US Secretary of State John Kerry has effectively declared war on climate change, branding it a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ . The last time I heard such a powerful call to arms was in March, 2003, when the then-President of the US said,
‘The danger is clear: ….. the terrorists could fulfil their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other.
‘The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat. But we will do everything to defeat it… . before it is too late to act, this danger will be removed.’
The speaker then was George W Bush, and his nation has striven for a decade to remove the perceived threat in Iraq. Five years later the US Senate Intelligence Committee documented intelligence failures and “mis-statements” by the Administration in the lead-up to the war. Eight years later the US withdrew its forces, having replaced the murderous regime of Sadam Hussein by a form of parliamentary democracy but leaving the original issue of existence, nature and location of weapons of mass destruction a murky subject for future historians to debate.
So can we, a global population a decade wiser, believe John Kerry’s WMD rhetoric? He tells the Indonesian people that climate change is a threat to the entire way of life they live and love. I beg to differ; with a population elevenfold larger and an area a quarter that of Australia, its challenges are, food, health and education for a growing population, complicated by extreme natural hazards of earthquakes, volcanic ash clouds and tsunamis. We can only seek to mitigate the effects of the natural hazards, but we can offer plenty of aid targetting the former challenges, especially in the form of cheap reliable energy which assists education, effective hospitals, and improvements in standard of living. For cheap energy, read coal or gas.
Kerry warns of rising sea levels. Had he read recent peer-reviewed literature he would know that the average rate of rise of global sea level over the past century is 1.7 mm/year, with what is arguably a superimposed 60-year cyclic change which has increased the rate over the past decade. That cycle appears now to be on the down-swing. The prospect of a rise of 90 cm by year 2100, as predicted in the worst-case IPCC scenario, requires the annual rate of rise to increase to 15 mm/year (an improbable 0.6 on an inch) and if we recognise the cyclic change component, there is not a skerrick of observational evidence that such an increase is happening at a magnitude significantly above the century-long trend. The IPCC computer models on sea-level rise a century hence are as reliable as George Bush’s declaration after the first month of war in Iraq, on 1 May 2003, ‘Mission Accomplished’.
We cannot complain at Kerry following political imperatives. His chief, President Obama, is locked in to a program of fighting climate change by reducing atmospheric CO2 emissions, and it is unlikely that he can change direction without loss of power, loss of face, or both. Bush faced a similar quandary in 2003, which cost the US another eight years of war in Iraq.
Forty years earlier, the (Democrat) US President Lyndon Johnson launched a major expansion of the Vietnam war with a headland speech on 26 April 1965, which seized the moral high ground saying:
‘We are [in Vietnam] to strengthen world order. Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand, are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of American commitment, the value of America’s word.’
Ten years later, at a cost of 58,200 American, 500 Australian and about 1.3 million Vietnamese lives, unnumbered casualties and incalculable economic cost, the US ignominiously evacuated the last of its forces from Vietnam. World order was not seen to be strengthened, and confidence in American commitment was well-shaken. If there is a single lesson apparent in the plethora of analyses written since, it is that the US administration based its actions on ignorance consequent on it restricting itself to a narrow band of advice.
Is there a parallel with the war on the latest weapon of mass destruction? At a personal level, I note that the intensely partisan nature of climate debates has only one parallel in my lifetime – that of the bitter divisions of the Vietnam war years. I begin to suspect any political leader who appeals to the moral high-ground, and I question whether such a stand is to cover a weak factual base. A useful place to start a fact check in the climate debate is to analyse expert testimony before US congressional committees, which routinely call evidence from both sides of politically contentious issues. A fine example is the records of 16 January 2014 of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The panel of witnesses included two senior members of the American Geophysical Union, professors Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M and Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Dessler presented a concise overview of Anthropogenic Global Warming science, arguing for the standard model and how it stands the tests of comparison with observational data. I noticed one gem of optimism as he discussed discrepancies between models and some observational data, saying ‘I suspect future revisions [of the data] will bring it into ever-closer agreement with the models.’
Curry argued that in her view ‘both the climate change problem and its solution have been vastly oversimplified’, and reviewed recent global temperature, climate sensitivity and sea-level data as presented in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. She finds that the case for human factors dominating temperature change of the past 130 years is weaker than it was 10 years ago, and evidence for the importance of natural variability on climate changes, is growing.
There are at least four other recent examples of such top-level academic debate in recent testimonies to the US Congress, Senate and Canadian Senate, pitched by acknowledged experts and expressed in language for politicians and informed non-specialists. It is a mark of the impaired political process that such evidence placed before Congress is ignored by the US administration and, until five months ago, the government of Australia. Instead we have Kerry dismissing the views of senior scientists as “a tiny minority of shoddy scientists”, an approach which is redolent of Lyndon Johnson’s dismissal of his foreign policy critics of 49 years ago.
Climate science is a complex interaction of atmospheric, oceanic and solar physics, much of which is not settled, especially the degree to which natural cycles drive climate change. Bush’s Iraq was a complex interaction of oil-economics, ethnic and religious tensions, and Johnson’s Vietnam was a complex interaction of anti-colonialism, nationalism, communism and cold war rivalry between great powers. I expect that ten years hence, historians will be no kinder to John Kerry over his US foreign policy on the “weapon of mass destruction”, than they are to George W Bush or Lyndon Johnson.
Michael Asten is professor of geophysics at Monash University