The Academy of Science Lends a Hand

The Australian Academy of Science is a prestigious institution, and like the other learned academies, is mostly about conferring prestige on researchers (in this case, natural scientists) who are thought to have done well. It was founded in the 1950s by a group of Australian Fellows of the Royal Society, which is the oldest, and in its own view the most prestigious, of all the world’s learned academies. The AAS is wealthy, with total assets of around $52 million, and an annual revenue of about $14 million. In 2014 it received  a special grant-in-aid from the Commonwealth of $1.7 million, received another $3.5 million in other grants (mostly Federal), and collected $2 million in donations, mostly from Fellows and deceased Fellows, plus another $2 million in publication income. It is the go-to institution when important matters of science are being considered by governments in our country, and its President is taken seriously as a scientific leader and spokesperson.

I have known most of the Presidents for the past thirty years or so, and have known quite a lot of Fellows, present and past. They are exemplary scientists, or at least their peers think so, and I would not argue the toss about matters of pure science with any of them. And that makes it all the more odd that the Academy has thought to enter the field of politics again with a statement about ‘climate change’. It published one such statement in 2010, which was due for revision in the middle of last year. According to report, the paper was finished on time, but its publication was held up because of financial stringency. Since the AAS is not exactly poverty-stricken, I find that explanation a bit odd too.

Well, the new statement came out a week ago, prepared by some of the leading Australian figures in global warming. Its publication and essential message were faithfully reported by the ABC, and the report received some really critical press at once (here, for example, where you can also find links to other critiques). Garth Paltridge, a former CRC Director and chief research scientist in the CSIRO, devoted an op. ed. to it in The Australian, in which he concluded, ‘Basically the academy has fallen into the trap of being no more than a conduit for a massive international campaign seeking to persuade a sceptical public of the need for drastic action on climate change’.

If you want to scrutinise the report, it’s not long. There are hundreds of references, but anyone with an interest in global warming or ‘climate change’ can see the old cliches of argument brought out. I’ll give just a couple of examples. After a paragraph or two about the uncertainties in all this, we are told, Despite these uncertainties, there is near-unanimous agreement among climate scientists that human-caused global warming is real. Well, I would agree that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere will, other things being equal, tend to increase temperature, and human activity has indeed been sending more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But when I go to the three references that support the claim of ‘near-unanimous agreement’, I find them to be Doran et al, Anderegg et al, and Cook et al, each of them hopelessly weak as a basis for such  a statement. The last one is, to put it kindly, the worst journal article I have ever come across.

The fact that there has been no significant warming for more than a decade is disposed of with some hand-waving about the oceans. The fact that the models greatly overstate the role of greenhouse gas emissions is not mentioned. The fact that the models used to forecast the future have neither been verified nor validated is not mentioned. The fact that the models’ projections are nowhere near the observations, is likewise not mentioned. There is no comment, as there ought to be, on Roy Spencer’s celebrated graph below, showing how unrelated most of the models are to actual observations, a graph that I have used before.


cmip5-90-models-global-tsfc-vs-obs1The whole thing is awfully one-eyed and selective.

My interest lies not so much in the way the science is presented, loaded though that is, as in the Academy’s purpose in generating such a report now. According to the UNAA (the UN Association of Australia), the Academy did so in an effort to better explain climate change to the community and to take account both of new research and public questions about climate change…  Maybe. I didn’t find the document at all helpful in either effort.

While you could see at least an argument that the 2010 statement was keyed to support the then Labor Government’s crusade for carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, the Abbott Government has dismantled the carbon tax, and is not sympathetic to more pressure in that area. So why do this now? One reason may be that, having published a call to arms in 201o, the Academy, or someone in it, may have thought it would look craven if it didn’t support its earlier sermon.

What really irritated me was the last section: Question 9: What does science say about options to address climate change? Options here are the choices facing governments, and they are political, not scientific. One obvious one is to wait and see: very little warming is happening at the moment, the models aren’t performing well, and so on, and a prudent government might well get to work on other things. Another is to put some money into research on natural variability, and prefer that to yet more stuff on the consequences of human activity. We need to know much more about the natural context in order to assess the impact of humans and their work.

A third could be to recognise that there will be adverse climatic events whether or not human activity is the major cause, and to prepare to adapt to those changes. We could be doing more, for example on flood control, fire and drought. Yes, none of it is easy, and all of it is highly political, but that’s what governments are for.

Only one of these options seems to have occurred to the Academy. It sees four broad strategies: emissions reduction, carbon sequestration, adaptation, and geo-engineering. In the Australian context, only adaptation seems to me to have any chance of being implemented, and we should do that anyway. The others are pie in the sky, for all the obvious reasons. Emissions reduction is a non sequitur unless the whole world does it, Australia stops exporting coal, and we all adjust to a much lower standard of living. Carbon sequestration is still a laboratory proposition, and geo-engineering is fraught with cost, uncertainty and danger.

And again, you ask yourself — why is the Academy doing this? Its portrayal of ‘the science’ is one-sided and unhelpful. It is pushing a message on behalf of the global warming orthodox that is poorly supported in the data, and pushing it to a Government that is most unlikely to want to hear it. Garth Paltridge said that it was possible that Some day the academy may come  to regret the arrangement. I agree with him.



Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • pjb253 says:

    I received the following from the then Secretary to the AAS Executive Committee in 2010. “The purpose of the document was not to provide yet another IPCC report
    addressed to scientists and policy makers, but rather to produce an educational
    document accessible by the public at large, to help resolve many issues which
    have been deliberately rendered obscure by climate change deniers. In this goal
    it has succeeded very well – there are now over 50,000 copies of the little
    booklet in circulation, and the AAS imprimatur helps its credibility.”

    • JMO says:

      As soon as anyone uses the term ” climate change denier”, as far as I am concerned has blown away all their credibilty, the AAS included. I think climate nazis is an adquate response.

  • dlb says:

    Possibly the scientific activists have decided that the community have tired of all of the hyperbole and are trying a more measured approach. With no lead coming from the current government they are probably concerned that AGW will drop off the public radar. I would say this is an appeal to the educated public to keep the idea front and centre and no doubt organisations like the ABC will happily oblige in passing it on.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    “Look, the sheep are following each other!” “Yes, I muttered, they do that”, concentrating on the traffic, and having observed them many a time in my wool-gathering days. At first I thought the missus was talking about the Academy of Science paper that we had been discussing this morning, but in fact she had been noticing a small mob as we passed an Arthur Streeton golden summer paddock on the eastern side of Canberra.

    The Academy has little option but to continue its plaintive echo of he orthodox. With so many of its influential members having gone out on a limb over AGW, or if you prefer another analogy, having caught the tail of the tiger, they can’t afford to let go . . . . or be seen to let go.

    It is interesting that so many of those scientists who have been publicly and bravely challenging the orthodox AGW position, are retired or in positions where they are not constrained by an academic or professional position. But it goes beyond this. Having led a consulting company some years back, I know very well that I could not have allowed myself to be as outspoken as I am on the issue, as I would have certainly lost business. How do I know? Simply, the way that most tertiary-trained people react to AGW challenge – they think you’re a little off your rocker, to be going against the mainstream. “And if you can’t accept the science that 97% of scientists support, then we can’t be sure to trust your consulting advice.” So as an IT consultant, I would have just had to keep my head down.

    Do you think I’m paranoid? Well, try sticking your head above the parapet in academia, any governmental scientific body, or even in politics. Look at what happened to Bob Carter and Murry Salby, both treated with a petty vindictiveness worthy of a malevolent version of a St Trinian’s!

    Why is it so? Why this sheepishness? Perhaps three main reasons:

    1. having been taught for many years to accept the authority of knowledge, and by implication the authority of the learned, many scientists and tertiary-trained others, genuinely accept the orthodox view on AGW;

    2. those most outspoken, feel they cannot recant without humiliation; as an example of what can happen, James Lovelock’s admission that he, Gore and others had clearly exaggerated their earlier predictions of man’s “deadly impact on the planet”, was disparaged by Sir Brian Hoskins of the Grantham Institute at a presentation at the ANU that I attended last year, as the reflections of a scientist in his dotage; for a report of Lovelock’s statement, see

    3. as more knowledge about the climate is becoming known with more being discovered, and as more of the weaknesses of the AGW case are being demonstrated, it is inconceivable that there would not be many thinking scientists who are starting to question privately the orthodox position; however, they cannot afford yet to raise questions publicly, as to do so would be a very career-limiting move.

    By contrast with the Academy or the Royal Society, the American Physical Society (APS) has been re-considering its 2007 Statement on Climate Change (a misnomer for AGW, of course). See, and for a later update . What has been the background to this review? Simply that quite a few members were not at all happy with the 2007 statement, and my guess is that the controversy continues in the APS. I note in the above Nov 7 2014 statement from the APS, that Steven E Koonin resigned from the relevant sub-committee – now why was this?. (And here’s an interesting Sept 2014 report about Koonin’s current thoughts about climate science – worth browsing: .)

    I expect that the controversy within the APS won’t go away. And the ripples of that discontent will spread. Eventually, they’ll reach even the shores of our Academy.

  • BoyfromTottenham says:

    Hi Don and your readers,
    Thanks for another great thought-provoking article! I saw an interesting article from Canada recently, where the government (along with India, who will be next?) is getting concerned that AGW activists are beginning to become a threat to their national security because of their successful efforts against energy projects, etc. One comment in particular caught my eye – something like “…leaks due to Green activists having evidently infiltrated key government departments”. This is eerily reminiscent (for me at least, an avid student of the Cold War) of the infiltration of the UK and US governments (among many others) by KGB spies, often recruited from the UK and US academic community (think of the Cambridge spy ring) who wormed their way into such positions years before at the behest of their masters, quietly climbing the career ladder until they were near or at the very top and able to do untold damage in support of their “noble cause”. I wonder if you, or any of your often well-informed readers suspect as much? Regards,

    • dlb says:

      I don’t know about hardliners but I would say many with a commitment to social justice and environmental sustainability have made it their business to get into places of influence. That is why we have what I call the new establishment running the western world. Arguably there were some noble causes to be addressed, but in my mind some of their goals are just too idealistic, their solutions too simplistic often resulting in unintended consequences.

      • BoyfromTottenham says:

        But what are the real motives of these folk with “a commitment to social justice and environmental sustainability”? After all, both of these concepts are vague and difficult to argue against – how convenient. Meanwhile they can white-ant away to “save the world”. At least during the cold war the white-anters could be imprisoned for “spying for a foreign power”, but this current version is much trickier to fight.

        • dlb says:

          I think most of the people pushing for social justice and environmental sustainability are just ordinary folks who want to see a better world. Some may have been brought up in hard circumstances or seen hypocrisy in the old order and hence their zeal for reform. I used to be a fairly idealistic about environmental issues, but with life experience I consider myself now fairly pragmatic. The danger with all these causes is that the well meaning foot soldiers can be led astray by those with grand ambitions.

  • Dasher says:

    That these otherwise men and women of distinction would associate themselves with such shallow offerings is a mystery to me.

  • EmperorJulian says:

    To cut straight to the chase, I would urge people to read Laframboise, Donna, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert . Ivy Avenue Press 2011 – Kindle Edition available from Amazon at around a tenner. This book so thoroughly, clearly and devastatingly unpicks the entire political hoax that there remains no point in reading any more.

    Dion Giles
    (Sorry about the silly pseudonym. Got stuck with it through Discus)

  • David says:

    I have a general question for anyone who knows.

    I have downloaded data from the BOM on relative humidity for Australia. Can any one explain to me why relative humidity is higher in the Winter than in than the Summer?

    Thanks in advance

    • David says:

      I would have thought with all the wanabe climatologists on this site I would have had an answer by now. 🙂

      • Don Aitkin says:


        Perhaps the reason that no one has answered is that there aren’t any would-be climatologists who comment here. You could ask the BoM, or even Professor Google.

      • dlb says:

        Hi David,
        I have been away and only just seen your comment. Relative humidity is the percent of moisture in the air before it precipitates out. When it reaches 100% cloud, fog, dew or even your breath will condense out. As the temperature decreases the relative humidity will increase till the air becomes saturated, this temperature is the dew point. So of course the cooler months of the year will have higher relative humidities than summer even though there is more water vapour (specific humidity) in the air in summer.
        (Wanabee Climatologist)

        • David says:

          Thanks dlb. 🙂

          So what happens to relative humidity when it rains? Is it 100% or does the relative humidity “crash” to a low reading?

          I will Professor Google it

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