We ignore climate expertise at our collective peril

AAP/Alan Porritt

If ever there was a case of ‘shooting the messenger’, the decision to shut down the Climate Change Authority (CCA) looks like it. In the current political environment there is little appetite for unpalatable news or inconvenient truths, no matter how authoritative or expert the source. CCA chairman Bernie Fraser’s claim that the ‘bad guys’ have won and now dominate the climate debate, such as it is, looks incontrovertible.

Unfortunately, that is only part of the problem.

There is little doubt there are powerful economic and political forces determined to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes and probable consequences of global warming and climate change. While it is understandable that the coal industry, for example, might do all it can to muddy the waters (pun intended for the benefit of readers in Queensland), that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to buy the arguments of the sceptics.

Readers of The Conversation ought to be especially sympathetic to the idea that expertise is actually valuable. Surely there is merit in listening to the arguments of those that unambiguously ‘get’ complex relationships and processes, especially those with a scientific basis?

Sadly, in my own field of political science, things are a good deal messier and more uncertain, but I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that when 97% of the experts operating in any field of the natural sciences are in agreement, the rest of us ought to take their word for it.

Intellectual specialisation is, after all, the basic division of labour that has allowed human beings to make progress across so many fronts and actually understand the way the world works. I’m also sufficiently unreconstructed to actually believe in the possibility of progress and take vicarious delight in the idea that some terribly clever people figured that sub-atomic particles exist, for example, and that there was a big bang before they did.

While our collective understanding of the physical environment we inhabit may continue to improve, our ability to live in it wisely seems not to.

It might be argued that Bernie Fraser – like that other disillusioned public figure, Ross Garnaut – isn’t a climate specialist, so why take any notice of anything either of them say? The hope is that such people inspire confidence because of their record of public service and their proven abilities to assess the worth of evidence in different fields. This is why politicising such positions is such a dangerous development, although perhaps no worse than abolishing them all together.

The increasingly common practice of clearing out the heads of government departments that may give unwelcome advice, or appointing politically and ideologically sympathetic figures to important bodies such as the Human Rights Commission, risks further undermining confidence in the independence of government agencies.

But the ability to ‘speak truth to power’ is one thing, the ability to be heard is quite another. Unfortunately, it is not just the government that has stopped listening. As Fraser ruefully observes:

The public generally are getting bored with it all and switching off. The problem seems to be to be that the bad guys are spreading untruths and exaggerations and assertions without a lot of hard evidence and serious debate, cheered on by the big companies who make similar assertions and repeat those assertions without thorough debate.

The chances of this situation changing in this country - or any other – and the possibility of engaging in an informed dispassionate discussion of the evidence are not good. It is not simply that authoritative sources of information like the CCA are being shut down, or in Garnaut’s case attacked, but that the forces ranged against them are so disproportionately powerful.

In the US, for example, the anti-climate change mitigation lobby is estimated to spend around US$1 billion a year undermining the science and the case for action.

In Australia, the Murdoch press in particular has run an energetic campaign in favour of business as usual.

And yet climate skeptics and deniers are right about one big thing at least: Australia acting on its own really won’t make much of a difference. This is where the experts with their fifty year time horizons and concern for inter-generational justice seem almost comically at odds with the unforgiving logic of a three year electoral cycle.

In the absence of sustained political pressure, neither of the major parties in this country looks likely to stick their heads above the parapet and offer the sort of domestic or international leadership Australia could potentially provide. But if we can’t do it with all our advantages and the size of our per capita contribution to the problem, who can?.

Yet when the issues are technically complex and contested, the possible solutions unprecedented and unlikely, it is hardly surprising that the public concern about climate change is actually diminishing.

Eventually, of course, the evidence will become undeniable and compelling but by that time the opportunity for calm consideration of expertly informed policy options may have long gone. Political scientists may have something to say about what may happen then, but absolutely nobody is likely to want to hear it.