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Sceptics must start warming to the reality of climate science

Date

Stephan Lewandowsky

Don't get bogged down by deniers. Focus instead on the integrity of the science.

'The only conclusion about the climate that is taken seriously by every single reputable scientific institution in the world is that the Earth's climate is changing due to human greenhouse gas emissions.'

'The only conclusion about the climate that is taken seriously by every single reputable scientific institution in the world is that the Earth's climate is changing due to human greenhouse gas emissions.' Photo: Michelle Mossop

FORMER senator Nick Minchin is well known for his rejection of climate science and for opposing the medical fact that second-hand tobacco smoke is a health risk. Anna Rose is a young climate activist who heads a grassroots organisation of 57,000 members and has long been campaigning for climate action.

Put those two polar opposites together on a tour around the world trying to change each other's minds by meeting their supporters, and you get the documentary I Can Change Your Mind about climate, which airs on the ABC tonight, followed by a Q&A panel.

This is bound to be compelling documentary television. But what is it documenting? It documents the media's struggle to understand how science works and why the actual scientific debate about climate change differs so strikingly from what the Australian public has been led to believe.

Science is debate. Science is about balancing evidence. Scientific debates are about the weight of evidence and they are conducted in peer-reviewed literature, which screens out ideas and opinions that do not withstand scrutiny. As a result, science expressly and inevitably differentiates nonsense from ideas that have scientific merit. It is the very essence of science that some ideas - such as the Earth being flat - count for nothing whereas others are taken seriously.

The only conclusion about the climate that is taken seriously by every single reputable scientific institution in the world is that the Earth's climate is changing due to human greenhouse gas emissions. This is the only idea that has survived peer review and it is a fact on which the national academies of all industrialised countries converge independently.

There is a scientific debate about the climate - but that debate focuses on the likely consequences and on the resolution of remaining uncertainties, not on the fundamentals of the greenhouse effect which was established 150 years ago.

This clear scientific picture has compelled European leaders from across the political spectrum to seek reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, including Conservatives such as the UK's David Cameron and Germany's Angela Merkel.

The Australian media, alas, struggle to come to grips with such clear and elegant scientific knowledge, seeking instead to provide "balance" between evidence-based science and the ideologically motivated denial that masquerades as "scepticism".

This mistaken quest for balance represents a core failure of parts of the Australian media and it permeates tonight's documentary in multiple ways.

The ads for the show refer to "believers" and "sceptics", which ignores the fact that science is the most sceptical endeavour known to humankind and which confuses scientific knowledge with matters of belief.

Balancing science with "scepticism" is akin to designing a moon mission by balancing the expert judgment of astronomers with the opinions of the tabloid horoscope.

To recognise this false balance one needs to look no further than tonight's documentary and cast a sceptical eye over the "experts" in Minchin's corner: They include a couple with no relevant training or peer-reviewed publications, whose idea of scientific debate is to post picture books of thermometers on the internet "to undermine the credibility of the establishment climate scientists".

Another "expert" on Minchin's side is Marc Morano the former communications director for a US senator who received more money from fossil fuel interests than any other senator. He has no relevant scientific training or any peer-reviewed publications. The only bona fide climate scientist in Nick Minchin's corner has sought to overturn mainstream science for as long as he has railed against the notion that tobacco is unhealthy. To date, his efforts have failed to find support among his colleagues. This is not a picture of a scientific debate. This is a picture of the long-standing "manufacture of doubt" by vested interests and political operatives.

The merchants of doubt put their ideology or profits ahead of scientific evidence when children died needlessly from chewing on lead paint for decades after its toxicity became known to the medical community. The merchants of doubt put profits or ideology before science for decades while people died needlessly from smoking, and they do so now when, according to the World Health Organisation, some 150,000 people die each year from climate-related causes.

The world's foremost historian of science who has analysed this organised manufacture of doubt, Professor Naomi Oreskes, did not make it into the documentary despite being one of Anna Rose's experts.

What would it take for a documentary to provide a properly balanced perspective on climate science? Simple: Anna Rose should have had 97 scientists in her corner to balance Minchin's sole climate scientist. Because 97 out of 100 actual experts know that the climate is changing due to human greenhouse emissions. Two are undecided and one in 100 opposes the mainstream science.

So 97 out of 100 is a consensus that is not in need of balance but that calls upon us to deal with the problem rather than waste time on deniers.

Stephan Lewandowsky is an Australian professorial fellow and Winthrop professor at the University of Western Australia.

Climate scientists will be providing a live blog during the showing of the documentary and the subsequent Q&A panel at http://myresearchspace.grs.uwa.edu.au/events/icanchange 

On Twitter, expert commentary will be available under the hashtag #qandascientists.

twitter Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU


234 comments

  • Nice photo accompanies the text here. All that white stuff spewing out is water vapour from cooling towers. That is OK, since H20 is by far the most potent greenhouse gas and is responsible for 95% of global warming. Without clouds we would all fry or die of thirst. It is also true that nature dwarfs humanity's CO2 output by at least the same amount - well over 95%. Only our relatively puny contribution to global warming counts, allegedly. It is also true that 99% of all species that have existed on earth have been made extinct long before humanity turned up, including five major extinction periods. At least one of those, was global warming triggered off by rises in C02 - been there, done that. I can live with the idea of humanity triggered CO2 global warming but not the smug self-righteousness, ignorance and economically nonviable energy "solutions" that go with the proposition. I also note that the spellchecker here is American English. It wants me to spell vapour (underlined in red) as "vapor". C'est la vie.

    Commenter
    Brutal Prose
    Date and time
    April 26, 2012, 8:24AM
    • You infer that human contributions to climate-affecting gases probably don't matter much, the science says they probably do. I know which one I'll accept.

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 9:52AM
    • What a Gish Gallop of logical fallacies!

      Commenter
      ginckgo
      Location
      Noble Park
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 10:04AM
    • BrutalProse, there's something called the 'water cycle' that's quite well known to science, thanks very much. Water vapour, natural CO2 and other steady state forcing effects in the atmosphere are rather like the 99% of food that you eat that gets burned off in muscle exertion. It's the 1% of excess calories that's actually causing you to get fat.

      BTW, you'll find the spell check is built into the web browser on your own computer, it's not something Fairfax is doing.

      Commenter
      Tony
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 10:20AM
    • "...Scientific debates are about the weight of evidence and they are conducted in peer-reviewed literature, which screens out ideas and opinions that do not withstand scrutiny..."

      Scientific debate is not a popularity contest. Consensus does not equal truth. The peer reviewed literature is dominated by the climate establishment. These gatekeepers of "respectable opinion" are a small close-knit bunch who have been caught out withholding dissenting opinions and hypothesis.

      The whole mess has become so politicised that the scientific method of enquiry has been thrown overboard by those who seek to profit from the proposed, vast new concentration of economic control.

      http://joannenova.com.au/

      Commenter
      Copernicus
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 11:02AM
    • Copernicus, the only capacity climate scientists have to 'withhold' arguments is in the peer-reviewed literature, which is only able to maintain the standard it does by restricting publication to claims that are scientifically credible.

      The popular press imposes no such restriction (and indeed revels in controversy), but I'm yet to see a single 'dissenting hypothesis' via that channel that hasn't been shown to be akin to tobacco industry propaganda in scientific validity. God knows Richard Lindzen has tried his best to punch a hole in the consensus on scientific grounds for years, but without success.

      Commenter
      Tony
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 11:28AM
    • Copernicus: (Nice name btw. It's using the same tactic as the "Galileo Movement" whereby you take the name of a famous scientist in order to imply that you really stand for the integrity of science when in fact the opposite is true - you are doing everything you can to besmirch the integrity of science)

      "a small close-knit bunch who have been caught out withholding dissenting opinions and hypothesis."

      Completely wrong. Climate-science is well over a 100 years old (predating quantum mechanics and relativity).
      and based on the work of many thousands across a huge range of fields. The sceptics have thrown around accusation after accusation but not one has ever been proven. What has been proven is a strong campaign of intimidation and smear from the agents of powerful vested interests who are trying to destroy the careers of eminent scientists because their conclusions interfere with future profits.
      For climate-scientists to be wrong it also has to have profound implications for many, many other areas of science for which the proof is irrefutable.

      Commenter
      Think Big
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 11:38AM
    • So - you don't care if the human race goes extinct, as long as it doesn't cost you any money?
      Sounds great!
      But one question - who's going to manage your superannuation portfolio when all of humanity is in the streets fighting over stale bread and fresh water?
      (or is that 'alarmist'? )

      Commenter
      Charlie Foxtrot
      Location
      Thunderbird 5
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 11:48AM
    • Not worth posting a response because you probably won't read it, because you only listen to what you want to hear,read what you want to read and revel in being contrary and inflexible.

      Have another ciggy my friend

      Commenter
      Rory Ross
      Location
      Glen Iris
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 12:44PM
    • And what about all the trees that are being cut down and which otherwise would be absorbing carbon dioxide.
      Just got my electricity bill in. It dropped from $400 to $50
      as a result of solar power - not smug but maybe it makes sense

      Commenter
      Paul
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 3:01PM

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