Each weekend the Sydney Morning Herald’s News Review poses a question and invites answers from four people; most recently they asked a climate sceptic to take part.
The question was “Has apathy overtaken urgency in the debate on climate action?” and, as a far away Victorian, I was surprised to be invited to contribute. The editor explained that there would be three other contributors but did not tell me who they would be. When they were published they appeared below the Fairfax subheading, “There has been subdued reaction to a week of worrying scientific reports”. Unsurprisingly, the other writers turned out to be believers in the need for government action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases – a CSIRO group leader, a Climate Commissioner, and a local government councillor from Ballina shire. They were presented as “The Scientist, Peta Ashworth”, “The Commissioner, Gerry Hueston”, “The Local Councillor, Robyn Horden”, and “The Sceptic, Des Moore”. All contributions are available on my web site and at the Sydney Morning Herald.
While (naturally, given its politicisation) the CSIRO contributor, Peta Ashworth, claims “the overwhelming evidence that global and national change in climate is due to human activity”, she also acknowledges “the inherent uncertainties in the science and possible trajectories that our future climate will take”. One hopes she has passed this on to Climate Change Minister Combet. Climate Commissioner Gerry Hueston (a former President of BP) suggests that “a lot of the debate has become polarised and captured by views at the extremes” and urges that “we must stop attacking each other”. He makes no mention of the greatest asset that sceptics have in the person of Chief Climate Commissioner Flannery. The councillor, Robyn Horden, is from a shire in the northern rivers region of NSW which is “regularly subject to flooding” and wants “everything possible done… to protect our people and property”. But although council has installed solar panels on buildings and energy efficient street lights, it is only so far “preparing erosion management plans”.
My 400 word contribution below argues that, for various reasons, over the last couple of years there has been a major shift in attitudes in that the need for urgent action has virtually disappeared from the policy agenda in most countries and that a binding international agreement is unobtainable. I also refer to a report that Republican President candidate Mitt Romney has “decided to say that climate change is a hoax and you can’t trust scientists”. This report comes from an interview of Norm Ornstein (a leading US political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington) on the 7.30 Report of 16 May. If Romney were to be elected and if he maintained this view, there would be significant implications for US (and international) policies on climate change.
There was not room in my contribution to refer to the other many signs of attitudinal changes and associated developments. Importantly, a recent analysis by well-known US commentator, Mark Morano, suggests the claimed support for action from major US academies is based on statements by boards of such bodies that have mostly have been made without consulting members, many of whom are undertaking a “sceptical rebellion” (for more, see climatedepot.com). More prosaically, attitudinal changes appear to have reached even the Victorian arts “community”. The Melbourne Theatre Company is running The Heretic, a play by an avowed sceptic that has had a successful run in London (see Andrew McIntyre’s QO review), and Australia Day, a play which includes some questioning comments on climate change that brought some laughter from the audience.
Des Moore responds to News Review’s question of 19-20 May, “Has apathy overtaken urgency in the debate on climate action?”:
Since the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and subsequent revelations of various exaggerations of potentially rising temperatures, attitudes of both governments and wider communities have changed towards the earlier proposal for urgent government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast with the build up before the 2009 Copenhagen conference the so-called sceptics have established a strong case for not proceeding urgently.
While political leaders still formally support the dangerous warming thesis, it is now evident that no binding international agreement on government emission reduction policies is obtainable. In particular, most leaders in low income countries rightly take the view that top priority is avoidance of emission reduction policies restricting their economic growth and poverty reductions.
Hence only a limited range of reduction policies has been adopted by individual governments and, except for a few believers, the urgency prescription has virtually disappeared. President Obama has accepted that Congress will not buy a carbon tax and his opponent, Mitt Romney, has now declared the dangerous warming thesis a hoax. A Romney Presidency could evoke a major change in attitudes of other political leaders.
The limited extent of reduction action does not reflect apathy but rather the emergence of a genuine questioning. This extends into the scientific community and, while still accepting that temperatures are likely to increase, most scientists now probably reject the dangerous warming thesis. One of many explanations is the absence of temperature increases in periods when theory says they should have, such as over the 1940-77 and 1998-2011 years. Another is that, while sea levels have been steadily increasing, the rate of increase is clearly not threatening. Important also is that IPCC models used to predict temperature increases have been wide of the mark, indicating serious defects in the theory.
Examples of scepticism include the signature by over 30,000 US scientists of a petition which specifically rejects the dangerous warming thesis. Increasing numbers of peer-reviewed papers either do the same or seriously question it, including papers by distinguished Australian scientists of my acquaintance. The Australian government has mistakenly locked itself into a carbon tax that will have a miniscule effect on global emission levels but will leave many Australian businesses at a competitive disadvantage with overseas counterparts. This will likely disturb any apathy here.
Des Moore is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise and former Deputy Secretary, Treasury