Saturday, March 12, 2011

Abbott believes carbon dioxide is sadly misunderstood?

Lenore Taylor, in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

Professor Ross Garnaut pointed out an interesting inverse relationship this week. Over the past three years the science of global warming has become more clear and more alarming, but in that same period, fewer Australians believed it was true.

Most Australians accept the climate is warming but the public has become somewhat less confident about the proposition even as the evidence has become more certain.

It is a shaky foundation for a rational policy debate about the best policy solution. It might be one reason why we are not having one.

But why is it so? Part of the explanation undoubtedly lies with the enormous publicity given to the so-called ''climategate'' emails. Subsequent reviews cleared the scientists involved of deliberately manipulating results but the saga remains contentious and it forced a reanalysis of data and more transparency. According to Garnaut none of the findings is ''material to the reliability of the main propositions of the mainstream science''. That message has been lost on the public.

Another explanation may lie in the fact that Kevin Rudd told everyone global warming was the ''greatest moral challenge of our time'' but then he and Julia Gillard decided it was not great enough to stop them deferring the emissions trading scheme.

Garnaut reckons the disconnect is in part caused by the fact that newspapers and blogs give the same credence to mainstream peer-reviewed scientists as they do to anyone else who has a strong opinion, might have written a book or is willing to fill in some airtime on radio or television.

In fact sometimes they elevated non-mainstream and non-peer-reviewed scientists in order to provide ''balance'', which was a funny way to define the term, he said.

''Debate about scientific matters that occur in the public domain (such as in newspapers and on blog sites) can come to be divorced from scientific quality, rigour and authority. One blog and one book is as good as another. This is the antithesis of science,'' Garnaut argued in the latest instalment of his updated report.

''Open-minded scepticism and critical review is a vital part of a good scientific process. However, many of the vocal participants in the climate change debate have never been part of the rigorous scientific discourse, or have cut themselves off from it.''

It is a point not taken by Fairfax radio's breakfast announcer Jason Morrison...

...who interviewed Professor Ian Plimer the morning after Garnaut released his report, in the interest of ''balance''.

Morrison told listeners that Plimer's view was more credible than Garnaut's because he was a scientist and Professor Garnaut was an economist. He said Professor Plimer should surely be ''invited to the table'' with policymakers in Canberra.

Plimer told 2UE listeners that contrary to Garnaut's findings, ''the science is getting weaker, they have yet to demonstrate that emissions of carbon dioxide drive climate'', that Garnaut was ''plucking information out of thin air to frighten us to support the proposed carbon tax'', that Garnaut was ''doing the barking for the government'' and that ''there must be a comic festival going on in Canberra because this is a joke … this is a scam.''

Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University, who is an adviser to the government's climate policy committee, is clear in his view about Plimer.

''Professor Plimer has absolutely no credentials in the mainstream, reputable scientific research community. At last count experts have found at least 500 errors in his book, that's about one per page … he's not an expert and he has no standing.''

Other media commentators voice their very strong opinions about global warming without citing any sources at all, scientific or otherwise.

In one of his editorials this week on 2UE's rival station 2GB, the broadcaster Alan Jones repeated his well-known views, accusing the government of ''pursuing the ideological superstition that the planet is at risk''.

''The junk we are hearing out of Julia Gillard's mouth is based on emotion not fact, but why aren't the public given the facts, that all this crazy carry-on is because we produce one hundred thousandth of the CO2 in the air. Julia Gillard is prepared to risk … our economic well-being on something that is nothing more than fantasy.''

Jones said that if the public understood this, ''there would be very little belief in a climate disaster, the media would not be able to go on selling their doomsday stories … CO2 is not a pollutant, it is a harmless trace gas, it is necessary for life, it is clear and odourless''.

When Tony Abbott fronted up on the same morning to do one of his scores of radio interviews on the subject this week, Jones returned to the theme that climate change was fiction and carbon dioxide a gas sadly maligned.

After explaining to his audience that Abbott's judgment was ''flawless'', Jones asked the Opposition Leader: ''How do we address this issue that the title of [the carbon] tax is wrong, it's a lie, it is not a carbon tax it is a carbon dioxide tax, and how do we prevent our children from being taught in schools that carbon dioxide is a poison and a pollutant when it is the most significant of all atmospheric gases and the source of all plant life?''

Abbott replied: ''Look, it's a good point, Alan.'' A good point? That carbon dioxide is not a problem, but rather sadly misunderstood? Why then would Abbott be proposing to spend $10 billion on a ''direct action'' plan in order to reduce emissions of it?

Abbott's formal position is that he accepts the science of global warming and that humans play a part in causing it.

He says he accepts exactly the same emission reduction targets under exactly the same conditions as the ALP, but that he has a different, cheaper plan to reach them. But on the airwaves, Abbott spends very little time explaining his own ''better, cheaper'' policy, very little time defending mainstream climate science and quite a lot of time talking the talk of those who do not accept the science, including advancing the ideas that global warming is more like a religion than a science and that its aim is to deindustrialise successful Western economies.

''This is where I fear there has been far too much theology in this debate. Yes, we should try to tread lightly on the planet because we only have one planet … but this idea that we can lay waste to a modern economy in a vain attempt to improve the environment is just crackers,'' Abbott replied to Jones.

In a speech in Adelaide last week, he said that when Labor and the Greens spoke ''blithely'' about a ''low carbon economy'' they actually meant an economy where life was transformed and where people found it too expensive to turn on airconditioners and drive cars.

''Big reductions in emissions are impossible without a big increase in people's cost of living or a significant change in their lifestyles,'' Abbott said, without explaining why this assessment did not apply to his own plan, which envisages reductions in carbon emissions by exactly the same amount.

When speaking to more climate sceptical audiences, Abbott always refers to the idea that his policy does things like plant trees and improve soils that would make sense whether or not climate science proves to be true, and it is this contention to which the many climate sceptics within his own party point, to justify their backing for the direct action plan until such time as they are able to ditch it altogether.

The man who helped Abbott into the Liberal leadership, Senator Nick Minchin, is less restrained.

He told Sky News yesterday that Garnaut ''knows nothing about the climate and he's not a climate scientist, and I don't think he has any authority whatsoever. We have stabilised in terms of world temperatures. There is a very powerful natural cycle at work and if anything, we are more likely to see a tendency down in global temperatures rather than up.''

The Coalition's ''people's revolt'' is neatly scooping up both climate sceptics and those who are angry about paying a new tax or about Gillard's broken election promise not to have one.

Jacques Laxale, the organiser of the No Carbon Tax rally in Canberra later this month, said he was attracting support from climate sceptics as well as people who were simply opposed to the tax.

The No Carbon Tax website now hosts climate sceptic blogs, links to climate sceptic websites and an online ''Climate Skeptic Shop'' where people can buy T-shirts, hats and mugs proclaiming they are a ''climate skeptic''.

Abbott has so far run rings around Labor in this debate. That is partly because of the government's own mismanagement but also because the Coalition has kept faith with the sceptics by avoiding any real debate about its position on the science, or on the costs and efficiency of its own plan.

If politicians are not sure they accept the problem that climate policy is designed to solve, if that is not the clear starting point for a debate about policy alternatives, the public may well be unconvinced of the need for any greenhouse reduction plan.

Then the inverse relationship may be between how much we talk about something and Parliament's total inability to do anything about it. Which is exactly what a climate sceptic would want.

Related Posts

. Memo to Julia: You don't have a carbon consensus

. Why we need a carbon tax, by the Coalition's environment spokesman

. Easy listening. Why power prices are really climbing