Amateurs at work

The Abbott government believes it can ignore its climate experts with impunity. [2 September 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss puts a point on Q&A. [SOURCE: ABC]

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss puts a point on Q&A. [SOURCE: ABC]

A fortnight ago investment banker and company director Maurice Newman mused aloud that “climate change is determined by the sun, not humans”.

In a long article in The Australian, Newman wrote that scientific conclusions about human-induced warming reflected a deliberate bias, because “the more scientists pointed to human causes, the more governments funded their research”.

“Like primitive civilisations offering up sacrifices to appease the gods, many governments, including Australia’s former Labor government, used the biased research to pursue ‘green’ gesture politics”, damaging economies and diminishing the West’s influence, Newman wrote.

In other words it was politics and personal ambition, not science, which led to the view that climate is being changed by humans. If that’s so, we’ve been hoodwinked by our professional scientists.

Newman’s lack of a scientific background doesn’t preclude him from writing about climate science, any more than it does me. But several things set this case apart.

The world’s professional science bodies, including every national science academy, agree that humans are the main cause of global warming. According to all the expert surveys of peer-reviewed scientific literature, this is also the view of an overwhelming majority of individual scientists.

Newman is therefore questioning the integrity of not just individual professionals but the scientific establishment as a whole, in Australia and throughout the world. That takes a lot of gall.

There’s also the fact that lay people can easily misinterpret the specialist jargon of research papers. In writing about a scientific outcome I tend to look for what scientists, especially a paper’s authors, say about it. If possible I deal with an author myself.

It seems Newman did none of this in claiming that a long-term study of solar activity by Finnish physicist Ilya Usoskin and others, and work by “leading British climate scientist Mike Lockwood”, supported his argument.

He said that Lockwood considered the sun’s cyclical influence, currently waning, made global cooling “more likely than not”. But a 2012 paper by Lockwood and others said that the cooling impact from solar by 2100 would be “a very small fraction” of expected human-induced warming.

Newman claimed that the Usoskin paper  supported the case that the sun was the dominant influence on climate change, but the paper is about the sun, and doesn’t discuss climate on Earth at all.

Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, surmised that he’d got his information from “trawling the internet”, and advised him to steer clear of climate science and stick to business matters. Whatever his sources, Newman’s article misrepresents the science.

“Nonsense” and “flat earth stuff” was the assessment of Michael Raupach, head of the ANU’s Climate Change Institute, at a Science Week function in Canberra. He said Newman was “cherry picking about one per cent of the information, taking it completely out of context”.

We could reasonably ignore the article if Newman was just another businessman, but he isn’t. He’s the head of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.

If the government was inclined it could have ensured that Newman’s views got the credibility they deserved. It still could. Tony Abbott could publicly remind him that his advisory role is limited to business matters and that in the circumstances he should stay off his hobby horse.

But Abbott hasn’t, and nor has the deputy prime minister, Warren Truss, whose National Party has been even less accepting of climate science than the Liberals.

On the ABC’s Q&A show, Truss refused repeatedly to say whether Newman was wrong. “I think we need to listen to all the scientists,” he responded. “Certainly there are scientists who have different views and one thing that I thought everybody believed around the table was that we should be open to whatever views are being expressed.”

So where are these different views coming from? I seriously doubt that Truss could name a single Australian currently employed as a climate scientist who supports Newman’s claims.

Truss’s counsel to “be open to whatever views are being expressed” says it all. Our national leadership is duty-bound to seek the best possible advice on issues requiring specialist knowledge, yet it treats the science of climate as an exception, open to anyone’s tin-pot beliefs.

The idea that carbon emissions and the science of global warming are of little consequence also informed the Warburton Renewable Energy Target report, out last week. Measures recommended in the review would eliminate Australia’s most effective remaining tool for cutting emissions.

The tacit acceptance of Newman’s article and the very existence of the Warburton report have laid bare the government’s disengagement with climate policy and its careless disregard of the accumulated wisdom of science.

If this isn’t deliberate it’s the work of deluded, clueless amateurs. Either way we’re in big trouble.

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