A position of authority guarantees neither knowledge nor wisdom. [22 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]
Fiona Stanley is an eminent medical scientist, public health specialist and 2003 Australian of the Year. Western Australia is naming a new hospital after her.
Last week Stanley told an audience of fellow-doctors in Perth that denial of the findings of science and denigration of scientists in the public debate about climate change presented a huge risk to the lives of future generations of Australians.
Stanley spoke as a health specialist, but it’s significant that she’s a woman. We all know that men are more accepting of risk than women. Sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it isn’t.
A study published in 2011 in the journal Global Environmental Change tracked over 10 years the general disposition of people who deny that humans significantly influence climate, and found strong evidence that they include a disproportionately high level of conservative white males.
There was a further refinement. The study, by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, found that one category of conservative white males expresses “an even greater degree of climate change denial”. These were the especially confident ones: those who say they understand global warming very well.
The evidence was “compelling”, said McCright and Dunlap, that in denying a human role in climate change such men were responding to what they saw as a threat to their identity and the systems that supported them. In other words, their denial is a defence mechanism.
Most of us have just enough confidence to get by and no more, but some have it in spades. Those who come most readily to mind are corporate heavyweights: people used to giving orders who can react badly to questioning by others. People with little time for doubt, especially self-doubt.
People like Dick Warburton, chairman of Westfield Retail Trust and some other financial organisations, and now in charge of the Abbott government’s review into Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET).
Or like David Murray, former CEO of the Commonwealth Bank and Australia’s Future Fund, and recently-appointed head of the Abbott government’s financial system inquiry.
Or Maurice Newman, former chair of the Australian Stock Exchange and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and now heading up the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.
“I am not a denier of climate change,” Warburton said in February when he was appointed to head the RET review. “I am a sceptic that man-made carbon dioxide is creating global warming.” That’s all right then.
Murray has gone a few steps further, telling ABC-TV interviewer last November that “the climate problem is overstated”. Like Warburton he thinks the scientific wisdom about human-produced carbon dioxide causing warming is simply wrong.
Murray claims climate science disputation shows a breakdown in scientific integrity. No: it shows his own profound ignorance of the role of uncertainty in science and ignores 20 years of evidence that an overwhelming majority of scientists have concluded that humans cause global warming.
Then there’s Maurice Newman, who as chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council is now firmly ensconced in Tony Abbott’s ear. Like Warburton and Murray, he built his career in financial institutions, including many years at the head of Deutsche Bank’s Australian arm.
Just like them, Newman discounts the science behind human-induced warming, except that his response is even more antagonistic. He has embarked on open warfare against the science and one of its outcomes, the development of renewable energy, especially wind energy.
Newman went on the attack in two newspaper columns on 31 December 2013 and 15 January 2014. He said the theory of human-caused warming was a massive popular delusion, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was actually a political body that had been “captured by the green movement”.
(Just by the way, the IPCC liaises with governments but is led by and mainly made up of working climate scientists. Its current scientific report is written by over 600 scientists drawing on over 9200 research papers, and vetted by 1000 expert reviewers, mainly scientists.)
Deploring “childish personal attacks” by “warmists”, Newman said that the argument for human-caused global warming favoured the rich and powerful “at the expense of the poor and powerless”. He drew on media reports and statements by two US scientists, Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen, to declare that we’re now witnessing “the unravelling of years of shoddy science and sloppy journalism”. Ouch.
A rural property owner, he has vigorously opposed establishment of wind farms both on nearby properties and elsewhere, claiming that their turbines are a threat to human health. He has close ties with anti-wind farm groups, including the Waubra Foundation.
Last year a Victorian government publication, “Wind farms, sound and health”, questioned the health risk from wind farm noise, saying that at normal residential distances a wind farm was quieter than a car 100 metres away, and that inaudible sound of any frequency can’t affect health.
Newman was unmoved, and in January got none other than Tony Abbott to call for yet more wind farm research by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The NHMRC is showing signs of wind farm research fatigue. Having reviewed the science in 2009, it instigated another review and two months ago said it had found “no reliable and consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans”.
Newman remains unmoved.
With no scientific training, drawing on a grab-bag of ideas that were long ago tested and discarded by science, and encouraged by political patrons and allies, Warburton, Murray and Newman dispute the findings of all major national science academies and virtually all practising climatologists.
Like Fiona Stanley, they have the privilege of a high public profile. But unlike her they do not speak for future generations. They speak for the world we must leave behind.