Climate debate deserves more than hysteria and populism.

A terrific article by Barry Jones – possibly the most brilliant man I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking to.

First published in the National Times Australia


Labor has not explained the climate change problem with conviction.

The science behind the climate change controversy – despite recent hysterical attacks on scientific integrity – is robust, and not particularly recent. And yet, despite the heat (without depth) of the controversy about the proposed carbon tax, politicians on both sides fail to address the scientific evidence for human contribution to climate change. They say ”I believe” or ”I reject” without examination or analysis. There has been a spectacular failure to distinguish between genuine expertise and strongly held opinions, and an excessive deference to vested interests.

In 1824, the French mathematician Joseph Fourier anticipated what we came to call ”the greenhouse effect”, arguing that surface heat on Earth was maintained by the atmosphere – otherwise the planet’s orbit was too remote from the sun for a temperature that could support life.

In 1859, the Irish physicist John Tyndall identified the role of water vapour, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) as key factors in maintaining temperature despite their tiny percentage of the total atmosphere.

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In 1896, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius named ”the greenhouse effect” and calculated the relationship between changes in CO2 levels and atmospheric temperature with astonishing accuracy.

In 1925, the prodigious American statistician Alfred James Lotka (1880-1949) described what we now call ”anthropogenic climate change”, a century after Fourier’s work.

Economically, we are living on our capital; biologically, we are changing radically the complexion of our share in the carbon cycle by throwing into the atmosphere, from coal fires and metallurgical furnaces, 10 times as much carbon dioxide as in the natural process of breathing.

Lotka referred to ”the present regime of ‘evaporating’ our coal mines . . . into the air”. World population has increased by 350 per cent since Lotka wrote, and per capita fuel usage has increased exponentially.

Each tonne of coal produces three tonnes of CO2 on burning. At present, the consumer pays for the coal but takes no responsibility for the cost of disposing of the exponentially increased residue. As Sir Nicholas (later Lord) Stern argued in his review for the British government, The Economics of Climate Change (2006), this is treated as a ”free good” by the purchaser/user, a spectacular market failure. The downstream impact of consumption of coal and oil, dug up and put into the air, is a long-term contribution to atmospheric pollution taking decades (perhaps centuries – the issue is deeply controversial) to disperse.

There is a striking contrast between the ease with which the international community and the corporate sector accepted the argument that CFCs were depleting the ozone layer, although their volume as a percentage of the atmosphere is tiny compared to CO2 and methane, and the combination of fury, hysteria and mendacity against evidence of global warming. The central difference is that in the case of CFCs every chemical company was convinced that there were economic advantages in getting in first with an alternative propellant (HFCs), while to much of the fossil fuel industries the global warming issue is a fight to the death.

Scientists arguing for the mainstream view have been subject to strong attack (even, it is reported, death threats) by denialists/confusionists who assert that they are quasi-religious zealots who are missionaries for a green religion. In reality, it was the denialist/ confusionist position to rely on faith, the conviction that there were many complex reasons for climate change but only one could be confidently rejected: the role of human activity.

The basic attack was on scientific research and scientific method, and the illusion was created that scientists are corrupt while lobbyists are pure. One of the false assertions is that scientists who take the mainstream position are rewarded while dissenters are punished (similar to Galileo and the Inquisition). In the past decade in the United States and Australia, the contrary was true.

Oddly, denialists rarely refer to observed phenomena (disappearance of Arctic ice, thinning of Greenland’s glaciers, fractures at the edge of the West Antarctic ice shelf, ocean acidification, thawing of Siberian tundra, changes in bird migration, earlier flowering of plants) – and there is generally no analysis of risk, either.

In Australia, the quality of public debate – Ross Garnaut, Will Steffen, David Karoly, Tim Flannery aside – has been deplorable: soporific on one side and hysterical on the other, ugly, dumb and bullying, marked by a ”Gotcha!” approach in sections of the media, with relentless emphasis on fear, the short term, vested interests and a mindless populism. At a government level, failure to explain a very strong case has been a cause of profound disquiet under the Rudd/Gillard prime ministerships.

There has been some hesitancy by both Kevin Rudd and the present prime minister to acknowledge that as the world’s highest per capita emitter of CO2 and a huge coal exporter, Australia should be leading international debate on the climate change problem. There has been an obvious unwillingness to even utter the ”C” word – ”coal”. We rarely talk about the moral dimension of reducing our energy footprint, nor do we promote energy efficiency.

These subjects may have been thoroughly examined in the Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change. I hope so, but the issues need to be explained, with conviction, to the community generally. The failure of the opposition (Greg Hunt and Malcolm Turnbull excepted) to play a meaningful role in discussions on mitigating climate change is a profound historic misjudgment.

W.B. Yeats was right: ”The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” (The Second Coming, 1919.)

Barry Jones was minister for science 1983-90 and is a Fellow of all four of Australia’s learned academies.


About jboydedu

The Australian Centre for Sustainability Literacy is a division of Julie Boyd and Associates, who have been working for three decades to educate students in becoming positively contributing world citizens. We use a careful integration of solid research and evidence from a broad range of fields across education, community, business and leadership to support the 7th Generation concept which says that all decisions need to be made for the benefit of 7 generations forward.
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