Trust the cautious scientist ahead of the carbon lobbyist

The meticulous work of thousands of climate scientists is being challenged by a well-resourced misinformation campaign, says the Government’s scientific adviser on climate change. Should we believe him, or put our trust in the carbon lobby? [19 October 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Here are a couple of questions that anyone with an opinion about whether humans affect the climate should ask themselves: What do I know about the science around climate? Where did I get this information?

Professor Will Steffen, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, Canberra

Professor Will Steffen, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, Canberra

If you asked me those questions I’d have to say I don’t know a lot. My formal science education ended at school. I know a bit about the big-picture but little about the detail — the analysis of data and the testing of theory. I lack the intellectual tools to determine by myself how good they are. I venture to say that nearly all of my readers are the same.

My life took me along other paths, but my continuing interest in what science says about our world was a teacher of sorts. For years I earned a crust writing about polar science, which educated me about Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and the people who studied them.

But our planet’s climate is a vast complex of multiple interacting systems that have tested all our best scientific minds to their limits, and beyond. There’s no single hero, no one-stop shop when it comes to climate science. This is a global team effort involving thousands of people.

There’s no way I can independently judge the veracity of any of the enormous mass of climate research papers in the scientific literature. But I can evaluate scientists as human beings.

In years of working alongside them I’ve found them a cautious lot. They can be annoyingly inconclusive, always hedging their bets. Getting a straightforward answer can be like squeezing blood from a stone, because they rely on evidence, and if that’s not clear they say so.

I learned to appreciate this. We need to trust these people to be competent, diligent and honest in observing our physical world and making sense of it. We may not like their message, but we have to wear it. Like skilled tradesmen, it’s their job to find the problems and tell us what they are. Then we have to choose. We can heed their advice, or we can ignore them.

After decades of arguing over the physical evidence, scientists are all but unanimous in declaring that an increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the air, produced by humans, is a threat to our future, and that we need both to reduce our carbon emissions and to adapt in a world that’s changing surprisingly quickly.

Professor Will Steffen, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute in Canberra and a climate scientist of many years’ standing, knows a fair bit about the pleasures and pitfalls of explaining the significance of his and others’ work to the public.

Three weeks after he was named by Julia Gillard as the scientific advisor to her top-level Multi-Party Climate Change Committee, Steffen was in Hobart last week to talk to the Australia-New Zealand Climate Forum about “communicating science in a political minefield”.

The forum, organised by the Bureau of Meteorology and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, was the 18th since the Forum’s inception in 1986. It brought together hundreds of climate specialists from throughout our region and across the Pacific.

Evidence for a warming world is clear, Steffen told his audience: “From 1980 to 2009 the global temperature has been warming at 0.2C per decade. The decade to 2009 was the warmest on record, significantly warmer than the 1990s, which in turn were significantly warmer than the 1980s.”

The evidence went beyond increasing global average air and ocean temperatures. Melting snow and ice, rising sea level, and changes to ocean salinity, wind, rainfall and extreme weather patterns were some of the many indicators of a changing world.

In determining that humans were almost certainly the principal driver of this change, the peak global climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had applied the highest scientific standards to its exhaustive analysis of published science, said Steffen.

“Attempts to discredit the IPCC have been built around two peripheral errors in about 3000 pages, plus an enormous amount of distortion, misrepresentation, spin and outright lies.”

The thousands of contributing scientists — global leaders in climate-related fields — constituted a “who’s who” in climate change research, from the world’s best research institutions, applying an exhaustive multi-stage review process and the highest quality control system.

The scientific basis for the whole report was contained in the first of three sub-reports. Exhaustive scrutiny of this document had failed to find a single error, said Steffen: “Within the credible climate science community, the IPCC remains the gold standard of climate science assessment.”

Steffen referred to a study of the politics of climate change which found that fossil-fuel interests had funded a few scientists and think tanks to channel misinformation, creating a false sense that science was in broad disagreement about global warming. In turn, the issue had been falsely represented in the media as a battle of unproven science between two equal, competing sides.

Opening the conference, the Governor of Tasmania, Peter Underwood, said that nothing would come of the science unless its significance was communicated to the public. He listened to Steffen’s address and exchanged some friendly banter about the contribution (or otherwise) of his own legal profession.

Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the climate debate has evoked deep public emotion which is affecting our capacity to meet the challenge of sustaining the global life support system. We’re at a crossroads. What happens from here depends on the values we choose to guide us.

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3 Responses to Trust the cautious scientist ahead of the carbon lobbyist

  1. Andrew says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your thoughts on climate related issues. You have a very priveleged position being given space in the Mercury to air your views on a regular basis.

    What is frustrating to many readers, however, is that the uncertainty relating to the science behind the politics driving climate change and carbon taxes etc,is not being conveyed in the your column, and in the general media.

    As you indicate in your column, your opinions are based on your reading of the science conveyed by others who are experts in the field.

    Do you think it might be a little more intellectually honest to convey some of the doubts behind statements you make? And to profer the alternative opinion form experts who hold alternate views?

    For example, a few weeks ago you said the Carbon Tax would increase power prices only minimally. A few days later, however, in the Mercury an article by Matt Smith quoted a study from the Institute of Public Affairs saying that Carbon prices would double electricity bills.

    Also too was the recent Royal Society document which stated there had been no warming sonce 1998, and that sea level rise was very uncertain, but offered the figure of ‘at least’ 20cm over the next 90 years. Youhave not covered this significant document.

    A quick search on the internet reveals that there are any other issues pertaining to the science relating to climate change where there is significant doubt.

    I was speaking to a well known local climate scientist recently who said that there are many climate scientists who have doubts about the prevailing opinion on global warming, but they are marginalised or ignored, and cant get their opinions voiced in the media.

    As you have this priveleged position with this weekly article, do you think it might be a little more intellectualy honest to convey some of these uncertainties, and alternative views, instead of selecting information which support your own personal opinion?

    This is particularly true, in view of the above statements about your lack of expertise in this area.

    In the long run, your personal credibility, and ethics, I would suggest, would demand a more balanced presentation of the issue.



  2. Peter Boyer says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Andrew.

    I accept the responsibility that comes with having a weekly column, but (as you probably expect) I don’t agree with you that I haven’t conveyed uncertainty about the science. There is always uncertainty about these questions, just as there is about natural selection, continental drift and gravity. Climate science in all its forms is an endless procession of hypotheses being tested and re-tested and eventually replaced by something that stacks up better, but no hypothesis about climate is perfect.

    I have represented the views of the overwhelming majority of scientists because I believe the evidence is very strong and I think we are foolish if we ignore these views. I have acknowledged the dissenting voices whenever I have written about this issue of scientific agreement. I know many Australians might see this minority as not getting a fair go, but I’d be irresponsible if I represented the dissenting voices as somehow equal in value to the majority view. It isn’t a matter of balance. We have virtually the whole global scientific establishment on one side, and a handful of dissenters on the other. This is because the evidence coming in keeps bolstering the already-strong case for human-induced warming. It’s understandable that you think I’m not giving the minority a fair go, but in reality they get plenty of unquestioning support throughout the media – including the ABC and in The Mercury, where Piers Akerman is happy to give them space.

    Whatever the merits of their analyses and the transparency of their methods, think tanks tend to investigate subjects and produce findings that fit with the reasons they were established. The Institute of Public Affairs is a think tank set up to support small government and a free-market economy. A penalty for carbon pollution is not exactly on its wish-list.

    As for the report in The Australian claiming the Royal Society was backing away from its position on global warming, this is what Professor John Pethica, Vice-President of the Royal Society, wrote to the editor of The Australian:

    “In your coverage of our newly published Climate change: a summary of the science (“Top science body cools on global warming”, 2/10) your correspondents suggest that the society has changed its position on climate change. This is simply not true. There is no greater uncertainty about future temperature increases now than the Royal Society had previously indicated. The science remains the same, as do the uncertainties. Indeed, the purpose of the new guide is to help people understand what is well established and what is still uncertain. There is strong evidence that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity are the main cause of the global warming that has taken place over the past half century. The warming trend is expected to continue but the sizes of future temperature increases are still subject to uncertainty.”

    As I said, I agree about the uncertainties. I have never claimed that future temperature or sea-level projections are set in concrete. Like the Royal Society, I think the warming trend is going to continue; the only question is by how much, and we won’t know that for certain until we actually get there. In the meantime, it is prudent to try to mitigate the damage.

  3. john reeves says:

    Peter, while yr plea to trust the IPCC centric scientist over some ratbag carbon lobbyist (or multitudes of them) seems valid from ‘common sense angle’ i am left wondering about yr motivation. Do you think that a bit of criticism is something the ‘extremely rigorous’ IPCC assesment process cant stand up to, or feels it ‘shouldnt have to’ accept criticism…?

    I think people will make their own mind up in their own time..its kinda like “we have to save the planet from disaster” ok..but i gotta pick the kids up from school..can we leave it till after that…’-)

    semi related issue..

    Did you see this link about the longterm CSIRO atmosheric scieintist who had a breakdown because he couldnt understand why humans havent done anything about CC yet…hes given up Climate and is taking up psychology to better understand human reactions , guess that will make him an atmospheric psychologist…;-)

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