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GBR Alliance

November 19th, 2009

For the past few days, I’ve been mostly focused on a statement on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef, made by a group of scientists (+ me as an economist) organised by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Scientists, and called, not suprisingly, the FASTS Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Alliance. I’ve put the media release, issued on Tuesday, over the fold. There’s more on the web page including a link to a very valuable document entitled “When is Science Valid?”.

Great Barrier Reef: 50 per cent chance of survival

Today an unprecedented Alliance of Australia’s top reef and climate scientists will tell law makers that the GBR has a 50/50 chance of survival if global emissions aren’t cut by at least 25 per cent by 2020.

And by 2050, emissions would have to decline by up to 90 percent below 2000 levels.

Members of the FASTS GBR Climate Change Alliance will drive home the message that action to cut emissions is required immediately in Australia and across the globe.

FASTS’ President, Professor Ken Baldwin said: “This is our Great Barrier Reef. If Australia doesn’t show leadership by reducing emissions to save the Reef, who will?

“Scientists are leading the charge because the evidence cannot be ignored to the detriment of future generations of Australians”.
The scientific evidence sends a strong signal to decision makers that leadership and concerted global action is required to save the GBR.

Alliance members will remind parliamentarians that more than 100 nations have endorsed the goal of limiting average global warming to no more than 2oC above preindustrial temperatures. Many environments including coral reefs would be under considerable risk even with this warming scenario.

“Coral reefs are in the frontline of the effects of climate change. The ‘outstanding universal values’ of the GBR have already been altered by rapid climate change.” Professor Baldwin said.

Each year, the GBR contributes $5.4 billion to the Australian economy. The economic, environmental, cultural and social value of the GBR cannot be underestimated.

The FASTS GBR Climate Change Alliance consists of 13 internationally respected and leading Australian researchers. The Alliance’s statement to parliamentarians and FASTS’ document When is Science Valid? are available at: www.fasts.org
Canberra, 17 November 2009

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  1. R J Stove
    November 19th, 2009 at 11:46 | #1

    Prof Quiggin, have you read James Franklin’s recent book What Science Knows (or heard him discuss allied topics on ABC radio)? I haven’t read the book – am not even sure it’s available on Amazon yet, although it has been reviewed on the basis of (presumably) proof pages – and would be interested to know your thoughts on it, if it has already come to your attention. There’s even a YouTube video clip about it by the author, I note. Your reference to the “When Is Science Valid?” website put me in mind of the book.

  2. Francis Renier
    November 19th, 2009 at 13:44 | #2

    That’s a 50% chance, not a 45% or 55% chance, right?

  3. John Quiggin
    November 19th, 2009 at 14:05 | #3

    @Francis Renier

    Not sure if this is meant seriously or snarkily, but I’ll take it seriously, and present you with a simple exercise as the answer.

    Suppose that it’s equally likely to be a 45 per cent chance of survival or a 55 per cent chance of survival. Use the law of compound probabilities to compute the probability of survival.

    To spell it out, there is no meaningful sense in which a margin of error can be attached to a probability statement, at least using standard theories of probability.

  4. paul walter
    November 19th, 2009 at 14:14 | #4

    Thinking about the GBR, thought comes tomind, is it just the reef, or does the ecosystem include the coast.
    For example, when they barge-arsed the road through the Daintree, wasn’t there a big problem with erosion and heaps of topsoil washed down during heavy storms, choking the reef offshore?

  5. November 19th, 2009 at 14:40 | #5

    I noticed this got some media including the front page of the Canberra Times, so congratulations! My first thought when I saw the article was that with the Barrier Reef being given a 50% chance of survival, some people are much more optimistic than I am!

  6. carbonsink
    November 19th, 2009 at 15:41 | #6

    From the UK Telegraph:

    John Quiggin, of the University of Queensland, has carried out research which shows the economic impact of a two degree rise in global temperatures.

    He said a rise of more than two degrees would be “catastrophic” for the reef and tourism in North Queensland, which is already suffering as a result of the global recession.

    The FNQ tourism industry is being smashed anyway thanks to the soaring Aussie dollar. The dollar is soaring because our commodities are in demand, and our biggest export earner of all is coal, the main driver of climate change globally. The strong dollar will force the Queensland economy to ‘restructure’ reallocating resources away from failing industries such as reef & rainforest tourism, and towards growing industries such as coal mining, thus making the economy function more efficiently.

    I mean, its not far for people to move. The Bowen Basin, one of the largest coal reserves in the world, is just a few hours drive south. I hear house prices in Mackay are going gangbusters.

    Michael Pascoe wrote last week:

    I was in Mackay earlier this week – capital of a region where the GFC was only a pause for breath, where housing is close to Sydney prices and unemployment is minimal. While Australian credit growth was just 1.7 per cent over the past year, the NAB’s Mackay lending book grew by 12 per cent. For every story of a tourist town doing it harder, there’s a resources town booming.

    Yay Australia! Who needs that stinkin’ reef anyway, we’ve got coal!

  7. Tin Tin
    November 19th, 2009 at 16:00 | #7

    Isn’t there oil in them thar reefs to be had? Surely that would offset some of the losses from the reef dying (on the assumption that mining does not take place now because the reef is alive). Personally I’d like to have the reef, but oil is good too as long as I get some of the kick-back.

  8. Ikonoclast
    November 19th, 2009 at 19:59 | #8

    I’m going to be a little bit pedantic here. The statement that the GBR has 50% chance of survival is technically meaningless unless the phrase “until such and such a year” is added.

    Without the qualifying phrase, one can state definitively that the GBR has 0% chance of survival. Some time between now and the heat death of the universe, the GBR will certainly cease to exist.

    More than a little bit pedantic, I would say. Does this kind of quibble add any value at all? JQ

  9. November 19th, 2009 at 20:10 | #9

    Pr Q says:

    There’s more on the web page including a link to a very valuable document entitled “When is Science Valid?”.

    Thats a good summary. But its still over a page long.

    A little while back I tried to condense the scientific method into a “cycle of operations”, a la Popper.

    1. rational expectation
    2. empirical observation
    3. hypothetical generalisation
    4. intellectual validation
    5. logical implication
    6. clinical experimentation
    7. institutional supervision
    8. theoretical formulation

    There are others on the web. But I like mine better because it rhymes.

  10. Skeptikus Autarktikus
    November 19th, 2009 at 20:24 | #10

    What is a “climate scientist”? “Climate” is a topic like public housing, taxation, drug-addiction, or cooking. It is not a discreet “science”. Just about any well-trained academic type can dig their oar into the debate on “climate”. There is no such authority as “climate science” to judge contributions from physicists, biologoists, geologists, astronomers, biochemists, and so on.

  11. Alice
    November 19th, 2009 at 20:58 | #11

    @Skeptikus Autarktikus
    Climate science obviously involves all of the above “physicists, biologoists, geologists, astronomers, biochemists” is my understanding and doesnt differentiate itself from contributions from any of these…Skepticus (the name says it all…your mind is made up..so what are you doing here??)

  12. jquiggin
    November 19th, 2009 at 21:04 | #12

    @Skeptikus Autarktikus
    Umm, and that’s why a body like FASTS, representing a vast range of scientific disciplines, puts together a group of people qualified to comment in many different aspects of the problem.

    Of course the same difficulty arises on the “sceptical” side of the debate. How can any one sceptic manage to judge the important contributions of corrupt tobacco lobbyists, rightwing ideologues, failed drama critics, loony British peers, hack opinion writers, water diviners, astrologers, AIDS reappraisers and experts in so many other fields whose talking points they faithfully circulate? They really need an IPCC of their own and I believe the Heartland Institute (which encompasses many of the fields described above) is putting together something of the kind.

  13. Peter T
    November 19th, 2009 at 21:07 | #13

    I like the document. If I had to add anything, I would point to the importance of the big scientific understandings that rule in or out possible local explanations by being connected to explanations of the structure of the universe. For instance, the laws of thermodynamics rule out perpetual motion (something my academic engineer father had to explain from time to time to hopeful inventors). As science has gone deeper, these have been boiled down into fewer larger explanations (so chemistry is now explained by atomic physics). Its not just evidence and ideas about them – they have (eventually) to connect to the whole understanding.

  14. Alice
    November 19th, 2009 at 21:39 | #14

    @jquiggin
    Thats seriously funny JQ..all those voodoo doctors dancing about and making a lot of noise to invoke the climate to cool long enough to pronounce the patient comatose instead of dead!

  15. Donald Oats
    November 20th, 2009 at 00:12 | #15

    OT I know, but since the deluded have been mentioned…

    Tony Abbott was interviewed on Lateline (ABC, 10:30pm EST) where he was asked some fairly decent questions about his knowledge of climate science. Initially he plopped a number of the usual delusional bullet points, ie its a religion (and Abbott isn’t a Catholic?), climate scientists huddle together scheming about how to take over the World (the Conspiracy of ex-Communists meme), the Thames froze, Hadley temperature data says it cooled since 1998 (but I forgot to mention that 8 out of 10 of the hottest global mean temperatures since records began are also in the decade starting at 1998), grapes grew in Greenland, etc.

    Sound of head thudding against keyboard – “qwertyuiop”!

    And this is what a Liberal politician of some significance thinks about AGW. A bunch of bullet points from Plimer’s book which is no doubt great nightime reading.

    What can normal people do to get this derailed message back on track?

  16. Freelander
    November 20th, 2009 at 04:55 | #16

    Unfortunately, I don’t think “When is Science valid?” helps much.

    There are many ideas in Science that are widely accepted that are pure speculation but there are others (theories) that are known to be ‘not quite right’ but provide solidly supported and relatively accurate descriptions of reality over some fairly wide range of applicability. Newtonian physics is an example where over quite a wide range, a ‘not quite right’ theory provides a fairly accurate description of reality, and hence allow us to have a good understanding of what goes on within that domain, and also provides a means of using that knowledge to manipulate our environment within that domain. In science there are wide domains over which we now have a very good idea of what is going on in reality, whether our theories are exactly correct or not. There are other areas where we are not so sure. The important question is not so much whether a particular theory is ‘correct’ but whether the domain that is being looked at is one where the state of research (and science) is such that we are confident that we know what is going on.

    The important thing about AGW is that the science and knowlege on which it is based and the domain of application are in the area where we have a pretty good idea of what is going on. The science is very solid. In this area, dissent and ‘skepticism’ about the broad thrust of that there is global warming and that its cause is anthropogenic are nothing more than wishful thinking. Unfortunately, the public are used to listening to scientist claiming knowledge they don’t have where they talk and promote speculative theories and ideas at the frontier of science. Ideas that the public often later on hears are wrong. Of course, individual scientists and corporations have large incentives these days to publish their work by press release, to obtain fame, funding and other financial reward. These activities unfortunately undermine the publics confidence in science where scientists do know what they are talking about.

    The public is rightly weary of the ‘believe me, I’m a scientist’ approach but only a fool would reject the sizeable body of scientists, working within their own specialist area, who have been standing behind the IPCC conclusions and the conclusions of various other monumental works.

  17. Michael of Summer Hill
    November 20th, 2009 at 05:04 | #17

    Paul Walter, according to Casey Kazan, “Corals are tiny animals, polyps that exist as genetically identical individuals, and can eat, defend themselves and kill plankton for food. In the process they also secrete calcium carbonate that becomes the basis for an external skeleton on which they sit. These calcified deposits can grow to enormous sizes over long periods of time and form coral reefs – one of the world’s most productive ecosystems, which can harbor more than 4,000 species of fish and many other marine life forms”. And unless immediate action is taken on climate change to stop the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, argues the Great Barrier Reef will be a thing of the past in 20 or so years.

  18. Freelander
    November 20th, 2009 at 05:05 | #18

    Combine this with some casual empiricism, the increased frequency of record weather extremes, and anyone with even the mildest of bayesian tendencies ought to be quite concerned about the potential consequences of anthropogenic climate change and our current do nothing and hope for the best approach. In other words, we don’t have to be certain to conclude that it is prudent to start doing something dramtic about CO2 now. There is one thing we are certain about, we can not afford to do nothing and find out we were wrong.

  19. Freelander
    November 20th, 2009 at 05:12 | #19

    @jquiggin

    They don’t really need an IPCC of their own because, individually (and remember the most important quality they have is their individuality) they are each talented enough to do it all by themselves. They don’t need the sort of collective solutions that an IPCC smacks of.

  20. Alice
    November 20th, 2009 at 05:54 | #20

    @Donald Oats
    Dont worry Don…my head went kerplop on the keypad as well a few years ago when I heard Tony Abbott raise every mad semi religious demon chasing conjuration of a justification for us going to Iraq… he downloaded most it from of from US redneck yahoo sites Im sure complete with the twang….and they say he is a Rhodes scholar??…(god help us all if he gets up).

    His views on climate are true to form.

  21. November 20th, 2009 at 07:03 | #21

    Pr Q says:

    Today an unprecedented Alliance of Australia’s top reef and climate scientists will tell law makers that the GBR has a 50/50 chance of survival if global emissions aren’t cut by at least 25 per cent by 2020.

    So this statement is an attempt to apply the intellectual blowtorch to the toes of the delusionists in the LP, the NP being beyond hope I suppose.

    I notice that Lindsay Tanner swung his brick bat at Nick Minchin, even as he tossed boquets to Turnbull and Howard for being the first ministers to promote an ETS.

    Last week, Liberal Senator Nick Minchin suggested that climate change is in fact some kind of global left-wing communist conspiracy to de-industrialise the western world. Any such conspiracy is so devious and pervasive that his own leader Malcolm Turnbull is involved, as is his former leader, John Howard, who went to the last election with a commitment to a emissions trading scheme.

    From this pressure we can surmise that Rudd does not want to be put in a position of calling a Double Dissolution election. I think that the pressure on the LP delusionists will eventually prove too great and they will crumble.

    You have to wonder about Minchin, the senior representative of SA a state which suffers more from climate change than any other, digging his heels in on this of all matters. If one is going to pick an intellectual fight it is probably not a good idea to do it with people who crunch numbers for a living.

  22. November 20th, 2009 at 08:16 | #22

    More generally, if Science is right and Minchin is wrong, the LP will have to one day sign onto an ETS.

    The best time to pass an ETS is NOW whilst they still have some intellectual credibility amongst the electorate and, more importantly, can cut the best deal for their various constituent interests. The LP will be in a much worse bargaining position after it loses the next election, should it be an ETS one as 1998 was a GTS one.

    And it wont take many more years before the evidence of hinterland drought, polar melt and coastal flooding becomes undeniable. Opposing climate change policies will then become akin to eating babies.

    This situation cries out for some Machiavellian political tactics. But I fear that the LP’s most adept Machiavellian operator is no longer on the scene. It shows.

  23. Donald Oats
    November 20th, 2009 at 09:12 | #23

    Actually, Nick Minchin and his foot-Munchkins from SA are in my guesstimation looking to roll Turnbull from the opposition leadership and to install the Mad Monk. If, as I suspect, they initiate such a brawl prior to Wong and McFarlane reaching their final agreement, and if they succeed, then they avoid having a successful agreement with the government, they avoid having to decide whether the opposition will vote for the ETS amended bill, and they skewer the government’s chances of taking a commitment to an ETS scheme to Copenhagen. On top of that, no opposition member need formally oppose the ETS since no party vote would have taken place – and that means no opposition member faces resignation from their frontbench or senate leadership positions.

    I can’t place odds on this but I think it is a real possibility given Minchin is the General here.

  24. Donald Oats
    November 20th, 2009 at 09:17 | #24

    If the Mad Monk gets in, (Un-)Intelligent Design will be back on the agenda for schools. I damn hope that there is an Evolution-alliance equivalent to your GBR-alliance. In fact the parallels are strong enough that some of the words describing it could be re-used from the GBR-alliance, since if ID makes a move into schools Evolution may become extinct in less than 20 years :-0

  25. Alice
    November 20th, 2009 at 09:40 | #25

    @Donald Oats
    What really scares me Don is that the Mad Monk is an intelligent (un-)Intelligent design himself…!

  26. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    November 20th, 2009 at 10:16 | #26

    JQ – you get a less than supportive mention in the editorial of The Australian today. I’m inclined to agree with their sentiments.

  27. Freelander
    November 20th, 2009 at 10:27 | #27

    Oh my non-existent God! The Mad Monk is a creationist lite (intelligent design) supporter? We will really be in trouble if the Pelliban takes over. But would the electorate ever vote for the institution of ecclesiastical law. I am sure the Pelliban would like to see a re-intitution of inquistion ‘harsh’ interogation techniques for some of us heretics.

  28. Alice
    November 20th, 2009 at 20:08 | #28

    @John Quiggin
    Take it as the snark it is JQ.

    Freelander – not only that Tony Abbott would encourage back street abortions of his intelligent designs by denying a mothers right to choose not to add to the problem of human overpopulation. Put the Monk back in the dark ages where he belongs. He is not a very intelligent example of a good christian in my opinion. In fact I dont like the way he treats women. They could have had access to that pill by now if it wasnt for him but no, lets have some back street butchery to keep those women in line shall we?

    Tony Abbott can go somewhere where they are interested in their own narcissitic power and not whats best for humanity (he wouldnt get membership in that club). Who does he think he is that he can stop safe effective non invasive abortion and a woman’s right to choose it?

  29. Alice
    November 20th, 2009 at 20:09 | #29

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Shame Terje – what sentiments dont you agree with?

  30. Alice
    November 20th, 2009 at 20:13 | #30

    Pelliban has been trying to take over for years. LOL…Pelli thinks he is pretty important for a hired conservative priestly loudspeaker.

    reminds me of an old saying of my mum’s “so damn heavenly no earthly good.”

  31. carbonsink
    November 23rd, 2009 at 07:00 | #31

    I missed this the other week, but it seems Victoria doesn’t want to miss out on the Aussie coal export bonanza!

    Coral reef scientist slams Brumby over ‘reckless vandalism’

    One of the world’s leading coral reef scientists has slammed the Brumby Government’s proposal to export Victoria’s brown coal to India as “reckless vandalism”.

    John “Charlie” Veron, who discovered a quarter of the world’s identified coral species, said any move to export the state’s vast reserves of brown coal would only further endanger the Great Barrier Reef.

    “It’s reckless vandalism. Brown coal would have to be the dirtiest, nastiest form of energy there is. It is absolutely essential that it remains in the ground. That is obvious,” he told The Age.

    Brumby has a point. How does Victoria benefit from the Barrier Reef? Why are the Banana Benders allowed to export coal but not the Vics?

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