Doomed Planet

Climate policy crisis

On 11 May, Wayne Swan delivered this year’s federal budget to our lower house of parliament. It is unlikely that he took specific advice or instruction from the World Bank in shaping it.

If you write to a state or federal Minister of Climate Change to register concern about global warming policy, you will receive a reply to the effect that “the government sets its policy on climate change using advice from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”.

What is it about environmental matters, and global warming in particular, that causes Australian politicians to revert to such a 19th century, colonial cringe attitude? Why should we be paying climate obeisance to an unelected, unaccountable (to Australian citizens) branch of the UN? Are our own scientists inadequate? Or is it just that we are simply not grown up enough to manage on our own what is admittedly a highly controversial subject?

Of course, it’s even worse than than it looks at first sight, for the IPCC has form.

Created in 1988 under joint oversight of the UN and the World Meteorological Office, the IPCC is tasked to advise governments about, not climate change generally, but specifically the impact of human greenhouse emissions on global warming.

IPCC advice has been known to be politically motivated since publication of its 1995 2nd Assessment Report, in which the wording of the Summary for Policymakers was tampered with after the scientists had signed off on it.

In 2001, the 3rd IPCC Assessment Report took as its leitmotiv a deeply flawed research paper that depicted Northern Hemisphere temperature over the last 800-1000 years as having the shape of a horizontal hockey-stick, in which the upturned blade represented alleged dramatic warming in the 20th century; this graphic was later exposed as false, and the result of statistical incompetence.

And, most recently, the 2007 4th IPCC Assessment Report has been subjected to a blizzard of criticism subsequent to the revelations of the Climategate affair.

In effect, it has become apparent that the IPCC represents a political advocacy organisation more than it does the impartial scientific advisory body that its supporters claim. Relying on IPCC recommendations as the sole source of advice for setting Australian climate policy is therefore clearly unwise.

IPCC policy advice is transferred to the Australian government though the conduit of the Department of Climate Change and its chief scientific adviser, Professor Will Steffen.

In no other major financial or medical context would such dramatic policy prescriptions as introducing a penal new tax on carbon dioxide emissions be adopted without exposing the expert advice to contestability by seeking a thorough second opinion and audit.

Disturbed by the fact that alarmist IPCC advice about global warming is persistently being used in an uncontested and uncritical fashion, and aided by several experienced and independent colleagues, over the last two years I have contributed to a number of due diligence and audit examinations of the scientific arguments advanced by Professor Will Steffen on behalf of the IPCC, the Department and, most latterly, the Climate Commission.

These audits, which are listed here, contain much detailed scientific discussion and argument. They lead to the conclusion, first, that the IPCC has failed to provide empirical evidence which shows that dangerous global warming is occurring, or is likely to occur. Second, that IPCC speculation about the baleful influence of carbon dioxide rests on unvalidated computer modelling that includes unsubstantiated assumptions about the amplification effects of water vapour, clouds and other unverifiable factors.

The faith displayed in global climate models (GCM) by senior IPCC advisers is evidenced by the astonishing comment made at a recent meeting in Cambridge by Professor John Mitchell (Principal Research Scientist, U.K. Meteorological Office), who is reported as saying that "People underestimate the power of models. Observational evidence is not very useful. Our approach is not entirely empirical”. 

John Mitchell’s views notwithstanding, science without empiricism becomes sophistry. And the empirical evidence about climate hazard in Australia is crystal clear. It is that climate-related events such as cyclones, floods and bushfires, together with longer term trends such as droughts, comprise by far Australia’s biggest natural hazard.

Accordingly, the prudent and most cost-effective national policy is to prepare well for all such climate events and change in advance, and then to adapt them when they occur (and continue to occur they most surely will).

But what about the often remarked need to cut carbon dioxide emissions anyway – as a “precautionary principle” approach to perceived dangerous warming?

Well, you can’t take specific precautions against an unknown future temperature path, and the currently quiet sun, and slight cooling over the last ten years, has led some solar physicists to predict that enhanced cooling will occur over the next two decades.

In such circumstances it can be argued that precautions now need to be taken against cooling rather than warming. But in reality, and given our inability to predict accurately even the near-term climate future, the only sensible course of action is to strengthen society’s resilience against all climate hazards, and to prepare to cope with warmings, coolings and climatic instantaneous or step events – one and all and as they come.  

Making prudent and careful contingency plans in anticipation of future natural climate hazard is, at the same time, profoundly precautionary against a possible future temperature trend of human causation, should one eventuate and prove to be dangerous.

Why is it so difficult for politicians and policymakers to understand that carbon dioxide is an environmentally beneficial trace gas, and that climate change Policy Plan B needs to be preparation and adaptation to all climate hazard, irrespective of cause?

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