Well that’s a simplification, but you’ll see what I mean in a second. Miranda is a well-known right-leaning columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, in case you want context. She quite reasonably (in a democratic freedom-of-speech kind of way) states an opposing view to that of the reportedly vast majority of climatologists, i.e. that there is no believable evidence of humankind’s involvement in the current experience of climate change. But she does it in such an unreasoning way that it’s funny. Well I think she’s funny – often the funniest read in the whole paper. (I’m sure she doesn’t actually believe what she writes, either – and neither does this commenter (via Deltoid’s blog): I used to get annoyed reading M. Devine’s drivel until somebody told me that they had been told by MD herself that she doesn’t really believe what she writes, she only writes to be provocative. Nowadays, it’s impossible for me to take her seriously. Bravo and cheers to that.)
Anyway, getting back to last Saturday (yes, I know, I’m slow off the mark again) she rambled on a bit like this: The global warming scare campaign is reaching fever pitch. We have had one eminent Australian scientist claim this week to the senate inquiry on climate policy that global warming has already killed people in Australia.
Well there’s a dramatic start, eh? This opinion piece makes it obvious that she doesn’t believe it (even if she really does), but it seems obvious enough to me that if there is climate change (an assumption based on copious evidence), and things are hotting up and drying out, that people who are exposed to that increased heat and dryness will also be exposed to ever-mounting heat stress, worsening drought, increased risk of bushfire severity, frequency and longevity and so on. It seems pretty obvious to me that – sadly – some people will have died ‘from climate change’ already. Now you can argue the toss over it, endlessly, as we can’t run some sort of parallel, controlled experiment with another identical Earth and see what would have happened without humankind’s atmospheric interference. Sometimes you just have to go with a probability. (I can almost hear the shrill cries, ‘but that’s not science!’ For goodness sake sit down and read on.)
Anyway, she gets better. “It seems that when it comes to convincing the Government to take drastic, jobs-killing, economy-crushing and ultimately futile unilateral action on climate change, the ends justify the means.” Well that’s an emotionally-charged overstatement of the situation, as what the Rudd government has proposed is no more economy-crushing that introducing, say, a 10% GST on the basis of an ideological whim. (Oh sorry, that was labelled “tax reform”. Much, much more important than cutting back on carbon emissions.) Indeed if we do have a choice between frying the planet or not, I’d vote to take a bit of pain for a significant (probable) gain.
Miranda of course “believes” it’s all futile, so why waste our time, money and effort? She says that “since Australia accounts for just 1.4 per cent of global emissions, even if we shut down all industry and move into caves, how would any theoretical effect on climate be more than negligible?” Well there’s a 1.4% improvement right away, if we took Miranda’s sage advice. Now you could view it as a start, or as an indication of global commitment (albeit a ludicrous commitment at that – I’m not moving into a cave anytime soon). Or you could just say that 1.4% is too small to worry about and just give up. It’s a glass half full vs glass half empty sort of thing, isn’t it?
That aside, Ms Devine doesn’t quite understand what pollution is, so I will attempt to help her out (not that she doesn’t actually know this already). She states that the whole debate is over “so-called ‘carbon pollution’“. Well it’s broader than that as it’s really about greenhouse gas emissions (first point worth making) and these emissions are called ‘pollution’ because we (ie humankind) are deliberately exhausting these gases into the atmosphere in an uncontrolled and up to recently unmonitored way. Nature hasn’t decided to do this, we have. Be it oil, coal or whatever, point is that we are choosing to burn the stuff in vast quantities and simply allowing the exhaust to vent, no questions asked. Now we may not be able to see it, but I think we all can agree it’s being added to the atmosphere, and dissolving into our oceans. Even if we don’t believe it’s a problem, it’s still pollution. As it happens plenty of people actually believe that it is causing a problem, and others simply believe that it’s a waste of resources and a potential risk into the future. So hey, why not slow down or even plan to stop this pollution? Seems reasonable risk management to me.
Of course it’s not just this so-called “carbon pollution” that’s thought to be causing our climate change problem, it’s land-clearing as well. Thought I’d mention that.
I’m getting to the point now. Miranda has discovered a geologist with an opinion that she likes: University of Adelaide geologist, Dr Ian Plimer, writes in his new book, Heaven And Earth, Global Warming: The Missing Science, scientists are usually “anarchic, bow to no authority and construct conclusions based on evidence … Science is not dogmatic and the science of any phenomenon is never settled.” Well yeah, evidence.. tick. Prepared to keep reviewing the data.. check. I think we are all on the same page (although I sense that Miranda and Ian Plimer may disagree). Attempting to stir up controversy in effort to publicise book… check. Ooops, sorry.
Note that we have a respected geologist here, not a climatologist. So it’s someone who understands that the Earth’s processes work over a very, very long period of time. Not just 10 years, or even a hundred. To quote: “From the geologist’s perspective he says our climate has always changed in cycles, affected by such variables as the orbit of the planet and our distance from the sun, which itself produces variable amounts of radiation.” Well, yes, I think we have copied that already and dealt with it. But there’s more: “One of the lessons of 500 million years of history, he says, is that there is no relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature.” Here we go, focusing on carbon dioxide again (admittedly it is the main player, and we do have some pre-exisiting dispute over the issue). Indeed it’s not as simple as emitting a gas and finding it simply stays there.. in fact it gets absorbed by plants, takes part in various chemical reactions and gets dissolved in the oceans – another unfortunate side-effect of this man-made pollution of the planet. There’s even a notable lag between historical emissions and temperature change, such that it looks like temperature is the driver of change, rather than carbon dioxide. But the explanations are sound and well aired: in short the issue has been addressed and rebutted many times. There is nothing new here, so why pretend that it’s somehow a revelation?
Ah yes, selling newspapers and books. (To be fair, Plimer may add some revelation to the discussion, but Devine has opted not to disclose it. Secret knowledge.)
More interestingly, Plimer, as a geologist familiar with long cycles of slow geological change, reportedly makes a stunningly naive comment: “Governments are planning to structurally change their nations’ economies where most people will suffer from increased taxes and costs … based on the opinion of the fabulous five whose computer models have not been able to accurately predict the cooling that has occurred since 1998″. Whoa, I thought we were talking hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years? Now, suddenly, just 10 or so years matters! This is a geologist talking?
The rest of the article reads like a very biased book review by a worshipping fan, although it’s also worth noting that a point is made that the “crucial section 5″ of the IPCC report is “based on the opinions of just five independent scientists”.. Well maybe so, but it’s been reviewed and signed off by many, many more. In any case, should we discard the opinion of these 5 independent scientists on the basis of the opinion of just one (admittedly heroic) geologist?
Phew, I finally got to the point. Independence. And without even hinting that a geologist – not any particular geologist, mind, but any geologist speaking out on climate change in particular – needs to clearly enunciate any vested or conflicting interests they may have in regard to work done for, say, mining companies, or in relation to any interest in ongoing mining exploration. (It seems likely that geologists may have a genuine interest in continuing the status quo, and that should be made clear.) Not that it need inhibit them from stating their case and advancing an opinion, but we all look at things through the filters of our lives and it helps to keep an open mind on such things. Like Miranda does.