Replacing science with empty reassurances

After an election campaign almost devoid of climate debate, and with media dominated by anti-science rhetoric, Tasmanians might be forgiven for thinking the climate crisis has evaporated. How wrong that would be. [23 March 2010 | Peter Boyer]

The 2010 Tasmanian Climate Survey, part of the Waterworks Valley Community Climate Connect Project, seeks a better understanding of the barriers Tasmanians face in attempting to reduce their climate footprint. More details under “Happenings” (R.H. column on this site).

The 2010 Tasmanian Climate Survey, part of the Waterworks Valley Community Climate Connect Project, seeks a better understanding of the barriers Tasmanians face in attempting to reduce their climate footprint. More details under “Happenings” (R.H. column on this site); to complete the survey go to <>.

For those who think man-made climate change is real and important, the Tasmanian election campaign was a dud, with most participants focused on surviving into the next parliamentary term. Exploring our long-term future is a place politicians just don’t seem to want to go.

Which is just what today’s global anti-science movement wants. Take this recent attack on the ABC: “While opinion polls around the world show a declining belief in the alarmist faith that human activity is dangerously cooking the planet,” wrote Tom Switzer in the Australian edition of Britain’s Spectator, “at Auntie it’s business as usual.”

To the ABC, said Switzer, “the infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph has not been disproven, Al Gore’s films have not been demonstrated to be riddled with errors (even as their maker is poised to become the world’s first climate change billionaire), and the only crime involved in the ‘Climategate’ emails was their alleged hacking, and not the wildly politicised science they revealed.”

A few days after the Spectator barrage, the ABC’s own chairman, Maurice Newman, told his assembled staff, and ABC Radio National’s PM program, that the ABC was showing a bias towards “climate change alarmists”, tending to label and mock people who questioned current climate science orthodoxy.

Switzer and Newman are part of a rapidly growing chorus condemning “alarmists”, by which they mean those scientists and commentators (including yours truly) who say that humans burning fossil fuels are altering the climate and that we need to act promptly to lessen its impact.

Now the global anti-science movement is emphatically on the attack. It has shown that you can ignore the evidence and still “defeat” the science by banging on in all available media about wicked scientists and hockey sticks and Climategate and Al Gore’s fortune.

Led by clamorous, internet-savvy, well-resourced groups in the United States and drawing on people’s perfectly reasonable wish for a secure future, the movement has managed to reframe the public policy question from “what can we do?” to “why should we bother?”

The carefully-thought position that the world’s science community, analysing what’s happening around us, has been building over the past quarter-century has been relegated to a policy back-room. Politicians everywhere, including in Tasmania, now avoid discussing climate action for fear they’ll be held up to ridicule. Real men don’t go round defending nerds.

Earth’s changing climate system is the biggest, most complex subject in all science, difficult both to study and to explain, and that opens the door to the contrarian or “agnostic” positions of Switzer, Newman, and countless others in print, broadcast and internet media.

The contrarians are right when they say the science is not “settled”, because by its nature science is never settled. It’s an endless quest involving constant, sceptical questioning of current orthodoxy.

Scientists continue to ask the questions: how to measure global temperatures, how ice sheets and oceans and regional climate patterns are changing, how nature changes climate, the mysteries of energy and entropy, how (or whether) we can attain sustainability — the questions keep flowing. Science is not a closed loop or a closed shop; it’s open for all to see.

For decades, NASA physicist James Hansen has lived by the rule that evidence is everything. The evidence from ancient rocks and ice, and from NASA’s powerful earth-observing satellite technology, provided him with an overwhelming case for man-made global warming. Thousands of scientists around the world have independently reached the same conclusion.

In 1990, after some gruelling encounters in the US Congress, Hansen decided to stay away from politicians and stick with science. But after the Bush administration took office in 2001 it asked him to brief it on climate science, along with Richard Lindzen, a scientist who disputes the majority position on man-made climate change.

The Bush administration accepted Lindzen’s position that nothing needed to be done to reduce carbon emissions because they weren’t influencing climate. In doing so it ignored not just Hansen, but a comprehensive assessment it had commissioned from the US National Academy of Sciences.

“Why did they believe Lindzen and not me?” Hansen asked himself about this turn of events. Analysing the meetings, he concluded that whereas he (Hansen) had canvassed options and kept the debate open, the way science works best, Lindzen, with a better grasp of political persuasion, kept his presentation limited to his own narrow line of argument.

Skilled manipulation of information won out over open scientific inquiry, just as the broader science community today has been out-muscled and out-manoeuvred by spin and personal attack.

The mountain of evidence for human-induced climate change remains intact despite the contrarian assault. The scientists may have been shouted down, but their science is still there for all to see, and its message is as stark and clear as it ever was. We have to act, and quickly.

Caring nothing for this, Switzer brands the science as “alarmist faith”, noting supportive opinion polls. But where’s the value in reassurance that’s based on nothing but hot air? If we’re going to rely on majority opinion to determine the truth of science, God help us all.

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