The Climate Science Is Done … Right?


For people who want to deny the new paradigm of climate science, the most recent report of the British Royal Society, one of the world’s most significant scientific bodies, was a gift. The report, titled Climate Change: A Summary of the Science, encapsulates the "current evidence on climate change and its drivers, highlighting the areas where the science is well established, where there is still some debate, and where substantial uncertainties remain".

The various positions that exist around climate change provide us with important insights into both scientific research and the nature of knowledge. What we know is that scientific paradigms come and go. The point of transition between paradigms is always most controversial, however, as established interests fight to defend the status quo.

This was one of the key arguments advanced by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He argued that those who deny a new paradigm do so because their wealth, prestige and world-views are often threatened. They deny new knowledge no matter what evidence emerges until people stop listening.

So when the august members of the Royal Society acknowledged scientific uncertainty in the new paradigm of climate science, it was unsurprising that their findings were leapt upon by prominent climate deniers, both in the press and in government.

At Senate Estimates (pdf) earlier this week, Coalition Senator Ian McDonald pursued this report aggressively to promote a decrease in confidence in the very existence of climate change. As Ian Carruthers from the Department of Climate Change wearily noted in response to the Senator’s questioning, "Uncertainty equals incomplete knowledge; it does not mean that climate change is not a phenomenon."

Scientists are neither totally impartial nor perfect, but on the whole, they are a cautious lot. This caution is based on an acceptance that the universe is a complex place and that scientific knowledge established under laboratory conditions is never going to be exactly replicated in the real world. This has been learnt the hard way: from the decision to introduce cane toads in Queensland to the long term effects of nuclear fall out — challenges we must now deal with because things did not go according to plan.

The response is that scientists tend to use language carefully: words such as "uncertainty" and "probability", proliferate, as does the acceptance that there is much that remains "poorly understood". This is responsible behaviour — there are many feedback loops in nature that we do not understand or have yet to discover. Making predictions with certainty is something that is best left to the economists — who are now so discredited that getting more stuff wrong no longer matters.

So-called climate sceptics like Ian McDonald and Eric Abetz pounce on such careful language to argue that consensus on climate change is "out" — a claim that is misleading, naive and dishonest. Consensus is never in or out — there are always dissenting voices — it is just that we need to balance the weight of arguments and respond accordingly.

And so we return to the Royal Society report. It finds that there is "strong evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been caused largely by human activity" but that the "size of future temperature increases and other aspects of climate change, especially at the regional scale, are still subject to uncertainty".

For those of us following the science closely, there is nothing substantially new here — but what the report reflects is the reality that we are dealing with ecosystems that are not yet fully understood and are unlikely to ever be so. The responses of Ian Carruthers and Professor Will Steffen, the Executive Director of ANU’s Climate Change Institute during Senate Estimates this week, are illuminating in this regard.

Des Moore also wrote gleefully about the Society’s report for Quadrant Online — and he too missed this point. Moore’s articles are reminiscent of the absurd climate change denialist YouTube videos that my friends are so fond of sending me. No need for you to watch these videos; let me summarise: they either attack climate scientists for using words such as "probability" and "uncertainty", or criticise them for being too confident in their forecasts.

Like an amateur magician, Moore’s position is signposted from the beginning. When the Royal Society carefully weights its language with sentences such as, "It is not possible to determine exactly how much the Earth will warm or exactly how the climate will change in the future", Moore claims this as "devastating" evidence for "alarmist" claims that we need to act.

According to Moore, the appearance of the report provides ample evidence that scientific consensus on climate has collapsed and that we need to postpone any action. "Where to now?", he asks — and answers by proposing a debate on whether pricing carbon is necessary — rather than a debate about the appropriate price of carbon.

How to respond to this kind of thinking? Let’s try an analogy. If someone puts on a blindfold and runs across Parramatta Road, there is "strong evidence" they will get hit by an agitated Sydney driver — but there does remain a degree of "uncertainty" as to the extent of the likely injuries. This will depend on variables like the speed and size of the vehicle, and the angle of the collision.

This uncertainty should not be used as evidence that running across Parramatta Road is OK until more data emerges. Rather, as the Royal Society states, we need to ensure that decision makers have "access to climate science of the highest quality, and … take account of its findings in formulating appropriate responses".

Those who want action on climate change are not luddites as claimed by another Quadrant writer, Bill Muehlenberg. In contrast to those who think Australia is best served dirty by 19th century technologies, we are looking at a cleaner future: technologies that better account for the limits of the Earth’s resources, that will provide us with energy security for millennia and not just until the coal resources are exhausted.

50 years on, Des Moore and Quadrant and all the other climate sceptics who have leapt on the Royal Society’s report provide us with a textbook case for Kuhn’s work. Manipulating words such as "uncertainty" as the best evidence not to act is not advancing public debate, but insults those who work to expand scientific knowledge. In this way, Quadrant and the deniers holding public office give us a position based on superstition and ideology — not one that accounts for the Enlightenment project started some 400 years ago.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.