Despite the ascent of Tony Abbott to the Liberal Party leadership and some recent unhelpful comments by the Chair of the ABC, Maurice Newman, there are some glimmerings that the irrational backlash against global warming science may be peaking.
The backlash can be seen as part of a broader attack on evidence-based, sensible debate that has been systematically promoted in Australia over the past several decades. The attack has ranged over many social and political topics, including asylum seekers and the history wars, which concern our forebears treatment of indigenous people. It has also taken on an explicitly anti-science tone in recent years.
It is revealing to examine the nature of the climate controversy, and to spell out exactly what the approach of climate sceptics implies about how we should determine policy. There are also lessons on how our political process can be distorted by disinformation and by superficial interpretations of balance in reporting.
The global warming backlash has reached such a nadir of exaggeration and hyperbole that its absurdity is starting to become apparent to the layperson. The world is continuing to warm as well, and this year or next is likely to exceed 1998 and become the hottest ever, making obvious the nonsense that the globe is cooling.
There have also been a couple of recent straws in the wind presaging some more pro-active promotion of sensible debate. First, Penny Wong, Minister for Climate Change, finally came out and defended the science of global warming. Second, the climate snapshot recently issued jointly by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology is a welcome contribution. Despite such defences, sensible, evidence-based discussion will need to be actively and strongly promoted if we are to stop the erosion of Australias fair-go values and maintain and improve our quality of life.
The sciences agencies snapshot summarises the clear evidence that Australia has experienced significant warming over recent decades, and the likelihood that much greater warming will occur unless strong global mitigation is undertaken. Importantly, they stress that global warming is very likely to be caused by our burning of fossil fuels, rather than to be a natural variation.
The latter conclusion should be uncontroversial. It is based on extensive and intensive scientific investigation. In other words many scientists have spent a great deal of effort gathering evidence and testing whether the warming can be explained by natural causes, and which mechanisms affecting global climate are important and which are not. These are the exactly the things sceptics claim need to be done.
How else could we proceed, if we want to improve our understanding? Who else would do the investigating, if not people trained in the diverse and complex disciplines that comprise climate science. In other words, scientists have been doing the only sensible thing.
Yet all of this investigation has been attacked, the conclusions ridiculed and climate scientists vilified over the past few years. Arguments have been made at several levels. The least irrational claims are that a particular hypothesis has been overlooked or the tests have been inadequate. If such claims are defensible they can be, and are, dealt with in the normal course of scientific debate, which is vigorous and testing.
However many of these criticisms are published outside the scientific literature. The motivation in these cases clearly is not to improve our understanding but to engage in polemics, although authors commonly claim there is a conspiracy to suppress their views. The result is to promote confusion among policy makers and the public, which may have been the intention.
Many claims that hypotheses have been overlooked or improperly tested come from bystanders. In my experience the vast majority of these people are not well-informed on the breadth of evidence and testing that lies behind the main conclusions of climate science. In other words they are instant experts. They may simply be over-enthusiastic amateurs, but many have been misled by web sites that promote an anti-climate-science agenda. The standard tactic of these sites is to mis-represent questions and cherry-pick data so as to create an unbalanced impression that conclusions are poorly based.
The least rational criticisms of climate science involve conspiracy theories. These range from scientists promoting a global warming scare to increase their research grants through environmentalists promoting socialism to my favourite, an alliance of scientists, greenies, communists and the World Trade Organisation to establish a world dictatorship.
To claim that we should ignore climate scientists is to claim that we can simply guess or intuit the best way to manage humanitys large effect on the planet. It is to propose that we can base policy on any idea that is currently fashionable, and expect to prosper in the world. The climate sceptics tend to be right wing, and right wingers are fond of criticising so-called tree huggers for their allegedly loopy ideas. However climate sceptics are really advocating the same approach.
It is also instructive to examine the political success of the anti-global warming backlash. That success has depended on two key factors, a well-targetted disinformation campaign by polluters and an accompanying assertion that reporting must be balanced. It is well known that Exxon-Mobil and other polluters have funded think-tanks dedicated to creating confusion about global warming, using methods previously used to create confusion about the link between smoking and lung cancer.
The disinformation campaign has not just created confusion about climate science. It has also confused the scientific debate with the policy debate. We have known all along that policy would have to be formulated before the evidence for global warming became irrefutable. This is because of the decades-long delays between emission of greenhouse gases and their full affect on global temperature. It is also because of the clear risk of crossing a tipping point, beyond which extreme global warming becomes unstoppable.
To formulate sensible policy in the absence of complete knowledge we need a considered assessment of our situation. It has been the job of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to gather and express the collective professional judgement of climate scientists. Their message is strong and clear: it is very likely that humans are causing global warming.
It is critical to understand that the IPCC offers a professional judgement, not a scientific conclusion. Its pronouncement does not mean the scientific debates are over. Rather it supplies policy makers with our best assessment of the risk we are running by continuing our emissions of greenhouse gases.
Perhaps more insidious than the disinformation campaign has been the perversion of journalistic standards through the claim that all reporting must be balanced in a simplistic, he-said/she-said way. This often results in the uninformed, emotive diatribes of a small minority being given equal prominence with well-based, well-tested views of the vast majority of climate scientists.
Unfortunately this simplistic standard was recently promoted by the Chair of the ABC, Maurice Newman. As well as mis-characterising the ABCs climate science coverage, Mr. Newman seems to have failed to take his own advice, and has swallowed uncritically most of the wild exaggerations currently circulating about alleged sins of climate scientists, before they have been examined by the several reviews still in progress.
Also unfortunately, Mr. Newmans comments are not an isolated aberration. He is a former board member of the right-wing Centre for Independent Studies and former Chair of the Australian Stock Exchange. He is thus part of the right-wing stacking of the ABC board accomplished by former Prime Minister John Howard. This stacking was part of the broader campaign by Mr. Howard to transform Australias culture by placing ideologues in many of our key institutions.
Ideologues are not noted for calm, evidence-based debate, though they often construct a façade of seemingly-rational argument. A prominent case is Keith Windschulttle, also on the ABC Board courtesy of John Howard, whose pseudo-scholarship on Aboriginal history was recently comprehensively deconstructed by Robert Manne in The Monthly magazine. Another case would be Professor Ian Plimer, whose book Heaven and Earth is an incoherent, self-contradictory pastiche of laughable pseudo-science and criticisms of climate science made over the past thirty years, mostly long-since dealt with.
Whether the topic is global warming, cultural history, social policy or political philosophy, our media need to do more than simply give air time to any point of view that comes along. It is not that hard to check the basis on which opinions rest, and to discover those that are flimsy concoctions serving emotional or ideological agendas. Of course the commercial media have never shown much interest in that kind of reporting, but the ABC used to be much better, before sustained political pressure, from both sides of parliament, weakened its resolve.
The fact that the ABC is so often accused of being leftist is merely a measure of its efforts to present evidence-based views. To the extreme right wingers who have become so prominent in our society, knowledge itself is a threat. Appealing to knowledge and evidence is therefore prima facie evidence of a leftist bias.
Anti-evidence ideologues are of course prominent in our politics and our parliament, as the accession of Tony Abbott to leadership, and the entire Howard government era, exemplify. Lately, in defence of their fantasy-based world view, they have become explicitly anti-science. Therein lies an opportunity to expose their real nature.
If we allow people to prevail simply because they shout louder and more often, we will be prey to delusions, like the Easter Islanders obsessed with carving giant stone statues. Like them, we will be incapable of recognising the dangerous reality around us, and therefore incapable of maintaining the viability and well-being of our society.