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                           Comment: 2 November 2008                           

                   Stay rational on climate change

A wave of anxiety has boosted the Greens’ presence in the Senate, on NSW local councils and now in the ACT Legislative Assembly. Heady days for them. But the prospect of more green muscle flexing is disquieting. Resort to rhetorical smears and bullying are commonplace. Terms like “climate denialism” and “climate sceptic” assume a sinister aspect. Until recently an intellectual virtue, scepticism has become a dirty word. In the field of urban planning, to name one, a stifling green doctrine looms larger than ever.

We need to regain a sense of perspective. What does “climate sceptic” mean anyway? Is it just a label to silence dissent and impose conformity?

The flip-side of scepticism is orthodoxy. Scepticism is controversial whenever there’s strong attachment to a received belief. So if there’s climate scepticism, there must be climate orthodoxy. Although climate change is a complex, multi-dimensional issue, virtually all activists, journalists and politicians seem happy to fall in behind a common position. The sources of this orthodoxy are the UN’s IPCC assessment reports, the Kyoto Protocol, the Stern Review and now, in Australia, the Garnaut Review. They have spawned volumes of derivative reports by state agencies and green lobbies around the world.

Remarkably, these reports or instruments, which cover massive detail and encompass several disciplines, are presented — and mostly accepted — as an all-or-nothing proposition. Anyone who dares to raise questions about their data, methodology or projections, no matter how limited in scope, risks being labeled a sceptic and marginalised.

To better grasp the gravity of this, let’s divide the orthodox position into four categories: “occurrence”, “cause”, “effect” and “response”.

“Occurrence” relates to whether our climate is changing at a faster pace. This is the least contentious of the four. Not just experts but most lay people claim to observe changing seasonal, landform and weather patterns. This is true despite the tendency to exaggerate the uniqueness of such developments, especially extreme weather events. In Australia, public interest in climate change was aroused by the drought. But the reality of a changing climate doesn’t suggest any particular cause.

By far the most significant category relates to this question. What is the “cause” of these changes? Indeed, before we got “climate sceptic” we had “climate denier”. In some circles “denialism” and “denier” are reserved for those who reject the orthodox position on cause — that is, greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. On the other hand, “sceptic” is sprayed about less discriminately. Some activists aren’t so fussed and use these terms interchangeably.

The orthodox position rests on a scientific ‘consensus’ in the IPCC’s assessment reports. There’s every reason for lay people to be impressed by this body of opinion. It’s logically possible, however, to respect this science, and even find it persuasive, but still consider it fallible. A sceptical frame of mind is as essential to the spirit of scientific enquiry as it is to liberal democratic politics. No hypothesis is sacrosanct in the emerging field of climate science. There are varying grades of scientific truth. Knowledge obtained from double-blind experiments, for example, is more reliable than the output of computer modelling, which holds sway in climate questions. This doesn’t mean modelling is useless; it’s just imperfect.

At the same time, it isn’t necessary to dismiss the IPCC position as worthless propaganda to entertain alternative viewpoints. And contrary to received opinion, qualified and reputable dissenters do exist.

There’s no call for heavy-handed swipes at unorthodox voices. Dissenters aren’t just wrong, say green activists, they have no right to speak at all. Phrases like “the case is closed”, “the evidence is in”, “climate change is real” are repeated to close down discussion. When “climate sceptic” is used for the same purpose, it’s simply pernicious.

Scepticism means no more than being open to the possibility that new evidence can change a hypothesis. In contrast, how do you describe attempts to shield a hypothesis from critical scrutiny? It’s called fundamentalism.

Many assume that a “climate sceptic” rejects man-made global warming. But that isn’t how the term is used by activists and the media. Deviation on any of the four categories can be enough.

The third category, “effect”, concerns the repercussions of a warming world. The IPCC‘s position is that none of the range of potential outcomes is tolerable. Stern and Garnaut say amen to that, but some experts differ. The fourth category is about the appropriate “response” to climate change. The Kyoto Protocol prescribes tough carbon emission reduction targets and measures like an emissions trading scheme. Our government is going down this route. Other ways of pricing carbon have also been advocated. And some argue there are higher priorities than climate change.

Still, dissenting from any aspect of the wide-ranging orthodoxy can see you branded a dangerous sceptic. You can be orthodox on cause, but disagree on effect, and be labeled a sceptic. You can be orthodox on cause and effect, but object to carbon pricing as a response, and be labeled a sceptic. You can be orthodox on cause, effect and response, but question “cap-and-trade” emissions trading, and be labeled a sceptic. We have arrived at the absurd point where you can be orthodox on everything, but disagree with the government’s timetable for emissions trading, and still be damned as a sceptic. Try criticising green shibboleths like light-rail and bicycle paths and you can be tarred as a sceptic for that, even if you are otherwise orthodox.

Clearly, it’s about framing debates and manipulating public opinion. “Denier”, “sceptic”: bludgeons to keep people in line and intimidate troublemakers. Shudder at the consequences. How many millions of dollars will be squandered, how many livelihoods put at risk, and how many opportunities lost, owing to fear of these reprehensible tags?

This comment was republished by On Line Opinion, Australia's e-journal of social and political debate.

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