A triumph of fear, doubt, ignorance

The US mid-term elections have stopped US climate action dead in its tracks. Obama has intentions of continuing the battle, but he doesn’t seem to have his heart in it. [23 November 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Things are getting serious.

168evans-modFor the past year we’ve endured the poor result in Copenhagen and Australian indecision on climate policy in the faint hope that the United States might soon start to put its considerable weight behind the faltering, so-far ineffectual global effort to reduce carbon emissions.

That hope has now been extinguished by a resurgent neo-conservative movement in the US, led by the querulous Tea Partiers with financial backing from radio and television presenter Glenn Beck and the Koch Industries oil empire. If that sounds conspiratorial, then it probably is.

Barak Obama must shoulder some responsibility. Before he was elected President he gave climate action high priority. Now, after an exhausting health care reform battle and a demoralising election campaign, he seems to have given up, declaring emissions trading to be off the agenda.

In a few short sentences during a long post-election media briefing, Obama said he would be looking to measures other than cap-and-trade “that don’t hurt the economy”. He didn’t mention a carbon tax, but any form of carbon pricing in the US now looks pretty well dead in the water.

In Australia, Opposition climate spokesperson Greg Hunt trumpeted Obama’s announcement as support for the Liberals’ “direct action, no tax” policy — ignoring the mountain of evidence and expert advice that such regulatory measures are the costliest, least effective way to curb emissions.

The election marks a complete failure of US climate policy, which rarely got a mention amid all the campaign hubbub over economic hard times and libertarian prattle about smaller government and personal freedom. It’s an enormous setback for humanity’s battle to stop global warming.

This has been a victory of opposition over cooperation, of suspicion over trust, of personal greed over public interest, of fear and ignorance over considered, well-informed debate. Vested interests — especially resource interests — have drawn on their considerable reserves to play on people’s anxiety about the future.

I thought the slogan-rich, information-poor Australian election campaign three months ago was about as bad as it could get. I thought the noisy, petty posturing of those of our politicians opposed to climate and energy action was as low as politics could get.

I was wrong. On both counts, the US political scene leaves us for dead. Sarah Palin’s declaration that the great challenge of our time is “off the table” was bad enough; worse was the dumb triumphalism that went with it. These people actually think a great victory has been won.

Even politicians in Obama’s own Democratic party are opposing a recent court decision allowing the US government to treat carbon emissions as pollution and regulate accordingly. In the US such populism is considered business as usual. From here it looks close to madness.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m wondering if we haven’t reached the limits of what democracy and civilisation can achieve. Could it be that the size and complexity of the climate issue has tested our civil systems beyond their capacity, and we’re now observing the start of a breakdown?

The United States arouses powerful passions. This great nation has given us so much to value and admire: in its self-belief, its “can do” attitude and innovative technology, its fierce defence of individual liberty, and its scientific achievements.

But there’s a negative side to this. American can-do self-belief is sometimes manifested in a false optimism that every problem has a technical fix, no matter what its cause. Hence Obama’s misplaced faith that technology by itself can lower emissions despite his country’s rising energy demands.

The nation that gave us the great Abraham Lincoln also gave us the Tea Party, a host of ordinary Americans who see themselves as latter-day Lincolns defending freedom. This is delusion on a grand scale. In truth, they’re being cynically manipulated by vested interests to destabilise a government already under siege from the global financial crisis.

You wouldn’t think so nowadays, but in times past Americans have held their scientists in very high regard. But this faith in scientists has its darker side, painstakingly researched and powerfully evoked in a new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt.

Merchants of Doubt is a masterful account of how a few scientists, mainly working outside their field of expertise, used their god-like status to conceal the truth about various environmental and health issues. As the book tells it, for decades a small handful of scientists sought for reasons of personal ideology to cast doubt on links between tobacco smoke and lung cancer and the causes of acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming.

In the case of global warming, the results are now plain to see. Americans have ditched their enlightenment traditions to come out against the science. Somehow, this now has to be turned around. Merchants of Doubt is an important first step to Americans and the rest of the world regaining their trust in the integrity of the scientific method.

In the US political firmament, fear and ignorance now have the upper hand over informed public policy. It will take a supreme effort by the Obama Administration to turn this around in the two years before he faces the people to win a second term.

We, too, have the battle ahead of us. Our own record on climate action puts us alongside the US at the back of the pack of developed countries. We have to focus on getting our own house in order while resolving not to allow the same unreason to engulf our own body politic.

• One of the world’s leading climate scientists, David Karoly, will speak about what science is telling us right now about our climate, on Friday at 6 pm in the Stanley Burbury Theatre, University of Tasmania, Sandy Bay. Entry is free. For more information call 62267377.

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3 Responses to A triumph of fear, doubt, ignorance

  1. Andrew says:

    Hi Peter, thanks for the article, despite your disappointment, for many of us, it is a huge relief that there is a move away from cap and trade and carbon taxes.

    I will try and make it to the talk you have promoted. I wonder if Dr Karoly might be able to address one issue I am interested in; you may be able to email him the question prior to his talk.

    Data from BOM demonstrates very little sea level rise over the last 20 years. This was also demontrated in a review by Burton of IPCC data; see websites below. I wonder if you or he would be able to comment on the accuracy of these studies and how much credence climate scientists place on these observations as opposed to computer modelling?

    http://www.bom.gov.au/ntc/IDO60101/IDO60101.201009.pdf http://www.burtonsys.com/climate/global_msl_trend_analysis.html



  2. Peter Boyer says:

    Thanks for your comments Andrew.
    If you’re relieved at the absence of carbon pricing, you would also have to be concerned at the Abbott Opposition’s regulatory approach, which by most economic measures add up to a much more expensive mitigation policy. But it really doesn’t matter because we both know he doesn’t take climate action seriously, don’t we?
    I’m surprised that you think the BOM-NTC report you cited (http://www.bom.gov.au/ntc/IDO60101.201009.pdf) “demonstrates very little sea level rise over the last 20 years”. On p.4 it actually shows trends in the range 3.2 to 14.8 mm/year – of the same order or higher than the present global sea-level rise of about 3.2 mm/year. The median of the numbers in the table is around 6mm/year – higher than the global-mean rise from satellite altimeter data for this time period and consistent with the satellite altimeter data over this region and period. Figure 12 is misleading because the trend has been taken out of each time series before calculating the anomalies that are plotted. Note that accompanying the data is a warning to “please exercise caution in interpreting the short-term trends in the table below”.
    As for Dave Burton’s work on the Church-White sea-level data, the information I have is that the Burton analysis was in error in that it omitted to factor in geophysical data (i.e. glacial isostatic adjustment, or GIA). This error has been pointed out in various places but Burton himself may not yet have acknowledged it. You can find out more about how GIA affects sea level at http://www.psmsl.org/train_and_info/geo_signals/gia/.
    I hope this helps. – PB.

  3. Andrew says:

    Hi Peter, thanks for the answer. I attended part of the lecture on friday by Dr Karoly. He is an impressive speaker and accomplished scientist, and fortunately Hobart turned out a good crowd for him.

    I am obviously not entirely in agreement with him however, but it seemed most of the audience, judging by the questions, were in agreement, so he was essentially preaching to the converted.

    I was slightly dismayed, however, that the skeptical position is still dealt with in a slightly mocking or derogatory tone, both from Dr Karoly and some members of the audience using terms such as denier. In other scientific lectures, and in other disciplines, scientists treat their contemporaries with respect, and if they hold positions which differ or depart, this is dealt with in an objective and dispassionate way, rather than a gleeful “aha he is wrong” tone.

    Some of the skeptic scientists make mistakes, as do orthodox climate scientists. It is childish for both sides to then treat all the information coming from these sources as irrelevant.

    It seems that some people want to silence those with skeptical views, as the last questioner implied with a question about allowing the concept of uncertainty in climate science to be permitted. Dr Karoly pointed out that there is no precision in this science, and to that extent, uncertainty is obviously inherent. This is the message of the recent document from the Royal Society on climate change.

    Regarding sea levels, I think the Burton document stands, but I do not quite understand the issue regarding glaciers; something to do with continents rebounding after the last ice age? I would have thought the actual sea level measurements would still be the issue, as all land masses rise or fall. Maybe someone can clear this up for me.

    Interestingly, since I wrote last week, there has been a Satellite study of sea level rise released which is consistent with Burtons analysis. Note, this does not come from a skeptic source, and is commented on by Josh Willis (not a skeptic). Only 1mm per year sea level rise. No catastrophe here, I would say.


    Regarding the BOM information, an analysis of this data indicated that they showed a rising trend when they were first installed for few years,(?settling in or calibration) but since the late 1990’s, there has been of the order of 1-2mm seal level rise, which fits in with the other two studies. A simple eyeballing of these graphs demonstrates there is no catastrophic sea level rise. The outlier here is FSM, and some local geological issues might explain this.

    The problem with Dr Karoly’s position is that he emphasises certain information, and ignores others, such as this recent GRACE satellite study. Cherry-picking. Both sides of the debate do this, but I would have thought, for holders of high positions in Universities and Govt positions, they have a lot more integrity if they acknowledge the science which doesnt agree with their position.

    For example, Dr karoly showed graphs of Climate models which agree with observations up until 2000, but neglected to show the last ten years of observatios in which the majority of climate models differ significantly from observations.

    He also quoted Plimer Carter and Monckton as being erroneous when they said there had been no temperature rise over the last 12 years, since 1998, because 1998 had been a strong el Nino year.

    He failed to say that Dr Phil Jones from East Anglia university also said there had been no statistically significant warming since 1995. This chap is definitely not a skeptic. Dr Karoly didnt include this opinion in his talk.

    I was interested in the questioner from New Zealand, who indicated that climate forecasts show that there will be a net benefit to NZ with increased rainfall and plant growth. Dr Karoly agreed with him. It is interesting that Dr Karoly failed to demonstrate the enormous positive benefits of increased CO2 levels, especially studies demonstrating that the worlds biosphere, from satellite studies, is increasing at a phenomenal rate due to increasing CO2.




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