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) .
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.”
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”.
IF you were a newspaper editor, who would you accept as a commentator on climate change science and the role of the media?
Perhaps a climate scientist? Maybe a journalist, editor or media academic? Maybe someone who has researched either of these fields?
If you’re The Australian newspaper, where more than half the comment columns are sceptical of the dangers of human-caused climate change, then apparently a professor of medicine specialising in Inflammatory Bowel Disease will do the trick.
So it’s hardly surprising that the column from earlier this week, written by Professor Tim Florin of the University of Queensland, should be littered with errors and misrepresentations.
He then goes on to accuse The Guardian of engaging in censorship and that the newspaper, together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is only “subtly different” from the kind of thing that went on in Stalinist Russia.
Florin appears to have been sparked into his diatribe by a piece I wrote recently on my Planet Oz blog, where I discussed a recent decision by the LA Times to file in the rubbish bin any letters from readers claiming there’s no evidence that humans cause climate change.
In the very first line of the column, Florin writes:
LAST month, The Guardian’s Graham Readfearn lamented that “wrongheaded and simplistic views on climate denialism are a regular feature on the letters page of many newspapers”, including The Australian.
But here’s the thing. That sentence – the one in quote marks – appears nowhere in my original story. I didn’t say that views on “climate denialism” appeared in letters. What I actually wrote, after providing an example of a letter in The Australian from a climate science denier, was this
Wrongheaded and simplistic views like this are a regular feature on the letters page of The Australian newspaper and no doubt hundreds of other newspapers around the world where readers respond to stories about climate change.
Doctoring quotes which change the meaning of what was originally written is considered very bad form in journalism. But then, Florin’s not a journalist, so how would he know? At least he left a second quote alone, where I asked an open-ended question about whether or not newspapers had a responsibility to keep pseudo-science off its pages.
Here are some things which Florin then goes on to pontificate on, from his lofty position as an expert on neither of the subjects he is writing about.
The Guardian should be leading discussion, not playing the censorship card.
The Guardian should desist from using “denier” when describing those people who disagree with the current paradigm as broadcast by itself, the IPCC and other media outlets.
Had Florin checked, he might have found that since writing my original Planet Oz blog, The Guardian’s Letters editor Nigel Willmott has actually addressed the issue of publishing letters from people who deny the evidence of human-caused climate change. There is no blanket ban, but rather a sensible editorial policy. He said:
So I would be unhappy about an absolute ban on those who might be grouped together as climate change deniers, but would need to see a strong case to run anything from them (and know something about what commercial interests they might be linked to).
The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Letters editors Julie Lewis and Marc McEvoy have also since outlined their views on publishing letters from people who deny the existence of evidence. They wrote
Climate change deniers or sceptics are free to express opinions and political views on our page but not to misrepresent facts. This applies to all our contributors on any subject. On that basis, a letter that says, “there is no sign humans have caused climate change” would not make the grade for our page.
Florin then goes on to attack the concept of a scientific consensus on climate change, claiming that “consensus is not the way that the scientific method works” and that “consensus is anathema to the scientific method”. This is a common argument from climate change sceptics.
Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society (founded in 1660), tackled it in conversation with climate science denier and blogger James Delingpole. When Delingpole tried to tell Sir Paul Nurse that “science has never been about consensus”, Nurse responded that consensus was just simply “the position of the experts at the time.” He then offered an analogy:
Say you had cancer and you went to be treated – there would be a consensual position on your treatment and it is very likely that you would follow that consensual treatment because you would trust the clinical scientists there. Now the analogy is that you could say you had done your research into it and I disagree with that consensual position – but that would be a very unusual position for you to take. I think sometimes the consensual position can be criticised when in fact it is most likely to be the correct position.
Florin then offers a list of “reputable climate scientists” who he says disagree with the “IPCC paradigm”. Included in the list are Nigel Calder (not a climate scientist, but a journalist), Freeman Dyson (not a climate scientist, but a physicist) and Stephen McIntyre (not a climate scientist, but does have 30 years in the mining industry).
Florin also lists another Ivar Giaever, who isn’t a climate scientist. Giaever did win a Nobel prize in Physics, even though Florin says he won the laureate for “chemistry”.
Also on the list is atmospheric physicist Professor Richard Lindzen, who is Jewish.
I mention this only because Florin complains that when I and others use the term “denier” to describe – well – people who deny the existence of evidence, that in fact this is being done to make some comparison with Holocaust denial.
This, from a writer who only a few sentences earlier had said the IPCC and The Guardian were only “subtly different” to the ideologically driven anti-science approach adopted by Joseph Stalin in the early to mid-20th century.
Lindzen isn’t quite so concerned with the term “denier”. When asked in a BBC interview about such labels, Lindzen said:
I actually like denier. That’s closer than sceptic.
Later on, Florin claims that the IPCC “has little to say ” on the scientific question of whether the rate of climate change is increasing. It is hard to understand how anyone who had read the most recent IPCC reports could come to this conclusion. Here are a few statements from the latest IPCC Summary for Policy Makers (SPM)
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.
Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.
Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950. It is very likely that the number of cold days and nights has decreased and the number of warm days and nights has increased on the global scale. It is likely that the frequency of heat waves has increased in large parts of Europe, Asia and Australia. There are likely more land regions where the number of heavy precipitation events has increased than where it has decreased.
The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence).
Florin also asks “is a significant portion of climate change determined by human activity?” The answer, according to the studies which were reviewed by the IPCC, is that pretty much all of the warming observed since the 1950s was caused by human emissions. Here it is in IPCC speak:
The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.
Florin also states confidently that computer modelling cited by the IPCC “has consistently grossly overestimated its (CO2) effect on warming”.
This illustration from the SPM shows how computer models reconstruct the 20th century climate. Notice how the actual measurements (the black lines) sit “grossly” somewhere in the middle of the model estimates.
You might also notice the blue parts. This shows that when you remove human influences from the models, they fail to recreate the warming.
Florin’s column is, of course, just one in a long line of stories published in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Australia newspapers which misrepresent what the actual science says on climate change.
Research from Wendy Bacon, Professorial Fellow at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at Sydney’s University of Technology, has found that just over half of all the comment articles published in The Australian either reject or suggest there is legitimate doubt about the central consensus of climate science.
Professor Florin has decided to venture into the realm of climate change science and journalism to offer a poorly informed opinion.
I suspect if a climate scientist or a journalist wandered into his surgery rooms and started to offer advice about gastroenterology, he’d rightly tell them to shove it somewhere.
US President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on climate change and the need to act is increasingly smouthered in ethics with a nod to the moral pressure of securing a liveable world for future generations.
I’ve written a piece on this and Obama’s simpler framing of the need to act over on my Planet Oz blog at The Guardian. Basically, it’s just right versus wrong. If you haven’t seen Obama’s recent climate change speech in full, it’s well worth a watch.
Don’t get too carried away with the rhetoric though, which is no substitute for solid policy responses. But here are a couple of excerpts.
Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future, and they challenged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers.
Some day our children and our children’s children will look us in the eye and they will ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer and more stable world? I want to be able to say yes, we did. Don’t you want that?
One thing that jumped out at me after hearing that bit, was the similarity to a poem by US-based writer Drew Dellinger (we shared a beer once.. actually, we had one each.. but anyway) called Hieroglyphic Stairway. Here’s a bit of it
My great, great, great grandchildren ask me in dreams
What did you do when the planet was plundered?
What did you do when the Earth was unravelling?
Surely you did something when the seasons started failing
As the mammals, reptiles birds were all dying
Did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?
What did you do, once you knew?
Incidentally, Dellinger’s work was once quoted by another US Democrat, then Congresswoman for Wisconsin Tammy Baldwin.
Back in 2009 during a congressional hearing, Baldwin offered part of that Dellinger quote above to Al Gore to try and explain some of the moral questions of acting on climate change. Baldwin made history last year as the first openly gay candidate to be elected into the US Senate.