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Why we're having the wrong climate change debate

Date

Fiona Johnson

Wrong debate: "For climate change, the evidence is clear that carbon dioxide and temperatures are increasing."

Wrong debate: "For climate change, the evidence is clear that carbon dioxide and temperatures are increasing." Photo: Paul Jones

Science is an exciting field to work in. There is a whole universe of problems out there waiting for someone to solve. But science doesn't exist in a vacuum.

For me, the most interesting part of being an engineer is using my research to help individuals, and society in general, make better decisions..

I would imagine the motivation is similar for the hundreds of scientists who spent months compiling the latest IPCC report released on Monday, and the thousands more who've spent their careers trying to understand the mechanisms of global warming, its timeframe and impacts.

The report has been well received by many, but for some people the report seems to be seen as a personal affront, written by a bunch of scientists solely for the purpose of destroying the world that they live in.

The reality is that the IPCC report is a document of careful language and moderated statements, approved by the governments of 195 countries.

When scientists work together to report results, our language is carefully calibrated, with the caveats and limitations of our work thought out and often explicitly discussed.

Science is a dialogue and our work is incremental – there is rarely a breakthrough paper.

We work together in teams and discuss, argue, revise and gradually make progress. This is a lifetime of work; a marathon, not a sprint.

There are many subtleties in any profession and we can't expect people outside of our individual fields to understand these. I don't expect to understand the legal arguments in a court of law or commercial deals. And it is unreasonable to expect that the measurement methods or the scientific process that I take for granted in my work are any more transparent to a lawyer.

At some point, though, unless we have unlimited time to become experts ourselves, we need to trust that the professionals in any field are good at what they do. That's what it means to be professional. But some people seem to believe that scientists can't be trusted.

Some level of scepticism is a good thing – no one should take all information at face value. But thinking that all scientists and engineers are wrong until proven otherwise does not give any credit for the amount of work that goes into my research, the IPCC reports and the work of all other scientists.

Interacting with the media brings another level of complication to the relationship between science and the community. Scientists are used to promoting their research at conferences, to peers and to funding authorities. But our incremental discoveries or improvements may not make for an interesting story for the daily media. Reporting timeframes, particularly in the digital age, are much quicker than the timelines that research operates on.

Information is more available than ever, but is the digital age improving the quality of the conversations? The anonymity of email and comments on websites and blogs means that people end up in a virtual shouting match where rarely anyone is listening properly.

I find it frustrating that the comments in social media and on forums degenerate in a fairly predictable way when it comes to so-called debates about human-induced climate change.

But we are having the wrong debate. For climate change, the evidence is clear that carbon dioxide and temperatures are increasing. Where is the interest in debating observations?

What is more interesting is when we have to make decisions that depend on the values that we hold as a community. Someone may value free markets, someone else may value the natural diversity of our coral reefs, whilst a third may value a large house on the beach. The debate that we need to have is how these values can co-exist or if they can't then how to prioritise them. But the current level of vitriol doesn't promote rational discussions.

Fiona Johnson is a University of NSW lecturer. She is Fairfax scientist-in-residence, organised by the Australian Science Media Centre.

111 comments

  • ... excellent article... thank you for it...

    Commenter
    mama
    Date and time
    April 01, 2014, 6:46PM
    • Agreed. This is a well written and reasonable contribution. I have one thing to say. Yes indeed we should listen to experts. But everybody, including experts need to make their case understandable to a reasonable adult. If an expert believes we need to reduce the emissions of CO2 than he needs to make that case. Saying: 'I'm an expert, I know best' is not good enough. He or she must argue for it. The analogies you make are false. It is vital that a member of the jury understands the case he or she sits on before they make a decision. If lawyers obfuscate with legalese than the jury has every right to ignore said legalese.

      With the current AGW debate, people have made the case that we should cut emissions. And some are convinced. But not everybody is. Saying that we should stop debating the issues and simply trust experts is just another way of saying, not everybody agrees with me, everybody should agree with me! But debate is and always will be good.

      Proponents of CO2 cuts need to make their case, in the same way that proponents of cuts to ozone depleting gases successfully made their case before the Montreal protocol. So far, the jury is out on drastic and expensive cuts to CO2. But it might not stay that way. Let the debate continue. Debate is a wonderful thing.

      Commenter
      Patrick
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 5:04AM
    • The author is right to pose the question: What should the public debate focus on?

      The science of global warming is very complex. The models are highly nonlinear. We have warnings on such nonlinear models by Lorenz of MIT who created chaos theory and coined the butterfly effect in studies of the weather. So the public should leave it to the scientists who worked on such science and models. Here the majority of scientists believe the risks of nasty effects due to human emission of CO2 are real.

      Thus the public debate should be on Govt Policies to manage the RISKS of global warming.

      Here sadly the economist have hijacked the issue and created the carbon tax for Australia. They have done so without justifying the key assumption that minimizing CO2 emission in Australia produces a measurable outcome in the war against GLOBAL warming. This cornerstone assumption is invalid.

      Over the past 20 years the annual TOTAL CO2 emission of Australia is about 500m tons which works out to be about 1.3% of global total. China on the other hand is more than 8 BILLION Tons a year. The Annual INCREASES of CO2 of China which is about 700m tons which is thus greater than the total of Australia. This means carbon tax, ETS and pre-set renewable energies all very costly to Australia are almost totally useless in the war against GLOBAL warming.

      China should not be blamed as it is the factory of the World and in a sense many countries including Australia have exported some of our CO2 emission to China.

      The strategic way forward is for Australia to spend a few billions dollars a year as our share of responsibility in Joint R&D with China and India on nuclear energy and renewable energies. QED

      Commenter
      Dr B S Goh
      Location
      Australian in Asia
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 10:37AM
    • It amazes me that a portion of the population still live in fear and denial. We should look at the issue from different perspectives. Namely:
      1. Why is there a fear of a new tax. There are many taxes we must pay already. All levers in any advanced economy. If the a carbon tax must we levered up, why not lever down another tax to offset it. The outcome being, no net increase in tax. Those that benefit are businesses that emit less carbon whilst those that pay are the emitters. The overall impact is no difference to the consumer.
      2. Insuring against environmental harm from global warming is no different to ensuring against other things we are happy to pay for. Namely house insurance in the likely event it burns down. The incremental cost on the population is no where near as expensive.
      3. All this effort of protests and fear mongering over alternative technologies amazes me when you only need to look at the other environmental damage taking place. Examples include dirty coal mines, oil spills, water and air contamination from fossil fuels, plastic pollution of our oceans, degradation of our fish stocks, clear felling of our wilderness, mass extinction of species, the list goes on. It amazes me when you see protests over unproven turbine noise from wind farms. These people need a reality fact check.

      Commenter
      the hard sell
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 1:02PM
    • Regurgitated warmist clap-trap. Nice...

      Commenter
      Windy
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 1:32PM
    • Yes, great article. I'm also interested to see how many denier commentators below, funded by Gina and Clive and similar, are out on the hustings today.

      Commenter
      Superman
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 1:57PM
  • "At some point, though, unless we have unlimited time to become experts ourselves, we need to trust that the professionals in any field are good at what they do. That's what it means to be professional. But some people seem to believe that scientists can't be trusted."

    No they can't, and so-called human-induced global warming can't be happening either. Which is easily proved. Because, if it was, it would be bad for established business. And particularly, for my own.
    End of story.
    ;-)

    Read more: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/why-were-having-the-wrong-climate-change-debate-20140401-35w1p.html#ixzz2xcPjOh7h

    Commenter
    Ian MacDougall
    Location
    NSW
    Date and time
    April 01, 2014, 6:50PM
    • @Ian MacDougall:
      When it comes to climate change and this current government the following sums it up: "there are none so blind as those that will not see" and "there are none so deaf as those that will not hear".

      Commenter
      JohnC
      Location
      Gosford NSW
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 9:48AM
  • Thanks Fiona - a great article and fantastic to hear it straight from the scientist's mouth so to speak. I find it so frustrating that so many people who aren't scientists develop such firm, sceptical beliefs when it comes to climate change. It is such a big gamble to ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus. The notion that thousands of scientists, all over the world, are engaged in some giant scam is just ridiculous and as you point out, devalues all the hard work scientists are doing.

    Commenter
    Amy
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 01, 2014, 7:16PM
    • It is a good article but it fails to go the next step. Please accept that sceptics are not deniers; many merely crave for an honest debate based on sound scientific and mathematical principles. Most of the authoritative sceptics that I know are specialised, and often pre-eminent, mathematicians and statisticians who in many cases correctly dispute the mathematics of the so called scientists.

      The IPCC model has been correctly and roundly criticised because it leaves out many of the key variables relevant to climate analysis. The IPCC, some years ago, took shortcuts and probably terminated their credibility permanently. It is simply not acceptable to base conclusions on modelling results that are similar to those produced by a random number generator.

      Let us stop the insults and have a rational debate; not the one that some politicians want to have to suit their electoral purposes. Bill Shorten almost got there the other week but then sullied the nest.

      In the end however lets face it: assuming that man made climate change is real, the only workable solution is the one that the US, China and Brazil agree on. The rest of us are just making useless unhelpful noise.

      Commenter
      Swissie
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 9:03PM

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