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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