Sceptics must start warming to the reality of climate 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.' 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.
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