‘I’m not a scientist,’ and other climate change doozies

I’m not a scientist‘ has become the ignorant battle-cry among conservative American politicians when asked about the subject of climate change, the existence of which they desperately deny for reasons that are harder and harder to comprehend.

In Australia we also have an unfortunately high number of climate change deniers in Parliament, including our current Prime Minister, and they have been responsible for blocking meaningful action to prevent, or at least try to reduce the likely effects of, climate change.

Climate change gravity

Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty recently noted that Australia is now seen internationally as ‘public enemy number one’ on climate change and we risk being isolated in a new world where even China is seeking to reduce its reliance on coal.

Well, few of us are scientists. But there are plenty of reputable climate scientists out there who are trying to educate us, only if we would allow them.

Politicians and conservative newspaper columnists have their limited uses, even if just to remind us what’s wrong with our political system and media landscape. But, if you suffered a heart attack you would be heading to a hospital to seek help from a trained cardiologist, not to seek the views of a politician or a conservative newspaper columnist on the ‘science of cardiology’. Why should the matter be any different on the subject of climate change? Why would we be interested in the ‘views’ of politicians or conservative newspaper columnist instead of learned and reputable climate scientists?

The Lomborg controversy

Climate change fairy taleThe current Australian Government’s questionable attitude towards reputable climate science and climate change was highlighted again last week by the announcement of the controversial appointment of Dr Bjørn Lomborg, a known climate policies sceptic, as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia (UWA) to head a so-called Australian Consensus Centre. Dr Lomborg had campaigned against the Kyoto Protocol and has a track-record of downplaying the effectiveness of carbon pricing schemes in tackling climate change. Positions that ‘fortuitously’ align with the current government’s ideological stance on climate change and climate action.

So why is Dr Lomborg ‘controversial’?

Dr Lomborg is not a climate scientist. He has a degree and a Ph.D. in political science and lectured in statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus as an Assistant Professor and Associate Professor. Later he was appointed an Adjunct Professor in Policy-making, Scientific Knowledge and the Role of Experts at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy of the Copenhagen Business School. Soon his interests shifted to the use of statistics in the environmental arena.

His landmark book, ‘The Sceptical Environmentalist’, published in 2001, was subject to complaints to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD). The original determination was that the book was scientifically dishonest through misrepresentation of scientific facts, however, Dr Lomborg himself was found not guilty due to his lack of expertise in the fields in question.

Dr Lomborg appealed the decision to Denmark’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and, citing factual and procedural errors, the Ministry annulled the decision and asked the DCSD to review the decision. The DCSD decision was also criticised by Danish academics, mainly from the social sciences, who called for the DCSD to be disbanded.

In response, another group of Danish scientists, primarily from the medical and natural sciences community, petitioned in support of its continued existence.

In 2004 the DCSD formally decided not to take further action.

Dr Lomborg’s appointment was apparently another ‘captain’s call’ by our Prime Minister and will cost the tax payers $4 million. Subsequent to the appointment questions have been raised about the funding of the Centre, especially in light of significant recent cuts to Australia’s peak scientific research body, the CSIRO, and the appointment of Dr Lomborg itself. Fellow academics at the UWA are also concerned the new Centre may tarnish their academic reputation.

In a letter written to the Chief Advisor of the UWA’s Corporate and Government Affairs, Professor Sarah Dunlop, the Head of the School of Animal Biology, noted the following specific concerns about the appointment:

On behalf of the School of Animal Biology, I write to express concern about the adjunct appointment of Dr. Bjorn Lomborg to UWA’s Business School as part of the Federal Government’s plan to contribute $4m over four years to bring the Copenhagen Consensus Centre methodology to Australia.

Dr. Lomborg, who will be appointed as adjunct at Level D, has 28 publications with 55 citations (h-index of 3; 1 paper accounts for 84% of citations). Dr. Lomborg’s h-factor is lower than the average of even the School’s Level B (h-factor = 8) appointees. 21 of Dr. Lomborg’s publications have no citations. Although not appointed to the Faculty of Science, his research performance would not reach their Level D KPIs.

Dr. Lomborg’s track record is therefore unlikely to merit being a CI on, for example, a nationally competitive ARC Discovery grant.

… it appears that $4m has been awarded without undergoing independent peer-review. Peer review is essential as it minimises conflict and bias and is at the very heart of Australian and, indeed international world class standards for the ethical conduct of research.

Aside from the concerns expressed by others, the School is facing a difficult reputational challenge in terms of attracting high quality staff and students as well as establishing and maintaining national and international collaborations as a consequence of these events. As an example, an international Research Fellow has just informed us that, if Dr Lomborg’s adjunct appointment is confirmed, they will not bring their Fellowship to UWA but, rather, transfer it to a more reputable University.

Additionally, existing PhD students in the School are concerned that this appointment will tarnish their accomplishments as graduates from this University. In addition, staff in the School have been inundated by correspondence from collaborators and stakeholders concerned about the University’s decision.

Climate change temperatures
Source: NASA

No, there is no ‘disagreement’ among scientists

Contrary to what is being peddled by many climate change deniers, there’s no scientific disagreement about climate change. It is happening, and it is man-made. There is scientific consensus. Full stop.

The tactics employed by climate change sceptics is reminiscent of the obfuscation by the tobacco industry of the health effects of smoking tobacco. No matter how strong the scientific consensus became on the link between smoking and lung cancer, they kept financing, often secretly, and rolling out ‘scientific research’ that kept casting doubt on established science. It appears that so-called conservative think-tanks and energy companies are adopting the tobacco industry’s playbook when it comes to trying to create doubt and uncertainty.

Are there crackpots, often unqualified, with a plethora of unproven theories out there, such as solar flares being responsible for the global warming we are experiencing, or that temperature records are being falsified by scientists? Yes. Is this a sign of scientific uncertainty on the subject? No.

Of course, dissenting voices are allowed to come up with theories, and to explore them. However, the scientific method demands those theories be put to the test. In the end, if there is no sufficient proof to back them up and they fail peer review, those theories will have no scientific standing. Assertion in itself is not scientific proof.

A 2013 survey of scientific papers on climate change, titled Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, published in the Environmental Research Letters journal had concluded 97.1% of those papers had endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. As far as scientific consensus goes, in layman’s terms, that’s a slam dunk.

Unfortunately, the media is also partly responsible for the public confusion on the subject. This is because they routinely include a climate sceptic in discussions about climate change, for the sake of ‘balance’. This creates the impression that the science is unsettled and practically split 50-50 on the subject. If the media truly wanted to be balanced and representative of the reality on climate science, they would need to present a consistent ratio of mainstream climate scientists to climate sceptics of 97 to 3 in all such discussions.

The following respected and leading scientific institutions have also come out, strongly acknowledging that climate change is happening, it is man-made and a serious concern for humanity:

This is not a group of institutions to take lightly on the subject of anything scientific.

It may be that 70% of conservatives in the US don’t ‘believe’ in climate change but, unfortunately for them, and the rest of us, that doesn’t make it any less real. You may have your own ‘beliefs’, but you can’t have your own facts.

In this context it has been noted that apocalyptic Abrahamic religions may represent a serious underlying cultural block in combating climate change. For example, many conservative evangelical literalists interpret extreme climate events as merely a sign of the ‘long-awaited’ apocalypse, a matter beyond human intervention: Apocalyptic narratives‘ (Podcast, Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University, 23 April 2007).

In this day and age being uninformed and uneducated is arguably a deliberate lifestyle choice, especially in the wealthy, Western liberal democracies, given the availability of endless quality educational and scientific materials online, much of it free for the picking.

When you make a conscious and deliberate decision to draw your information from loony conspiracy theorists and not the world’s most reputable scientific institutions and scientists, unless you can make an articulate, reasoned and sensible explanation for doing so, you are making a flawed and dangerous decision that’s likely to have negative effects; not just on you, but on your children, and society at large, for generations to come.

The conspiracy theories

Generally, we consider a position largely lost when it is steeped in conspiracy theories, and the climate sceptic community is awash with conspiracy theories. Although admittedly such theories can be highly entertaining …

One of my favourite conspiracy theories is the ‘liberal, money-hungry scientists’ who made up climate change for ‘financial gain’.

It’s hard, near impossible, to sensibly counter such ludicrous conspiracy theories because they are usually utterly disconnected from reality. That’s why they are so effective, and persuasive on the ignorant and weak-minded. While I would be keen to see a list of billionaire, or otherwise wealthy, climate scientists as proof of this assertion, to show up my sneering contempt for conspiracy theorists, to date I haven’t been able to find such a compilation.

My other favourite conspiracy theory is the one where Barbra Streisand is behind the gay, liberal climate change hoax. Yes, Barbra! This is a particularly hilarious theory, originally voiced by American Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and, again, it’s so ridiculous that it defies any attempt to reasonably counter it, although Barbra Streisand did issue a statement in response:

This would be hilarious if it weren’t so frightening. I thank Senator Inhofe for singling me out as a voice against the perils of climate change! But I’m just a small part of millions of voices, who are informed and alarmed, including 97% of all climate scientists! God help us! This man is going to head the Committee on the Environment in the United States Senate. It’s like giving a fox the keys to the chicken coop.

Finally, if you are willing to descend into the deepest, maddest valleys of climate sceptic conspiracy theories, you will also come across the ‘global socialist conspiracy’ theory which is a sub-branch of the UN Agenda 21 conspiracy theory, whereby a UN document designed to encourage and support sustainable development became a UN plot for a socialist, totalitarian world government … seriously: UN promotes global warming consistent with Agenda 21 (Heartland Institute, 13 February 2015).

The article linked above is published by the same billionaire Koch brothers controlled Heartland Institute which had just despatched a team of what they call ‘climate scientists’ to Rome to try to make sure the Pope’s pending environmental statement does not call for strong action to combat climate change, as he is currently anticipated to do.

The Heartland Institute also hosted conservative Australian parliamentarians in the past, including George Christensen in 2014 and Cory Bernardi in 2010. It is also closely linked to Australia’s leading climate change denying conservative think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, which is itself highly influential in Australian conservative political circles.

Consequently, we should not underestimate the influence of these outlandish conspiracy theories, because they are held near and dear by a great many, including some of the wealthiest industrialists in the world, and in the corridors of power in Washington and Canberra by those who are responsible for public policy and the decisions about how we respond to the global climate challenge.

And what if, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to date, scientists do turn out to be wrong about climate change? What if we end up living in a world powered by renewable energy, and with reduced, or eliminated, pollution, in a misguided attempt to stave off a non-existent climate calamity?

That would pose a real danger of leaving a cleaner, healthier and sustainable planet for future generations to inherit. A planet where people no longer die as a consequence of pollution.

Oh, the horror, who would want to live in a world like that?!

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