Friday, April 27, 2012

Minchin's denial pays no mind to climate science

It is unsurprising that former Liberal Senator Nick Minchin has followed up his appearance on last night's ABC climate special and Q and A Climate Debate with an opinion piece in today's Age stating the thoroughly expected "news" that they failed to change his mind about climate change.

Yet, if anything emerged from last night, it was that there is no climate debate as such (as opposed to mere disagreement), Minchin's position is irrelevant to the issue, and there's little, if any, common ground between those who argue cogently for urgent action to address climate change and those who deny it.

I Can Change Your Mind About Climate sent Minchin and Australian Youth Climate Coalition co-founder and chair, Anna Rose, on a string of encounters with noted sceptics and scientists around the world.

It was a pity that a meeting with Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science at the University of California San Diego, failed to make the final program, for it was on the link between climate denial and the denial of tobacco as a cause of cancer that Minchin was most clearly rattled by Rose's clear and measured questioning.

In Oreskes' book, The Merchants of Doubt, the professor considers the key figures common to the denial of climate change and the campaign to discredit the science on the grim realities of tobacco. Oreskes shows how the tactics of Big Tobacco persisted long after the evidence of the disastrous health effects was well and truly in.

That the same pattern has been followed on the climate issue lies at the heart of Minchin's fallibility, but his television appearances and today's opinion reveal differences and limitations in how the media deal with the issue.

The Q and A Climate Debate included not only Rose and CSIRO head Megan Clark on the panel, but also authorities in the audience - including Professor Matthew England - who were in a position to immediately correct the errors of science put forward not only by Minchin, but by coal magnate and fellow panellist, Clive Palmer.

Unfortunately, it will be left to the letters column and follow-up opinion to correct without the same immediacy and effectiveness the errors Minchin repeats in today's Age, but they must not go unchallenged.

Short-term variations in demonstrable long-term warming trends, the continued (but threatened) existence of polar bears, cities that (for now) remain above the sea and the broken drought provide no basis for challenging the unfolding and ultimately catastrophic impacts of climate change, yet Minchin sells these denialist talking points as knock-out arguments.

Last night he also claimed there is "no empirical evidence" that humans are causing global warming and that the "science isn't settled", while today he writes of a "lively scientific debate" that he hopes will continue.

For Minchin, it does not suffice that the science is verifiably in to the extent that global warming is happening, is caused by human activity, and indicates more not less urgent action with each new finding of research. He is forced to deny these facts - to sow doubt in Oreskes' terms - because the acknowledgment of facts would leave him nowhere to go.

Unfortunately for the former senator, the "facts" on which he seeks to stand are an iceberg long-melted in the sea when we consider the nature of verification of the claims of the respective sides, and their status beyond the mere "conviction" and "persuasion" he attributes to those, like Anna Rose, who base their case on peer-reviewed scientific research.

The omission of Oreskes was indeed a pity in this regard because what we do about climate change comes down to what counts as evidence, and how we can be assured that the conclusions put forward are actually robust and reliable. This is where Minchin's side falls away like an eroding coastline. It is the dividing line between claim and argument, between assertion and substantiated fact.

In his parade of sceptics, however, Minchin has offered a fixed target that I now hope will be closely examined by climate scientists and widely reported across the media. Such debunking of myths has been carried out in the past, but last night's programs offer an opportunity to do so in a substantial media spotlight at a critical time for our nation.

A disagreement is not a debate unless verifiable facts are attributed on both sides. While we cannot stop people disagreeing without reason (or for irrelevant reasons of self-interest), we can call them on their hollow arguments and not be delayed from necessary action in the national and global interest.

Last night Q and A ran my video question challenging Clive Palmer to invest his billions in zero-emission renewable energy instead of carbon-intensive coal. I was happy for it to be on, but I actually preferred another question I had submitted for Minchin himself.

That question asked who he thought were the appropriate umpires of questions of climate science. It also asked him why he was willing to appeal to a false debate in rejecting climate action, when he would surely never consider arguing against emergency surgery in hospitals based on a false "debate" about medical science. That is the frame in which we ought to see the self-interested challenges to climate action here and around the world.

Given the sides in this disagreement, it was a somewhat illusory hope that "common ground" would be achieved, and what passed for compromise looked more like the next move in the climate denialists' play-book. We need, according to Minchin and Palmer, not a price on carbon, but far more investment in research and development of green energy - to make it so cheap that everyone wants to use it.

That's actually true, but the rub is what will happen in the meantime if we fail to also price carbon. Without a carbon price and additional measures to curb our emissions, we can only expect that the continued burning of fossil fuels will cause emissions to spiral upwards to the point where they place any safe climate solution beyond reach.

Sounds a bit like telling us to keep smoking while Big Tobacco works on cigarettes that won't give us cancer, don't you think?

Update: Rose has now published her reply at The Age online.

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