Give us a break on the climate science denial

Flooding in Bundaberg, January 2013. Credit Instagram/ABC News

“GIVE me a break,” said the premier of the Australian state of New South Wales Barry O’Farrell when asked if recent devastating floods might have something to do with climate change.

“Let’s not turn this near disaster, this episode that has damaged so many properties and other things, farm properties and other things, into some politically correct debate about climate change,” said Mr O’Farrell.

Let’s just all reach for the “pause” button for a second.

Mr O’Farrell now thinks the issue of climate change is one of “political correctness” which sits alongside debates about the appropriate language to describe homosexuals or whether Christmas trees might offend one religious group above another.

Not to degrade those important debates, but political correctness doesn’t flood thousands of people’s homes, threaten water and food supplies or machine-gun the economy leaving a scattering of billion dollar-sized bullet holes.

The flooding concentrated in Queensland has so far killed six people, devastated several towns and cities and thousands of people’s homes, in particular in Bundaberg, and sparked food supply fears after crop damage.

The disaster has come just weeks after the longest and most widespread extreme heatwave in Australia’s recorded history, causing life and livelihood-threatening bush fires. In all likelihood, January 2013 will turn out to be Australia’s hottest ever month on record. Queensland still remembers the 2011 floods which put a dent in the country’s GDP of an estimated $30 billion.

Mr O’Farrell’s fellow Liberal, Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott, was similarly dismissive of climate change when he was asked by a journalist if he thought that climate change had played any role in the recent floods. He broadened his answer to include the role of climate change in droughts and fires.

“Droughts, fires, floods have been a part of this country’s experience since records were kept,” Mr Abbott said. “Now, I think that climate change is real and humanity does make a contribution and we must have a strong and effective policy to deal with it, but I don’t think anyone could credibly say that this kind of thing has only happened since man made carbon dioxide increases started.”Abbott is right that no-one could credibly say that we didn’t have floods, droughts and fires before CO2 increases started. Not only could no-one credibly say it, but no-one actually hassaid it. This is one of those arguments known as a “strawman” and this one has extra cheese.

The lack of credibility lies in the position of Mr Abbott and his Liberal counterpart Premier O’Farrell. Greens leader Senator Christine Milne said the pair were “not fit to be leaders… if they’re not going to have the courage to face what’s coming and do something about it.”To make matters worse, Mr Abbott has seen fit to appoint human-caused climate change denier and wind-energy sceptic Maurice Newman, a former chairman of the ABC and executive chairmen of Deutsche Bank in Australia, to head his party’s business advisory council. Newman dismisses advocates for action on climate change as “self-deluded” people blindly following a new religion.Presumably his advice on business policy will be to ignore the current and future risks of climate change, which is surely an article of blind faith if ever there was one.

Dismissing the work of scientists and agencies such as the CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, NOAA, NASA, the UK’s Met Office, the Royal Society and countless other institutions who inform policy makers is similarly reckless.

So what do scientific studies have to say about climate change and floods and fires? Studies have shown that by pouring extra CO2 into the atmosphere, you can expect to see an increase in extreme heat, large bushfires, the intensity of storms and the flooding events, economic hardship and loss of life that go with them.

Most recently, a new scientific paper accepted in December for publication in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal Geophysical Research (Updated analyses of temperature and precipitation extreme indices since the beginning of the twentieth century: The HadEX2 dataset : Donat et al ) finds the predicted increase in intense rainfall events is already happening.

After analysing 11,000 rain gauges on land across the planet, the study , which I have seen, has found more places are experiencing an increase in extreme rainfall and this was happening more often.

separate study published last year in Science has also found that the water cycle (the one you learned about in school where the rain falls, evaporates, forms clouds and falls as rain) has also been intensifying over the oceans, with the water cycle accelerating.

Australia has been pummelled by extreme weather of all types in recent years and it’s a trend which, in all probability, will continue. Getting to grips with the consequences of climate change is no more an exercise in political correctness or alarmism than Barack Obama’s desire to tackle gun laws after the Sandy Hook school massacre.

When scientists and researchers read and hear how their work is interpreted or denied by some political leaders, you have to wonder what their response would be.

Perhaps, to borrow Mr O’Farrell’s words, “Give me a break” might be some of the milder responses.

Author: Graham

Graham Readfearn is a Brisbane-based journalist. Go to the About page in the top navigation for more information.

11 thoughts on “Give us a break on the climate science denial”

  1. there is no disaster that Climate Change fenatics won’t latch onto. Drought in the MDB was claimed to be eternal. The ‘models’ said it would take 2 years to refill the catchment and it took 2 weeks. Now we’ve gone from drying to a crisp to apparently triggering more rain. get off the grass it’s called weather and it is eternally changing. Something the believers fail to see. Floods in Australia were bigger in the 70’s, 50’s and 1800’s and will get bigger again in the future. Because of weather that is bigger and more powerful than human actions.

  2. Call, your argument,if that is what it could be called, is found wanting by a quick reference to records dating back through the years you’ve mentioned which clearly state that places such as Bundaberg and Grafton this week experienced their biggest floods ever recorded. Australia earlier this month experienced the hottest average temperature ever recorded. 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the USA.

    Of course you get off to a bad start by saying “its called weather’ when attempting, poorly, to argue about climate. Maybe if you were to listen to people that actually know what they talk about rather than third rate journalistic hacks politicians with their own agendas you may perceive a small glimpse of reality.

  3. Christine Milne was quick to point out to the media that the latest bsuhfires which ravged much of the easter states was due to climate change. At the same time the deputy of the BOM said on ABC news 24 that climate change can not be solely to blame. Senator Bandt was happy to claim climate change during the recent November heatwave but is nowhere to be seen when the unusual cold hit Sydney over Xmas 2012. Please we need balanced coverage especially on issues of such importance as climate change.

  4. About time you latched onto the truth Cal. Damn good piece Graham. I was amazed last how I was accused of politicising Engineers Australia – because I accept the science, I was seen as leftist. If you stupidly reject the overwhelming peer reviewed evidence of the climate experts you are apolitical. Crazy…..

  5. Right wing extremists are damaging the Liberal party.
    If they could control their drama queen emotional and simple gut decision making then we might be able to get somewhere.
    Perhaps half of Liberal supporters understand statistics to the degree that allows them to understand the science behind human induced climate change. The other loud mouthed emotional half appear to be simply afraid of ‘hippie thinking’. These are the people that almost always fail at business or have given up on working for a living. Reality tends to ignore ideology.

  6. Denial (or not) is a function of world view. The science has nothing to with the acceptance of human induced global warming.
    The Cultural Cognition Project (Yale University) clearly demonstrates this. The problem is that people who are authoritarians and individualists (the profile of many world leaders) simply do not accept human induced climate change – because it doesn’t fit their world view. More facts won’t convince these people – it’s ingrained.
    This makes for a very tricky conundrum – the denialists can’t see that they are in denial and the facts won’t convince them. If however you present nuclear power as a potential solution they will start to agree it’s a problem. So if we want to get out of this hole we have to allow these guys the opportunity to create a bigger hole.
    To beat climate change, humans have to beat their own wiring. Our EQ has to exceed our IQ to solve this issue. We have to take big hits now to avoid even bigger hits later. It’s a challenge of megalithic proportions – and by the time we get desperate enough it could be too late.

  7. Cal, looking at this site from the UK, I am fascinated by the plurality of different views but there are a couple of things I feel I should point out to you: – 1. Your argument illustrates a common misunderstanding shared by nearly all climate change sceptics I have come across – to a point you are quite right in suggesting that there have been frequent extreme weather events in your country in past. The problem, though, is that all of the peer reviewed science completed throughout the world (not just in Australia) shows that that point has long since passed. There is an important distinction to be grasped here – ‘weather’ is basically what’s happening out there today, its a short term measure and varies almost infinitely. ‘Climate’, in contrast, is a long term measure which shows how the ‘weather’ changes consistently over time -eg in UK, Met Office’s calculations are based on a working definition of ‘climate’ as the long term average of changing weather patterns collected over a minimum period of at least 25-30 years. When anyone talks about ‘climate change’, what they’re really saying is that this long term pattern (which, since it occurrs over such a long period of time allows robust scientifically verified observations & precise measurements to be made) is changing. It follows from this that it may well be the case that, within this 25-30 year period, you may easily find particular years where you observe conditions which seem, on the surface, to contradict the overall ‘model’ of climate which has been agreed. eg the climate in UK is generally described as wet and mild – but this does not mean that we never get cold weather or it will never snow (as the recent cold snap shows). 99.9999% of all climate change sceptics I have ever come across completely fail to understand this subtle, but vital, distinction – eg in UK, while we were in the grip of the cold snap a couple of weeks ago, some of our tabloid press even suggested that climate change had ‘stopped’ (!!!). Why? Because they had mistaken a temporary cold snap (ie current weather) for evidence against a change to climate – how could the earth be warming, they argue, when the current temperatures had plummeted to sub zero levels? Simple – because such a temporary change to our weather is just that and has nothing to do with climate (the 25-30 year long term pattern). I believe you may be making the same mistake in your assumptions – yes, Australia has frequently in the past suffered from all sorts of extreme weather patterns (droughts,floods, extreme heat etc) and this was used for a long time as evidence against the idea of climate change but the current science shows that it is the long term pattern which is now changing and that it will result in more cases of extreme weather happening and increases to the severity of that weather – so there will be more droughts, floods, bush fires etc and their severity will get worse creating all sorts of impacts on human life & the surrounding environment. This is not just the case in Australia but right across the world. This is why the leaders of your country, alongside the leaders of everybody else’s country, need to start waking up to the dangers, both present and in the immediate future, which climate change is going to bring.

  8. Thank you for writing this Graham.

    As someone who is actually living this (I live in Northern NSW – we were flooded in and without power from Sunday to Wednesday), I was incensed when I heard part of what Barry O’Farrell said on the radio on Tuesday.

    To flippantly dismiss the connection between climate change and what I am living through fills me with despair.

    It’s obvious that the increasing frequency and intensity of these disasters is being driven by man-made global warming. Barry O’Farrell and other so called “leaders” don’t like to hear this because they are busy contributing to the problem by encouraging coal & CSG mining to expand at alarming rates, and holding back investment in renewable energy.

    History will not look kindly on Barry O’Farrell and his ilk. The failure of governments to protect their people by adequately mitigating against climate change will rightly be seen as an epic failure of government at the most basic level, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of these characters end up on trial for wilfully ignoring the science.

  9. Barry O’Farrell would do well to consider the fact that there are Queensland folk considering suing local councils for permitting housing development in flood-prone areas. These folk might have a hard time of it because at the time that most of these developments were approved, the understanding of flood modelling – and of how climate change would affect flood occurences – was not developed.

    These days such understanding is advanced, and reliable. O’Farrell’s government has access to the work of tens of thousands of professional scientists and other experts in climatology, oceanography, and hydrology,and he is consciously and obdurately not only ignoring it, but disputing it on no factual basis. Last year O’Farrell’s government actually removed previous State government policy (introduced by the Labor Party) that required local government to consider IPCC sea level rise projections when making coastal development decisions. Given that ignoring such information will certainly put property and lives in danger in the coming decades, O’Farrell and his government colleagues will be (and already are) demonstrably culpable in their negligence. They seem to imagine that their duties of care do not encompass future generations of citizens… I suspect that said future generations will not be disposed to be as lacksdaisical in their dismissal of government responsibilty as are current Conservative politicians.

    O’Farrel and his mates can’t say that they weren’t warned. They are on notice. I encourage Australian readers to frequently remind other politicians of this fact as the impending federal and state government elections roll around over the next year so so.

  10. The point about ‘extremes’ happening in the past is that in the past they were extremes and happened rarely. Those past extremes are rapidly becoming normal with some now happening several times a decade (even more than once a year in some places).

    I shudder to think of what extremes the future will bring.

  11. O’Farrell’s comments underline the fact that our pollies by -and-large do not have the chops to deal with the science. We already know they do not have the will,but the lack of competence and their bluff is depressingly obvious. They have only a limited vocabulary for the public, and tagging uncomfortable long-term problems with the dismissive ‘politically-correct’ is par for the course

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