Climate change science: will Prime Minister Abbott be guided by Galileo or the Pope?

When Galileo put forward the idea that the earth is not the centre of the universe he was subject to persecution by the church. His science was ridiculed as an affront to God and rejected as inconsistent with the received wisdom from Aristotle and the Bible.

Bertrand Russell said Galileo ‘began the long fight between science and dogma’, which eventually led to mainstream thinkers and politicians, at least in the liberal democracies, accepting the authority of science to adjudicate what counts as knowledge of the world.

Very recently, however, dogma is fighting back with renewed energy, particularly against the science of global warming.

As late as 2008 the policies of the Republican Party in the US addressed the threat of climate change, but the current Republican policy is silent on the issue. The rise of the Tea Party has made it impossible for Republican politicians to acknowledge that burning fossil fuels is causing global warming; indeed, the rejection of concerns about anthropogenic climate change is an article of religious faith for many modern Republicans.

In Australia, while God is largely left out of the argument, Tony Abbott’s pre-election statement ridiculing an ETS as a ‘so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one’ moves the position of our conservative parties closer to those in the US. Abbott’s statement disparages the careful economic analysis of the most efficient ways to reduce emissions in market economies, including by the Productivity Commission. And his language offers succour to those who reject the science of climate change, including senior figures in his own party.

Malcolm Turnbull’s call for the science to be respected has clearly fallen on deaf ears in the Coalition, where the science about climate change is as likely to be rejected as respected.

It is not surprising, then, that the Coalition has adopted a policy on climate change that cannot be taken seriously as a free-market party’s response to a serious problem.

Given the importance of science to the success of technologically advanced market economies such as Australia, the rejection of climate science is not done openly. Rather, the adherence to convenient fictions over science is masked by the false claim that there is an active debate among scientists over the future course and cause of climate change.  Indeed, in an interview just before the election with Michelle Grattan for The Conversation, Tony Abbott did just this when he said the argument among the experts is not quite the one way street that it might have seemed four or five years [ago].

There is no such debate, for the simple reason that global warming is rooted in such basic physics and chemistry that in 1896 Arrhenius was able to predict that burning fossil fuels would lead to a warmer planet. Accordingly, if the Earth is not warming despite the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a great deal of well established science will have to be abandoned.

The same can be said for the claim that while the greenhouse effect is real, it is not of a magnitude to be worth doing anything about.

Here again a great deal of science is at risk, as the models used for predicting the future of the climate are not simple extrapolations from observations, but predictions based on fundamental understandings of the way the atmosphere, oceans, ice, land and vegetation interact. If the models predicting a temperature rise greater than the suggested ‘safe level’ of two degrees before the end of this century are wildly wrong, then we don’t understand a lot of what we thought we did about the Earth’s physical and biological systems, including a lot of the science used to produce amazingly accurate weather forecasts. The contradiction involved in rejecting the models’ forecasts but holding on to the science from which they derive constitutes a crisis for science that the critic is obliged to resolve.

Which is not to say that the various climate models are perfect and that we can now precisely predict the course of the future climate, nor that we can explain all features of the past – even putting the inherently probabilistic nature of the forecasts to one side. But that is true of vast areas of settled science: we do not go from complete ignorance to a perfect finished science in one bound!

Nor is it to deny the great lesson from the history of science, that the seemingly most secure theory may turn out to be false.

Rather, it is simply to note that the sheer bulk of science that contributes to our understanding of the climate makes it impossible that there will be a successful refutation of the science of climate change without a revolution in many branches of science.

Thus the failure of the so-called sceptics to engage with or even recognise the need for this huge scientific labour shows that their argument is not a dispute within science, but a rejection of science.

That difference is no small matter. The acceptance of science as the authoritative source of our knowledge about the world is the great achievement of the Enlightenment. It underpins our economic and social development over the last five centuries. It is the very foundation of our ability to make rational choices in public policy that have the best chance of advancing the interests of the nation as a whole rather than have public policy shaped by immediately foreseeable consequences for powerful sectional interests.

Indeed, while scientific knowledge is a necessary foundation for the pursuit of the common good – the ‘relief of man’s estate’, as Bacon said in 1605 – the rejection of scientific knowledge is a standard move in the defence of vested interests.

Whether the Abbott government is prepared to turn its back on the Enlightenment and adopt policies which are directly contrary to accepted science is an issue orders of magnitude greater than any other matter which is at play in our current politics.

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