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We shouldn't go cold on the science around global warming

Date

Ian Dunlop

Maurice Newman, the Prime Minister's business adviser, has warned of a cooling not warming world.

Maurice Newman, the Prime Minister's business adviser, has warned of a cooling not warming world. Photo: Jim Rice

The Abbott government's chief business adviser Maurice Newman's latest contribution to the national debate urges us to prepare for global cooling. Global warming has supposedly paused for the past 18 years and Newman's preferred scientific advisers believe we are now entering a long-term cooling phase. His argument neatly highlights a fundamental failure in our national governance.

All the evidence indicates that the world is warming far faster than previously expected, the major cause almost certainly being human carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Warming has not paused for the last 18 years. The oceans, where the bulk of the energy entering the Earth's system is stored, have continued warming at an accelerating rate. That is the view of the vast majority of informed climate scientists, virtually all competent scientific institutions such as the British Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Australian Academy of Science and supranational bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, International Energy Agency, as well as the United Nations itself, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has conducted probably the most extensive scientific investigation ever undertaken.

However, the greatest risks of global warming, although mentioned in IPCC reports, are yet to be quantified due to insufficient scientific knowledge. There is evidence that we may have already passed tipping points where the climate jumps from a relatively stable state to a new state far less conducive to human development; to wit, the rapid warming of the Arctic, leading to accelerating sea ice and permafrost melt and large methane and carbon emissions; Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheet disintegration leading to accelerating sea level rise; coral reef destruction; ocean acidification and so forth.

These are high-impact, supposedly low-probability events which our continued reliance on fossil fuels may be locking in irreversibly today. Their probability of occurrence was thought to be low but the evidence suggests this is no longer the case. Uncertainty is no justification for ignoring them; on the contrary, it means we should be taking even greater precautionary measures now. The outcomes, if we continue on our current path, may well be catastrophic, leading to a major reduction in global population and a halt to economic activity as we know it.

Denial within government is absolute. But the Prime Minister's appointment of four well-respected and experienced businessmen to fill highly influential advisory positions, which have a bearing on our response to global warming, is the most dangerous governance failure seen in this country for decades. Newman himself was appointed chairman of the Prime Minister's business advisory committee. Dick Warburton was appointed chairman of the renewable energy target review. David Murray was appointed chairman of the financial services review. Tony Shepherd was appointed chairman of the National Commission for Audit.

All four share some common characteristics. They would all claim, as a result of their business experience, to be experts in risk management from varying perspectives. They are also outright, and very public, deniers that the world faces any risk from human-induced global warming. Global warming is an unprecedented risk management challenge, for the survival of much of humanity is at stake. History demonstrates that science has continually underestimated both the speed and extent of the warming; an underestimation that poses major risks for Australia. A new risk management approach is required that identifies the quantum and the timing of emission reductions needed, far beyond anything being contemplated officially, and then maps out the path to achieve them. Current policies, in comparison, are based on supposedly "politically realistic" solutions, shorthand for doing nothing. But, as Winston Churchill put it: "It is not good enough to do our best, sometimes we have to do what is necessary."    

The government has ensured, by its absolute denial and by the appointment of outright deniers to key advisory roles, that the greatest risk facing our nation even in the short term is deliberately ignored in policy formulation.

Warburton advises that "Adaptation to adverse climate change, if and when it does occur, may be the best and only viable strategy" and will no doubt be following this philosophy in his renewable energy target review. But waiting for catastrophe to happen before acting means that it is too late to act. It is precisely this scenario that proper risk management is designed to avoid.

The advisers themselves are entitled to their own opinions but advising on an issue of such importance about which they are in complete denial means that they are totally conflicted in making any objective judgment. In any corporate situation, this would be roundly condemned for contravening long-established governance principles.

The first role of government is to ensure the security of its citizenry, as the Prime Minister continually reminds us. Given the overwhelming weight of informed opinion emphasising the need for urgent action on global warming, denial that it even exists represents a total abrogation of the government's primary fiduciary responsibility – our ultimate governance failure. 

Contrary to Newman's view, successful campaigns by the denialist lobby and fossil fuel vested interests have ensured that we are ill-prepared to handle the global warming that is already a major economic burden to Australia. It's time our response was managed by an independent national security body independent of party politics and its acolytes. Global cooling – if only! 

Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chairman of the Australian Coal Association and chief executive of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a member of the Club of Rome.

109 comments so far

  • "The Abbott government's chief business adviser Maurice Newman's latest contribution to the national debate urges us to prepare for global cooling."

    You couldn't make this up! People say this is our George Dubya phase. I beginning to wonder if it's actually our Dr Strangelove phase, as in Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Global Warming and Start Worrying About Global Cooling. I never thought I would grow up in an Australia where a great, irrefutable mass of sound scientific reporting is ridiculed, distorted or ignored, for reasons best known to those who do this. Our hopeless, ideologue government, is lost, staggering around blind-folded in a field of cowpats without its gumboots on.

    Commenter
    Juan Term
    Date and time
    August 15, 2014, 12:27AM
    • @Juan Not all scientists are in agreement and many believe the rise will be immaterial to the existence of man kind or inconsequential to the environment, yet you and the other ALP supporters want an ETS or Carbon Tax. One fact is an absolute certainty and that is the current suite of middle class welfare and unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed is unsustainable if we are going to service the exodus of baby boomers leaving the work force. Yet you oppose the budget measures and are happy for the status quo.

      Commenter
      Piped Piper
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 6:23AM
    • But they're scientists! Everyone knows that scientists are lefties! We MUST reject whatever they say.

      Money is pure and strong and it can see far

      Knowlege , in contrast, is part of some sort of communist plot.

      Commenter
      Common Wealth
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 7:05AM
    • Yes, but the unqualified loud mouths say something that we would prefer to hear. There are no worries about global warming. We can be relaxed and comfortable about that. The main problem is that there aren't enough profits for the miners so tighten your belts.

      Commenter
      Born Yesterday
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 7:07AM
    • Yes, JT, our situation is now beyond surreal. It is downright scary. Short of a military coup (which is increasingly looking like an attractive option) what do we do to penetrate the valley of fools? Perhaps the extraordinary budget debacle will peacefully deliver us the chance to vote again and give us the chance to select some actual grown-ups.

      Commenter
      Sir Brian
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 7:58AM
    • Obviously they have sat around a whiteboard (possibly a chalk board) and workshopped a tactic to deflect public debate away from global warming. The sad thing is that this is the best they could do, says a lot about the LNP/IPA/Others collective IQ. Even if it we suddenly started cooling Maurices logic defied .........logic.

      Commenter
      Bruce
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 8:10AM
    • It does take an idiot to see that if you remove trees, grass areas & foliage & repace it with concrete & dark tiled or tin roofs you are going to get added heat?
      Then we could throw into the mix: exhaust fumes, the heat generated from every single appliance, computer, airconditioner, phone etc ...
      And that is before we even start talking about other climate change events.
      Let's be open & honest about pollution ... let's tackle it together. Why would we not?
      It is not rocket science ... if we all do our bit, it will help.
      Shame about these clowns in government & the coal cowboys ...
      Are we stupid enough to think we are better off being trapped into price dependence on coal & resources ... or should we look at free energy input, non polluting options like sun, wind, waves, geo ...

      Commenter
      Yuppy
      Location
      Yuppy Ville
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 8:25AM
    • Piped Piper at 6:23am, true, not all scientists are in agreement.

      A tiny handful of them disagree with theories about global warming, but few have come up with anything very convincing.

      Hardly worth raising, I would have thought.

      Commenter
      Undertoad
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 8:59AM
    • @piped piper: Correct, not all scientists agree, but something like 95% or more of them do, as well as the international academies etc, which I'd have thought would be pretty stong endorsement of the mainstream science.

      I'm all for scepticism, and by all means people should look at the science before making up their minds. But for someone to decide first "its crap" and then find 1 or 2 loopy people with vaguely scientific qualifications on the fringe of climate science holding positions that have been repeatedly and demonstrably debunked, and claim this as the basis for denying the existence or reality of climate change is simply denial. Forming your view on the basis of a shockjock with form for saying what big business tells him to say is just madness.

      Yes saving money is great, and there is no doubt action to minimise emissions will cost the economy. But we've demonstrated this cost was minimal and bearable, and we have shock absorbers like the exchange and interest rates to deal with it. The introduction of the carbon tax / ET can't even be seen in the CPI figures, and the economy sped up following its introduction. Yes we will have to adapt to a changed climate, but the cost of dealing with unmitigated climate change is several times higher than the cost of dealing with emissions, so it's actually the LEAST cost overall solution to tackle emissions.

      If the government went to the election saying we're going to save the nasty cost of medical treatment for people with cancer by stopping all research and treatment of cancer, and simply cure it instead by giving people beetroot they'd have been laughed out of existence. What they did with climate change is equally nonsensical.

      Commenter
      Sceptical yes, blind denial no
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 9:26AM
    • More and more climate scientists who were formerly alarmists are coming out saying that they're less certain there's a problem.

      A lot of what people claim is science is in fact just computer modelling, and merely reflects assumptions that humans make. These computer models are failing woefully to predict temperature even on decadal time scales. Even the IPCC admits the climate is less sensative to CO2 than originally feared, making dangerous global warming materially less likely.

      Remember when the Left tried to shut down this debate by screeching "the debate is over"? Never forget.

      Commenter
      Gatsby
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 9:29AM

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