The Oz strikes back
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.