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article published in Quadrant Online 6 September 2009

Doomed Planet

“Today’s debate about global warming is essentially a debate about freedom. The environmentalists would like to mastermind each and every possible (and impossible) aspect of our lives.”
Vaclav Klaus
Blue Planet in Green Shackles

Global science or global panic?
Global Warming - The Case for an Independent Inquiry

by Des Moore

In June Climate Change Minister Penny Wong effectively acknowledged the existence of a scientific view rejecting the thesis that a dangerous increase in temperatures will occur unless government action is taken to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2. This is the first time a government minister with environmental responsibilities has done so formally (as distinct from dismissing such views out of hand). Minister Wong did this by agreeing to respond to three questions posed by Senator Fielding on the interpretations of temperature movements since 1998 and of temperature levels in the past, and on the reliability of models used to project temperature levels. 

Following a discussion with the Senator (who was advised by four scientists with considerable relevant expertise in climatology) at which a background paper by two of her scientific advisers was circulated, Wong sent Fielding a written reply to those questions. The four scientists advising Senator Fielding subsequently (on 11 August) published a “Due Diligence” critique of both the background paper and Wong’s written reply. This critique raises serious questions about the credibility of the analysis and provides justification for the Government to establish a public inquiry (it is remarkable that there has been none) into whether there is a sound scientific basis for introducing an emissions reduction policy. Recognising that there has been a polarising of views in the scientific community, Fielding’s four advisers argued that:

I have been arguing for about two years for some kind of independent inquiry into the scientific basis of IPCC reports and, notwithstanding arguments by IPCC believers that their case has been strengthening over time, it now seems difficult to deny that various recent developments have weakened their case very significantly. My assessment is not based primarily on scientific analysis but on many years in Treasury and outside of analysing proposals for government intervention to solve perceived “crises”. Much analysis of the present proposal requires little more than common sense. Listed below are substantive questions, in staccato form, to which satisfactory answers justifying intervention to reduce emissions of CO2 have not been provided. 

Relevant is that claims of the existence of a scientific consensus as reflected in IPCC reports fail to recognise that the IPCC itself undertakes no scientific research. Its key public document (“Summary for Policy Makers”) has been drafted by government appointed officials often drawn from environmental departments or agencies. While these officials draw on submissions by scientists, they are able to select analyses with which they are sympathetic. There is thus a sense in which the claimed consensus simply reflects the views of those sympathetic to the belief in dangerous threats of rising temperatures. 

Moreover, consensus claims are much more difficult to sustain than they were a couple of years ago as more and more qualified scientists publicly reject or question the thesis in IPCC reports. The latest of many such groups comprises the more than 60 German scientists, including some who had made submissions to the IPCC, who on 26 July sent a letter to Chancellor Merkel asking for the convening of an impartial panel to review the latest climate science developments, stating that “humans have had no measurable role on global warming through CO2 emissions in temperature”, and accusing the IPCC of completely ignoring facts of which it had to have been aware. Well over 30,000 scientists from a range of countries have made similar public statements. 

The IPCC thesis also needs to be assessed in a wider context against the long history of totally wrong views expressed by scientists (and others) about “dangers to the world” unless governments take countervailing action. Fortunately some prominent scientists have recognised the faulty dispositions of fellow analysts and of their tendency to sound unwarranted alarm bells. 

One “classic” exposure of scares was contained in the reason given by world renowned scientist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, for his prediction in 1704 that the world would end in 2060.  Sir Isaac said that, after studying the Bible, he was making the prediction “to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by so doing bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail”. Unfortunately, Newton did not stop predictions by fanciful men! 

Today, we see famous American theoretical physicist and mathematician, Freeman Dyson, expressing the view that, while warming causes problems, the problems are being “grossly exaggerated”. Dyson has been a signatory to a letter to the UN strongly criticising the IPCC and deploring the open contempt shown by the majority of scientists to the minority who reject IPCC views. “In the history of science”, he stated in reviewing two books on global warming, “it has often happened that the majority was wrong and refused to listen to a minority that later turned out to be right.” A recent book by Christopher Booker and Richard North, appropriately titled Scared to Death, provides many examples over the past 30 years of governments acting on “expert” views of scientists which have proved mistaken and which have had serious adverse economic and social consequences. 

The increasing emergence of sceptical views on global warming amongst scientists and others may have contributed to the recent acceptance even by some IPCC believers that there are periods when “natural” forces determine temperature levels and that there could now be a period of cooling or stasis over the next 30 years. The acceptance of such possibility makes it more difficult to justify a need for the urgent government action so many believers assert. 

Public opinion polls in the United States, where there has been greater public/media debate than here, have also changed over the past year or so from showing sceptics as a minority to showing them as a slight majority of the population. Also, a significant representative of the US business community, the Chamber of Commerce with 3 million members, has recently challenged the Environment Protection Authority to expose itself to a public trial on climate change questions. At the political level it is clear that the House of Representatives only passed the ETS legislation by a very small majority because the Obama Government provided special grants to persuade Congressmen to vote for the legislation who otherwise would not have done so i.e. the passage was secured by what amounted to bribery. Whether this will also occur when the Senate considers the legislation remains to be seen.   

At the political level in Australia, apart from Senator Fielding’s “outing” of himself there have been increasing public indications that considerable numbers of MP sceptics exist in the major political parties, including in the Labor party. The National Party has indicated that it will vote against ETS legislation in the Senate and a new political party – The Climate Sceptics – has been formed to challenge the IPCC thesis (it also has other small government type policies) and stand candidates in next year’s election. Despite the threat of a double dissolution, it is possible that the Opposition in the Senate will again block the attempted second passage of the ETS legislation or at least delay it when it is re-submitted in November. 

Many would say that, with the questions listed below, the foregoing provides the basis for rejecting the IPCC view. However that view has become so locked in at the political level that a way out needs to be found. In my view an inquiry along the lines suggested by Senator Fielding’s four advisers would allow governments to at the very least defer the introduction of emissions reduction policies and instead adopt measures that would allow adaptation to increased temperatures should they occur. This could be justified on many grounds including that temperatures have reached higher levels in the past and any likely recurrence over (say) the next 20 years could, with improved technology now available, be accommodated today. Humans are able to adapt to differences in temperatures and already live good lives in places with widely different average temperatures. 

Of course, there has already been an inquiry by Professor Garnaut of the possible economic effects of additional warming and of the possible responses. But, particularly as Garnaut acknowledged that there are uncertainties in the science, this raises the question – surely we also need one on the science too? Indeed, the outcome of Garnaut’s modelling exercise suggests that there is ample time in which both to hold a science inquiry and consider its conclusions. 

When in July 2008 Professor Garnaut released his draft report on climate change the accompanying press release stated that “early economic modelling results of readily measurable unmitigated climate change for middle of the road outcomes on temperatures and decline in rainfall indicate that climate change would wipe off around 4.8 per cent of Australia’s projected GDP … by 2100.” As the modelling also indicated that this would involve a reduction from a GDP that would otherwise be 700 per cent larger in real terms than today, this suggests that the adverse economic effect of allowing temperatures to increase as predicted by the IPCC would be miniscule and well able to be borne by Australians living at the time. In short, even accepting that “unmitigated climate change” would cost 4.8 per cent of GDP by 2100, Garnaut is saying that Australia must participate with the rest of the world in an emissions reduction policy to prevent very minor economic losses. 

The modelling published by the Treasury in October 2008, in which is stated “many of the assumptions used … are uncertain, especially over the long time horizons being examined”, arrives at a not dissimilar outcome for GDP in 2100 in a world without climate change. However, an important component of the modelling is that “carbon capture and storage technology combined with coal and gas electricity generation is assumed to be available on a commercial scale from 2020 in both Australia and the world”. This is a rather remarkable assumption that has so far escaped public comment or questioning. 

What Treasury’s modelling assumption suggests is that a major part of the supposedly needed emissions reduction from fossil fuels will be achieved by the commercial application of technological advances that are very likely to occur by 2020. If that is the case –and it is not inconceivable – the case for a global agreement involving government intervention is greatly diminished. Treasury’s modelling showing a low economic cost also assumes some form of effective global agreement will be reached. This implies that Australia will not experience the loss of competitiveness which would occur under the Government’s existing policy. 

Last month an article by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg drew attention to an analysis similar to the Treasury’s by prominent German climate economist Richard Tol pointing out “cutting emissions now is much more expensive because there are few inexpensive alternatives to fossil fuels”. In effect, and contrary to the argument advanced by Garnaut and others, and accepted by many governments, such analyses are suggesting that the most efficient emissions reduction strategy would be one that aims for only a very limited reduction, such as through a low carbon tax. That would recognise that within the foreseeable future there will very likely be technological advances offering energy from either existing or alternative sources on a basis comparable in terms of economic efficiency. 

It should also be noted that Australia's highly respected Productivity Commission has concluded that uncertainty pervades the science, geopolitics and economics of global warming and that action to substantially reduce CO2 emissions could be "very costly". This conclusion also supports the need for the type of comprehensive inquiry suggested by Fielding’s four advisers. 

In conclusion, the rationale for extensive government intervention now boils down to the argument that, unless mitigating action is started in the near future, a group of scientists predict that temperatures will continue to increase through the next century. Associated with that argument is the assertion that, once a certain “tipping point” is reached (generally said to be when temperatures are about two degrees higher than now), it will not be possible to stop that continuing temperature increase from happening, with eventual destructive effects on the earth and its population. It is on this basis that the responsibility for starting action to prevent temperatures reaching a tipping point is asserted to rest on the shoulders of the present generation. But the decision to accept such a scare as real must surely be based on an authoritative assessment of the science that takes account not only of the diversity of scientific views but also provides an assessment of the possible timing of technological advances that could deal with the perceived problem commercially. The case for an independent inquiry into the science is unequivocal.   



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