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This time it’s personal

February 5th, 2011

The personal experience of the floods and watching the effects of Cyclone Yasi haven’t altered my views on climate change, which are based on a large accumulation of scientific evidence, so that one or two additional data points should have only a marginal confirming effect. But they have changed my personal attitude to those who persist in obstructing action to mitigate climate change. My piece in Thursday’s Fin (over the fold) was a final appeal to any of them still accessible to reason, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it had any effect.

Like thousands of others, I was affected by the recent floods in Brisbane, losing a car and some other possessions. Many others were hit far worse, in what seemed certain to be the worst natural disaster Australia would face for some time. Now, only a few weeks later, we are waiting anxiously for the arrival of cyclone Yasi, hoping that family and friends in North Queensland will emerge unscathed. By the time this column appears, Yasi will have wreaked havoc along hundreds of kilometers of the coast and far inland.

The only thing that will make the damage from this massive cyclone less than it might have been is that we have had plenty of warning. Weather satellites detected dangerous cloud formations last week, and the computer models of the Bureau of Meteorology predicted the likely path of what became cyclone Yasi, even before the cyclone pattern formed.

Of course, cyclones behave erratically and don’t always follow the predicted path as Yasi has done. But anyone who received the Bureau’s warning would have been foolhardy to ignore it. Anyone who justified such a course of action on the basis that ‘it’s only a model’ would be, quite simply, a fool.

Tragically, while only a few people have been silly enough to ignore the Bureau’s warnings about this cyclone, a great many have ignored equally dire warnings about the long-term impacts of climate change, including more extreme weather events.

The grounds for ignoring the warning have ranged from silly to outright offensive. Absurd talking points about statistical significance are promulgated on the Internet and then recirculated by people who wouldn’t know a t-statistic if it bit them. Climate models that have successfully predicted the warming of the last two or three decades are dismissed as spurious. Worse still the Bureau and other bodies have been accused of faking or fudging data to promote their case for motives that range from the venal (more funding for climate research) to the sinister (obscure plots for global domination). Such an accusation of fraud against the Bureau was published by the Melbourne Herald-Sun website only last week.

This is not happening because there is any genuine doubt about the accuracy of the warnings given to us by our own Bureau of Meteorology or other climate researchers around the world. Every major scientific organization in the world has endorsed the mainstream consensus view of climate changed, shared by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. Most of those questioning the science lack the knowledge to understand even basic issues like the statistical significance of trends in time series or the fundamentals of the greenhouse effect. Worse, they haven’t bothered to learn.

Tragically, this vital issue has been ensnared in the pointless and long-running culture wars waged by segments of the political right in Australia and other English-speaking countries. The dangers of climate change, and the need for immediate and effective action to mitigate it, are conflated with the real or imagined faults of greenies, gays, Al Gore and the left in general. The whole debate is conducted in terms of the silly pointscoring and namecalling that characterises the culture wars as a whole.

But surely, in the wake of the recent run of disasters, we can, as a nation, get past this silliness. Whether or not the current events have been exacerbated by climate change, and whether or not the scientific evidence is absolutely conclusive, can anyone honestly deny that injecting massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that drives our climate is an absurdly risky thing to do?

Of course, Australia cannot achieve much acting alone. But we could be doing much more, both by example and through advocacy than we are at present. We need to begin by recognising that Australia has much more to lose through continued destabilisation of our climate than we have to gain by stretching out the period over which we can continue to burn and export coal in effectively unlimited quantities.

In the light of recent and impending climatic disasters, it’s time for the spoilers to stop playing culture war games and focus on the most cost-effective ways of reducing CO2 emissions.

Finally, let me express my hope that, as you read this, Yasi has proved less damaging than expected, and that the precautions taken against this disaster will have prevented the loss of life that might otherwise have been expected, and gone at least some way to reducing the inevitable destruction of property.

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  1. Jim Birch
    February 5th, 2011 at 19:24 | #1

    Try this amusing edition of Occam’s Razor, Waiter, there’s a climate sceptic in my soup! which provides some interesting evidence from the local insect world. It ends:

    You see, [a house fly] may have tiny brain, but that fly knows climate change is real. Which means it’s a lot smarter than Andrew Bolt. But you already knew that, didn’t you? So from now on, every time you’re bothered by a fly, especially in winter, feel free to blame a climate sceptic. And swat away with vigour, won’t you?

  2. Alice
    February 5th, 2011 at 19:33 | #2

    How, honestly how can Australia do anything when it continues to shovel coal into the global warming furnaces of the rest of the world as fast as it can??

    Are we not the worlds greatest hypocrites? We know its happening. We know what we should be doing but governments here are falling postrate over themselves to bask in the glow iofr being “friends if big coal” and even as in kenneally’s case to plough tax payer money into coal mines.

    Come one now. It would be nice…but just look at us. We will go hell for this in the hell we helped to create.

  3. February 5th, 2011 at 19:42 | #3

    Pr Q said:

    Tragically, this vital issue has been ensnared in the pointless and long-running culture wars waged by segments of the political right in Australia and other English-speaking countries. The dangers of climate change, and the need for immediate and effective action to mitigate it, are conflated with the real or imagined faults of greenies, gays, Al Gore and the left in general. The whole debate is conducted in terms of the silly pointscoring and namecalling that characterises the culture wars as a whole.

    The agnotology of the Right on the Climate Wars would be a lot easier to fight if the Left did not have such an agnotological position on the Culture Wars. There is no necessary connection between the Right-wing position on Climate Wars and the Right-wing position on Culture Wars. FTR, rational science is consistent with a moderate Left-wing position on ecology and a moderate Right-wing position on anthropology.

    FWIW I am a strong believer in the green house effect and support left-wing climate change mitigation. Although skeptical of carbon pricing, preferring a carbon tax, a position that Pr Q now appears to endorse.

    But I am also a fairly doughty supporter of the moderate Right’s position on the Culture Wars. A position that has been thoroughly vindicated by competent social science and people still inclined to believe their lyin’ eyes.

    Science, like the revolution that alarmed Weber, is not a tram that one can get on and off as one pleases. If you get on, you must go all the way.

    PS I am sorry for your loss.

  4. February 5th, 2011 at 20:15 | #4

    Pr Q said:

    Most of those questioning the science lack the knowledge to understand even basic issues like the statistical significance of trends in time series or the fundamentals of the greenhouse effect. Worse, they haven’t bothered to learn.

    “Most of those questioning the science” are not anti-science. They are just blinkered conservatives who can’t be bothered to change. An enlightened conservative recognises the inevitability of change and adapts to it.

    I doubt very much whether the validity of science as such has very much to do with people’s positions on the Climate War. Just as the validity of intellectual ideas had little to do with peoples positions on Class or Culture War, a fact recognised by social scientists from Marx to Wolfe.

    People take political positions largely because they reflect material positions, the strongest of which is simply inertial sympathy with the status-quo, reinforced by tribal social milieu.

    In Australia’s case, the status-quo is carbon-friendly. This is a country built on hydro-carbon energy, its been a very convenient chemical to which we are very attached. Our richest citizens fortunes depend on it. The vast majority of the populus rely on carbon-intensive forms of transport. They are reluctant to change unless leadership imposes it on them.

    Ultimately, rapid large scale cultural change usually comes only after the bomb drops – in Japan’s case they only lost their militarism when “the Bomb knocked the bulls*t out of them”. Support for climate change mitigation only comes when people feel pain that comes from resource shortages – either the drought or an oil price hike.

    Basically the populus needs to be told to that climate change mitigation will be costly and that they need to stop wingeing like spoiled children, man-up and gut it out as our ancestors did when facing much greater challengers.

  5. cbp
    February 5th, 2011 at 21:40 | #5

    FTR, rational science is consistent with a moderate Left-wing position on ecology and a moderate Right-wing position on anthropology.

    But I am also a fairly doughty supporter of the moderate Right’s position on the Culture Wars.

    I didn’t know anthropology was so contentious, outside of acadamia that is – would you please enlighten us as to what exactly you consider the Left and the Right’s “position on anthropology”… And if you have time, what it is you are talking about in regards to the Culture Wars.

  6. Jarrah
    February 5th, 2011 at 22:23 | #6

    Although skeptical of carbon pricing, preferring a carbon tax

    For anyone right of centre who believes AGW is real, a CO2e ‘price’ is the only rational response. To paraphrase from my comment in an argument at Catallaxy: AGW is a classic tragedy-of-the-commons problem. Unfortunately, it can’t be solved in the traditional way – privatisation. The only incentive-based option (direct action has all the risks of any centralised directive) is an externality charge. A carbon tax, in other words.

  7. Alan
    February 5th, 2011 at 22:54 | #7

    @cbp

    And if you have time, what it is you are talking about in regards to the Culture Wars.

    I believe it involves a somewhat negative opinion of latté, but I confess I have yet to see the cafetology evidenced in any detail.

  8. rog
    February 6th, 2011 at 05:07 | #8

    There seems to be a reluctance to accept informed opinion bordering on paranoia yet what the bloke at the pub or next door says is accepted as being credible.

    Why would you Terence Cardwell and not believe in BOM, CSIRO et als?

    http://www.wernercairns.com/2010/01/etm-facts-that-rudd-and-wong-would.html

  9. Ikonoclast
    February 6th, 2011 at 06:00 | #9

    Nothing will be done. All the fossil fuels will be burnt and climate change will occur. Who now believes that we will act in time to avoid climate change and a collision with limits to growth? In fact, we cannot act in time as the point of no return has already passed.

  10. Hermit
    February 6th, 2011 at 09:04 | #10

    A saving grace is that Australia’s world leading coal exports will not be enough to cover domestic shortfalls in China and India. China consumes about 3,200 Mt a year (ie over 3 bn tonnes) a year compared to Australia’s coal exports to all countries of around 260 Mt. China looks increasingly to Africa and Russia as a source of coal and hypocritically the US wants to cash in with their own coal shipments to China. It seems neither AGW nor keeping manufacturing jobs at home are priorities for the US.

    I think carbon tax should apply to exports of coal and LNG. Since the tax is supposed to be revenue neutral make the importing country jump through hoops to get the tax refunded. This also underscores the need for flexible carbon pricing as coal will get expensive anyway due to insatiable demand from Asia. We’ve already seen strong spot price increases for thermal and coking coal which will feed into new long term domestic contract prices. Realistically I doubt the Gillard government has the resolve to do anything serious about emissions, either local or proxy. There’s plenty of thoughts and prayers the way things are going now.

  11. Freelander
    February 6th, 2011 at 13:55 | #11

    What would be amusing if the situation were not so serious is that these deniers style themselves ‘skeptics’. As skeptics they are amazingly credulous in holding their climate change denying views and incredibly credulous in accepting the ‘evidence’ they do in support. Theirs is a skepticism underpinned, typically, by strong ideological beliefs that make strong presuppositions about what can and cannot happen in reality. So unpalatable is the possibility that the market could give rise to a problem, and that that problem might necessitate a collective solution, that even mere contemplation of that possibility is abhorrent.

    This is not skepticism.

  12. February 6th, 2011 at 17:27 | #12

    It’s personal for us all John. We are all Queenslanders now, or we soon will be.

  13. Donald Oats
    February 6th, 2011 at 18:04 | #13

    @Alice
    Yes, it is hypocritical, and it is an example of where cuts of the kind required are going to cause pain, as the transition from one industry sector to another one occurs. Individuals, especially individual miners, transport workers, mechanics and others, will face the prospect of being made redundant and all the rest.

    However, each year we put off starting the transition in earnest (and ending the current foot-dragging approach) is another year it is worse for everyone else as well. Eventually we will all experience climate change “enhanced” extreme weather events.

    Proving it to the satisfaction of all and sundry probably won’t be possible, no matter how good the statistics or how damaging the events.

  14. Gordicans
    February 6th, 2011 at 18:30 | #14

    I find the stance of climate change deniars rather intriguing. What is it that propels this belief in the face of all the clear evidence? I can only put it down to two things:

    1) religious; our western culture is strongly based on the thought that man is superior to all animals and can shape nature to his own ends. The thought that man may be causing massive destructive climate change may be impossible to swallow given these deep seeted beliefs.

    2) political orientation; many view the world in terms of the left and the right, and climage change caused by man is decidely left wing hence couldn’t be true.

  15. February 6th, 2011 at 20:52 | #15

    “In the light of recent and impending climatic disasters, it’s time for the spoilers to stop playing culture war games and focus on the most cost-effective ways of reducing CO2 emissions.”

    That is not going to happen because they were well aware of the “recent and impending” disasters beforehand.

    It is a real shame for this country (and indeed this planet) that “the right” allowed themselves to be entrapped by these charlatans. Of course, the ALP in Australia is also “the right” and the whole idea of people self-identifying as “left” and “right” is very much a construct of the last decade or so.

    The easiest, immediate, action we as a nation can take to save ourselves is:

    a) Make it illegal for any foreign citizen to have effective control of any Australian media outlet (radio/TV/newspapers/web);

    b) Free public transport:
    *Zero fares=zero ticketing/enforcement/cash-handling and accounting costs;
    *Massive reduction in road congestion/pollution/emissions/construction/parking/personal injury costs;
    *Greater amenity for all street and road-users/good for tourists/good for traders….

    c) Divert all current fossil fuel subsidies (especially, eg: $200m or so “carbon capture n storage institute”) to free domestic solar hot water.

  16. melanie
    February 6th, 2011 at 20:53 | #16

    Ideally we should be covering the costs of reconstruction in Queensland from a carbon tax, not a flood levy. Make the polluter pay and all that.

    Somehow we blew a golden opportunity after the 2007 election and now the political ground seems lost. There are zombies out there in the natural sciences too – in which somehow the resurging respectability of religion has a hand. Maybe there’s a bigger story out there called ‘End of the Age of Enlightenment’?

  17. Alan
    February 6th, 2011 at 21:58 | #17

    I would add to Megan’s list that political contributions should be

    1 limited to individuals who are on the electoral roll

    2 a matter of public record as soon as practicable

    3 capped at some reasonable level

    Even the US does not allow contributions by noncitizens, although presumably a noncitizen can easily channel their contributions through a corporation under Citizens United.

    There’s also a case for electing party leaders through a ballot of party members. Parliamentary parties just seem, on the record, too easy to subvert.

  18. Tony G
    February 7th, 2011 at 15:43 | #18

    An ETS or Carbon Tax is a neo-communist plot.

    Tony, you’ve amused us long enough. I’m sick of dealing with stupid and dishonest denialists, a group of which you are a prime example. Even as an illustration of the depths to which rightwing argument can sink, you’ve run out of entertainment value. I’ve let your final sentence stand as a summary of your contributions here. Consider yourself permanently banned – JQ

  19. Fran Barlow
    February 7th, 2011 at 16:07 | #19

    @Gordicans

    I find the stance of climate change deniars rather intriguing. What is it that propels this belief in the face of all the clear evidence?

    You’re assuming it’s a rational belief rather than a state of mind, a sentiment or a wish. The wailing and gnashing of teeth is entirely cultural. For a variety of reasons, the assertion that the world as we know it is changing for the worse, largely through the actions of humans about the age of most deniers is something they find troubling.

    our western culture is strongly based on the thought that man is superior to all animals and can shape nature to his own ends. The thought that man may be causing massive destructive climate change may be impossible to swallow given these deep seated beliefs.

    Actually, it’s more common to hear deniers say that nature is far too robust for us puny humans to be able to shape it, with variations on that theme. Sometimes this is combined with a fatalistic and apocalyptic vision that says when our number is up, there’s nothing we will be able to do. US Senator John Shumkis says the bible tells us that god, not man, will destroy civilisation and the Earth.

  20. Freelander
    February 7th, 2011 at 16:30 | #20

    Maybe god is using man to destroy civilisation and the Earth? But in that case, I am sure Senator John Shumkis would argue “Who are we to oppose god’s will?”

  21. gerard
    February 7th, 2011 at 17:28 | #21

    @cbp

    I didn’t know anthropology was so contentious, outside of acadamia that is – would you please enlighten us as to what exactly you consider the Left and the Right’s “position on anthropology”… And if you have time, what it is you are talking about in regards to the Culture Wars.

    who’s up for an epic derail?

  22. Nowun 2
    February 7th, 2011 at 18:52 | #22

    Re 18

    Controlling free speech and censoring alternate views. Its been tried before, but it didn’t stand the test of time;

    Communism did call for a role of socialist dictatorship to help control any form of protest.

  23. Alice
    February 7th, 2011 at 19:32 | #23

    @gerard
    Not me Gerard. The Culture wars itsekf was a derail of epic proportions…ie how to derail people into thinking there was a left right war going on so that economics could launch a rich v poor war where the rich won.

    Nothing like an epic derail. We got derailed alright and it had nothing to do with left v right. it had much more to do with right v wrong.

  24. Alan
    February 7th, 2011 at 21:02 | #24

    Re 2

    This is a private space. I cannot imagine you are advocating some form of social control of private communications any more than you think a cheatsheet site that dates the Communist Manifesto of 1848 to 1917 is a persuasive authority.

  25. sHx
    February 8th, 2011 at 13:01 | #25

    Wow, JQ. You managed to say all that in Fin Review without once using the snarky words, ‘denialist’, ‘delusionist’ or ‘denierati’.

    A year and half ago your feet didn’t touch the ground because you were so pumped up, JQ. Your hero Kevin Rudd had driven a wedge into the heart of the Liberals, and was knocking them around like pins in a bowling alley, and the glee was evident on your blog.

    He was my hero, too, BTW, Kevin Rudd. Until he lost me completely with his climate crusade. In fact, if it wasn’t for his vicious witchhunt (it was done at Lowy institute, I think), which finally made me sit up and pay serious attention to the scientific evidence, I wouldn’t have been a climate skeptic.

    I was surprised how underwhelming the evidence was. The CAGW movement turned out to be more about politics than science, more about ‘climate justice’ than scientific integrity.

    And then came the climategate, “the storm in a tea-cup”, that didn’t affect the integrity of climate science at all!

    Anyways… I hope nothing is done about this alleged climate change monster. It is not real. The looming climate catastrophe is the figment of a collective imagination propped up by a wicked science. CAGW movement is a modern millenarian movement, who think everybody who is not part of their cult are delusionist denierati in total denial… or something like that.

    Oh, BTW, I was going to vote informal at the last federal election, since I just cannot bring myself to vote for any right-wing party. Julia won me back. All these would have been totally unnecessary and Kevin would still the PM, perhaps, and Labor stronger, had he not wasted so much political capital on the CAGW crusade and “the greatest moral challenge of our time.”

  26. Chris O’Neill
    February 8th, 2011 at 15:14 | #26

    Absurd talking points about statistical significance are promulgated on the Internet and then recirculated by people who wouldn’t know a t-statistic if it bit them.

    The problem is more that it’s recirculated by people who do know what a t-statistic is. Climate science denialism wouldn’t be a problem if it was displayed only by people who know nothing.

  27. Georgina
    February 8th, 2011 at 17:22 | #27

    I notice your comments about climate change sceptics and The Australian newspaper and I want share my heartfelt consolations. I have noticed that my commentary contribution to The Australian in relation to the Flood Levy didn’t make publication. My assertion that climate change required an ongoing strategy that transcends political tit 4 tat was rejected in favour of the ‘tit 4 tat’, despite their assertion that only comments that were of neither ‘political’ extreme would be posted. What a joke! It appears that climate change is viewed as ‘extreme’ I guess.

  28. February 8th, 2011 at 18:47 | #28

    Megan re free transport being a good thing – and a bit off topic

    I used to play many years ago a game called mobility (I just looked V3, I can vouch for V1, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobility_%28computer_game%29 )

    I could make the loveliest cities by putting public transport to 0 fare and thus avoiding the costs of fee collection. Rn a deficit up front but eventually my cities would become very posh as it very livable with low noise electric public transport everywhere, and would be raking it in.

    I hated SimCity as it would not allow little debt and forced to start with slums inbetween industry. I didn’t try too hard. It guess it’s interesting to compare the 2 approaches. I know I’m biased, but the German Mobility game with input from university is the more real (as well as fun) I reckon.

  29. Sinclair Davidson
    February 8th, 2011 at 19:18 | #29

    Chris – it’s very kind of you to link to me, but I’m not at all convinced that I am a major contributor to global opinion in this matter. It would be better, I think, if you linked to this discussion on the interaction of t-statistics and substantive significance.

  30. February 8th, 2011 at 21:03 | #30

    Ahh, SimCity! You could demolish the churches as they sprung up uninvited for something like $1 from memory. You could also switch “off” disasters and defund police, fire and ambulance each year to fund ideological projects like a highway to nowhere- a bit like being an ALP state premier in the ‘real’ world!

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