George Brandis and the “settled science” of climate change

George Brandis in Australia's Senate
George Brandis in Australia’s Senate

Australia’s Attorney-General Senator George Brandis gave an interview a couple of weeks ago where he got all upset about people who say the science of climate change is “settled”.

Brandis said people who made this claim were “ignorant” and “medieval” and ventured further into the defence of climate science deniers over a few glasses of who-knows-what with Brendan O’Neill, the editor of the online magazine Spiked ( a new incarnation of a magazine that used to be called Living Marxism) .

The interview was widely reported  – The Guardian, ABC and Sydney Morning Herald all had a crack at the story.

On my Planet Oz Guardian blog, I went to visit Brandis to warn him he might have got his alternate and actual universes transposed.

Brandis had tried to paint climate science deniers as poor sidelined victims at a time when they’re all over Australia’s dominant media outlet, News Corp.

Peter Ellerton, a lecturer in critical thinking at the University of Queensland, put it succinctly when he wrote on The Conversation: “Brandis has confused the right to speak an idea with the non-existent right that the idea be given credibility.”

Ellerton added:

Brandis hopes that our natural repulsion at excluding a particular view from the public arena will be aroused in support of climate science denial. This, however, ignores a vital characteristic of public debate: when ideas suffer body blows of sustained scientific refutation any attempt to maintain their status by appeal to an equal right of hearing is also an attempt to exempt them from evidential requirements and argumentative rigour.

Brandis reserved particular disdain for Senator Penny Wong, who he has apparently crowned the “high priestess of political correctness”.

So I went back to some of the exchanges between Brandis and Wong recorded in the Australian Parliamentary Hansard.  It turns out that nobody should have been surprised at what Brandis had said.

He said practically the same thing back in November 2011 when the Gillard Government was putting its carbon pricing laws into law.

He managed to put the most straw-bound of all straw-men arguments, when he said: “There are few things that make my blood boil more than to hear the ignorance of those who say scepticism is anti-scientific.”

Show me a scientist who isn’t intrinsically sceptical, and I’ll show a particular bottle of ungifted 1959 Penfold’s Grange.

But in another exchange, also in November 2011, Wong puts some context around what she means by “settled science” and then summarises an interjection from Brandis.  I’ll leave you with it.

Senator WONG (South Australia—Minister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:25): Thank you, Mr President. On whether or not the science is settled the government has a very clear position: it is. The overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists with relevant qualifications—those who have advised governments around the world—is that climate change is real. There is obviously uncertainty on consequence, but most of that uncertainty is on the downside—that is, that some of the conse­quences could be worse than those which have been previously predicted. I would commend any senator in this place to look at the publication released by the govern­ment—I think it was earlier this year—which updated some of the science. It was entitled The Critical Decade and it does demon­strate—

Senator Brandis: If the science is settled why does it have to be updated?

Senator WONG: That is an extraordinarily stupid interjection. (Time expired)


Author: Graham

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

5 thoughts on “George Brandis and the “settled science” of climate change”

  1. “If the science is settled why does it have to be updated?”

    That’s funny…. but it’s also a valid question.

    Graham, If you really believe that the science is settled then maybe you’re the one living in an alternate universe.

  2. This is a rather pointless semantic argument. For example, the science of gravity has been pretty much settled, and no, we haven’t updated the bit about the predictable consequences of jumping out of windows on the 10th floor of a high rise building.
    But recently, the ‘venerable’ gravitational theory of A. Einstein, which was ‘settled’ about a hundred years ago, was ‘updated’ with a discovery of evidence of gravity waves from the earliest time after the big bang. Admittedly it was a confirmation of one of Einstein’s predictions, so it wasn’t exactly new, but it was long awaited practical evidence, and was therefore heralded as a major ‘update’.
    By comparison, while the major principles underlying CO2 driven climate change have also been settled for some time, it is such a rich and complex process, that new discoveries of previously obscure consequences are cropping up all the time: Increasing frequency of extreme weather events, accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and shifts in ocean currents driving kelp forests in Eastern Australian waters to extinction are just three perfectly valid updates that do not bear upon the veracity of the previously settled science of climate change.
    But what the hey, if you were really a student of climate change, even a sceptical one, you’d be on top of those updates anyway.

  3. The rate of change in temperature let alone the reason CO2 and other gasses is not seen over such a short time this is the red flag. No amount of grasping at meaningless hollow straws by those who feel threatened by the realization that he/she is the cause is going to dismiss the evidence.
    We are witnessing a dereliction of duty by those in power by putting up untruthful dishonest arguments. How has this came to pass? Perhaps a hint, no Science Minister may shed a light on the reason.

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