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The Oz strikes back

November 20th, 2009

I’ve been pretty relentlessly critical of the coverage of climate change issues by The Australian, and unsurprisingly, they’ve struck back in their editorial column, which attacks my opinion piece in yesterday’s Fin (over the fold). It doesn’t appear to be online, but the line is that since Australia only contributes some small proportion of global emissions, it doesn’t matter what we do, and therefore we shouldn’t feel bad about the impending destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.

Somewhat unusually for Oz editorials of this kind, I got mentioned by name, rather than being given a description obvious to those in the know but darkly obscure to readers in general. So, I’ll give them a serious reply. Of course, as stated in my article, what matters is that all developed countries should cut emissions. As in all international negotiations, our capacity to affect the outcome is limited but not zero. The only real capacity we have for influence is to make a clear demonstration that we will do our part (given our past laggardliness, the notion that we can “take the lead” is just silly) and it seems obvious that, in deciding whether or not to do this, we should focus on impacts of particular relevance to us, hoping that others will do likewise.

Over the next week, the Australian Parliament will make, or perhaps decide not to make, its most important decision in many years, on the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. But for some of Australia’s most vulnerable environmental assets, such as the Great Barrier Reef, it may already be too late.

I recently joined a group of scientists from a range of disciplines to prepare a statement on the policies needed to save the Great Barrier Reef, as we know it, from destruction by climate change. The group was organised by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), a peak body for over 60 professional organizations, representing more than 60 000 Australian scientists.

The evidence the scientists presented was sobering. An effective global agreement to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at or below 450 parts per million would give a 50-50 chance of holding the long-term increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees C.

Even warming of 2 degrees C, combined with increasing acidity due to the absorption of carbon dioxide by the ocean, will pose a major challenge. Regular bleaching events, of the kind seen in 1998 and 2002 will make it more and more difficult for reefs to recover.

If we can manage other stresses such as runoff from fertilizers and other nutrients, there is still a chance that the best-managed and most resilient reef ecosystems will survive. But, even with the best possible policies, there are no 100 per cent guarantees. Even if we stopped emissions of greenhouse gases tomorrow, the warming that is already locked in might overwhelm fragile reef ecosystems. The best we can do is to improve the odds of survival by acting fast to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In working with scientists on this statement, I was struck by the care with which every sentence was checked to ensure that it was consistent with well-supported, peer-reviewed scientific studies. FASTS also produced a paper with advice on how policymakers and members of the public could distinguish valid scientific work from pseudoscience.

The contrast with the attitude of the conspiracy theorists, charlatans and cranks commonly presented as the other side of a scientific ‘debate’ is striking. Unconstrained by any standards of scientific research or even of simple honesty, these self-described “sceptics” jump from one silly talking point to another, without any concern for accuracy or logical consistency.

The ‘experts’ presented on the ‘sceptical’ side of the debate are a motley crew including water diviners, science fiction novelists. astrologers and even a dotty British peer. Depressingly, but inevitably, they include a handful of former scientists who have chosen, for one reason or another, to abandon the tested, peer-reviewed research in favor of error-ridden polemics.

The absurdity of this material has not affected its rapturous reception among those in the Liberal Party accurately described by a more realistic colleague as ‘fruit loops’. Senate Leader Nick Minchin, the most senior member of this group, explained the work of thousands of scientists on climate change as an extreme left plot to ‘sort of deindustrialise the Western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the Left, and … they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.’

Loopy or not, the conspiracy theorists will have a major influence on Parliament’s decisions. At this point it seems likely that, in the absence of concessions that would render the already weakened CPRS utterly useless, the Liberals will take the easy option of deferring a vote.

The Rudd government will then be faced with a simple choice. They can capitulate to a divided and discredited opposition, a choice that will avoid short-term trouble but ensure long-term disaster. Alternatively, the government can take a stand on the basis of the mandate it received at the last election and go to a double dissolution. This is the appropriate option prescribed by the Constitution in to resolve irreconcilable differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

If the current Parliament cannot summon the political will and common sense to save the Great Barrier Reef and other ecosystems on which we all depend, it should be dissolved sent back to the Australian people. Unlike the politicians, most ordinary Australians care enough about the planet and its future to make the right decisions.

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  1. Freelander
    November 23rd, 2009 at 15:16 | #1

    @Cynic

    Not done yet?

  2. Alice
    November 23rd, 2009 at 15:34 | #2

    @paul walter
    Paul Walter – I do acknowledge men are useful for some things but I also note you dont take into account your own domestic maintenance requirements (I wont call it plumbing – that undervalues the transaction) but not only that you want women to pay you a meal for the pleasure of it. Sounds like a very dubious service fee if you ask me….

  3. paul walter
    November 23rd, 2009 at 16:07 | #3

    Alice, am a very dubious person. You guessed that sometime back.
    You appear to be accusing me of some sort of Simony.

  4. paul walter
    November 23rd, 2009 at 16:23 | #4

    Cynic, you would not acknowledge that the last decade has seen unusually hot weather, comparatively speaking against previous decades, for Adelaide and environs at least.
    As Donald Oats said, we are well aware of the difference between climate and weather.
    No apology is contemplated from this quarter.

  5. Alice
    November 23rd, 2009 at 17:44 | #5

    Must admit Paul Walter – you caught me off guard and I had to look up Simony “The buying or selling of ecclesiastical pardons, offices, or emoluments”

    Well you could be right!

  6. Fran Barlow
    November 23rd, 2009 at 17:55 | #6

    @Cynic

    I said:

    the settled science is having a great weekend as a record November heatwave and catastrophic bushfire threats manifest all over the country…”

    Indeed Cynic I did choose my words carefully. A “record November heatwave” is clearly temporally distinct from “a great weekend”. November is more than a weekend.

    This weekend was great for the settled science because in the minds of the people your lot want to influence, this is significant in terms of climate change. You can’t complain that this is unfair because you don’t do science — you do rockthrowing and FUD.

    Does this mean that a hot November is the same thing as climate? No, of course not — especially since we are only talking about a tiny portion of the Earth’s surface. But if this data and the CRU hack were people standing in a hall and shouting as loudly as they could their urgings on the climate question, the former would be audible to many people and the latter only audible to dogs.

    Woof woof to you.

  7. Fran Barlow
    November 23rd, 2009 at 17:58 | #7

    Ten points for erudition to anyone who can fully unpick my pun above …

  8. nanks
    November 23rd, 2009 at 18:16 | #8

    @Fran Barlow
    from wikipedia “The modern terms cynic and cynical derive from the Greek word kynikos, the adjective form of kyon, meaning dog”
    too easy Fran – we all did classics at school here :)

  9. paul walter
    November 23rd, 2009 at 18:36 | #9

    Alice, it is true that you have latched on to the narrower definition, but I can assure you I have never been an initiated member of the frocked bloke brigade and worked in an orphanage, and agree indulgences should never be sought for soul and character enobling work.
    It’s true that a cuddle, or its logical extension; a feed, is nice, but should not be taken for granted, anymore than the honour of being chosen as the right tradesperson for the activity ahead: any earlier lack of clarity on the writer’s part is rightly rebuked.

  10. Fran Barlow
    November 23rd, 2009 at 18:51 | #10

    @nanks

    You got what I thought would be the more obscure part, but you missed the allusion to dogwhistling …

    Oh what they heck … 10 points … :-)

  11. paul walter
    November 23rd, 2009 at 18:52 | #11

    Back to the chase, the ABC news at this very moment, playing a story about a Texas university using complex instruments to divine that, in fact, the major ice shelfs of Antarctica are now melting at a greater rate than their replacement, so now previous phenomena that of course did provide adequate accumulation, otherwise the bloody ice shelfs wouldn’t be there, must have altered recently.

  12. Cynic
    November 23rd, 2009 at 19:25 | #12

    @Fran Barlow
    I obviously read more into your statement than was intended. However, even after your explanation, I can still see how someone could interpret your remarks as referring to the weekend rather than the entire month of November. But never mind – misunderstandings happen.

    But in relation to “dog whistling” I have no idea what you are talking about. Could it be that now you are reading too much into my comments?

  13. Fran Barlow
    November 23rd, 2009 at 21:08 | #13

    @Cynic

    But in relation to “dog whistling” I have no idea what you are talking about. Could it be that now you are reading too much into my comments?

    It’s certainly possible. Perhaps you don’t think the CRU hack amounts to very much of anything as far as the basic science is concerned, but the conclusion was tempting, in the context, given that you missed my rhetorical wave of the hand.

    The broader point is this however. If one inferred, as many unaware of the distinction between weather and climate might, that the current unseasonably hot/unusual weather in parts of Australia and the UK were instantiations of the IPCC predictions on volatility, one could fairly be accused of being reckless, Donald Oats’ plausible argumentation notwithstanding. Thirty years from now, and seeing this weather in a broader context, one might turn out to have been right, just as one may bet on a horse that wins a reace and be right on the basis of nothing more than a whim.

    By contrast with the whim about the horse however, waiting 30 years to find out for sure isn’t a feasible option. We are less concerned with scientific certitude than exposure to unacceptable risk of catastrophic harm to hundreds of millions of people, serious reversals in human possibility and so forth. A person who dressed as Freddie Kruger on Halloween lunges at you with a knife in a dark alley is possibly playing a prank, but how many of us would not play safe and take evasive action?

    Right now, approximately 1.9% of NSW is deemed “satisfactory” as far as drought is concerned. Right now we have discovered that East Antarctica which was thought to be at worst only marginally affected by ice mass balance loss has been found to have lost possibly as much as 100 gigatonnes of this ice since 2006. Right now, sea level rises are tracking for as much as double the top end IPCC predictions for 2100 — to something like 1-1.5 metres — and each new survey of late lifts the band. And we know that spectral examination longwave radiation balance urges the conclusion that infra red is building up in the lower troposphere and that the bulk of this is being stored not in the atmosphere but in the seas and the ice, meaning that the current atmospheric warming is masking the long term trend. We know that the rain that fell on Melbourne was the result of a very warm SST in the Indian Ocean.

    Maybe the current weather is explicable in terms that don’t need CO2 sensitivity, but what will we do while we are finding out?

  14. Cynic
    November 23rd, 2009 at 22:06 | #14

    All well and good, but again you are reading too much (way too much!) into my comments. I never mentioned the recent CRU hack or any of the other stuff. BTW, I meant to ask earlier, what is an FUD?

  15. Fran Barlow
    November 23rd, 2009 at 22:17 | #15

    @Cynic

    Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt — see Frank Luntz … Doubt is our product

  16. SJ
    November 23rd, 2009 at 22:26 | #16

    Cynic Says:

    BTW, I meant to ask earlier, what is an FUD?

    Cynic (earlier) Says:

    You said “all over the country” right? So what “heatwave” records were broken all over the country this weekend?

    For instance, in Adelaide it was below 25C this weekend, the mean temp for the first 22 days of November is 33.3.

    And Melbourne? The mean temp for the first 22 days of November is 28.5, yet it was only 25.9 on Saturday.

    Perth: mean temp for the first 22 days of November is 26.1, but it was only 21.6 on Saturday.

    And I am being generous in comparing with the mean temperatures, to break records would require temps in excess of previous highs. Which city did that? Answer: none.

    So here we have someone who can call up weather stats in great detail, but is unable to do something like google “FUD”, the first result of which is Fear, uncertainty and doubt – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

    Words like hack and liar come to mind.

  17. SJ
    November 23rd, 2009 at 22:31 | #17

    Substitute “paid shill” for “hack” in the above, because the denialosphere is currently focussed on another meaning of the the word “hack” at the moment, and probably wouldn’t understand that context is important.

  18. Chris O’Neill
    November 23rd, 2009 at 23:45 | #18

    nanks:

    If global warming were true then every day would be warmer than the one before

    What nanks fails to realize is that global warming does not get rid of weather.

    n(t2)+w*t2 does not always exceed n(t1)+w*t1 for t2>t1 until t2-t1 becomes large enough.

  19. jquiggin
    November 24th, 2009 at 05:26 | #19

    @Chris O’Neill
    I think some irony alerts may have been omitted, or not displayed properly (when, oh when, will WordPress get a decent irony alert?)

  20. nanks
    November 24th, 2009 at 06:20 | #20

    @Chris O’Neill
    yeah I was doing a parody Chris – sorry for misleading.

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