Doomed Planet

Politicians miss the point

The immediate hazard is natural climate change 

Lazurus-like, the issue of global warming has again risen to prominence in the political debate. Stimulated by the announcement of Labor’s “new” climate policy by Prime Minister Gillard, Australian voters were once more subjected to a parade of self-anointed, global-warming-is-dangerous public figures whose innocence of knowledge of the science of climate change is exceeded only by their sense of moral superiority.

On prominent display also was the unflagging belief that, if only they can shout long and loud enough, these same persons can impose their self-interested views on the silent majority  – after all, and thanks not a little to media complicity, that technique has always worked in the past.

For the moment, though, all seems to have gone quiet on the climate change front, with both major parties choosing to avoid the issue in their current campaigning. Perhaps it’s only a lull, but the reality is that warming alarmism has lost its positive political magic and is most unlikely to regain it. For the science stable door has opened, the horse has long since bolted and public opinion has changed.

Casting our minds back 24 months, most of us can recall the existence of a famed (though always partly mythical) public consensus that politicians must act to stop global warming. Whatever happened to that? What could have swung public opinion so far and so fast that politicians of all stripes are now forced to concede that an ineffectual, expensive and feel good tax on carbon dioxide is no longer a vote winner? 

The answer, of course, is that since last November – the date of leaking of the infamous Climategate email and computer code package from the U.K.’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) – the official (read IPCC-based) scientific arguments that human-caused global warming is hazardous, or even measurable, have collapsed into a smouldering heap. Increasingly desperate efforts have been made ever since to rekindle the climate alarmist fire, but to little avail. 

For, at the same time, opinion poll after opinion poll is revealing a fall in public belief in warming alarmism. Most recently, for Australia, an August 6th Gallup poll shows that citizens who believe that rising temperatures are a result of human activities declined from 52% in June 2008 to 44% in March 2010. At the same time, the number of persons attributing change to natural causes increased by 10%.

Attempts to limit the damage to the alarmist climate cause have included three whitewash reviews of the CRU emails affair, and now yet another “official” report, this time from NOAA, that contains no substantive new science but comprises instead data and packaged arguments entirely similar to those that we have all heard a million times before. Recently, too, in Australia we have seen the shrill reaction from green and commercial interests to Labor’s having welched on their sweetheart carbon-dioxide taxation deal; a deal that all those involved (a small but vocal group that excludes most of the population, and nearly all independent scientists) thought had long been agreed.

Though you would never know it from the public discussion, both the global warming and climate change issues are, first and foremost, matters of science rather than of economics or energy policy. And that science has been settled in a way that is entirely different to the propaganda-driven public perception. 

Since 1990, mostly through an IPCC-driven agenda, thousands of scientists have spent more than US$100 billion trying to isolate and measure the effect on world temperature of human greenhouse emissions, or to discover other evidence of damage wrought by human-caused warming. 

They have failed. Instead, it has become clear that the mild warming of the late 20th century fell well within previous natural limits, and that its 1998 temperature peak was 1-2 deg. C cooler than similar previous warmings. Furthermore, the lack of significant post-1998 warming is associated with an unusually quiet sun, which many solar physicists expect will persist and cause significant cooling over the next two decades.

Because recent changes in total irradiance have been small, the IPCC dismisses significant solar influence, gainsaying the fact that irradiance is but one of several important solar climatic influences. Then, and without a trace of irony, IPCC also claims that an increase in the miniscule concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, accentuated by positive feedbacks, will create a warming that calls for the most damaging anti-carbon dioxide measures that one can imagine – demanding legislation that will not only hobble western economies, but at the same time inflict devastating effects on the defenceless citizens of impoverished nations.  

That the public has until recently remained unaware of the real state of empirical climate science is because traditional science has been bleeding to death for the last three decades, its cherished values of empiricism and experiment the victim of a misapplication of computer modelling by university and government agency scientists. These scientists have long been irrevocably captive to political whim and fashion, and their alarmist views are egged on by media organizations with almost messianic fervour. 

Meanwhile, in the real world that most of us inhabit, natural climate-related hazard ranks with earthquake and volcano hazard as one of the triumvirate of big banana risks that governments have a sovereign duty to prepare for, and to defend their citizens from. But for twenty years now politicians have been distracted by the Green chimera of hypothetical dangerous human-caused global warming, which has caused natural climate hazards to be all but ignored. Despite the glib talk about it, Australia does not possess a national climate policy at all, but rather a swingingly expensive yet futile “lets-try-to-stop-global-warming-caused-by-human-carbon-dioxide emissions” policy.

The most obvious current example of the dangers of natural climate-related hazard (and there’s a new one nearly every week) is the disastrous rainfall and flooding that is occurring in Pakistan. The importance of countries being better prepared to cope with such inevitable natural events was well characterised in a recent editorial in the Financial Times:

The flood devastating Pakistan is not the first natural disaster the world has experienced this year. In January, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake killed more than 220,000 people. In February another earthquake struck. Measuring 8.8, it was more than a thousand times stronger than the first and ranked as the fifth most powerful ever recorded. It killed fewer than 500.

The vast discrepancy between the human tolls of these earthquakes – in Haiti and Chile respectively – illustrates how the impact of natural disasters depends more on a state’s capacity to prepare for and respond to disasters than the forces of nature that these phenomena unleash.

Chile, one of the best-run countries in Latin America, had the administrative and economic resour­ces to enforce stringent building codes and develop effective emergency response systems. Haiti, one of the world’s poorest states, had virtually no disaster relief infrastructure. International agencies struggled to distribute aid as Port-au-Prince’s docks and airport became overstretched. Much of the aid effort was dissipated.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, while it is not a Haiti, neither does it look like Chile in its ability to respond. 

Until it can reasonably be demonstrated that human emissions are causing dangerous global warming the climate issue that confronts us is not that shibboleth, but instead the undeniable hazards represented by natural climate vagaries in Australia – droughts, storms, floods and bushfires alike. 

Why is it so difficult for our politicians to grasp that their task is to prepare for and deal with all climate-related hazards in a much more effective fashion? Perhaps they should ask the relatives of the 173 persons who lost their lives in the 2009 Victorian bushfires – who knew the answer to that question well in advance of the 4-volume Teague report’s explanation of such obvious truths as the need for an expanded program of fuel reduction burnoffs to help curtail bushfire risk.

Preparation for, and adaptation to, all climate-related risks – be they natural or human-caused, and whether they involve short term or long term hazard – is now crying out to be adopted as the sensible, cost-effective and bipartisan climate policy for Australia.

Acknowledgement. I thank John Nicol and Barry Brill for kindly drawing my attention to some of the material included in this piece.

Bob Carter is author of the newly released book Climate: the Counter Consensus

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