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Edition 12

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Debate

Fair-weather friends?

I LIKE BOB Carter. Even in a kilt. He has that baritone warmth that men share when they assume they're united against the Philistines. I first met Professor Carter in 1998 at James Cook University in Townsville where we recorded an interview outside the old staff club. I like that spot because it is in the open, under the tropical sky and interviews have to be short (under ten minutes) because after that the mosquitoes bite like piranhas.

We talked about Bob's part in the deep-ocean drilling scheme carried out by ship in various parts of the world. The cores produced are analysed chemically and offer time capsules going back centuries and histories of past climate change. He thought the project to be valuable. I agreed, for what that's worth, and the interview duly went to air.

Australia then withdrew from the project and Bob's involvement went on hold. There were two consequences: the first, apparently, was that Carter now had time on his hands; the second, I inferred, was that he was not at all pleased with whichever authorities had cut off the funds.

It is from about that time, four years ago, that many of us began to receive helpful items from Carter, clearly meant for publication, most knocking the orthodoxy, the bleak line on global warming. The first, a scripted talk, I duly put to air. Then a similar piece turned up in The Australian newspaper; then he was onCounterpoint, ABC Radio National, twice, all with the same position.

This was becoming not so much the availability of a helpful boffin, more pressing a line. His interpretation of the uncertainties went, shall we say, rather further than most weather researchers allowed. I decided to dig deeper and discovered that Professor Bob Carter, geologist from Townsville, was a vocal member of the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA). Fair enough. But the effect of this kind of debating is more like politics than science. First, it presents the issue as one-side-or-the-other, for-oragainst. Second, it accuses the other side of what it itself, a lobby group, is trying to do: push ideology.

I decided to put all this on the record and invited Bob Carter into the studio for a chat. I had already knocked back his latest encyclical on climate, connected to the G8 summit, on the dual excuse that I had no spare air time (true) and that I had already arranged a piece linked to G8 based on new, peer-reviewed research, published in a leading journal. Evidence.

We chatted at length, discussed the demise of Australia's involvement in the drilling scheme and then moved to his unequivocal opposition to worries about climate change. They amounted, essentially, to two concerns: the first, his claim that there is "no theory of climate"; the second, that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its adherents are either naive at best, or green "religionists" at worst. When I quietly pointed out that I often go to labs like the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, where they first discovered the carbon dioxide increase fifty years ago and meet scores of renowned scientists who have made worrying findings on climate ranging from deep-ocean warming and plankton death to atmospheric analysis and bird counts, Bob was unimpressed.

Then he told me that the upper atmosphere is actually getting colderI had heard this before. It was a weird paradox none of us could fathom. We parted amicably, as usual.

The following day he sent me an email. Would I cut the final remarks? Two papers in the journal Science had just exposed the "cooling" story as false. Bob was too good a scientist to let a flagrantly misleading fact be broadcast. But I reckon he was too committed to his position to have any qualms about the rest of his unabashedly sceptical remarks.

 

THAT IS WHAT'S so extraordinary about this "debate". Any reasonable person would say: "This is a complex matter, which, if true, has devastating consequences and must be taken seriously. So far, the evidence, on many fronts, is worrying. There is uncertainty elsewhere. On balance, I am sixty-two per cent convinced the scientific authorities are right and action should be taken." Choose your own percentage. It is likely, if you are sensible, to be in the mid-range. If you opt for either a hundred per cent or zero, I'd think you're cockeyed. Or political in the extreme.

Let's take the four famous furfies of the climate nay-sayers. They are: the troposphere is cooling; it's all in the solar cycle; the glaciers are expanding; and it's a matter of water vapour not COand methane.

The troposphere is at the top of the surprisingly thin veneer of atmospheric gases covering the Earth. Its temperature has been measured by satellites over the years and in doing so, incorporated an adjustment for direct solar heating of the apparatus. As the instrument circles the planet, day and night, it is warmed up during the day. This must be distinguished from measurement of the air itself. It was this adjustment that theScience papers had shown was wrong. The troposphere is getting hotter.

What about the solar cycle? This is about eleven years in duration and its effect on warming – rather than any human cause – has been the line taken by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas. I interviewed them both in their office at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and they insisted: "The climate of the twentieth century is neither unusual nor extreme."

Chris Mooney also quotes this line in his magisterial book The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005), in which he says that Soon feels free to dismiss great swathes of other scientists' findings "based on tree rings, ice cores, corals and other sources". Mooney also notes that Soon and Baliunas received support from the George C. Marshall Institute which is funded, in part, by Exxon Mobil and that their key rebuttal of the climate-change orthodoxy was published under dubious circumstances involving the resignation of a journal editor in protest.

And what about the sun? Well, on October 1, 2005, New Scientist quoted the work of Chris Turney from the University of Wollongong, whose research was published in The Journal of Quaternary Science. Headed "Climate doesn't swing to the rhythm of the sun", it reported that Turney's studies of peat bogs in Ireland show that "peaks in solar activity do not coincide with peaks in warmer conditions".

Which brings us to glaciers. The following stunning statement was made by botanist David Bellamy, writing to New Scientist on April 16, 2005: "Many of the world's glaciers," he announced, "are not shrinking but in fact are growing. ... 555 of the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980."

George Monbiot, a friend of mine who lives in Oxford, couldn't believe his eyes. He therefore phoned the glacier monitors in Zurich and received the following reply. "This is complete bullshit. Despite his [Bellamy's] scientific reputation, he makes all the mistakes that are possible." How come? Monbiot tracked the source of the snafu: a paper quoted by an anti-climate-change website (no such paper exists) plus an admitted "typing error" by Bellamy (555 instead of 55%). Bellamy's reputation is now in tatters – but the misleading factoid rides on. Three down, one to go.

So, finally, to water vapour. There is no doubt that water is a greenhouse gas and that it exceeds carbon dioxide as a constituent of the atmosphere. There is also no doubt that the main advocate of this theory, Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT, is a respected scientist and member of the American National Academy of Sciences. I interviewed Lindzen in Boston and was impressed by his assurance as well as his cheerful chain-smoking and delight in being contrary. He is known to dispute links between cigarettes and lung cancer.

But what is he really saying about IPCC and the near-universal concern about climate? Does he dispute the stance taken by his own academy in warning the world? Mooney quotes Lindzen as saying he has no essential dispute with the academy's line and is merely critical of the IPCC's summary for policy-makers. The academy gave "an okay summary of what's gone on in the field, read in total" conceded Lindzen. Water vapour is no doubt important in the equation but few use it to discount the entire mountain of evidence from other sources.

 

I AM A SCIENCE journalist and I report evidence as released in journals where truth is paramount. I may also seek opinion to place some of the findings in context, but it is my job to distinguish between the two and so try to avoid confusing the public. When I read some commentators here and abroad I am overwhelmed by their sudden omniscience about scientific research and also their blithe confidence that they can master vast amounts of information normally outside their province.

So it was in The Australian when Christopher Pearson took on Tim Flannery and his book The Weather Makers (Text, 2005). "One of Radio National's world view's more disconcerting features is its enthralment to apocalyptic science. Sometimes, listening to Fran Kelly discussing the latest portents of global warming, I can almost hear the polar ice melt and rising waters lapping at the front doorstep. No hint of licensed scepticism, no inkling that this may be just one more millennial fantasy, is allowed to obtrude. This is not a radio show. It's a sacramental observance for true believers." As for Flannery, "he's more shaman than showman, a folk mystic and prophet for the New Age remnant".

And who is wheeled in as a counter-authority? Why, my old friend Bob Carter (no kilt this time).

It reminds me of the "debates" on smoking in the 1950s and 1960s, or the flak we took in reporting on asbestos in the 1970s, or lead in petrol in the 1980s. Give "both sides" was the instruction (asbestos doesn't kill? Lead is good for children?) and on TV we saw one versus the other, as if it were our old friend with two heads, 50/50.

Well, it isn't. There are some predictable columnists who will rail as sceptics of climate change. There are some retired scientists, often geologists like Bob, who will front up in a trice, to run their familiar party pieces; and there are one or two, not many, researchers in the field with some doubts about detail, if not the whole picture..

There are no certainties in science. Most of us are as happy about the prospect of human-induced climate change as we are about the prospect of disembowelment. We would rather it disappeared – like Y2K bugs. But nature is doing something out there, whether we like it or not. If it is drastic, we need to know.

Meanwhile, Dr Barrie Pittock of CSIRO Atmospheric Research in Victoria has just spent months analysing sixty-five major papers on climate, ranging from permafrost melting and global dimming to tropical cyclone incidence and ocean circulation. His conclusion? Scientists look like they have "consciously or unconsciouslydownplayed" the problem. My italics. Our worry.  


From Griffith Review Edition 12: Hot Air © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review