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Global Warming and Uncertainty –What is the appropriate response?

Address to Economic Society, 2 October 2009
By Des Moore

Full article text as downloadable PDF
Accompanying Slide Almanac as downloadable PDF


I am grateful to members of the Society for agreeing to listen to what Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman would doubtless characterise as “treason against the planet” (“Betraying the Planet”, NY Times, 29 June 09). Of course, as our own true believing economist Professor Ross Garnaut accepts in his Final Report that “there are … large uncertainties in the science” (September 2008, page xvii), I assume even he would agree that Krugman is over the top. My own response to Krugman and his ilk would be to suggest that the main treasonable acts are by those advocating policies designed to lay waste to coal, which is this country’s most valuable asset.

I would also refer any Krugmanites to famous American theoretical physicist and mathematician, Freeman Dyson, who accepts that warming causes problems but regards them as “grossly exaggerated”. Dyson co-signed 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, “it has often happened that the majority was wrong and refused to listen to a minority that later turned out to be right.”

Dyson is far from being the only sceptical scientist: around the world well over 30,000 scientists have expressed sceptical or dissenting views on global warming, including many Australians with expertise in climatology and one of our very own expert physicists Dr Tom Quirk with me here today who has constructed the circulated graphs. The astonishing claim by IPCC head, Pachauri, that “the number of sceptics is going down rapidly” (7.30 report, 29/9) is one of many examples of attempted factual deception by that body. Remember also that scientists are not gods: historically many have wrongly predicted disaster for the world unless governments intervene to control human activity. Christopher Booker and Richard North’s recent book on Scared to Death reveals many examples over the past 30 years of governments acting on “expert” views of scientists whose analyses turned out to be totally wrong. Australia’s professionally respected Productivity Commission has pointed out that “uncertainty continues to pervade the science and geopolitics and, notwithstanding the Stern Report, the economics”. It adds that “independent action by Australia to substantially reduce GHG emissions, in itself, would deliver barely discernible climate benefits, but could be nationally very costly”. It also describes the Stern report “as much an exercise in advocacy as it is an economic analysis of climate”.

Although chief adviser to all Australian Governments, Garnaut has dodged any attempt to assess the science because, he claims, “the outsider to climate science has no rational choice but to accept that, on the balance of probabilities, the mainstream science is right in pointing to high risks from unmitigated climate change” (Final Report on Climate Change Review, September 2008). Based on this incorrect view he accepts that an externality exists requiring government intervention consistent with global action to stabilise CO2 concentrations at a level that would supposedly avoid further “dangerous” increases in temperatures. During a recent address I attended he also demonstrated a capacity for politicking by arguing that even if Australia went ahead without a binding global agreement there would be no significant adverse effects for us.

Let me just confirm here that I am not a scientist. But my nearly 50 years experience as an economic analyst both in Treasury and outside has provided me with a basis for assessing the credibility of much of the data used to justify the dangerous warming thesis and for examining alternative explanations by sceptical scientists. Contrary to Garnaut’s claim, it is appropriate for outsiders involved in assessing policy options to pass judgement on science-based proposals.

My main conclusion, based on a national interest test, is that the uncertainties about mainstream science and the extent of dissent are so large that they rule out any application of the so-called precautionary principle. I also conclude that, even if it were accepted that temperatures will increase over time, the large uncertainties about the timing and extent of the alleged mitigating action said to be needed suggests that no case exists for governments to start a comprehensive program now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I discuss possible mitigatory timing and extent before considering the science.

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