polemics with people like Bolt. I haven’t stuck to that as well as I might have, and now I think it’s totally pointless. So, from now on, I plan to give as good as I get and, if possible, a bit more.

But if he hadn’t had the debate with Bolt, would he still be advising the government that the effect of its plan would be five times too high?

What Quiggin displays is a phenomenon I have noticed a lot lately. Freud might have called it projection, but in honour of the first time I encountered it a long time ago in a schoolyard, I call it the "double-to-you-too defence". It’s the angry retaliation of a loser accusing his (or her) accuser of the very thing he has been caught out on, in an attempt to bury his humiliation under a torrent of abuse.

Postscript: In order to keep on the track of the dispute I resisted the impulse to question the dubious assumptions, implausible premises and incredible implications thrown up at every turn. But for the record, here are some questions that beg for answers:

While the government claims its program will “cut carbon pollution by 160 million tonnes in 2020”, that doesn’t, in fact, represent a reduction of Australian emissions. While Australian emissions of CO2 continue to rise, the biggest part of the program is the purchase of carbon credits. So, if Australia can’t reduce its emissions, where are these countries that are going to reduce theirs sufficiently to generate the carbon credits it is Australia’s stated intention to buy?

Even if the government’s program hits its target and has a downward effect of 0.0034°C by 2100, and even if every other country follows our lead and hits an equivalent target, even then the effect on the world’s temperature would be only 0.0034/1.34% = 0.25°C (our emissions being 1.34% of the world’s total). So why put ourselves through all the pain when the most improbably optimistic result would make no appreciable difference to any warming?

How much credibility can we place on a plan based on the advice of experts such as Tim Flannery, Clive Hamilton, and John Quiggin, who can overestimate the effect of the plan by a factor of five? How much faith in a plan based on IPCC research that, from the hockey stick on, has proved to be flawed, and computer-model projections that have not been verified by the empirical evidence? And further,  on a plan that has already had to drop its 2015 carbon permit price from a $15 minimum to a floating European price, currently at about $5 a tonne?

For Australia to effect the 0.02°C reduction in temperatures by the end of the  century that Quiggin considers significant, we would have to achieve a 5% reduction in our carbon footprint by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050. Which means that by 2020 we would be running on a 20th century power supply and by 2050 on a 19th century power supply, as far as the fossil fuels that supply 80% of the world’s power is concerned. So how are we going to support our growing 21st century population in anything remotely like the lifestyle it has become accustomed to?

The budgetary forecasts presumed by the government’s program rely on our second-largest export: coal. Since every ounce of carbon in coal ends up as CO2 in the atmosphere, what is the point of reducing our emissions by burning less coal here, only to have it exported and burnt off shore? Alternatively, if we shut down the coalmines, what happens to budgetary forecasts and our prosperity? (Clive Hamilton may celebrate such a result as a cure for the "affluenza" that so distresses him, but Australians may take a different view.)

And wouldn’t a sane approach be to stop pouring the country’s wealth down the drain, and unshackle its productive capacity, so that future generations inherit the wealth and technology they might need to deal with problems, and to capitalise on opportunities, that may or may not arise from the changes that may or may not occur to our climate?

John Dawson is a frequent Quadrant Online contributor