I did not watch the celebrated Q&A program in which Brian Cox, an astrophysicist and science communicator, had an argument with Malcom Roberts, the recently elected Senator who is apparently responsible for the ‘climate change’ policies of One Nation. I’ve watched a couple of these Q&A programs in the past, but felt that they were so manipulated and stacked that one would rarely get any value from them (apparently, however, there was a good one on Shakespeare last week). I did see extracts from the Cox/Roberts program, but that is all. I think Q&A is a good example of the peculiar ideology of the ABC, the assumption that all reasonable, right-thinking people would share the position of the presenter, and that of the ABC itself.
The program so irritated one viewer, a PhD called Graham Woods, that he wrote a long piece for Quadrant Online, which you can read here. It is literate and reasonable. He raises a number of interesting issues. Cox is not a climate scientist, but apparently spoke in assured tones of the absolute consensus about things climatic. He apparently also brought with him some graphs, which suggested that he had been given some riding instructions (that may not have been the case); no one else had any graphs. Woods felt that since Cox was not a climate scientist he should have made that clear, and that he had an obligation to confine those dimensions to those about which there can be very little doubt whatever: dimensions or facts that any intelligent non-specialist could, in principle, discover for herself. Here are some of them, the first and second groups surely safe from dispute by any climate scientist:
- Planet Earth is a dynamic planet in a dynamic solar system: thus climate change is, now and for millions of years to come, inevitable and unstoppable. In the absence of climate change, life as it exists on our planet simply wouldn’t.
- Our global climate system is almost incomprehensibly complex: across geological time and into the present affected interactively by the sun; the moon; possibly by some of the larger planets; by tectonic plate movement; volcanic activity; cyclical changes in the earth’s oceans; changes in the quantum and distribution of the earth’s biomass; changes in greenhouse gases that themselves are the result of changes in more underlying factors; by changes in the earth’s tilt and solar orbit; probably by changes in the earth’s magnetic field; and possibly by some other non-anthropogenic factors that at present scientists either don’t know about or whose impact they haven’t yet fully appreciated.
- ‘Consensus’ means ‘majority view’; majority views can be egregiously wrong (witness the work of apostates Marshall and Warren in the case of Helicobacter pylori and stomach ulcers).
- There is no published estimate of the degree of consensus on any aspect of climate or climate change that is so statistically robust that it can’t be contested; in any case, the size of the majority in favour of a scientific conclusion is logically disconnected from its validity: scientific hypotheses and conclusions are refined and proven by empirical data, not crowd appeal.
- There are now countless thousands of studies drawn from at least twenty scientific disciplines that aim to – or purport to – shed light on how the earth’s climate ‘works’. Many of their results and conclusions are, by their authors’ own reckoning, tentative; the results and conclusions of some studies contest the results and conclusions of others. There would be few, if any, aspects of climate that could claim 100% agreement among the relevant researchers except some of the raw data – and even many of these are contested, because different (though prima facie equally defensible) methods have been adopted to collect them.
- In 2016, the feedback loops and tipping points that are assumed to affect global climate systems are, in actual real-world settings, imperfectly understood, and tipping points in particular are largely speculative. This is true regardless of the possibility (even the likelihood) that the current ‘very rapid pulse increase’ in CO2 is geologically unprecedented or the possibility that it will have irreversible climatic consequences.
- There is demonstrable scientific debate about the presumptive roles (yes, roles) of CO2 in medium- and long-term climate change in the real world – and there is no conclusion about how CO2 is related to these dimensions that is supported by incontestable empirical evidence.
- The impact of anthropogenic CO2 is therefore a scientific question, not a matter on which ‘the science is settled’ or ‘the debate is over’.
I’ve extracted that set of statements not only because I agree with each of them, but because I have said all of them at one time or another, especially the notion that any intelligent non-specialist could in time, discover all this for himself or herself. I think some other remarks by Woods are worth repeating, like this one.
The fact that the mean global temperature has risen during the last 100 years says nothing about what it was doing before then, and says nothing at all about its causes. Even if the 100-year correlation with rising levels of atmospheric CO2 were perfect (and there isn’t 100% agreement even on the purely statistical question of how good the correlation is), that proves nothing whatever about causation. The fact that correlation says nothing about causation (a fact that guides all empirical inquiry, including science) was drawn to your attention by Malcolm Roberts, your sceptical fellow panel member, the fellow who, according to subsequent media assessments, you ‘schooled in the science of climate change’ and ‘exposed and destroyed’, and who is a ‘climate change denier’ (he isn’t) whose claims you refuted (you didn’t: you disputed them).
And this one, which gets to the nub of what has so irritated me about the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming push over the past decade.
Let us, for one phantasmagorical moment, pretend that all the data are in (this would be a first for any science ever, and would transform it from science to dogma), that ‘the (scientific) debate is over’, that CO2 has been shown unequivocally to be the main driver of global warming during the past 40 years, and that the existence of countervailing global mechanisms is vanishingly unlikely: given the world-wide concern about ‘climate change’, and given your high profile as a scientist, you have further duties of care I believe. Chief among them is to help people understand what sort of world they’ll inhabit if fossil-sourced substances are taken off the menu.
Nuclear-powered electricity generation could, theoretically, substitute for a very significant proportion of current fossil-fuel-powered generation. Assuming uniformly supportive governments and negligible public opposition (an unlikely scenario), nuclear power could be up and running across the world in 5-10 years. It follows that fossil-fuel-powered generation will be required for at least that long: in reality it’s likely to be much longer.
Assuming anything less than a massive increase in nuclear electricity generation, in the absence of fossil-sourced energy and fossil-sourced raw materials (for many of which there are currently no realistic alternatives) at least the next twenty years would be years with minimal heating and cooling; with compromised urban street lighting; with compromised sewerage and other waste disposal systems; without motorised transport, functional agricultural, mining and industrial machinery, newly manufactured computers and tablets, mobile phones, television sets, refrigerators, bicycles or any other conventional consumer goods, including clothes and shoes; and with inadequate food and/or water for most of the world’s people and their pets and livestock. Modern medicine would collapse; so would most school systems; so, probably, would our financial systems – and possibly even our political systems. In such a world, people like Brian Cox won’t be able to jet to Australia – and will struggle to conduct their professional lives even via video-conferencing – and Al Gore will have to significantly reduce the scale of his energy-dense lifestyle. The world as we’ve come to expect it during the past century simply won’t exist, and many of its human inhabitants will perish: in particular the already impoverished, the very young, the otherwise frail, and the physically handicapped. In a world so beleaguered civil unrest is certain, and food-looting, widespread violence and murder are virtually guaranteed. This is the larger context in which the ‘climate change debate’ (now over … ) should be conducted. It’s a context that implies balancing risks against benefits, and that balance will have to be struck even if the worst of the climate-change scenarios is realised.
All this was in my head ten years ago when I started to think what would happen if we gave up fossil fuels and went to alternative sources of energy. Why is that people don’t think hard about such things? Some readers object if I describe ‘climate change’ as a religion, yet they say they ‘believe’ what the (= some) scientists say. None of this is a matter for belief. It is for cool, rational calculation of costs and benefits. I don’t know Graham Woods, but I think his open letter to Brian Cox (there has been no reply) is a fine statement of the sceptical case.
Endnote: While I am glad that there is at least one parliamentarian who is sceptical about it all, I do not agree with all of the One Nation statements about ‘climate change’. But I’ll leave that for another essay.
Second Endnote: The current printed Quadrant has a long piece that I wrote about my own ideological journey, an essay I wrote when two academics I admired, the late John Hirst, a historian, and John Carroll, a sociologist, suggested I do so (Quadrant, Vol LX No.9, September 2016, pp. 86-93, ‘A Lifetime of Beginning with the Facts’). My own title for the essay, which I rather prefer, was ‘Liberal and Conservative’.