Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
White-coated warriors take our breath away
The climate debate, like the planet, is warming. As climate concern moves in from fringe to orthodoxy, the sceptical rump amps it up. And although debate ought to be a good thing, the result in this case is confusion and a potentially dangerous paralysis, largely because each side, while claiming deep science, is wrapped and possibly driven by emotion and belief.
Emotion is reasonable. After all, the future of civilisation could be at stake. Possibly even the species, or the planet itself. (Note that definite article; not just any old species or planet. The species, the planet; ours.) Indeed, anyone who doesn't feel some kind of trepidation at this point must surely have rocks in her head. Further, we're affective animals. E-motion is what moves us to action; intellect is just there for explaining it to the neighbours.
So emote away. Be my guest. But belief? Surely we can arrive at some sort of, as it were, truth about climate change? I mean argue about how to respond, sure. Argue the policy and ethics and economics all you like. But surely there are some basic facts? Isn't that the whole point of science, to provide, like, knowledge?
This is the accepted view, peddled by scientists and paid by the rest of us, even after three decades of postmodern relativism. As Ian Plimer, Professor of Mining Engineering at the University of Adelaide, insists in his provocative new book, Heaven And Earth: Global Warming, The Missing Science, "scientific evidence is unrelated to politics, ideology, popular paradigms, worldviews, fads, ethics, morality, religion and culture". The speed of light is the speed of light. Measurable, demonstrable, period.
Well, of course. But it is Plimer's belief, and to a large extent ours, that climate change is also an item of this kind. Yes, no, cut, dried, wham bam. So the compelling debates du jour are not between tree-huggers and mining executives. We already know what they think.
No, the life-or-death duals are between the white-coat brigade. Facts at 50 paces. Last week's face-off at The Sydney Institute pitted Ian Dunlop, engineer and former chairman of the Australian Coal Association, now a director of Australia 21, against Ray Evans, engineer and former mining executive, now secretary of the Lavoisier Group.
Evans delighted his audience by lampooning the climate movement as a religion, citing Obama's rhetoric of healing, the "priests" of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change flogging their "holy writ" reports and carbon-offsets as indulgences by which we buy our way to heaven. The carbon cult, he said, was no more real than Y2K.
Plimer, speaking a week earlier, used the same easy metaphor. Titling his talk "The Theology of Climate Change", he dismissed the global climate movement as "an urban fundamentalist atheistic religion" shaped to plug the hole left by "failed Western socialism and failed Western Christianity". It appealed, he implied, to the same wacko lefty clones hopelessly propped by belief.
This is classic modernist swashbuckling, striding fearlessly through the mass extinctions and climate catastrophes of geological time to finish with the argument from hubris; that it is "preposterous to suggest humans can change climate".
But let us hope we can, and have. If the changes we see are not anthropogenic, then we're really in trouble, since we don't have a prayer of righting them.
As to theology, it's true that climate-change has taken on a deistic tinge. Phillip Adams praised John O'Brien's recent book, Opportunities Beyond Carbon, thus: "Verily I say unto you: this is a new New Testament, containing hope of a planetary resurrection ... should be set to music and sung aloud by all policy makers."
Adams was mildly tongue-in-cheek, of course. But only mildly. Tony Blair spoke for the masses when he positioned climate change as the moral issue of our time. And what's wrong with that? Religion has always swayed behaviour by giving moral heft to certain rules of practical living from not eating shellfish to not coveting your neighbour's wife.
So religious zeal by itself is no proof of falsity, any more than of truth. Which takes us back to the science wars. Plimer cites the stomach ulcer revolution, where two Australian scientists stood against the world, and were right.
Trouble is, this endearing anecdote cuts both ways, since it simply shows science's fallibility. Facts are easy; it's causation that's hard.
And Plimer's own science has been criticised by his peers, who detail where he distorts graphs, cherry-picks facts and shapes arguments around pre-existing belief. Professor Barry Brook calls Plimer's book "a case study in how not to be objective". But Plimer sees himself confronting a global science conspiracy. So of course Brooks, a climate change professor, would say that.
This puts us-the-unwashed in an excruciating position. The decisions must eventually be ours, but what we cannot afford is to wait while the white-coaters slug it out. What to do, apart from nothing at all?
Perhaps the answer lies in the big picture. Even without climate change, there's still the filth, waste and breathtaking short-termism of a fossil fuel economy. Planet Earth is our house. Minimising, containing and recycling our excretions is simple common sense.