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Comment: 2 November 2008
Stay rational on climate change
A wave of anxiety has boosted the Greens’ presence in the Senate, on NSW
local councils and now in the ACT Legislative Assembly. Heady days for
them. But the prospect of more green muscle flexing is disquieting.
Resort to rhetorical smears and bullying are commonplace. Terms like
“climate denialism” and “climate sceptic” assume a sinister aspect.
Until recently an intellectual virtue, scepticism has become a dirty
word. In the field of urban planning, to name one, a stifling green
doctrine looms larger than ever.
We need to regain a sense of perspective. What does “climate sceptic”
mean anyway? Is it just a label to silence dissent and impose
The flip-side of scepticism is orthodoxy. Scepticism is controversial
whenever there’s strong attachment to a received belief. So if there’s
climate scepticism, there must be climate orthodoxy. Although climate
change is a complex, multi-dimensional issue, virtually all activists,
journalists and politicians seem happy to fall in behind a common
position. The sources of this orthodoxy are the UN’s IPCC assessment
reports, the Kyoto Protocol, the Stern Review and now, in Australia, the
Garnaut Review. They have spawned volumes of derivative reports by state
agencies and green lobbies around the world.
Remarkably, these reports or instruments, which cover massive detail and
encompass several disciplines, are presented — and mostly accepted — as
an all-or-nothing proposition. Anyone who dares to raise questions about
their data, methodology or projections, no matter how limited in scope,
risks being labeled a sceptic and marginalised.
To better grasp the gravity of this, let’s divide the orthodox position
into four categories: “occurrence”, “cause”, “effect” and “response”.
“Occurrence” relates to whether our climate is changing at a faster
pace. This is the least contentious of the four. Not just experts but
most lay people claim to observe changing seasonal, landform and weather
patterns. This is true despite the tendency to exaggerate the uniqueness
of such developments, especially extreme weather events. In Australia,
public interest in climate change was aroused by the drought. But the
reality of a changing climate doesn’t suggest any particular cause.
By far the most significant category relates to this question. What is
the “cause” of these changes? Indeed, before we got “climate sceptic” we
had “climate denier”. In some circles “denialism” and “denier” are
reserved for those who reject the orthodox position on cause — that is,
greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. On the other hand, “sceptic”
is sprayed about less discriminately. Some activists aren’t so fussed
and use these terms interchangeably.
The orthodox position rests on a scientific ‘consensus’ in the IPCC’s
assessment reports. There’s every reason for lay people to be impressed
by this body of opinion. It’s logically possible, however, to respect
this science, and even find it persuasive, but still consider it
fallible. A sceptical frame of mind is as essential to the spirit of
scientific enquiry as it is to liberal democratic politics. No
hypothesis is sacrosanct in the emerging field of climate science. There
are varying grades of scientific truth. Knowledge obtained from
double-blind experiments, for example, is more reliable than the output
of computer modelling, which holds sway in climate questions. This
doesn’t mean modelling is useless; it’s just imperfect.
At the same time, it isn’t necessary to dismiss the IPCC position as
worthless propaganda to entertain alternative viewpoints. And contrary
to received opinion, qualified and reputable dissenters do exist.
There’s no call for heavy-handed swipes at unorthodox voices. Dissenters
aren’t just wrong, say green activists, they have no right to speak at
all. Phrases like “the case is closed”, “the evidence is in”, “climate
change is real” are repeated to close down discussion. When “climate
sceptic” is used for the same purpose, it’s simply pernicious.
Scepticism means no more than being open to the possibility that new
evidence can change a hypothesis. In contrast, how do you describe
attempts to shield a hypothesis from critical scrutiny? It’s called
Many assume that a “climate sceptic” rejects man-made global warming.
But that isn’t how the term is used by activists and the media.
Deviation on any of the four categories can be enough.
The third category, “effect”, concerns the repercussions of a warming
world. The IPCC‘s position is that none of the range of potential
outcomes is tolerable. Stern and Garnaut say amen to that, but some
experts differ. The fourth category is about the appropriate “response”
to climate change. The Kyoto Protocol prescribes tough carbon emission
reduction targets and measures like an emissions trading scheme. Our
government is going down this route. Other ways of pricing carbon have
also been advocated. And some argue there are higher priorities than
Still, dissenting from any aspect of the wide-ranging orthodoxy can see
you branded a dangerous sceptic. You can be orthodox on cause, but
disagree on effect, and be labeled a sceptic. You can be orthodox on
cause and effect, but object to carbon pricing as a response, and be
labeled a sceptic. You can be orthodox on cause, effect and response,
but question “cap-and-trade” emissions trading, and be labeled a sceptic.
We have arrived at the absurd point where you can be orthodox on
everything, but disagree with the government’s timetable for emissions
trading, and still be damned as a sceptic. Try criticising green
shibboleths like light-rail and bicycle paths and you can be tarred as a
sceptic for that, even if you are otherwise orthodox.
Clearly, it’s about framing debates and manipulating public opinion.
“Denier”, “sceptic”: bludgeons to keep people in line and intimidate
troublemakers. Shudder at the consequences. How many millions of dollars
will be squandered, how many livelihoods put at risk, and how many
opportunities lost, owing to fear of these reprehensible tags?
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