Chief Scientist urges corporate chiefs to show leadership on climate change

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb believes views shouldn’t be suppressed, but should be given the weight they deserve. AAP/Daniel Munoz

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, has called on company chief executives to speak out in the public debate about climate change.

Chubb said corporate managers and investors knew that climate change was happening and was - or would - affect their business.

“The question is, can this corporate responsibility be used with science to challenge civic indifference or the nay-sayers? We need more CEOs to show leadership and not just act on climate change inside the company, but to take on the debate outside,” he told the Australian Emissions Reduction Summit this week. Those attending came from business, government, technology and finance.

Chubb also addressed comments by Attorney-General George Brandis who recently said that the approach of “true believers” who wanted to exclude climate-change deniers from the debate was “medieval”.

Brandis, in an interview with the online magazine Spiked, said he was not a denier but described the climate-change debate as one of the “great catalysing moments” in his views about the importance of free speech.

Chubb said he agreed that views should not be suppressed. “But views should be given the weight they warrant – and that weight should be based at least in part on the knowledge and expertise of the individual offering the view.

"I particularly agree that genuine scientific evidence should be aired and be subject to the scrutiny of peers, wherever it may lead. And if the evidence is shown to be soundly based, it will add to our knowledge and understanding and be used to adjust our conclusions. If it is not, it has no place in the argument.

"On the other hand, there are those who only offer opinion, but they often do so with a level of certainty that disguises that it is more likely ‘a leap of faith. An intuitive step outside the limitations of science-based argument’ – as I saw it described elegantly in a spoof corporate video I saw recently. Belief trumping evidence, you might say,” Chubb said.

The next step was to cherry pick and sow the seeds of doubt.

“As a consequence, climate science experts have been labelled and disparaged. They have been represented as part of one giant conspiracy for ideological (ie destruction of the free enterprise system) or (personal) financial reasons.

"There are accusations of fraud, that climate change is a ‘delusion’ or that the science is a ‘religion’. There are calls for some scientists to be jailed; accusations of venality – where scientists say and do whatever it takes to get another research grant or another airfare to a conference where the group thinkers huddle, or that they are Nazis,” he said.

“In other words, regardless of what their observations show, it is suggested that the scientists will spin them or manipulate them so that they can rise as one and declare that human activity is one of the reasons why the planet is warming. Really?”

Chubb said Brandis might have been right in labelling suppression of alternative views as medieval. “But if the passage of time is supposed to lead to enlightenment, let me just say that the notion of ‘shooting the messenger’ goes back further than medieval times, all the way back to ancient Greece in fact.

"I know that by the very nature of science not every single detail is ever totally settled or completely certain. Nor has every pertinent question yet been answered. But the evidence is mounting, it has been scrutinised as never before – and it leads inexorably towards a level of probability that the prudent would heed.”

The demand for “proof” showed little understanding of how science worked.

“For a start, what would be the controlled experiment? It would need our world plus a parallel planet the same as ours with all the variables except human beings.

"Instead of waiting for the unachievable, scientists look for evidence from multiple sources, then check it, test it, debate it, replicate it and draw conclusions from it. And as the evidence accumulates, they may even notice some convergence – an anthropogenic influence on planetary warming, for example. And we could and should use all the information we accumulate to project ahead.

"Instead of constructive discussions about how to get ever more evidence, or ever better models, we have the discussions about whether CO2 is a pollutant; or whether it is a poison; or accusations of group-think. And we are pressed to put the idiosyncratic alongside the expert, individual opinions against the weight of evidence and then to present them as equals, and to give them equal airtime or column inches.”