Australia21 is a not-for-profit organisation, ten years old now, that grapples with problems and issues reports. It issued a report recently on the drug problem that got a day or so of media attention, because it proposed decriminalising drugs altogether. I agreed with that suggestion, but it was too much for our leaders, and didn’t produce a sustained discussion. I know some of Australia21’s people, and respect them.
Its most recent report, however, made me want to tear my hair. Beyond Denial: Managing the Uncertainties of Global Change is available online. It is the report of a conversation among un-named ‘experts’, brought together because of the opportunity to discuss matters with one of the authors of the 1972 Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth, and the author of another book on global disruption. Both authors are convinced that the expansion of greenhouse gases is the problem. What do we do about it? The experts weren’t sure, except that we really did have a problem, but their comments are given.
Who were they? We aren’t told. The Preface to the Report says that they ‘are not identified here as the discussions were held under the Chatham House rule to facilitate full and frank exchange of comments about the sensitive issues that were raised by the visitors.’ OK, but there didn’t seem to many frank exchanges in the Report: by and large, those present were singing from the same score.
And what is ‘beyond denial’? That is not clear. My guess is that it is something like the following: ‘Australia could rapidly wean itself off its fossil fuel dependency at modest economic and social cost and that substantial benefits could flow from early commitment to this path’. A more general response would be that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is ahead of us, and that will destroy the fabric of Western civilisation as we have been developing it. Doom. Doom. Doom. The two authors differed only in the way in which doom would come.
You might think that anyone organising a seminar or symposium on such a topic would try to ensure that there was a sceptical viewpoint or two. After all, ‘climate change’ has moved to the back-burner in most countries, at least as a matter of central public policy. And global temperature has levelled out over the last 16 years, while carbon dioxide emissions have continued steadily upwards. In resource terms, gas has become much more widely available. My sense of it is that countries are shifting from mitigation (trying to find a global solution to what may be a non-problem) to adaptation (doing their best to ensure that climatic disasters are anticipated and avoided or minimised). Any basis for the doom scenario rests on the output of computer models, which have by no means established their worth in terms of prediction.
I couldn’t find much scepticism in the comments. The closest I found to any reservation about the gloom was this remark: ‘I have spent months plowing through the climate change literature, trying to find scientific evidence that would support the 2°C limit. I could not find anything that was that categorical.’ Dead right. The 2 degree figure was plucked from the air, and has no scientific basis. To read the comments is to get one confident assertion after another about the approaching doom.
Why do people believe and say these things? The science we have is based on historic temperature data that are global only for the past thirty years. Before that they are at best indications only. Yes, it’s probably true that the earth warmed during the 20th century, but it probably did in past times as well, just as it cooled. We don’t know why, and we can’t yet distinguish the human contribution to global warming from what we call, because we don’t know what causes it, ‘natural variability’. It isn’t even clear (at all) that increased carbon dioxide is bad for the planet, let alone for us. Warming is variously useful or not, according to where you live. And so on.
So why do they do it? I think it is because so many want to believe that the science is telling us about the approaching doom. It makes our time the most important time of all, and our actions the most important actions of all. Let me be clear. Doom is a possibility. It always is. It was when I was young, but then it was the nuclear holocaust that was the danger. On the evidence so far, the projections and scenarios of approaching doom (now, according to the Report, in the second half of the century — a decade ago, doom was closer) are simply one possibility, not a likelihood. And in my view the possibility is small, and its inevitability close to zero. Doomsayers always under-rate humanity’s capacity to adapt and evolve.
Should we discuss it? Yes, but the community will learn a lot more if the discussion is open and involves people from many different backgrounds and perspectives.