How much science, how much religion?

I had decided to write a post with the above title above, and on Monday out came the Summary for Policy Makers of the second Working Group of the IPCC; the actual report, on the effects on climate change (rather than the basic science said to underpin it), will come out later this year. Coincidentally, the Guardian on Monday published an interview with James Lovelock, he of Gaia fame, and probably the oldest living notable Green (he is 94). So let’s start with him.

He was asked about the environmental movement, of which he has some claims to be the inspiration, and replied, straightforwardly, ‘It’s become a religion, and religions don’t worry too much about facts.’ Elsewhere the interview has him saying, of the warnings  of climate catastrophe in his 2006 book Revenge of Gaia, ‘I was a little too certain in that book. You just can’t tell what’s going to happen. It [the impact from climate change] could be terrible within a few years, though that’s very unlikely, or it could be hundreds of years before the climate becomes unbearable.’

In hundreds of years the unbearability might be due to cold, though Lovelock didn’t say that. He did say ‘it’s just as silly to be a [climate] denier as it is to be a believer. You can’t be certain’. I would go along with that. As it happens, I don’t know anyone who is a ‘denier’ of the proposition that climates change. I do know many who think that humanity has the capacity to affect climate, especially micro-climates, and that it is entirely possible that humanity as a whole has made some contribution to the warming of the past fifty years or so, always remembering that there hasn’t been any significant warming for the past decade or so. More than that? Well, the evidence is not persuasive — indeed, the observational evidence isn’t there.

Now some readers will need to know that the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) is a political document produced by the government representatives to to the IPCC. They are supposed to base the summary on the science of the full report (here, WG2, not yet out, as I said, though a lot has been leaked). And of course, WG2 needs to be in harmony with WG1, which came out late last year.

No one is yet able to say whether or not any of that is so. But what we can say is that there has been the same orchestration of shock and horror that we get each time an IPCC report comes out. Gloom, doom and destruction are the themes. I guess the same thing happens in every Western country, but in Australia a good example was provided by the ABC which gave the SPM top-of-the-morning-news status, then Margaret Throsby at lunchtime re-broadcast an interview about the dangers to the Great Barrier Reef, while the Sydney Morning Herald gave space to three authors of the report to let us know just how serious the threat was.

Apparently it’s the end of humanity as we know it, or at least the authors* think so.

The Earth is warming so rapidly that unless humans can arrest the trend, we risk becoming ”extinct” as a species, a leading Australian health academic has warned… while the Earth has been warmer and colder at different points in the planet’s history, the rate of change has never been as fast as it is today.

”What is remarkable, and alarming, is the speed of the change since the 1970s, when we started burning a lot of fossil fuels in a massive way,” [the academic] said. ”We can’t possibly evolve to match this rate [of warming] and, unless we get control of it, it will mean our extinction eventually.”

You can see another version of this apocalyptic stuff on The Conversation, and if you wish you can go on to read another couple of hundred comments from people the great majority of whom also believe that we are racing to destruction. The more of this I read, the more I sigh, and wonder about the effects of education. For the past 17 years the world doesn’t seem to have warmed at all. Haven’t the authors caught up with that? Humans were not made extinct by the last ice age. The rate of change today is microscopically small. Yes, we have burned a lot of fossil fuel, and the planet seems to be greener. More people live longer; poverty is declining, as are birthrates…

The SMH article is not science. It is belief. The authors believe that they are right, and ignore inconvenient facts that seem to lie in the way. The leaked versions of WG2 seem to suggest that the IPCC itself is doing its best to sideline inconvenient science and stick to the message, but each time it’s getting harder. But for the acolytes it’s another opportunity to tell us all that we are blind, deaf and wicked: there is a massive job to be done, and we are getting in the way.

The saving grace is that the electorate no longer buys the message, nor does the present Government — nor, I’m beginning to think, does much of the present Opposition. Yes, all will pay lip-service to the god of global warming, but the enthusiasm for it has passed. But it will be difficult to wind it all back.

And I still haven’t written the post I wanted to write on religion and science.

 [I try to protect universities from the excesses of their staff, if I can, so I have drawn a veil over the locations of these authors…]

Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Walter Starck says:

    Today’s journalists all come from academic training including a thorough indoctrination in postmodern academic philosophy and political correctness (including environmental correctness). From this perspective the notion of truth is entirely subjective and any idea of objective (i.e., empirical) fact is a delusion. The only way to determine correct belief is political. Ignoring empirical evidence which contradicts what we know to be politically correct is not just excusable, it is a moral obligation.

  • David says:

    I always enjoy seeing the word “religion” used pejoratively. I like your thinking Don.

    • Peter Bobroff says:

      von Mises is careful to separate religion from theocracy. If religion has a positive effect on one’s values or morals then it is a good thing. If theocracy allows divine revelations or a priest class to intrude into the working of the economy, politics or society then that is not so good.

  • PeterE says:

    I liked the cartoon by Bill Leak in The Australian’ of (Tuesday 1 April?). He showed a cinema about to begin ‘Climate Catastrophe 5’ (or words to that effect). The cinema is empty except for a couple, one of whom says to the other ‘I hope it’s an improvement on the last one in the series’.

  • Peter Bobroff says:

    Should the universities be protecting themselves against the excesses of their staff? Interesting freedom of speech implications. Be less of a problem if divisive issues were routinely examined in a public forum with orderly cross-examination by both sides. The Conversation doesn’t quite fit the bill.

    To what extent is it reasonable to assume that a university which makes no comment on contentious statements by its staff, does in fact condone the statements?

  • Scott Gregory says:

    Don, I am totally unnerved that I generally agree with everything you write. I think it is my nature to be skeptical and to seek hidden agendas. I also believe that the vast majority of us sincerely believe in ideas we take the trouble to put, or support, in the forum of ideas. What do you think drives those who still advocate the IPCC style alarmist agenda?

    • David says:

      Scott why do you think it is alarmist to advocate a $10 billion carbon tax on a $1.2 trillion economy. That amounts to a 0.8% tax on total economic activity.

      • John Morland says:

        David, the trouble with allocating percentages is you cannot go over 100%. That’s right 100% is the limit – that’s it. I would say 0.8% of total economic activity towards an uncertain, unreliable and unproven evidence of a barely possible GW catastrophy is not only alarmist but utterly irresponsible. There are thousand of demands on the economy -.if each of them “advocated” a mere 0.8% (and some require a much higher percentage -eg social security, health, defence, education, transport) we would reach 100% long before we addressed a fraction of the demands of a functioning economy.

        CAGW is an extraordinary claim. I have learned in (genuine) science extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Sorry, but the CAGW hypothesis ain’t there, it juct does not cuts the mustard!

        • David says:

          No one likes to lose money. But if you lost 0.8% of your annual income, you would hardly describe it as a catastrophe!.

          • whyisitso says:

            There was a time in my life when I had 3 kids to support and a very heavy mortgage. The loss of nearly1% of my income would have been catastrophic. We could have lost our house.

          • David says:

            That sounds pretty melodramatic. But the fact you say you were not a competent financial manager of your finances in the past is not really relevant.
            No other society has ever been as materially rich as Australia is today. A small loss of income is not going to make the sky fall in.

          • John Morland says:

            David, please do not criticise a person based on your miguided assumptions, it does not reflect well on you. I also had 3 small kids and my wife was working and we had a mortgage. We were quite conservative on our borrowing amount (we declined the bank’s offer to loan us more money) but the interest rates rose from 13.5% to 18% in a few months in 1991. Had interest rates rose a further 1% we would have been in trouble as well. In fact, despite having 2 reasonably well paid jobs, for a about a month; after paying mortgage, childcare and other non- discretionary expenses we did not have enough to buy enough food! Luckily we had enough in the larder to help us through. The interest rates started to tumble just in time – it was a close shave. We were not incompetant financial managers either.

            Please keep your misguided assumptions to yourself.

          • David says:

            John I had a mortgage at the same time. You were not Robinson and Cruiso.
            If interest rates had gone up further you could have put all the kids in one room and taken in a boarder or whatever.
            To me a catastrophe is a complete fracture of your spinal cord at C3, everything else is just an inconvenience!

          • John Morland says:

            And neither will the sky fall in iif Australia repeals the Carbon Tax.

          • David says:

            No, but it will heat it up!

          • John Morland says:

            Yes I liked Carl Sagan and yes he is the one who said this and yes he was one of my heroes of my early life and still is, and yes he thought rising CO2 would have a warming influence on our planet’satmosphere and likened this to Venus. I agree to all these except the Venus bit.

            He accurately predicted Venus being very hot; (now known to be 462C) at a 93 atmosphere pressure and 97% CO2. Earth’s atmosphere would be close to 400C despite being only .04% CO2 and further from the Sun; if somehow our present atmosphere increased it’s pressure to 93 atmosphere pressure. The formula how I worked this out is: 14deg C + natural log (9200/100-20)X80; where 14 deg is present average atmospheric temperature (it is around 14.4C), 9200 is the number of kilopascals pressure at Venus’ surface (1 atm pressure = 101.3 kpa) and our atmosphere increases 80 degrees C from 20 kpa to 100 kpa pressure (ie a lapse rate); so this is a natural logarithmic extrapolation..

            Of course this formulae is quite general, it does not take into account our planet’s particular factors such as oceans, our rotation and strong atmospheric convections and the different pressure where our atmosphere would become supercritical. At best it would be a ball park figure; but still it is sobering. Venus’s high temperature is not necessarily due its 97% CO2, but mainly due its atmospheric pressure, despite its high albedo (about 70% visual and 90% across the UV and IR)

            Carl Sagan also encouraged skepticism, and I agree with him on this as well. Gosh, scepticism in science, now that is a revoutionary thought – is’nt it David?

            And finally comparing my income to a country’s economic activity is rediculous aa well I did not describe 0.8% allocation to a CO2 tax as a catastrophe, but irresponsible.

          • David says:

            “… utterly irresponsible”, in fact. 🙂
            OK, you may have a point. But cut me some slack my original comment was to Scott and you jumped in so it became a three-way conversation. Collateral damage.
            Comparing national and personal income is reasonable. National income is just the sum of personal incomes. I think to characterise this as ridiculous is a bit harsh.

        • David says:

          BTW John, I don’t want to completely embarrass you, but the person who are quoting when you say “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was Carl Sagan. And he was a strong advocate of AGW!

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

  • dlb says:

    “You can see another version of this apocalyptic stuff on The Conversation”
    No thanks Don, the thought of a few hundred comments by true believers has me already cringing.

  • Gus says:

    “He was asked about the environmental movement, of which he has some claims to be the inspiration, and replied, straightforwardly, ‘It’s become a religion…'”
    The real inspiration for the environmental movement was East German Stasi money and Stasi agents, Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian.

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