I have recently returned from a brief overseas trip, visiting Berlin and Beijing. I arrive home with a very uneasy feeling.
Memories of the trip are fresh in my mind, most of all the science. The guest across the dinner party table in Berlin who turned out to be the CEO of a science park – home to 1,000 companies, 15,000 employees and an annual turnover of 1.6bn Euros. The bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin; all (but two) motorised two wheelers seen in Beijing being electric powered; and Beijing hosting the inaugural Formula E race – Formula I with electric race cars. (It goes next to Malaysia, and on to South America, the US, Monte Carlo, Germany and the UK. No race in Australia is planned.)
Back home, I watch Australia’s Chief Scientist, the current Boyer lecturer, the 2012 Young Australian of the Year and two Nobel Prize winners on Q&A. They field questions which mostly circle around the lack of respect and support for science from our current government, most sharply in relation to climate change. The Chief Scientist frankly admits he was offended by comments about imminent global cooling made by the Prime Minister’s Business Advisor. They all look embattled.
I cannot imagine that discussion occurring in Beijing or Berlin. There science seems held in high esteem. Here the message seems to be we’ve got minerals so we don’t need science; or worse, if science gets in the road of our current mining based economy, as with the finding that burning coal is contributing significantly to climate change, we will reject it.
So called ‘sceptics’ about anthropogenic global warming hold important positions, including as the Prime Minister’s business advisor, and chair of the review of the Renewable Energy Target.
Note my use of the scare quotes around ‘sceptics’. Those who call themselves ‘sceptics’ get some legitimacy from this, appearing to be tough-minded folk who would never fall for a bad argument. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Those who oppose science are gullibilists, not sceptics, since their determination to reject the explanations best supported by the evidence – which is just what science is – leads them to gullibly adopt all manner of weak claims. Inevitably that includes fanciful conspiracy theories needed to explain why scientists all but universally accept that burning fossil fuels is causing global warming, since the gullibilist rejects the obvious explanation – that scientists have accepted the account of climate change best supported by the evidence.
Doubting the cogency all evidence, true sceptics refrain from belief. (Coady and Corry point out that most of us would think that irrational.) But gullibilists jump to belief in anything that is congenial to their interests. All of us can see that this is disingenuous.
Which sharpens the question: how has our politics been so captured by climate change denying gullibilists, when other nations are forging ahead with science based innovations to position their economies for a carbon constrained world?
Doubtless there are many explanations – including the obvious, the dominance of coal in our economy, which gives fossil fuel lobbyists political clout. But an important part of the puzzle may simply be that our federal ministry are suckers for snake oil salesmen since, according to their web sites, only Andrew Robb has a qualification in (agricultural) science, and none have research degrees.
Contrast Germany, arguably the world’s leading high-tech country, now in the process of a difficult energy transformation to renewables. The Chancellor has a PhD in physical chemistry, her Education and Research minister a PhD in mathematics; other ministers have doctoral degrees in law, medicine and history, with one in politics in train. This is a cabinet with a high level of expertise in research, and strength in science. (Note the irony in Angela Merkel’s discipline: Svante Arrhenius was a physical chemist, and the state of that discipline by 1896 allowed him to predict that burning fossil fuels would cause global warming. Note also that Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, and no doubt this explains her acceptance of the science and the need to take action to limit global warming.)
The problem does not stop with our cabinet. Only eight federal parliamentarians have doctorates, and science is lumped under ‘other’ in the classification of their qualifications, while law, economics, education, administration and health are separate categories.
Put in terms our political leaders often use, we have a ministry which is uncompetitive by international standards when it comes to identifying and implementing the best scientific advice as a basis for policy. This is a big problem for Australia. Our government has trouble understanding the difference between science and wild claims which have no substantial evidential support: witness our Attorney General not long ago accusing scientists of medieval attitudes in not engaging with gullibilist arguments, such as the four below.
But can you imagine Chancellor Angela Merkel seriously discussing the proposition that
the climate has changed all the time, and hence there is no need for a theory (like anthropogenic global warming) to explain the current changes.
Surely she would appreciate that science is about providing a causal explanation for all of the data which might test our theories. I cannot imagine that she would think that more than one hundred bushfires in NSW in September 2013 (the hottest September on record) needs no more explanation than a poetry recital (‘a land of droughts and flooding rains’).
Would Johanna Wanka, Germany’s Minister for Education and Research (and formerly the Rector of Merseburg University of Applied Sciences), entertain the claim that
the world’s meteorological organisations do not just report the temperature data as they record it, they fiddle with it to get a warming trend.
Or might she know that all raw data needs cleaning up to remove obvious errors? Perhaps she would also remind us that the Berkeley Earth project – led by a genuinely critical physicist with a strong background in statistics – took on this very question of bias in the temperature records here, and confirmed the earlier reports of a warming trend, while the gullibilists withdrew their support for the project once the findings were announced?
Would Xi Jinping, the President of China, with a degree in chemical engineering and a Doctor of Laws, be persuaded by the claim that
the earth is no longer getting hotter while the concentration of CO2 has increased, so increasing CO2 in the atmosphere does not lead to global warming.
Or might he note that the recent surface temperature record shows a reduction in the rate of increase of global temperature not a cooling or even flat trend? Would he know that 1998, the year the supposed temperature pause began, is now only the third warmest year on record, behind 2010 and 2005? Might he consider how the various causes of global temperature variation, including solar radiation changes, CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, the level of pollution and volcanic debris in the atmosphere, the switch between La Nina and El Nino conditions, and the exchange between ocean surface and deeper waters affect the resultant temperature – as do Hansen and his co-authors in this paper?
Would, Li Keqiang, the Premier of China, also with a Doctorate of Laws, be impressed with the claim that
the fact that almost all climate scientists accept the theory of anthropogenic global warming is irrelevant: consensus among scientists does not amount to proof.
Or might he observe that if almost all scientists agree with a theory, then that tells us that there is no active rival research program and, pending some major upheaval in physics, the science is settled – and supported by the peak scientific bodies of all major nations, like the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Australian Academy of Science, the Royal Society of the UK and the US National Academy of Sciences.
Of course these are only speculations. But what we know is that Germany has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050, even though Dr Merkel admits the task will be ‘Herculean’, and the plan has many detractors. And China has shifted its rhetoric from ‘we didn’t create the problem so it’s not our responsibility to solve it’ to announcing its intention to reduce emissions from 2020, on some reports by as much as 45% on 2005 levels.
Meanwhile, with our plans to expand the coal industry and abolition of the tax successfully reducing carbon emissions, we are heading in the opposite direction, and excoriated by other nations for so doing. But we are acting on the best advice gullibilists can provide.