Monday, April 02, 2007

Counterpoint and the Climate Change Zealots

Back in December in Science and Political Correctness I expressed concern, among other things, about the way in which zealotry affected climate change discussions. Here I referred to the views of Kevin Vrane:

For the moment I simply note that one of Vrane's concerns is, in my words, the way in which climate change has become so entrenched as a dominant popular view that scientists who want to express or discuss alternative views on issues such as the speed of the process fear to do so.

My concerns were highlighted by an interview tonight on Counterpoint, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation program. The details are not up yet, so I cannot refer you to them.

Michael Duffy as presenter was interviewing an emeritus professor from the University of Tasmania. Starting from the premise that you cannot inject large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, the professor made points.

First, he noted that those scientists expressing counter views in the debate were all at or near retirement age. The reason, he suggested, was that this was the only group that had the real freedom to take a counter view.

Secondly, he noted the way that research funding was now biased in favour of those supporting climate change. Crudely, you could not get funding if you wanted to test a counter position.This is part of the same point as made by Vrane.

Thirdly, he pointed to the problems in the very complex models used to test climate change issues.


Nothing like blogging to restore a sense of perspective. I had to stop and get tea. The fourteen day meal challenge continues, something I will report on in due course. Then, coming back, I browsed around for before starting to write again.

I was going to be very rude about Sydney's attempt to turn the lights off as an environmental demonstration. Then I read Adrian's post and did not have the heart. Incidentally, I was very pleased to read that Adrian's mum is better. She is obviously a very feisty women.

Returning to my main theme.

I have two quite distinct problems with the current climate change debate.

The first is the one I have been alluding to, the way opinion on the debate now seems to be twisting scientific analysis. The second is the way that climate change has become the new political correctness, making it hard to express alternative views or query solutions.

An example.

Everybody in South Eastern Australia, at least those living in the metros, seems to believe that the drought that we have just experienced is the worst on historical record and a symptom of climate change demanding radical action.

As I understand the position, at the start of November it was the worst drought. Then we had some more rain and now it is not. Because the drought is back within historical parameters, it is a bit hard to argue that it is a sign of climate change.

Further, the fact that Sydney has water problems is a sign of population growth on one side, lack of planning on the other.

From a personal perspective, I don't want actions and restrictions jammed down my throat. I don't want every special interest group, and I include the Greens in this, taking the opportunity to use climate change to impose their special agendas. Instead, I want the information that will help me as an intelligent person to form my own position. And that is simply not there.

To illustrate my point, start from the premise that climate change is a significant problem, that this is linked to CO2 and that we must do something. Well, the starting point here is the presentation of information in a form that people can understand in advance of decisions.

People are trying to tell me what I should do when I don't have the most basic information to inform my response. I don't know what the main contributors to green house gasses are. I don't know what the real gains are from different proposed policy options. I do not know what the problems are with each option. So I cannot make real judgements.

John Howard says that I should support clean coal and nuclear power. The Green tell me that coal should be phased out ASAP, that nuclear power is bad, that we want renewables. So far as I am concerned, in the absence of basic information these are all just opinions.

Take clean coal.

Research into clean coal seems a good thing, so I have no problems there. However, I would like to have better feel for the time lines associated with possible research outcomes.

Assume that clean coal won't work. Does this mean that we should phase out coal? From an Australian perspective I would be reluctant to accept this because coal is so important to us. Well, then, what are the options?

I suppose the first point is that coal is an input demanded by our customers. If they phase out coal, then willy nilly we will too. If they do not phase out coal and we stop supplying, they will simply buy coal elsewhere. Here the end green house result is the same. We may feel pure, but we have suffered.

If we don't phase out coal, can we compensate in some other way? That is, absorb the green house emissions of our customers? Now here I actually do not know the value of green house absorbing mechanisms and especially trees. Alternatively, can we encourage our customers to do better in some other way?

The point in all this is that we seem to be locked into the same policy bind that I so often complain about, a rush to imposed simple solutions without the information required to allow people to form sensible judgements.


Lexcen said...

There is still no consensus on what degree human activity contributes toward climate change let alone what all our efforts will amount to in halting or reversing climate change.

Anonymous said...

Difficult one this, but throwing tags like "zealot" and "political correctness" around doesn't advance matters at all, I'm afraid. Truly it is frustrating though, as an informed position on this probably would require much more real scientific knowledge across a whole range of sciences than most of us (certainly me) have.

True one record drought doesn't constitute climate change, but a greater frequency of them and greater length probably would. Trouble is, even given the milder scenarios on offer, waiting to see if it really turns out that way doesn't really seem to be an option either. A bit late to say then: guess what, those zealots may have had a point after all!

I guess than all people like you and me can do, given on this one we will never be in possession of all the relevant data, is to make judgements about who seems to make sense. That will involve weighing the probability of opinions based on their pedigree as much as on their verifiability. Yes I know, that opens a whole can of worms, but what else can you do?

So the stuff coming out of the UN lately is probably worth deferring to. The Greens, it is true, often do speak and behave in a manner that suggests they have inherited the Puritan mantle.

On the other hand despite Michael Duffy, there really are serious question makes over the "climate sceptic" camp as well. But I have ranted about all this on my own site.

I think it is prudent to assume that 1) there is a serious problem and 2) it very likely is substantially man-made.

Anonymous said...

That should be "question marks"!

Jim Belshaw said...

Chaps, I owe it to both of you to put up a clarifying post. I will do so when I have cooked tea for the avenging horde.

Tonight in the 14 day meal challenge I have given them homous, semi-dried tomatoes,tabouli, button mushrooms plus Lebanese bread to go on with while I think about next steps. Cooking, that is.

Unknown said...

Jim, I appreciate your kind words. And good luck with the ongoing meal challenge. (I'm convinced my mother has become all the more determined to recover after facing the sad prospect of eating my 'experimental' cooking indefinitely.)

I'd also be very interested to read what more you have to say about the issue of climate change. Love-ins aside, it helps to understand all available perspectives on the matter.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Adrian. Terrible news about your cooking! Although the side effects are clearly positive.