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Deep-seated ambiguity

Letters Blog | December 03, 2008 | 41 Comments

YOUR editorial ("Unthinking dogma”, 29-30/11) was a welcome reminder that the science of climate change is far from settled, and that no consensus exists regarding the degree of danger posed by human activity. Unfortunately, the first few words of the piece—“If climate change is real ...”—conceal a deep-seated ambiguity between natural and human-caused change that bedevils nearly all public discussion of the global warming issue. This same confusing ambiguity applies to Steve Rintoul’s letter (2/12) about Southern Ocean change.

There is no “if” about it. In the eyes of all scientists, climate change is most certainly real; change is what climate does. Thanks more to Dorothea Mackellar than to scientists, nearly all Australians understand this, and also that we inhabit a continent that is particularly vulnerable to climate change; witness, for instance, both recent drought and storms. However, these events relate to natural climate variability or change, which all on their own entail various combinations of warming or cooling and flooding or drought. The additional, and quite proper, question as to whether human carbon dioxide emissions are adding an additional and dangerous warming effect to natural change remains unresolved after 20 years of investigation, and despite the expenditure of more than $US50 billion looking unsuccessfully for the effect.

In the meantime, of course Australia needs a proper adaptive national policy on climate change which, inter alia, allows for the possibility of managing future human-caused change too, should it eventuate. But because of the economic and social damage that it will cause, thereby hindering our capacity to adapt, the imposition of a new carbon dioxide tax (aka emissions trading scheme) would be a misguided step in precisely the wrong direction.
Professor Bob Carter
Marine Geophysical Laboratory
James Cook University, Townsville, Qld

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Tom Harris
Fri 05 Dec 08 (02:02pm)

“Mumbblebrain” asserts that there is a consensus among world climate scientists that humanity’s contribution to CO2 levels are having a significant and danagerous impact on global climate.  How does he know this?  There has never been a poll and the national science academy statements are not meaningful since none of them polled their members and released the results of the poll and so it is just a political statement by the bureaucracies of the academies.  Here in Canada, the Royal Society of Canada signed on to Lord May’s open letter WITHOUT EVEN CONSULTING THE RSC’S SCIENCE ACADEMY, let alone any scientists in the field.  A similar scandle occured in the US and the UK and their scientists were quite annoyed that their executives signed on and so I imagine this was common around the world. 

To meaningfully asset a ‘consensus’ among any group of people, one has to actually show poll results, not just make the assertion and expect people to bow down in obedient belief.

After working with climate scientists the world over for the past decade, my perception is that the opinions of scientists is somewhat like a bell curve, with very few scientists at either extreme (namely saying we definitely are, or definitely are not, causing dangerous climate change).  The vast majority in my experience simply say “I don’t know, though it seems unlikely to be a serious problem that we will be unable to adapt to.”

Tom Harris
Executive Director
International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)

John Leslie Nicol
Thu 04 Dec 08 (06:38pm)

I have read with interest the many comments above referring to Professor Bob Carter’s letter to the Austrlain.  Bob has spent a lifetime studying the geolgical cataclysms which have odccurred over the ages and as an internationally recognised paleantologist and Marine geologist he has also studied climate and the many factors which influence it as it has changed over millions of years.  Nevertheless, if you asked him to predict what is likely to happen in ten, twenty or thirty years time, he would modesly say “I do’t know.  No one understands climate change well enough to predict its future.”, or words to that effect.  This lack of knowledge however, does not seem to be a deterrent to many who are prepared to state unequivocally that the “science of global warming is in.  No doubt about it we can see it in the recent increase in the Artic and Antarctic Ice.  We know that in 1893, the Norwegian adventurer Nansen was able to kayak to within 560 kilometres of the North Pole and that in 2007 the Englishman Hughes, hoping to demonstrate how much the Arctic Ice had retreated was able also to get close to the Pole.  However, he had to settle for 800 kilometres.”
Unfortunately no one seems to be happy for anyone else to know who has made a statement about Global Warming or its euphemism “ClimateChange”, nor do we have an email address so that we can seek further help from them in trying to understand this most difficult of questions.

Being a New Zealander, Professor Carter has a clear picture of the devastation caused by earth quakes, and a thorough appreciation need to be prepared for these, where or if possible, with fore cast of this quite naturally occurring phenomenon and also in the social sense of design and positioning of cities.  Good experience if one is looking for guidance on how one might prepare for problems arising from global freezing or warming.  And as Bob points out in his second and last paragraphs, it was a proper approach to test whether the warming between 1980 and 1998 was human induced.  He also points out correctly, though not strongly, that the last 28 years since 1998 appear to have failed to produce any direct or indirect evidence that Global Warming is inevitably produced by human emissions of carbon dioxide.  To test that, one has to ask what predictions or projections have the models made prior to 1990 say, or even prior to 1999, from which one may plot a graph of the projected global temperature anomalies and the now measured global temperature anomalies, and find that the two lines are consistent to within an agreed differenc e of perhaps 15% of the absolute value.  Can someone out there produce such a graph.  No?  Until that is done we should not place too much confidence in the projections for the year 2100.  It is no use hiding behind the claim that “there is an underlying warming which is being swamped just now by natural cooling, which is evident in the data since 2002, but by 2015 we will see warming again.  Betcha! “ and “We don’t do El Ninos or La Ninas.  They are right of our radar.” To be of any use at all, the models must be able model the climate as it is, not as we might like it to be.  If it turns nasty and throws up a cooling when we thought it should be warming, don’t call “foul”!  Get out there and make the models tell it like it is!  Sometimes even climate scientists may have to work long into the night to get right – but work they must if there is going to be a solution to this vexing problem.  Get them to include La Nina and its mate El Nino!  These things are not going away just because a few computer modellers can’t handle them.  There may also be a whole batch of little nasty’s which we haven’t even heard of yet, that nature has up its sleeve to throw in every ten or twenty, even thirty, years or so, just to confuse the poor old models, which are not in the least “Scientific”, by the way, they are merely tools used to carry out calculations based on scientific interpretations of atmospheric structure and evolution.  To study the “Science” would be to undertake a thorough working over of the fundamental Green House Effect, in terms of spectroscopy and collisonal energy transfer in gases, which unfortunately seems to be a language not yet understood by many climatologists.  Phenomena After all, the influence of El Nino on Australian climate has only been discovered within my quite recent memory.  There will undoubtedly be a plethora of semi-cyclical and sometimes random events which will plague climate and weather forecasting for many years to come.  One just has to be honest and explain where the many uncertainties lie.

By the way, Bob was also a senior member of the Australian Research Grants Commission, the most significant national body making decisions on the distribution of research funding for many years.  I believe this would have involved “economic” type decisions on the value for money at least in the research areas across the country.  I think even Professor Garnaut would agree with Bob that the ETS will cause some social and economic damage, which is not in itself a very profound economic statement.  If you read the words properly you will see that Bob’s point is that targeting global warming when many other, bad or possibly worse scenarios are equally possible, is a serious mistake.
I would welcome comments from bloggers from above.
John Nicol

Thu 04 Dec 08 (12:05pm)

“(The) question as to whether human carbon dioxide emissions are adding an additional and dangerous warming effect to natural change remains unresolved after 20 years of investigation..looking unsuccessfully for the effect.” As a lay person, I simply cannot understand how any scientist can make such a statement. I wish I did, and I have tried to the best of my ability. But according to the mass of peer-reviewed research by climate scientists, they have found exactly this effect, and all their evidence supports it. Scientists such as Prof Carter who are AGW sceptics seem to believe (as far as I can tell) that the whole paradigm or theory of climate is wrong. On the other hand they don’t seem to offer a plausible alternative. Solar fluctuations (a favourite alternative hypothesis) seem to have already been factored into climate research and these changes are neither strong enough nor correctly timed to account for what is happening now. So as a layperson, and given what is at stake, how can I justify ignoring the conclusions of mainstream science when there is nothing more convincing on offer?

Thu 04 Dec 08 (09:13am)

Hey Greig, you mention Spencers paper “Global Warming as a Natural Response to Cloud Changes Associated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)” I wonder how clouds affect satellite measurements in some temperature series?? and why oh why is the cyclical nature of the PDO not correlating with measured temperature increases. OH Dear back to the drawing board!!!

Philip Machanick
Wed 03 Dec 08 (08:40pm)

Greig, not sure if this will get up in time before comments close so I put up a detailed response on my blog at ... in short, Spencer’s analysis is bunk, and we are NOT in a cooling trend.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (08:00pm)

Wed 03 Dec 08 (05:32pm) Renewables can supply enough power for baseload, it’s just commonsense that if you build enough tidal or geo-thermal power to keep the show on the road when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun’s not shining enough to let these power sources work to full clean capacity. The tide has been coming in and out every six hours for a lot longer than the crazy vested interest poisonous nuclear, oil and coal lobby groups have been manipulating govrnment decisions and the tide will still be coming in and out every six hours long after those groups have become extinct. Stone walls/locks with 2 way electric generating turbines built in around Australia’s coastline isn’t a difficult project at all, the hardest part is getting the coal/oil/nuclear lobbyists out of the picture!

Wed 03 Dec 08 (07:41pm)

The biggest hypocrisy from the OZ is that their own papers claim they will be carbon neutral by 2010.

David Davis, fantastic stuff.  Still haven’t found those WMD.

Funnily enough whenever the Iraqi rep. in the UN said “we don’t have any such weapons” he was the only one in the room telling the truth.

Brair Rabbit
Wed 03 Dec 08 (06:19pm)

It is very entertaining to read the contributions from bloggers frothing at the mouth over Australian editorials and contributors who have the nerve - how outrageous! - to question the dogma spewing forth from climate change zealots and doomsday specialists. In relation to some of the “science” behind climate predictions, examining the entrails of chickens or spent tea leaves in china cups may give more reliable results. Keep up the informed and mature debate editorialists, otherwise we would only have the group thinkers to listen to.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (05:32pm)


You are completely correct, renewables cannot supply enough power, and only nuclear represents a suitable alternative for base-load power generation.

The reason why environmentalists and greens and governments do not accept this is because they don’t understand the economic and technical limitations of renewables, and so they do not believe that nuclear is required.  There are many people who will argue that renewables are capable of large-scale base-load power.  But they are not qualified, are educated only by what they read on the internet, and so do not understand the subject - they are arguing, not logically, but solely from the position of wishful thinking.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (05:27pm)

It seems very clear that no thinking person wrote these responses because they amount to a knee-jerk reaction to issues that were not raised in the original Letter to the Editor.

All I see here is a bunch of people pontificating - yes, just like papal edicts - on their favourite topics and producing remarkably little material to support their claims.  First law of logical argument - Assertion ain’t fact.

I know the Fairfax papers have gone down hill of late but you’ll find that their reports and editorial are very much in tune with your fantasies and equally devoid of evidence so you should feelright at home.  The rest of you would probably be better off with the tabloids than the more thoughtful “Australian”. We’ve lost the truly dreadful tabloids from Australia but maybe you can try a subscription to “ News of the World”.

If you insist on staying here and must fill in your day with a barrage of postings to newspaper forums then at least try to (a) stick to the subject and (b) produce some supporting material.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (05:23pm)

Philip Machanik.  Regarding long-term natural climate change factors, how do you know all factors are being considered? 

For example, Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama has submitted a paper which shows a statistical correlation (with 94% confidence) between 100 year temperature trends and combined SOI and PDO.  In other words, cyclical variation due to ocean currents and air pressure across the Pacific Ocean is nearly entirely sufficient to explain observed global warming, with zero implications from greenhouse gases.

And what of the very interesting research showing the connection between solar variablility and cosmic rays?  Where does that appear on your web site.  Or are you being selective with the facts?

Wed 03 Dec 08 (04:58pm)

Philip Machanik I never claimed that climate scientists have failed to address the issue of natural vs anthropogenic impacts on global warming observations.  The IPCC has certainly amply documented their failure to be able to quantify the attribution, and along with their inaccurate computer models, this has resulted in a failure to make accurate predictions of global warming (as evidenced by their failure to predict the current abatement of warming over the last 10 years).  This lack of ability to accurately quantify has resulted in the IPCC proposing of a worst case scenario with frighteningly high temperature rises in the distant future under the absurd assumption that that clouds and evaporative cooling have no influence.

You may argue that the IPCC is justified in predicting the worst case scenario, since we don’t know exactly how much humans influence climate change, and issues such as clouds have yet to be fully researched.  And I would agree, indeed that is my very point.  Climate change is not yet fully modeled, and so we do not yet know what impact CO2 emission reductions will have on climate.  Until we know that, how can we argue that the use of funds for CO2 emission reductions is justified, relative to using those funds for other environmental responses?  The precautionary principle only applies where we can be reasonably sure the price of caution can be reasonably justified.  We are not anywhere near knowing that yet.

And BTW, the graph on your web site is out of date … it doesn’t include the last 8 years of data (ie no warming) which will certainly throw the assumptions used to generate the theoretical contribution from greenhouse gases into question.  So much for basing your views on facts, like the IPCC and it’s out-dated 4th assessment, you are living in the 1990s.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (04:54pm)

Bob Carter,

What a pity. You see, when most people study the physical sciences at university level, one thing that they learn is the difference between weather and climate. You must have been looking out the window when they were teaching that bit.

Weather is what Dorothea McKellar was describing. It changes frequently, it is very dynamic and relatively unpredictable. If we were only experiencing “weather change” nobody would be concerned.

Climate changes as well. But the difference between cliamate change and weather change is that weather change is rapid and frequent, while climate change is (or should be) extremely slow.

It is not the FACT that the climate is changing that is the problem, but the RATE of change. And it is not difficult to see why the rate of change has accelerated to unsustainable levels. We know that the world has experienced at least three and possibly four “super-greenhouse” events in the past (we know this because of the huge deposits of hydrocarbons that were laid down at the time and which we are now using to supply us with energy. We also know that, during these “super-greenhouse” events, the world would have been unihabitable for human beings, with anoxic oceans and a toxic atmosphere (not to metion extreme temperatures).

And we also know that, in the past two hundred years, we have dug up and burned much of the hydrocarbons laid down by previous greenhouse events, relaesing the stored carbon into the atmosphere.

You see, this is the problem. Human beings would not survive a “super-greenhouse” event, and yet we have been releasing CO2 into the atmosphere that was laid down in four previous “super-greenhouse” events.

The changes of the past fifty years would not be a problem had they occured over five thousand years. But when you have the climate changing almost as fast as the weather, you have a real problem.

And that is exactly what we have.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (04:26pm)

Redmond of Dernancourt
Wed 03 Dec 08 (12:02pm So who in your learned opinion is killing the Great Barrier Reef if not Queensland cane farmers via their crazy applications of poisons to their canefields close to waterways? Is it Bin Laden’s fault too?

Wed 03 Dec 08 (03:04pm)

Thank you Philip Machanick. I’ve had a look at the chart on your web site and it definitely says that anthropogenic warming is increasing. I guess that settles it.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (02:29pm)

Here is a statement of truth- currently renewables are not capable of supplying the energy we need even if we are prepared to bear the increased costs of this form of we will continue to rely on fossil fuels for many many years to come, if we do not wish to cause undue damage to our standards of living. Nuclear does have the capacity to provide base load power (at a higher cost) that will allow us to maintain a similar standard of living. Nuclear will allow us to reduce carbon emissions significantly, renewable will not...they cannot provide base load power as we need it, so we will continue to burn fossil fuels for most of our energy needs in the foreseeable future.
I now have a question- If AGW is such a problem for the world, why will environmentalists and greens and governments not even consider nuclear? To me the answer is they cannot really trust/ believe the science and doomsday scenarios...its not an urgent there another logical explanation?

Mulga Mumblebrain
Wed 03 Dec 08 (01:19pm)

Thanks Dave Davis for a solid exposition of The Australian’s editorial hypocrisy. One could go on and on-Israel/Palestine, ‘War on Terror’, ‘Serf Choices’. Not just the bias one expects from ruthless capitalist agit-prop, but sheer, cynical, opportunistic, humbug.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (12:56pm)

Dave Davis to become the first President of the Republic of Australia.  There is no greater living Australian!

Philip Machanick
Wed 03 Dec 08 (12:55pm)

Redmond of Dernancourt (12:02pm): We are the world’s biggest coal exporter, and therein lies the real problem. The issue is not cutting our own emissions, but persuading the really big emitters to do so. We can hardly do that AND aggressively pursue coal exports.

This is why Australia is a world leader in climate change denial (the correct term when the arguments are gibberish) and in pushing rubbish ideas like geosequestration. I worked out, for one proposal involving coal gasification, that even if the CO_2 was liquefied (by compression), the amount they were planning on pumping underground added up to over 10 cubic km per year—and this wasn’t even all their emissions, just the CO_2 stream that was easiest to capture. Multiply this by every coal power station, and it’s obvious that this concept is a non-starter.

The Howard government was big on running down the idea of “picking winners”. Well, maybe. But that strikes me as a little more sensible than picking losers, which is what spending $100-million a year on researching “clean coal” amounts to.

Wed 03 Dec 08 (12:37pm)

Instead of extra taxes and charges in the form of ETS, we should be addressing the cause of greenhouse gas emissions - people and their use of natural resources.  First, we need to aim for zero population growth, lessen our dependancy on livestock as one of our greatest emitters, and become part of a cutting-edge technology in producing renewable energy sources.  We should all be using solar energy, and the oceans and wind also have potential.  Our government’s attempts to address climate are pathetic!  Kyoto and Garnaut are already being ignored.

Lee Shipley
Wed 03 Dec 08 (12:24pm)

When is The Australian going to get with the programme on Climate Change?  While you remain in denial Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway are dividing up the spoils of what could soon be an ice free North Pole while Singapore and Egypt start to count loss of shipping to these new major trading routes.  Whatever the cause, the geopolitics and the economics of the world are changing faster than the ice melts.  As the premier newspaper on national affairs The Australian needs to be leading the debate how we deal with these and other impacts not bickering about causes.

Redmond of Dernancourt
Wed 03 Dec 08 (12:02pm)

Whether or not climate change/global warming is caused by human activity, Australia is a tiny player.
If absolutely all human activity ceased in Australia, it would make no difference to the world’s climate, or the Barrier Reef, or melting glaciers.

Dave Davis
Wed 03 Dec 08 (11:52am)

Sorry to go on, but
On 12th July, an editorial in The Australian (’Lies and secrets harm Howard’) had this to say:
Indisputable? How’s that for scepticism?

Wed 03 Dec 08 (11:44am)

Dr Carter, you’re a scientist, what do you know about economics? I’d say no more than I know about geophysics.

Dave Davis
Wed 03 Dec 08 (11:39am)

On March 19 2003, an editorial in The Australian (’TIme has now arrived for disarming Iraq’) had this to say:
Hussein has not divested himself of his chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons. It is an unacceptable risk to allow him to retain them.
Seems like scepticism is a fashion accessory for some. Goes well with global warming, but clashes terribly with Saddam’s WMD.

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