Amid all the hoopla, the science continues

Robert Manne is being too hasty in proclaiming that the ascendancy of global warming denial spells defeat for climate science. [14 August 2012 | Peter Boyer]

“Last year I concluded that global warming was real…. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.” – Richard Muller on release of his Berkeley team’s land temperature assessment late last month.

“Victory of the Denialists: How climate science was vanquished” is the banner headline on the front page of the latest Monthly magazine, advertising the latest foray of essayist Robert Manne into the dark recesses of the global warming debate.

“This is a victory that subsequent generations cursing ours may look upon as perhaps the darkest in the history of humankind,” is Manne’s gloomy conclusion about the impact of political and commercial interests on the public debate over our changing climate.

He speaks for many. An air of defeat is drifting over the ranks of advocates for urgent and decisive action on carbon emissions, tiring of unrelenting attacks in broadcast and online media on the credibility of the science behind human-induced, or anthropogenic, global warming (AGW).

Manne is right about the motives and resources behind the attacks of those he calls “denialists”. With AGW science still rock-solid and precious time slipping away, there’s reason to be worried.

But he’s wrong on one important point. It’s not all over.

Scientists have always been awkward public figures. Writing in 2000, British physicist John Ziman noted a big gap between scientists and others, such as lawyers and politicians, in arguing a case.

Scientific disputes, he said, are typically written rather than oral, they aren’t sharply polarised or formally adversarial, they seldom address a specific proposition, and they don’t reach decisive closure.

Their rhetorical style sits awkwardly in what most of us know as public debate, which for most scientists is unfamiliar intellectual territory. Few of them know how to make their special knowledge sound convincing to a non-specialist audience.

I recall a case that demonstrates Ziman’s point. In a debate about climate change at the University of Tasmania in Sandy Bay a few years ago, mining geologist and prominent anti-AGW campaigner Professor Ian Plimer was pitted against Hobart climate scientist Professor Nathan Bindoff.

My recollection of that debate is that Bindoff produced a welter of well-referenced evidence that AGW was happening while Plimer simply listed possible alternative explanations and claimed his opponents were protecting their vested interests. I concluded Bindoff won easily.

But I heard others who were in that audience express an opposite view. Bindoff was dry as dust, they said, while Plimer had an interesting story line and was amusing, engaging — and convincing.

Be that as it may, Bindoff has continued to follow his vocation, investigating evidence for climate change and the impact of warming on Tasmania and the world. His scientific focus is undiminished, and his outstanding success in modelling Tasmanian and global climate speaks for itself. No sense of defeat here.

His story is repeated world-wide. The research papers continue to pour out of the global scientific community, the vast majority (about 97.5 per cent by a couple of recent estimates) reinforcing the AGW paradigm. If climate science has been beaten down by denial, no-one seems to have told the scientists.

A fascinating little story has been playing out in the United States (home of the best and the worst of the climate debate) involving Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California (Berkeley). Muller leads a group funded in part by oil interests seeking to determine the accuracy or otherwise of global temperature records.

In March last year Anthony Watts, a prominent anti-AGW blogger and former TV weatherman who thinks global temperature records are biased because urban temperature stations are artificially warmed, visited the Berkeley team. Declaring confidence in the team’s methods, he said that “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.”

A few weeks ago, self-described “converted sceptic” Muller released his team’s land temperature report confirming that global warming was happening and that records were unaffected by artificial warming. He also said that the human imprint was the only viable explanation for such warming.

There was a predictably unhappy response from contrarian bloggers — including Watts. Far from accepting the finding, Watts has published numerous comments designed to undermine the Berkeley study. Other bloggers were less constrained. Muller was, after all, a turncoat.

Our own Andrew Bolt weighed in by citing on his Herald-Sun blogsite a paper released by Watts providing “fresh evidence that Muller’s project relied on poorly sited weather stations which falsely doubled the extent of the rise in the US land temperature.” We can expect more of this.

Despite Robert Manne’s fears, Watts’s continuing campaign is increasingly irrelevant in this debate. But the point of the response to Muller’s findings is that minds once made up are not easily changed, however compelling the evidence to do so.

Michael Mann, the climatologist who produced the famous AGW “hockey stick” graph, shares with Watts a disdain of Muller — not because he thinks the Berkeley report is wrong (he doesn’t) but because Muller has taken so long to accept AGW. “This is all really about Richard Muller’s self-aggrandisement,” he said.

I don’t blame Mann, a favourite sceptic target, for feeling miffed, but the best way scientists can win the race for public approval is to remain conspicuously above the fray and continue showcasing their veracity and transparency through their time-honoured peer-review process.

I confess that I too haven’t changed my mind recently. But then, repeated checks of current research have failed to turn up any reason for me to do so. The published science has been consistent for over two decades. It’s us, folks.

• ALL EYES of the global climate science community will be on Tasmania early next year for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Lead Authors Meeting. About 200 of the world’s leading climate scientists will attend the six-day meeting in Hobart, starting on January 14, as a prelude to the release a year later of the long-awaited IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.


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