Barry Jones: In climate change, everything old is new again

Don’t make me tell you again: some people have been talking about climate change for decades. Barry Jones

I can claim to be the oldest surviving inhabitant of the climate change controversy. I gave my first major speech (at least, I thought it was major) about the human contribution to climate change, especially global warming, in 1984 when I was Minister for Science.

A fat lot of good it did me with my colleagues, because my argument was dismissed then as alarmist and premature. In politics, timing can be everything.

For many years – and certainly for my remaining period as a Minister – I was in a category of one on the issue of climate change, increasingly recognised as being more complex than warming alone.

In March 1989 I addressed a conference in London convened by Margaret Thatcher in which I shared billing with Al Gore. The Australian Government was still failing to address the issue.

In March 1992 I delivered the World Meteorological Day Address in Melbourne on Climate Change, Resource Use and Population Growth: the Challenge for Sustainable Development. Each point I made then is still relevant now and the weight of evidence even more compelling.

The science of climate change – despite recent hysterical attacks on scientific integrity – is robust, and not particularly recent.

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. Without it, he said, the Earth’s orbit was too remote from the Sun for a temperature which could support life.

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

In 1896 the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius named “the Greenhouse effect”. He 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”.

“Economically we are living on our capital. Biologically we are changing radically the complexion of our share in the carbon cycle. We are throwing into the atmosphere, from coal fires and metallurgical furnaces, ten times as much carbon dioxide as in the natural process of breathing.”

Lotka referred to “the present régime of ‘evaporating’ our coal mines … into the air”.

Industrial exploitation changed the impact of the carbon cycle, releasing in decades carbon (coal and oil) which had been laid down over millions of years. This seriously disturbed the environmental balance.

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 pointed out 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 example of market failure.

The downstream impact of consumption of coal and oil, dug up from underground and put into the air, is a long term contribution to atmospheric pollution. This will take decades (perhaps centuries – the issue is deeply controversial) to disperse.

There is a striking contrast between the ease with which the international community accepted that 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 the 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). To much of the fossil fuel industries, the global warming issue is a fight to the death.

The groups making sustained attacks on the mainstream scientific arguments for the need to take action to mitigate anthropogenic climate change could more accurately be described as “confusionists”, than “deniers” or even “sceptics”.

The opponents do not analyse the evidence and advance alternate hypotheses which are themselves testable: their main goal is to promote confusion. To confusionists, persuading citizens to conclude “I just don’t understand” is a very satisfactory outcome.

Creationism versus evolution, smoking as a cause of lung cancer, the safety of vaccination and fluoridation, whether HIV-AIDS is transmitted by virus, “alternative medicine”, controversies about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, the Kennedy assassinations, the survival of Elvis, even the historical truth of the Holocaust … These are all examples of recent controversies which promote a confusionist mind-set and earn some people a lot of money.

Publications by climate change denialists and sceptics mostly fall into two categories: knockabout polemic (mostly ad hominem) and objectors to a particular point of detail.

The publications are rarely published in refereed journals. There are two sharply alternative explanations: either the material is not credible, testable or evidence-based; or, there is a conspiracy by a scientific Mafia to suppress dissent. (Denialists are strongly drawn to the second alternative.)

Scientists are not immune from vanity, and some dissenters have been encouraged by being told: “The most important scientific factor in the climate change debate happens to be your area of expertise. Everyone else has it wrong. Only you are right”.

The basic attack was on scientific research and scientific method. 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.

In Australia the quality of debate has largely 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 intetests 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 and Gillard Prime Ministerships.

WB Yeats was right: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”.