Science as politics: the world view of Senator Roberts

Malcolm Roberts uses the parliamentary platform to peddle his climate fantasies

Senator Malcolm Roberts delivers his inaugural speech on 13 September 2016. PHOTO Alex Ellinghausen/AFR

Senator Malcolm Roberts delivers his inaugural speech on 13 September 2016. PHOTO Alex Ellinghausen/AFR

Federal parliament, which has heard more than its share of climate change doubt, got a hefty dose of it this month from a exceptionally dedicated exponent.

Malcolm Roberts, once a mining engineer and now a Queensland senator elected in July on Pauline Hanson’s One Nation ticket, has spent the past decade on a mission to persuade Australians that global warming is no more than left-wing ideology.

Roberts’s inaugural speech ran through a long list of fairly standard One Nation targets, among them the “establishment”, the United Nations, global government, declining national sovereignty, taxation and big government.

But his central theme was his primer on climate, which has it that the world is cooler now than it was 130 years ago, that humans can’t affect atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and that anyway a warmer world is better.

It included the remarkable rejection of 190 years of greenhouse science explaining why we don’t slip into a deep freeze every night. The atmosphere, he told senators, cools Earth’s surface.

That claim probably relies on a 2009 German research paper which asserted that the greenhouse warming theory violated the second law of thermodynamics. The claim was picked apart and demolished by multiple reviewers. That’s science at work.

Curiously, supportive commentary on the speech by contrarian bloggers Joanne Nova and Andrew Bolt didn’t mention that central claim. Did they find it a teeny bit outlandish, I wonder?

Their readers weren’t so squeamish, finding no problem with Roberts’s greenhouse theory. “Engineer Roberts is right” and his opponents “failed the global warming IQ test”, said one blog comment. Roberts, said Mum of Perth, “puts the rest of the politicians to shame”.

Who am I to complain? As an elected senator, Roberts enjoys immunity from being sued or prosecuted for anything he says in parliament, which is as it should be. We wouldn’t want members of parliament to be constrained in speaking up.

In describing his credentials he didn’t hesitate to remind his fellow-senators of his exposure to tertiary-level physics in studying engineering, but he also implied an expertise in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

That’s deceitful, because he’s not an atmospheric scientist. Nor am I, but unlike Roberts I defer to expert advice. A number of Australian professional climatologists responded strongly and negatively to his speech, as did a German physicist and oceanographer, Stefan Rahmstorf.

Rahmstorf is a member of the Academia Europaea and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union. He has served nearly a decade in the German Advisory Council on Global Change and was a lead author of the latest IPCC report.

It is nonsense, said Rahmstorf, to claim that a cooler atmosphere cannot radiate heat towards a warmer surface, citing as evidence the fact that Earth radiates heat towards the much hotter sun. Thermal radiation from the atmosphere toward the ground, he said, is routinely measured and can be felt outside on a cloudy night, which is noticeably warmer than a clear, starry one.

“Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth,” said Roberts in his speech. Rahmstorf suggested to Roberts that “next time he sits in his garden at night, or slips under a blanket” he applies that spirit of inquiry to the idea of greenhouse warming.

All this would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that too many on the right of Australian politics are prepared to believe anyone who offers the illusory option of doing nothing.

Like readers of contrarian blogs, they allow themselves to be sucked in by claims of expertise, by the cover of technical language and by the use of disproven, discredited or fraudulent research, and all too often they are persuaded by Roberts and his ilk that the science of global warming is no more than a political plot hatched by greens and socialists, terms that appear to be interchangeable.

Put that way to an anti-green, anti-socialist politician it becomes a no-brainer. Which is all that needs to be said.

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The debate we don’t need to have

It’s clear in 21st century Australia that marriage should be open to us all. What more is there to say?

Different forms of sexuality and gender are not separate entities but different points across a single spectrum.

Different forms of sexuality and gender are not separate entities but different points across a single spectrum.

Two distinct threads run through today’s debate about marriage: the social stability provided by long adult relationships, and the genders of the people involved.

Social stability was high on the agenda of a 1998 federal parliamentary committee that identified notable trends in marriage perceptions and experiences.

The committee found a rising preference among Australians for non-religious weddings. It also found that marriage was on the decline and that marital breakdown, divorce, step-families and single-parent families were all going up.

The idea that marriage might be something other than the lifelong union of a man and a woman wasn’t on the public agenda then. The committee’s 16 men and two women, chaired by then-backbench MP Kevin Andrews, didn’t canvass such a possibility.

The Marriage Act didn’t offer a definition until 2004, when John Howard added the words: “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

That used to be my view of marriage, until my own fell apart not long after the 1975 Family Law Act took effect. I found that this revolutionary law, which stopped the blame-game in divorce proceedings, could help both adults and children through stressful times.

That’s good, but as the Andrews report said, ensuring a right to divorce should not mean we don’t care about marriage: “When we recognise that many marriages end in separation, we should not abandon our aspiration for strong and healthy marital relationships.”

I remarried long ago and still believe that such legally-sanctioned relationships help to keep us all together. On this particular point I don’t think I’m too much removed from the teachings of many religious institutions.

But on the second thread of the marriage debate – gender – it would seem we part company.

Since my callow youth I’ve learned a lot about humanity’s rich diversity. I’ve enjoyed good friendships with people whose sexual preferences differ from my own orthodox heterosexuality.

I’ve also discovered that it no longer makes sense to define people in the way I understood as a child, when alternative perceptions of gender and sexual preference were hived off into boxes marked “wrong” or “illegal”, or not talked about at all.

Physiological and psychological studies have repeatedly confirmed* that the fundamentals of sexuality and gender are firmly in place at birth. Whatever the scriptures said, a person who is other than a heterosexual woman or man doesn’t choose to be so, any more than I chose to be “straight”.

Science has also confirmed that many species share with humans a propensity for multiple variants of sexuality and gender, and that all such traits, including heterosexuality, should be seen not as separate entities but as different points across a single spectrum.

For all these reasons we now ban discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or of indeterminate gender identity or sexual orientation. Anyone who says all such people can choose to be like the rest of us is simply wrong, both in law and in fact.

Lifelong relationships are as important to these people as they are to everyone else. In many cases they also want to rear children, and if their home life is stable there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

They too want to contribute to social stability – just as Kevin Andrews envisaged for the rest of us in 1998. They want to be able to say they’re married because that’s the word that history has given to this solemn commitment.

Whatever its religious connotations, marriage in its essence is a social contract by which people commit publicly not just to each other but also to their community. No-one should be prohibited from making that commitment, or shuffled off into a secondary legal compartment, “civil union”.

Marriage is marriage, whoever is involved. Whatever our sexual preference or gender identity the idea belongs to us all, for better or worse. To the cynic who sees marriage as a life sentence I’d say why shouldn’t the burden be shared around?

This is a debate we do not need to have.

* For a discussion of this research, see the American Psychological Association’s website, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

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Second-rate leadership and dysfunctional politics make a deadly mix

The latest Climate Change Authority report highlights Australia’s fast-diminishing emissions budget

The chair of the Climate Change Authority, Wendy Craik. PHOTO Alan Porritt/AAP

The chair of the Climate Change Authority, Wendy Craik. PHOTO Alan Porritt/AAP

The final report of the Climate Change Authority’s two-year review of national climate policy tries to retrieve something of value out of a political mess.

But the report is compromised from the start by the implacably opposed forces it wants to reconcile: a scientific establishment increasingly anxious about climate change and a political establishment determined to treat it as a second-order issue.

The CCA under former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser did what its legislation demanded: give evidence-based advice independent of government, but it’s had to endure a hostile Coalition determined to eradicate all trace of Julia Gillard’s carbon price scheme.

After a defiant Senate blocked its bill to abolish the CCA, Tony Abbott’s government sought to marginalise it by keeping it at arm’s length and ignoring its advice.

The Coalition got the scalp it wanted last year with the resignation of Fraser, who found he couldn’t do the bidding of the government while abiding by the CCA’s charter.

The new-look board under ecologist, company director and administrator Wendy Craik has kept a distance between itself and government, noting that Australia’s emissions will have to improve markedly in the near future. But it’s clearly more politically sensitive than its predecessor.

While the “old” CCA found that Australia should set its 2030 reduction target somewhere between 45 and 65 per cent below 2005 levels – way above the Coalition’s 26-28 per cent – Craik’s board has avoided making any recommendation on targets.

Instead it proposes a “policy toolkit” building on current policies, with new measures aimed, Craik says, at “a long term durable solution to Australia’s climate challenge”.

This toolkit, she said, would “take account of Australia’s climate policy history”, be suited to the needs of individual sectors, and be capable of being “scaled up in the future to meet the emission reduction challenges in the Paris Agreement”. That sounds a lot like carbon pricing.

Aware of Coalition paranoia about anything that looks like a tax, the CCA proposes an “emissions intensity scheme” using a market mechanism to control emissions from electricity generation, along with an “enhanced safeguard mechanism” to control industrial and resource emissions.

Wendy Craik and her board are stuck between a rock – a cabal of conservative politicians zealously blocking any effective climate policy – and a hard place, what Australia has to do to meet its international commitments. They deserve some sympathy.

But only some. As two disaffected CCA members pointed out last week, the CCA’s charter clearly dictates that it must focus on the implications of those commitments.

Atmospheric scientist David Karoly and economist Clive Hamilton argue that the CCA report fails to address Australia’s 2013-50 carbon budget – the total amount that the CCA has previously said we can release if we’re to contribute our fair share to holding warming below 2C.

Karoly and Hamilton point out that if we stick to the government’s current target, by 2030 we’ll have used up over 90 per cent of that budget of 10.1 billion tonnes. The trajectory of emissions would then have to drop precipitously to reach net zero within five years – an impossible task.

If 2C is looking impossible for us, where does that leave Paris’s more ambitious “aspirational” target? Swedish research published last week calculates that Australia has just six more years at current emission rates before it has entirely used up its budget to hold warming below 1.5C.

When we first learned of global warming a quarter-century ago crunch time was decades away, and postponing strong action could be presented as a plausible option. Now, with time available counted not in decades but a handful of years, it’s beyond foolish.

A confident leader with competent deputies in a fully functional political system will acknowledge an unprecedented and pressing challenge and bring all forces to bear on it. Lesser ones will maintain the party divide, divert attention and pretend they have control. Sounds sadly familiar.

People are optimistic by nature – we have to be or we wouldn’t get up in the morning – and I’m painfully aware that repeated warnings come at the cost of diminished impact. We all have to get on with our lives. But like Karoly and Hamilton, I don’t know what else to do.

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