A banker’s thoughts on the science of climate

It’s fine for a banker to endow us with his wisdom on financial matters. It’s not fine when he uses his platform to contradict the prevailing science of climate change. [13 December 2011 | Peter Boyer]

The Global Carbon Project’s calculation of emissions growth since 1990 in developed (blue) and developing (green) economies. Dotted lines represent consumption and continuous lines are production; the shaded areas represent trade balances. ORIGINAL GRAPHIC GLOBAL CARBON PROJECT

The Global Carbon Project’s calculation of emissions growth since 1990 in developed (blue) and developing (green) economies. Dotted lines represent consumption and continuous lines are production; the shaded areas represent trade balances. ORIGINAL GRAPHIC GLOBAL CARBON PROJECT

A couple of weeks ago David Murray, chairman of Australia’s Future Fund and long-serving former CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, appeared on ABC-TV’s Lateline program to talk about the implications for Australia of Europe’s financial plight.

David Murray’s job carries a lot of responsibility. The latest report of the Future Fund’s “Board of Guardians”, which he chairs, estimates that the Australian sovereign wealth under its care amounts to over $90 billion. So when he talks about our future, it pays to listen.

His thoughts about the European crisis, as you’d expect, made a lot of sense. Then his interviewer, Ali Moore, took him to a new place — climate change — and my blood ran cold.

Murray believes there’s not enough evidence for human-induced warming to justify the risks being taken by governments to curb emissions. “If we’re not certain that the problem’s there,” he told Moore, “then we shouldn’t take actions which have a high severity the other way.”

Murray felt bothered by not knowing whether it was carbon dioxide driving temperature or the other way around. It’s not a good sign, he said, when scientists start arguing amongst themselves. “Science is meant to be above all of that with true scientific method. And the claims are unreal.”

In just those few sentences, Murray revealed both the great distance between his profession and that of a scientist, and the depth of his ignorance about climate science and the scientific method.

Contrary to Murray’s assertions, the evidence for human-induced climate change is overwhelming and growing stronger with each passing year. The risk is not in over-reacting; it is in our slow response to the evidence. To think otherwise is simply wishful thinking.

As for Murray’s puzzle about temperature and carbon dioxide, science worked out long ago that while temperature changes triggered by the sun and other natural influences can cause carbon dioxide levels to rise, the latter provide a feedback loop that in turn push temperatures higher still.

Murray’s concerns about scientists “arguing amongst themselves” may be a common response among corporate executives unused to having their views disputed, but argument is the bread and butter of science. Doesn’t he know that?

Science is always in a state of flux, but the physics of greenhouse warming is basic knowledge, like Earth’s revolution around the sun, and the collective wisdom of the world’s national scientific academies is unanimous that the threat from rising atmospheric carbon levels is real and urgent.

How urgent is spelt out in the annual Global Carbon Project analysis released last week in the journal Nature Climate Change, which reported strong emissions growth in both developed economies such as Europe and the US and emerging economies including China, India and Russia.

The paper, two of whose authors are Australian CSIRO scientists Pep Canadell and Mike Raupach, found emissions growth in 2010 at record levels, contributing to a current atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide of 389.6 parts per million, the highest in at least 800,000 years.

At this rate of growth the world should expect to be on average 3C to 4C warmer by 2100 — a rate and level of warming that would be nothing short of catastrophic. Despite such repeated warnings from the specialists best placed to know, David Murray the banker, all by himself, has worked out that they’re wrong. Who’s the risk-taker here?

Murray levelled particular criticism at claims about future sea level, citing the “extremeness” of claims about oceans rising by seven metres, “which is just an astounding level”.

Again, he shows ignorance of what the science around sea levels is saying. Numerous paleoclimate studies tell us that when large ice sheets like Greenland’s are subjected to long-term warming, such as we’re seeing now, they can disappear altogether, and when they do seas rise many metres. This won’t happen tomorrow, but by 2100 we may be well on the way there.

It’s already started. Sea levels are notoriously difficult to pin down, but satellite technology has confirmed a steady background rise of about 3mm a year, a rate that the leading specialists expect to increase as the century wears on. By 2100 seas are likely to be 1m or more higher than today. This isn’t alarmism, just cold, sober science.

There are a few maverick scientists, it must be said, whose writings may confuse the likes of Murray. In a cover story for the UK Spectator magazine last week, the Swedish oceanographer Nils-Axel Morner wrote that the threat of rising sea levels was nothing but a myth, pure and simple.

He’s been doing this for years. In 2004, Tasmanian sea-level scientist John Hunter, of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, asked Morner to send him a copy of a paper he claimed to have written for a peer-reviewed journal, titled “No flooding of the Maldives”.

Over nearly two years, Hunter kept plugging away trying to obtain a copy of the paper, asking Morner for more details on his Maldives data, and supplying data from Hunter’s own sources which seemed completely at odds with Morner’s claims.

He got nowhere. Morner said at first that his paper wasn’t available because it was still to be accepted for publication, then he said he couldn’t afford the mailing cost. He professed to be amazed by Hunter’s data, but supplied no data to support his own statements. This from a self-described global authority.

David Murray should read Hunter’s correspondence with Morner, available here. But I doubt he will. Like Morner, he seems convinced that evidence is of no consequence when you’re an authority in your own right.

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