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Truth gets in the way

July 7th, 2011

That’s the title of my column in today’s Fin

Truth gets in the way

Confronted with the fact that not a single Australian economist could be found to support his policy of ‘direct action’ (a phrase redolent of the Trotskyists he fought in his days as a student politician), Tony Abbott came back with the retort “Maybe that’s a comment on the quality of our economists.’’

That remark might be interpreted as a suggestion that the problem is with the local profession, and that he would have more support overseas. Sadly, for Abbott, US and European economists are every bit as hostile as their Australian counterparts to his idea of a ‘command and control’ response to climate change.

The most obvious manifestation of this is the Pigou Club, established by Greg Mankiw, chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, as “an elite group of economists and pundits with the good sense to have publicly advocated higher Pigovian taxes, such as carbon taxes.”

Mankiw’s club includes Nobel prize winners from across the political spectrum from Chicago’s Gary Becker to Princeton’s Paul Krugman, as well as luminaries likeWilliam Nordhaus, Kenneth Rogoff, and Larry Summers. A rival ‘No Pigou’ club, proposed by Terence Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post, was stillborn due to the absence of any serious economists willing to join it.

Until recently, Abbott could have found support among likeminded thinkers in the government of China, where central planning is still fashionable. But even the Communist Party of China is ahead of him now. The 12th Five Year Plan, covering the period from 2011 to 2015, includes the phasing in of market mechanisms to promote low carbon growth.

Of course, economists aren’t alone in being dismissed by Abbott and his supporters. Most of his supporters are believers in the absurd conspiracy theories of people like Lord Monckton. The enthusiastic reception of this charlatan is a sad reflection on the gullibility and credulity that now prevails on the political right.

Unlike the case with economists, the deniers can produce a handful of qualified scientists to back their case. Mostly older and male, and with obvious ideological axes to grind, these ‘sceptics’ display the classic symptoms of what is cruelly known within the academy as ‘emeritus disease’. With their days of research activity well in the past, they are now willing to make authoritative statements on topics of which they know nothing.

Ian Plimer’s error-riddled, Heaven and Earth, is a classic example of the genre. Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science, correctly described it as “not a work of science, it is an opinion of an author who happens to be a scientist.” But even after having absurd errors pointed out to him, Plimer repeats them time and time again. Errors knowingly repeated are, quite simply, lies.

It’s not necessary to go to university level to find examples of know-nothingism in the anti-science right. Even basic arithmetic is too much for them. Take the claims, repeated most recently by Greg Sheridan in The Australian, that whatever Australia does will have no effect on the problem of climate change. His source appears to be radio commentator Alan Jones, who produced the precise sounding claim that Australia produces .000018 per.cent of the carbon dioxide.

Anyone with basic numeracy might observe that Australia is responsible for about 2 per cent of human emissions, and that those emissions have raised atmospheric CO2 concentrations by around 30 per cent, so Australia must be responsible for around 0.6 per cent of total CO2 (the correct figure is about 0.45 per cent).

But no one on the political right does care about such things. While the lies and errors of people like Jones, Plimer and Sheridan are egregious, even supposed experts produce obviously wrong numbers. Last year, economist Terry McCrann claimed that a carbon tax would double the retail price of electricity, on the basis of a calculation about the wholesale price. His numbers, out by a factor of two, were duly repeated by Tony Abbott. Even when the error was exposed, neither McCrann nor Abbott bothered to correct it (Abbott’s free pass on power claims, AFR 5/8/10). A few months later, Greg Hunt made similar claims, this time out by a factor of five.

There are some obvious short-term political benefits in being able to make patently absurd claims with a straight face. Perhaps this disregard for the truth will exact a price from Abbott and his political allies before the next election. If not, Australia will surely pay a price for electing a government based entirely on lies.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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  1. Chris O’Neill
    July 11th, 2011 at 17:53 | #1

    @Andy

    Probably pointless arguing with you Chris.

    Same to you.

    I accept that 10 years is a short time for climate,

    So why, then, did you make a point about 10 years?:

    Can you also explain why there has been no increase of global mean temperature over the last 10 years

    Doesn’t sound like the same tune as before.

    but what is a long enough time? 30 years is generally considered the threshold for determining climatic significance.
    Since we are almost half way into this period, with no statistically significant warming, (despite Phil Jones’s protestations)

    Don’t you mean because of Phil Jones’s statements? He was wrong anyway. It is possible to determine statistically significant global warming from 1995 to 2009 by removing exogenous factors.

    and let’s say we get the same again for another 15 years, will the theory be then disproved?

    And why, pray tell, do you ignore the previous 15 years? Adding that to the consideration will give us statistical significance in spades. Since you’re quite the mathematician, you should have no problem following Tamino’s take on the issue.

  2. Jim Birch
    July 12th, 2011 at 14:21 | #2

    @Andy
    Are you serious?

    If you really think you have detected some fundamental problems with climate theory write it up, get your paper peer-reviewed and published. Selecting a few data points that you think support your view and posting them on an economics blog is not science, it’s hubris. Even if you managed to get everyone here to agree with you it proves absolutely nothing in science; you’d have just demonstrated some rhetorical skill. And, you haven’t even done that.

  3. Andy
    July 12th, 2011 at 15:14 | #3

    @Jim Birch
    I haven’t detected a fundamental problem with climate theory.
    The issue of low climate sensitivity has already been published in peer-reviewed literature by Lindzen and Choi

    Thanks and have a nice day.

  4. Andy
    July 12th, 2011 at 15:18 | #4

    By the way, please do not give me links to “tamino”.

    I prefer peer-reviewed literature, thanks. Not Gavin’s attack puppy.

  5. Andy
    July 12th, 2011 at 15:23 | #5

    By the way, I am not “ignoring the previous 15 years”. Is it not a reasonable question to ask why GW has stopped for 10 years? Apparently, it is because China is burning coal.

    So Anthropogenic Global Cooling is counteracting Anthropogenic Global Warming to produce Anthropogenic Global No Warming.

    The fact that I get such a vituperative response to my queries indicate that I have stepped into another temple of warmism.

    You have the gall to use the words “anti-science” and “denier”. Look in the mirror.

  6. Andy
    July 12th, 2011 at 15:37 | #6

    Another thing, while I am on a roll.

    The title of this post is “The Truth Gets in the Way”

    I give two separate links to data showing no warming over the last 10 years. I get asked by Sam to back this up.

    Both links are from reputable sources. I have not made any assumptions or inferences from this. You can make up your own mind.

    I merely ask questions.

    I get given a link to Wikipedia. Do you think this is a valid source. Are you aware that one William Connelly has had his grubby paws all over Wikipedia?

    Besides, the Wikipedia graph is too coarse grained to see any detail over the last 10 years.

    Clearly, anyone questioning The Faith in any shape or form is a Denier, probably funded by Big Oil and the Koch Brothers, doesn’t think of the Cheeeldren, etc etc

    Same old script, over and over and over again.

  7. Fran Barlow
    July 12th, 2011 at 16:37 | #7

    PrQ

    Hasn’t the day arrived when those you’ve hitherto dubbed delusionists are no longer ensured here?

    I’d say so.

  8. Nick R
    July 12th, 2011 at 17:21 | #8

    @Andy
    Andy the reason why nobody is terribly persuaded by your data is that we are not climate scientists and hence are in no position to assess the validity of your claims. However we do know that those that are in a position to assess them (i.e. virtually every single scientific board with any authority over the subject matter) find them wholly unconvincing.

    Pretty much all these denialist arguments either boil down to either: (i) all the worlds experts are (innocently) mistaken and a group of amateurs with no experience or training in the area are correct, or (ii) tens of thousands of scientists across all walks of life have engaged in a massive evil conspiracy. A denialist has to weigh the probability of these bizarre and unlikely claims being correct against the possibility that the scientists are correct, and find for the former. Perhaps this will help you understand why they don’t receive a lot of respect here.

  9. Chris O’Neill
    July 12th, 2011 at 19:31 | #9

    @Andy

    I prefer

    lightly

    peer-reviewed literature, thanks.

    Such as the lightly-reviewed GRL, some of whose peer-”reviewed” papers turn out to be gravely flawed.

    On the other hand, perhaps you meant that you prefer media interviews.

    By the way, please spare us the ad-hom responses.

  10. Sam
    July 12th, 2011 at 20:44 | #10

    @Andy
    First, the wiki graph is not too coarse to show detail over the last 10 years. It shows 9 data points over that time period, and their short oscillations clearly correspond to ENSO. My graph showed an increasing 5 year trend over the last decade, though not with 95% confidence. For comparison, it was also useful to show data from the last century or so, to demonstrate a clear warming trend with occasional small downticks. It shows no signs of warming broadly leveling off over the last decade, directly contradicting what you allege.

    Second, the graph didn’t magically appear on Wikipedia. Like all things, it is sourced. The one I provided was originally from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Go there, it has lot’s of nice graphs all making the same point.

    There are many other data sources. The Berkely Earth Summary gave a pretty good meta-analysis of a few different large studies (HadCRU, NOAA, along with GISS), and also did their own survey of the available primary data. There were of course differences in the numbers but none qualitatively contradicted NASA’s research.

    The reason I asked you about your data sources is because they appear to conflict with the findings of many large-scale, reputable, disinterested bodies. It makes me suspicious of the reliability of your claims.

  11. Chris O’Neill
    July 12th, 2011 at 21:11 | #11

    @Andy

    By the way, I am not “ignoring the previous 15 years”.

    I’m going to be generous and assume you didn’t realize I meant the 15 years before 1995 when I said “the previous 15 years”.

    Is it not a reasonable question to ask why GW has stopped for 10 years?

    How could I imply it was not reasonable when I answered your question?

    The fact is that there isn’t much additional warming effect from CO2 over a period of 10 years (0.2 deg C) while other temporary influences can exceed this over 10 years. So while CO2 is only increasing as quickly as it is now, there will continue to be opportunities that give no warming over cherry-picked periods of 10 years. The cherry-pickers can look forward to ongoing opportunities for pushing their meme.

  12. Jim Birch
    July 13th, 2011 at 10:01 | #12

    @Andy
    Oh dear. Are you arguing that Linzen has been published therefore he’s some kind of perfect authority? Cherry picking is a useful rhetorical device but science doesn’t work like that, and for good reasons – it’s unreliable.

    Linzen has claimed that global warming has stopped on a number of occasions over the years, he just keeps changing the date. You can check this out. A number of other his key arguments have also been refuted by evidence. A reasonable assumption would be that he has an agenda and he’s groping for arguments to support it. For a summary of what he has got wrong, you could start your review here: http://www.skepticalscience.com/Lindzen_Illusions.htm. Then again, your seem to imply that climate science is some kind of incredible global conspiracy, so you might not.

    Be that as it may, Linzen holds extreme minority position among climate scientists. You are of course welcome to follow him but don’t expect to be taken seriously. I wouldn’t choose to fly in plane that the consensus of experts has declared unsafe even if some maverick aeronautical engineer had given it the ok, would you?

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