Climate is back on the table

Contrarian efforts notwithstanding, climate will be a significant issue in the coming elections. [23 July 2013 | Peter Boyer]

The 2013 Lowy Poll showed a long-term trend in public opinion shifting last year.

A close reading of the scientific discussion around global warming leaves no doubt that they got the basic physics right over a century ago. Broadly, the more carbon dioxide there is in the air, the warmer the planet’s surface and oceans will become.

Science is steadily improving its understanding of how global systems work. Take two recent additions to the growing bank of peer-reviewed climate change papers, published in the journals Nature Climate Change and Geophysical Research Letters.

The papers have cast new light on the capacity of ocean waters to absorb heat energy from the atmosphere, finding that around a decade ago surface waters took huge amounts of heat out of the atmosphere, followed by an unprecedented warming of deeper waters, below 700 metres.

This helps explain something that many a doubter has seized on, lower-than-expected surface warming since the late 1990s. But Earth’s surface in the decade to 2010 was still warmer than any previous, and NASA data shows last month to be the second warmest June on record.

Science’s ever-growing bank of evidence is producing a broader awareness of the human factor in climate change and rising unease about what it brings. There are now signs that this is changing public perception, such that at last we may be starting to get a constructive public policy debate.

The shift is reflected in some bold pronouncements by figures in authority. In the wake of strong climate warnings by President Barak Obama and the International Energy Agency, the World Bank decided last week that it would no longer fund new coal power plants around the globe.

The 2013 Lowy Institute Poll shows a growing proportion of Australians over the past year accepting man-made climate change. A good indicator of this is rooftop solar investment, which in the second-quarter of 2013 totalled $2.3 billion, nearly six times that of the previous quarter.

So it seems people generally accept the need for strong measures and are readying themselves for a different future. Could it be that we’re now passing a tipping point in the public debate?

We’ve heard this before. Though the signals from science are stronger than ever, against that has been 20 years of false starts — failed international meetings, political squabbling and weak or non-existent national policies among others — that have left a strong residue of scepticism.

Some people believe it’s their mission to discredit “warmist” science and thwart efforts to cut carbon emissions. Websites like “Watts up with that” provide them with a steady stream of arguments — some ancient and long-discredited, some newly-minted — which they can then regurgitate as fact.

The climate denial industry, for that is what it has become, is driven by and feeds upon people’s natural wish for things to be all right. The scientific evidence says things are definitely not all right, but lack of evidence is no barrier to these yarn-spinners and conspiracy theorists.

These points were well illustrated in a piece of current writing referred to me last week by Chris Sharples, Tasmanian scientist, coastal topographer and deep thinker.

The age of global warming is over” is the bold title of an article by a Queensland academic, Paul Collits, in the July-August issue of the magazine Quadrant, which these days serves largely as a medium for rancorous diatribes about climate change science and policy.

Like me, Collits isn’t a scientist. Unlike me, he gives no credence to the scientific evidence for human-caused warming. Instead, with a colourful turn of phrase and help from the writer he’s reviewing, English economist-historian Rupert Darwall, he makes up an alternative narrative.

Collits and Darwall conjure up a parallel universe, walled off from reality. Its heroes are “sceptics” like Australian geologists Ian Plimer and Bob Carter, who’ve “dealt with the science”, and retired politician Nigel Lawson, who’s “dealt with the economics”. Done and dusted, just like that.

As Collits sees it, his own state of Queensland is in the vanguard of dismantling the infrastructure of what he calls “climatism”, the “warmist” ideology that he thinks is now in its “death throes”. They see things differently up north.

Chris Sharples believes Collits is seriously deluded. I’m not so sure. I suspect that like many in the denial industry he has an inkling that there’s more than a grain of truth in what he’s attacking, but that he enjoys the chase. Maybe it gives direction to an otherwise pointless existence.

Whatever his motivation, Collits is defying reality. Both he and another Quadrant contributor, opposition leader Tony Abbott, are ignoring the huge repository of evidence for greenhouse warming which is now shifting opinion in the wider Australian community.

Abbott, for whom I suspect people like Collits are primary information sources, described emissions trading last week as “a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one”. In case we missed it the first time, he repeated it.

Abbott’s “invisible substance” was a dog-whistle to climate deniers, some of whom put him in his job and have sustained him since, signalling that he keeps the faith and they should stick with him. The wider public has moved on, and that may yet cost him dearly in the coming poll.

For his part Kevin Rudd, who finds it hard to stop smiling now he’s taken back the job that he always considered his by right, believes he holds the high ground on climate policy. High compared to what? Tony Abbott?

Labor’s decision to bring emissions trading forward by a year will radically lower both the carbon price and the revenue take in 2014. In announcing the policy shift, Rudd characterised it mainly as a saving for mums and dads, with the environment a secondary beneficiary.

A logical saving would have been to cut fossil fuel subsidies, but Labor chose to lower support for clean technology investment, biodiversity and sustainable farming programs. Has Rudd’s “greatest moral challenge” come down to this?

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