Alarmists

March 3rd, 2011

My column from today’s Fin is over the fold. I had a generally positive response, and also an interesting email exchange with Gerard Henderson. Gerard disputes my view that voting for Turnbull in the leadership election constituted evidence of a pro-science viewpoint, preferring to count only those who voted against Abbott’s subsequent abandonment of the ETS deal. And, he points, out the Nationals are uniformly anti-science. On this basis, as he observes, 75 per cent of Coalition parliamentarians are alarmist cranks. (At least, that’s the view he thinks I’m committed to, given the premise that only cranks believe in scientific absurdities and conspiracy theories like those of Monckton and Plimer – he appears to disagree, but it’s not clear why).

In any case, I prefer the more optimistic view stated in my conclusion that there is still time for pro-science conservatives to act.

Tax alert for real alarmists

The last couple of weeks have not been good ones for climate alarmists in Australia. By the term ‘alarmists’ I do not refer to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been the basis of much public discussion. Because of its reliance on consensus, the IPCC has consistently erred on the side of conservatism in its assessments of the likely pace of climate change, and the magnitude and severity of the impacts. As Ross Garnaut pointed out recently, global CO2 emissions are near the top of the high-range scenario considered by the IPCC, and the same is true for the rate of warming, and recent estimates of damage.

The alarmists in this debate are those who claim that the modest measures required to cut our emissions of carbon dioxide will be ‘ruinous’ (Andrew Bolt), ‘destroy jobs’ (Tony Abbott), ‘wreck our economy’ (Terry McCrann), and so on.

Some of those making these statements are sufficiently innumerate that they don’t realise how silly they are. But some must have been betting that a tax or carbon price would never actually happen, so that the falsity of their claims would not be exposed.

McCrann, in particular, is certainly capable of doing arithmetic when he chooses to. He correctly estimates that the revenue from a carbon tax is going to be between $10 and $12 billion a year, perhaps one quarter of the revenue raised by the GST. As McCrann wrote in 2009, ‘the carbon tax is going to arrive like a thief in the night; taking an extra $1 for every $4 plucked by the GST, which, in effect, is an increase in the GST from 10 to 12.5 per cent.’

At this point, it would be sufficient to observe that, if the GST at 10 per cent had none of the catastrophic effects predicted by Labor, a tax one-fourth the size is even less likely to have the catastrophic effects predicted by conservatives like McCrann. But we don’t need even to take that step. We can simply quote McCrann himself who, in August 2010, advocated raising the GST, not to 12.5 per cent, but to 15 per cent. Apparently, McCrann wants to destroy the economy twice over

An even more alarming feature of this kind of rhetoric is the conspiracy theory required to support it. The mainstream consensus on climate science has been endorsed by every major scientific organization in the world, national governments including those of Australia, the US, the UK and the rest of the EU, politicians as diverse as Margaret Thatcher and Al Gore.

The alarmists claim is that this is all a gigantic fraud. A range of motivations have been advanced, ranging from the absurdly grandiose (Lord Monckton’s claims of a communist world government) to the trivially venal (the whole thing was faked to get research grants). Many alarmists make both claims, rather like the Tasmanian advocate of Federation who promised voters that ‘if you vote for the Bill you will found a great and glorious nation under the bright Southern Cross, and meat will be cheaper’

As I mentioned recently A climate of ignorance AFR 3/2/11, the Bureau of Meteorology has been a prime target of such attacks, being routinely accused of fraud by such critics as Andrew Bolt of the Sun-Herald and Jennifer Marohasy of the Institute of Public Affairs. But the alarmists scored an own goal when they persuaded Tony Abbott’s spiritual advisor, Cardinal George Pell, to join the attack, with a letter to Parliament based on the nonsensical polemics of mining geologist Ian Plimer.

In an estimates hearing last week, the Bureau struck back. Its director, Dr Greg Ayers, read into evidence a methodical demolition of Plimer, over the frantic efforts of Senators Boswell and MacDonald to shut him up. This was a courageous act, given the very real possibility that these advocates of ignorance may become his political masters.

There is some grim amusement to be had in watching the supposed leading lights of political and cultural conservatism reduce themselves to the promotion of ratbag conspiracy theories. But the future of the planet is too important for such nonsense. And conservatism is a central part of our political culture, which deserves better advocates than this.

The near-majority vote for Malcolm Turnbull a year ago shows that not all conservatives are alarmist cranks. It is time for pro-science conservatives to take their movement back from the alarmist warriors of ignorance.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:
  1. Donald Oats
    March 3rd, 2011 at 22:27 | #1

    The big fraudsters are pointing their fraud-revealing telescopes the wrong way. They know who they are :-)

  2. March 4th, 2011 at 00:35 | #2

    That’s fascinating.

    First they ignore you, then they ridicule you….

    Then Gerard Henderson tries to engage you in a purportedly civil discussion!

    Somebody really should do ‘sh**ty-foot’ on that man’s front doorstep one day, metaphorically of course.

    Unleash the Bolt/Murdoch headlines:

    “Left Calls For Sh**ty-Foot On Leading Prominent Conservative Sensible Man”

  3. paul walter
    March 4th, 2011 at 01:14 | #3

    Of course they are alarmist cranks!
    Gerald has been drowned in his own propaganda for so long he no longer recognises truth when it jumps up and bites him the face. Was watching the Senate vaudeville the other night and the only oneof them that I saw that salvaged even the slightest credibility was Wong- and that was only because the rest were so (a)pathetic.
    Terry McCrann, what a source of unblemished, blushing truth. Far more misanthropic even than Mitchell.

  4. Hermit
    March 4th, 2011 at 05:50 | #4

    A notable recent feature of conservatives is their short term vision. For example Ted Baillieu is sniping at Brumby over the cost of the large desalination plant in Victoria. No doubt when dry times return he will seek accolades for thinking ahead. Tony Abbott must realise that power stations will not get built unless there are consistent energy policies over decades. Therefore his contrariness is actually hindering investment decisions. Neither Baillieu nor Abbott seem able to envisage a time when events like a severe El Nino swing public opinion back towards taking climate action. No doubt they’ll have some ready excuse for inaction. Conservatives are letting predictable events overtake them and if it goes badly they blame others.

  5. Fred Nerk
    March 4th, 2011 at 07:21 | #5

    What are the changes between your column and this blog post?

    Can you outline them?

    Also, do you think pro-science environmentalists will abandon their opposition to nuclear power and genetically engineering? Or are people of all political persuasions pretty much anti-science alarmists?

  6. hc
    March 4th, 2011 at 08:06 | #6

    I enjoyed this piece and read the summary statement by Ayers.

    My impression is that most members of the Liberal Party see climate change as a Labor/Green’s issue that does not belong on their side of politics. Malcolm Turnbull is an obvious exception but many Liberal supporters want to pay token attention to climate change because there are votes in it but without being serious about the issue because that would alienate their core support base.

    Perhaps there is the same hypocrisy on the part of many sections of the Labor Party. Their flip flop policies do not suggest conviction.

  7. rog
    March 4th, 2011 at 08:30 | #7

    Good article John.

    If you were to accept the definition that conservatives “seek a return to the way things were” you would think that conservatives would be alarmed at the potential risks associated with climate change.

    This would also apply to conservatives who “seek to preserve things as they are.” The overwhelming evidence is that without intervening action the future which be much different to the present, and the past.

    Fiscal conservatives should be both alert and alarmed to the future costs of mitigation to the govt and taxpayer so I do wonder if the Libs are entitled to say that they represent conservatives.

  8. March 4th, 2011 at 09:39 | #8

    Thank you for another insightful article John.

    There certainly was a time when virtually all Coservatives supported science and the advice of experts after all the IPCC and UNFCCC were established during a US Republican administration with the support of the Republican President (the elder Bush). From the mid 1990s many conservatives moved to a position of attacking the science and launching personal attacks on the scientific experts. It would be interesting to read some analysis that investigates the reasons why so many conservatives moved to such radical positions at that time.

    The need to reduce Australian emissions ( at least by 5% ) is bipartisan so the debate is about economics. My impression is that most economists support the Labour / Green market based approach. Are there any economists who prefer the opposition’s big government approach?

  9. Jason
    March 4th, 2011 at 10:19 | #9

    Its almost as if some people are born radicals and some are born conservative, or perhaps that changes over time. Neither is virtuous of itself. Climate change was once a radical idea and acting on it very radical. Its not now obviously, but there is a strong mindset of people who fear change, often those with least in the status quo. Its not surprising to see people chasing their votes (after all its easy). But they need to be protected in my view. I wonder whether the rise of Greens with perceived preferences for radical change generally has, oddly, slowed the move to address climate change. Eventually the conservatives will move (the science is clear), but it will by definition be too conservatively for radicals.

  10. frankis
    March 4th, 2011 at 10:20 | #10

    What an excellent piece! No need to hear from the various innumerates mentioned, their views will soon enough no doubt appear here regurgitated by Charlie or Tony G. Someone who cares (Crikey?) though, please invite Terry McCrann to respond.

  11. jquiggin
    March 4th, 2011 at 12:02 | #11

    @Fred Nerk
    What i printed here is what I submitted, so any changes were made in editorial – these are usually minor.

    As you would know if you read this blog more frequently, there is a wide range of views among commenters here on both nuclear power and GM food (Google will help you). I’m generally in favor of allowing GM, subject to appropriate labelling and safety, and am not opposed to nuclear power, though I don’t think it’s a relevant option for Australia.

    To other readers, please no thread derailment. Anything on nuclear or GM should be taken to the sandpit, which I will post shortly.

  12. Chris O’Neill
    March 4th, 2011 at 12:31 | #12

    @rog

    f you were to accept the definition that conservatives “seek a return to the way things were” you would think that conservatives would be alarmed at the potential risks associated with climate change.
    This would also apply to conservatives who “seek to preserve things as they are.”

    That is a far broader definition of “conservative” than the politician conservatives. A closer definition of those would be someone who seeks to preserve private wealth and well-being as it is. i.e. public wealth and well-being such as the public health system, the public education system and environmental protection for example are relatively less important than the maintenance of private wealth and well-being.

  13. Jim Birch
    March 4th, 2011 at 13:31 | #13

    @Jason wrote:

    Its almost as if some people are born radicals and some are born conservative, or perhaps that changes over time.

    Sadly, there’s a fair bit of evidence that people generally don’t change much in this regard.

    Given that, there is a great benefit in the process of science that establishes knowledge that is independent of general or personal cognitive biases, and personal agendas. Richard Feynmen put it this way “Science is a way of trying not to fool ourselves.” We are prone to magical thinking that “substantiates” our biases. Science actually allows people with different inherent viewpoints to cooperate by eliminating magical beliefs about the world.

    Unfortunately, some people who really should know better, including Bolt, prefer their personal biases to science, even when it results in psychotic stories like the great climate conspiracy.

  14. jquiggin
    March 4th, 2011 at 18:51 | #14

    Apologies to Fred Nerk for an incorrect answer the first time. My original version, printed here, referred to Jennifer Marohasy who has left the IPA. I decided it would be better to be up to date and found this piece by John Roskam

    http://www.ipa.org.au/publications/1838/turning-up-the-heat-on-climate-change-alarmists

    in which he describes the (accurate and relevant) statement, made by the Bureau and repeated by Penny Wong that t ‘2009 was the second hottest year in Australia on record and ended our hottest decade. In Australia, each decade since the 1940s has been warmer than the last.’ as ‘deliberately intended to mislead.’

  15. Ken Fabos
    March 5th, 2011 at 21:07 | #15

    Fred, there are plenty of pro-science environmentally minded people. For myself I’m deeply concerned that mainstream politics in Australia fails to adequately represent them. But I find the consistent efforts of those on the Right to indulge and promote denial of climate science more fundamentally dismaying than the Green Left’s anti-nuclear and anti-GM position. For one thing a genuine acceptance of the existence of the climate problem by the Right would lead to commitment to solutions across middle politics in Australia. It would end the artificial Left/Right division on the issue within mainstream Australian politics. A bipartisan approach aimed at real results would relieve my growing conviction that mainstream politics is incapable of dealing with this rationally.

  16. March 6th, 2011 at 22:42 | #16

    I suspect the numbers of pro-science Liberal MPs are somewhere between your and Henderson’s estimates. However, while the proportion of Nationals would be lower, I’d be surprised if it is zero. I’ve heard that Bridgit McKenzie, the National sentor-elect from Victoria is a highly intelligent woman who believes the future of rural communities depends on them adapting to the times. I haven’t heard a specific position on AGW, but if the reports are true I can’t imagine she shares Joyce’s views. I doubt she’s the only one.

  17. Donald Oats
    March 7th, 2011 at 02:13 | #17

    When I first started reading (and later posting to) blogs such as this one, I was quite stunned at the pervasiveness of either a conspiracy-theorist view of climate science (and often scientists/science more broadly), or an explicit I-know-better-than-a-bunch-of-professional-scientists view. Sometimes both view held within the one noggin. When it comes to AGW though, of those who accept it as true I’d say that nuclear power is generally only resisted to the extent that it is believed that better alternatives are able to be deployed instead. A minority quite vocally support nuclear power, and a minority vocally resist it irrespective of its economic positives or otherwise.

    Personally, from reading this blog and others I’ve shifted ground from close to complete resistance regarding nuclear, to more of a “I’ll tolerate it subject to some strict safety protocols” position. I don’t really think the economics will bear it out, but if it does then I only insist on strict restrictions that protect cities from accidental pollution in the event of a major breach, etc. I accept that these days it is possible to engineer much safer nuclear reactors than ever before – that does not mean I believe they are so safe that I want them anywhere near a city or major town, however. In a country as vast as Australia I hardly see these restrictions as a major impediment to nuclear power. For those who love nuclear power as a solution, the carbon tax is surely a boost to the economic balance of instating at least some nuclear power in Australia.

    Is this a radical left position? :-)

    PS: Anything to do with A Bolt is another matter entirely.

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