Self-interest has no place in the climate debate

In looking for what’s true and what isn’t in the climate debate, self-interest is a serious obstacle. [26 August 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Like the rest of the animal kingdom, humans are a self-interested lot, hard-wired to defend their patch against all-comers. Self-interest drove us to dominate other species, but now we’ve reached the top of the heap we need to re-assess its value.

The power of self-interest poses an enormous danger to our effort to deal with climate change. It can so easily blind us to reality and lead us to devalue objective knowledge. I thank Dr Julian Amos (Letters, August 19) for his salutary reminder of this threat.

In querying my observations on carbon emissions from forest activities, Dr Amos, chairman of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, accused me of being selective with the truth and presenting questionable information as fact. If he’s right, I am condemned indeed.

Dr Amos’s particular argument that I’m biased against Tasmanian forestry as it’s presently practised is for others to judge, and perhaps for me to re-visit at a future time. My concern here is for the wider issue of objective knowledge.

I try hard to put aside preconceptions about how I’d like things to be. If I find I’ve made errors of fact I’ll admit them, and while newspaper columns don’t allow detailed referencing, I am prepared to refer readers to particular scientific sources if they contact me by email.

Those of us seeking to influence the public, before we put forward any “facts” about climate change, need to ask: “Is what I’m saying borne out by the science?” I must do this, and so must anyone who asserts I’m factually wrong.

Good science is by definition objective. Processes of reaching a scientific conclusion have evolved down the centuries to incorporate various checks and balances, in which personal bias has no place. Honest mistakes happen, but scientists responsible are duty-bound to set the record straight.

The highest scientific standards are set by peer-reviewed literature, in which a thesis is rigorously and sceptically assessed by other scientists, distant from the authors, before being published. Papers and reports which haven’t been peer-reviewed carry less weight, but errors will damage a reputation, and that’s a strong incentive to avoid them.

Statements by scientists that are not supported by verifiable objective evidence are not science, but simply opinion. The maelstrom of argument surrounding climate change contains many such statements, and it’s important to sift out science from opinion, which is what I try to do.

Which brings me back to self-interest. The American writer Upton Sinclair observed that it’s hard to convince people that something is true when their salary depends on them believing otherwise. It could be added that a proposition doesn’t gain objective truth simply because it comes from a position of power.

It’s especially hard to be objective when you’re protecting financial, political or social status, but we have to try, because as I’ve said before, Planet Earth doesn’t respond to spin.

Arguing from a position of self-interest is wasting precious human energy. For the sake of our future, we must put it aside.

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