Carbon parochialism

One of the most effective arguments against pricing carbon in Australia is that horrible rhetorical question: how much effect will it have in isolation? Carbon price opponents think they’re onto a winner here, and their success (I think) has largely been in framing it as a national rather than a global issue.

In reality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a challenge confronting the whole world, collectively. We always knew it was going to be a hard sell, not least because each nation’s contribution cannot really do anything by itself. There does need to be some sort of international agreement. Absent international agreement, and absent action from other countries, it’s very easy to make the argument that a carbon price will not achieve anything. It won’t.

But at this point in the discussion we’ve already come off the rails, thinking like helpless pessimists, rather than constructive realists. We cannot so easily entertain hypothetical international climate inaction, because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and leads inevitably to the worst possible outcome. This is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If a nation acts in isolation, it may disadvantage itself economically, but if all nations fail to act for this reason, they will suffer far worst than if they had co-operated. We must focus on international co-operation, not on how to “win” the ensuing chaos if co-operation fails.

It’s not beyond us to figure this out. We must think beyond the immediate costs and benefits to our nation. Surely we are human beings before we are Australians. Thus, we must think of ourselves as global citizens, participating in a global debate on climate action and assessing the global costs and benefits thereof. Each investment in renewable energy or reduction in energy use benefits the whole world, not just the country in which it happens. The actual climatic effects of Australia’s carbon price will be dispersed over all seven continents and five oceans, while Australians ourselves will experience only a small part of it. Indeed, every country will experience only a small portion of the benefits of their own actions.

This is antithetical to the selfish, nationalist perspective, which would question why others should benefit from our efforts. But that’s the only way it can be – climate reality crushing the illusion of absolute national sovereignty. We cannot engineer a climate policy that is only in the national interest. We cannot employ a version of Maxwell’s Demon to stand at the border and stop the flow of greenhouse gas molecules back and forth. Climate policy can only serve the global interest, or none at all.

There are many possible analogies. Consider income tax – if each taxpayer were to measure the effect of their own tax contribution on healthcare, education, law enforcement, etc., it would be infinitesimal. Why then should anyone pay tax? Your own tax contribution in isolation hardly benefits society at all. However, there are many people to share the tax burden, and together their contribution is very noticeable. The benefits to everyone of government spending – the opportunity to live in a safe, healthy and educated society – far outweigh whatever personal benefits those few thousand tax dollars were going to have1.

If we convince ourselves that we matter more than society, or that Australia matters more that the rest of the world, we risk becoming obsessed not simply with helping ourselves, but with actively not helping others. It’s not our responsibility, we tell ourselves, forgetting in our stubbornness that we have a stake in it. Selfishness turns into angry defensiveness, which turns into isolationism, and ultimately self-betrayal. Far from being a burden, the greater good is actually in our own personal and national interest. Climate policy is not about altruistically helping others (though that is certainly no bad thing). It is about helping ourselves by helping everyone.

  1. Libertarians would insist otherwise, but I don’t think they have a great deal of evidence on their side. []

Dams might be the new controlled burns

The Queensland flood disaster continues in tragic and dramatic fashion, though Sri Lanka and Brazil have it even worse. However, there is a yet more pressing concern in some quarters. You see, this isn’t just about lost lives and property, but about the future of market economics. The real question is: how can we blame this on environmentalists?

You knew it was coming, at the back of your mind at least. After the devastating Victorian bushfires on Black Saturday last year, the media was awash with abuse. “Greenies” were held to be responsible for stopping controlled burns and preventing the clearing of bush around homes. It’s quite reasonable to debate the extent of controlled burning; it’s a complex issue. It’s not reasonable to assume either (a) that unmitigated benefits follow from controlled burning, or (b) that all environmentalists are blindly opposed to it. Of course, that’s precisely what happened, and more. It was not enough for Miranda Devine to advocate for more controlled burning. It was not even enough for her to chastise the entire green “ideology” as being wrong. This is what she had to say:

…it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.

This time, we’ll be told that environmentalists are responsible for preventing the construction of more and larger dams. Dams, dams, dams. Again, this has a passing element of truth to it – the proposed damming of the Mary River (the Traveston Crossing Dam) was delayed and then abandoned, partly due to the efforts of environmentalists concerned about the extinction or vulnerability of particular fish species. Of course, this was certainly not the only reason; some upstream communities and farmland would have been inundated, and there were also concerns about the dam’s efficiency (with respect to leakage and evaporation). The Mary River did flood in the last few days, affecting a couple of towns along its length, but this certainly was not the epicentre of the disaster, and it’s not clear to what extent the proposed dam would have helped*.

It would also be wrong to attribute the dam’s demise just to the “environmentalists”. Many local residents did not want it. Despite Tony Abbott’s new dams epiphany, the state and federal Coalition have been firmly opposed to it. Only the state Labor government backed it.

Let’s be clear that dams do have flood-mitigation capabilities, but we’re talking mitigation, not prevention. By carefully managing outflows, dams can “spread out” flood flows over longer periods of time. The same total amount of water flows downstream as normal, but at a lower rate. Sometimes this is sufficient, and sometimes it is not. If a dam is full when the flood waters hit, or becomes full, there’s no controlling the excess. Further, flash flooding might occur almost anywhere, and we’re not about to start building enormous concrete dam walls across every valley in the country. (For reference, the Traveston Dam would have costed $1.7-1.8 billion; over $100,000 for each of the 16,454 people living in Gympie. Surely we can come up with more economical flood defences.)

So, you might think that nobody could seriously entertain the notion that greenies are responsible for the flood crisis, but just you watch**. It matters not that no dam could have contained the flood waters seen by Queenslanders. It matters not that a number of dams are already there and have demonstrably failed to hold back the flood waters. What matters is that “greenies” have tried to stop dams being built, and so by reverse psychology dams must be a good thing. What matters is the inevitable slander and innuendo from small sections of the media, wherein this issue is not one to be reported so much as fought and won.

One of my favourite fruitcakes, James Delingpole, is hot off the mark with a guest post by one of his regular commenters. Delingpole tries to juxtapose the plan to dam the Mary River against the Toowoomba/Lockyer Valley flash flooding. The strong implication is that lives were lost due to attempts to save the Mary River cod. This is utter nonsense – Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, where the deaths occurred, are nowhere near the Mary River. Nevertheless, Delingpole says of his commenter “Memory Vault”:

He’s understandably upset about the Australian floods, which may have claimed more than 70 lives. But what really upsets him is that this disaster could have been prevented.

“Memory Vault” mumbles something about levees and dams, and about their not being finished, but never quite gets around to saying exactly what should have been done. His/her piece is mostly a rant against “CO2 AGW madness”, filled with strained advocacy of the “theory of the cyclical nature , ocean and atmospheric [sic]”, whatever that is supposed to be.

Thus, the fight is against climate science and its implications. It has long been predicted that increased global temperatures will lead to more extreme weather events. No single disaster can be definitively attributed to climate change, but at some point we must acknowledge that climate change has probably contributed.

It’s unfortunate, but probably unavoidable, that people will perceive each new natural disaster by itself as evidence of climate change. This is not evidence per se; evidence for climate change comes in the form of hard numbers – temperatures, sea levels, frequency of cyclones, etc. However, while this unscientific reaction unfolds, there’s an even more dubious counter-reaction determined to drown it out. Delingpole and others are utterly convinced that the environmentalist movement is the new communism; that green is the new red (hence the derogatory term “watermelon” for greenies assumed to be closet commies). It’s not strictly important whether any of that environmentalist stuff is right or not. The important thing is that the greenies cannot be allowed to appear to be right, because then their secret communist ideals will permeate the establishment by stealth.

Nobody in Australia really thinks that dams are a magic bullet, but as long as environmentalists argue against them, the anti-environmentalists will argue for them.


* Andrew Bolt points to Gavin Atkins, who points to this report on the flood mitigation effects of the Traveston Dam. Modeling shows that the dam would have reduced water levels in Gympie by 4 metres during the 1999 flood. However, this may have been cherry-picked. The actual mitigation effects in any given situation would presumably depend on various factors, including the dam level beforehand and the duration and intensity of rainfall.

** Not here though. I’ve escaped the wrath of the winged monkeys thus far, because this blog is a fairly small target.

Who is Dennis Ambler?

Continuing on (a bit) from my last post, I’m going to examine another of Dennis Ambler’s articles for the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI). This one is mostly a long rambling swipe at lots of different and very accomplished individuals, and not (as in the other case) an outright attempt to reinvent the laws of mathematics and statistics.

Here, Ambler focuses on a report written for the American National Academies, called Advancing the Science of Climate Change. He is apparently responding to an article in the Washington Post by Sherwood Boehlert, who quotes a key line from the report’s summary:

A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.

This is the official, considered position of the American National Academies, and closely resembles a Q&A document released by the Australian Academy of Science:

The Earth’s climate has changed. The global average surface temperature has increased over the last century and many other associated changes have been observed. The available evidence implies that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause. It is expected that, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at business-as-usual rates, global temperatures will further increase significantly over the coming century and beyond.

Ambler doesn’t (here, at least) address the Australian statement, or any of the other statements issued by other national science academies and other scientific organisations around the world. We’ll set that aside for now.

His point appears to be that the Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change (presumably responsible for the first quote) is stacked with advocates* of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). He goes into great detail about the nefarious activities of various board members, such as being IPCC authors, members of NGOs, members of advisory boards, having links to the United Nations and being either corporate- or government-funded. Scandalous, I know.

However, Ambler’s entire argument rests on the notion that the aforementioned organisations have already somehow been discredited. That may be true in his head, because the IPCC says all the things he doesn’t like to hear. However, there is no objective reason to think that the IPCC is not essentially fulfilling its intended function: the careful, objective assessment of the science behind climate change and its implications. His argument also relies on the assumption from the outset that the AGW consensus does not exist. If consensus is real, then it’s hard to imagine what could be wrong with having such a panel “stacked” with those who’ve poured their energies into addressing the problem.

Ambler’s other complaint is one I’ve heard repeated for other advocates of climate action – that they’re not climate scientists:

I doubt a dissenting voice on “the science” is ever heard in their deliberations. As can be seen, climate scientists are very much in the minority. It seems that a mix of economists, social scientists, engineers, NGO’s and corporations in receipt of government funding, form the main strength of these particular committees.

I doubt a dissenting voice on “the science” would ever be heard no matter how many climate scientists you added (Ambler has tried to argue against the existence of the consensus, but not too successfully.) Nevertheless, at first glance, it might seem common sense that climate change panels ought to be populated entirely by climate scientists, until you realise that climate science only identifies the existence of the problem. Climate science says nothing about the humanitarian, economic, or even environmental effects of climate change, and it certainly does not say what we might do, as a society, to prevent or mitigate them. This is not a problem with climate science – it simply reflects the cross-disciplinary nature of climate change.

Climate change denialism does not appear to recognise the distinction between all these facets. It does not accept, for instance, that someone can be qualified to talk about reducing CO2 emissions unless they can also convincingly explain the data used to establish the effects of CO2 in the first place. To an armchair “sceptic”, these two discussions belong in the same discipline. Except they don’t. There is a very good reason why the Stern and Garnaut Reviews, for instance, were written by economists rather than climate scientists. Modeling economic costs just isn’t part of climate science; the issue transcends disciplines.

In setting out to undermine all work on climate change**, climate denialists become Jacks of all trades and masters of none. They perceive the entire concept of climate change as being the domain of a single discipline (climate science), because they don’t realise the depth of analysis that underlies each part of that picture. Analysing the effects of greenhouse gases on temperature could be a life’s work, for instance. Analysing the effects of temperature increases on agricultural practices is another life’s work, as is modelling the economic costs and benefits of reducing CO2 emissions, and so on. The true experts each spend their time on a relatively small part of the problem, but paying enormous attention to detail. They rely on other experts to fill in the gaps where needed, because no single person can be an expert in everything. Meanwhile, denialists skip lazily across the entire scope of the problem and engage only in shallow commentary and nitpicking. It would be difficult to comprehend just how many different disciplines are crossed when you naïvely believe that you (and/or those you follow) possess the entire range of necessary expertise.

Thus, the many genuine scientific, humanitarian, political and economic debates regarding climate change are, in denialist circles, mashed crudely into just one big issue, adjudicated solely by climate scientists (except for all the ones who write those terrible papers about hockey stick graphs; they don’t count).

Just for fun, let’s examine the scientific credentials of some SPPI contributors, starting with Dennis Ambler himself. Ambler puts his name to 14 of the last 100 articles (at the time of writing), and thus appears to be the most prolific recent contributor to the SPPI collection. However, try as I might, I cannot find any biographical information on the man at all. Even SPPI’s own Personnel page neglects to mention him. There are no details of his history, qualifications, accomplishments, collaborations, involvements with other organisations, or even interests. “Dennis Ambler” might as well be a pseudonym for all I can tell.***

Next in line is Christopher Monckton, named as the author of 10 of the last 100 articles. Fortunately he is mentioned in the Personnel page, as being an expert on virtually everything, despite not possessing any qualifications at all on anything remotely resembling science or economics. It’s worth a read.

Then there’s Ross McKitrick, with 4 out of 100 articles. He’s an economist, which I hope doesn’t put him offside with Ambler.

The remaining articles were contributed by a slew of authors with (I presume) only a tangential relationship to SPPI itself. I won’t discuss them, except to note that the current President of the Czech Republic Václav Klaus is among them. Doubtless he too specialises in climate science. It’s all about expertise, you understand.


* It’s hard to maintain the correct wording here, since it can be a little unwieldy. Nobody advocates climate change – that’s precisely what we don’t advocate.

** Climate denialism, in aggregate form, opposes every facet of the science on climate change – virtually every finding of every paper – which would be quite a remarkable occurrence if we held it to be intellectually honest. Individuals may accept certain parts of the science to varying extents, and often claim that “nobody” seriously disputes those parts (e.g. that the Earth is currently warming), but in reality every single detail is disputed in some corner or other. (The only exceptions to this are the occasional papers written by denialist champions like Steve McIntyre.)

*** To be fair, it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that all this information is a pre-requisite for making public comments. However, I’m just a pseudo-anonymous blogger, while Dennis Ambler is backed by an “Institute”, conferring a facade of expert credibility.

Consensus Bashing

The Science and Public Policy Institute certainly does provide a lot of hilariously twisted commentary on climate change.

Two years ago (January 2009), Doran and Zimmerman (D&Z) published a paper based on Zimmerman’s masters thesis. Unsurprisingly, they found that the vast majority (97%) of climate scientists think climate change is real and human-induced. This kind of thing really, really irritates climate change denialists, and so we have Dennis Ambler from SPPI launching into a blisteringly woeful attack on the survey.

He sets the tone with this:

[The survey] was roundly de-bunked at the time by several commentators and it would have been forgotten and consigned to its proper place in the dustbin, if it hadn’t been continually
quoted by activists as fact.

If you’re going to claim that a paper has been “roundly debunked”, a little elaboration would not go astray. Some of us might just be curious about just what arguments were put forth, and you’re not giving us much to go on. Also, if we’re going to lend it such credence, I would expect some sort of expertise to be involved in this debunking, not just a vague reference to unspecified “commentators”.

He then bemoans the surveying of experts as a means of assessing scientific opinion:

This is not arcane knowledge for the select priesthood, this is science and we can read scientific papers and apply quality judgements to them, whether we be specialists or not.

No, Ambler, you really can’t. I know this for two reasons:

  1. Those who’ve genuinely tried to read and understand technical papers in a field they don’t work in will know just how much of an uphill battle it can be. There’s unfamiliar jargon, horrendous equations, often enormous amounts of assumed background knowledge, and frequently little attention paid to overall readability. These papers are written for a very narrow audience, and you can’t just plant the flag of egalitarianism and ignore all the hard work that goes into building the necessary expertise.
  2. Even if you were equipped to read and understand technical papers from any discipline, the sheer quantity of them would make the task logistically impossible. They don’t just dribble out one or two at a time every news cycle. There’s countless thousands (possibly millions) of them, and nobody (scientists included) can ever hope to read them all. That’s why we have surveys. Even researchers themselves rely on survey papers, for instance, to make sense of their own fields.

The remainder of Ambler’s article demonstrates his unique inability to “read scientific papers and apply quality judgments”. I say “unique” because D&Z’s paper is actually quite short and accessible. Given a modicum of education and common sense, there really isn’t much of an excuse for not understanding it.

We are also told that only 5% of the original sample responses were climate scientists, so if we pragmatically apply those proportions we end up with just 141 from the US, 9 from Canada and just 6 from 21 countries around the world, hardly a global consensus.

Is there some significance to the 5% figure? The survey was a broad look at the opinions of Earth scientists. Climate scientists just form an important subset of that population, and it’s hardly the fault of the authors or anyone else if the proportion happens to be 5%.

Moreover, Ambler knows he can estimate the number of respondents from each country, but he seems not to understand that the very same mathematical device is the reason you don’t need to ask everyone in the world. So long as you have a representative sample (and consulting a database of Earth scientists, as D&Z did, would seem to be perfectly acceptable), you can generalise your findings. If 97% of your sample believes X, and your sample is representative of a given group (e.g. climate scientists), then you infer that about  97% of the overall group believes X as well. This is the entire basis of surveys. If this statistical logic did not hold, surveys would not exist.

Why so few non-American climate scientists? That’s just a result of the database used by D&Z, coming as it did from the American Geological Institute. There’s no reason to think that American and non-American climate scientists are likely to have any specific, major points of professional disagreement, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

We find that they originally contacted 10,257 scientists, of whom 3,146 responded, less than a 31% response rate. “Impending Planetary Doom” was obviously not uppermost in the minds of over two thirds of their target population.

31% is a very good response rate, in my experience. I would not have raised an eyebrow if it was only 10% (except that the authors would then have been less well-equipped to draw conclusions). It’s silly to start attributing reasons for non-response, because by definition you don’t have the data. It’s certainly very silly to suggest that 7111 scientists don’t care about the issue merely because they failed to fill out a questionnaire on it. Perhaps they were too busy actually working on the problem!

Ambler does us a service by linking to D&Z’s summary paper, but he’s a bit of a cheapskate:

The paper is behind a pay wall but there is a comprehensive summary here.

It’s obvious from reading Ambler’s article that his own investigative skills cannot penetrate this “pay wall”. Despite describing the summary as “comprehensive”, he repeatedly complains about missing details. For example:

There is little detail of how many peer reviewed papers are needed to qualify as a specialist, it could by their definition be just two papers, one of which needs to be on climate change. What a poor example of scientific enquiry this survey really is.

The one-and-a-bit-page summary paper does not, of course, include all the information from the 141-page thesis. The price for an electronic copy of Zimmerman’s thesis is only $US 2, hardly a prohibitive sum. I bought a copy myself just so that I could write this post. Zimmerman provides an extensive explanation of the process of verifying whether survey respondents are, in fact, active publishers on climate science (page 16). However, this kind of nit-picking was never going to undo the rather stark results.

There were supposed to have been nine questions asked, but we are only given sight of two of them.

Again, this is what you get if you only read a summary. For those interested, the full set of nine questions consisted of four opinion-related questions and five demographic questions:
  1. When compared with pre-1800’s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
  2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
  3. What do you consider to be the most compelling argument that supports your previous answer?
  4. Please estimate the percentage of your fellow geoscientists who think human activity is a contributing factor to global climate change.
  5. Which percentage of your papers published in peer-reviewed journals in the last 5 years have been on the subject of climate change?
  6. Age
  7. Gender
  8. What is the highest level of education you have attained?
  9. Which category best describes your area of expertise?

Ambler of course takes issue with the first two questions. For question 1:

Has it got warmer since pre-1800 levels? This really depends on the time period referred to. Do they mean the Little Ice Age, when disastrously cold temperatures caused massive loss of life and untold hardship? Of course temperatures are now warmer than that desperate period in climate history. Is that what they would wish to regard as normal?

Climate denialists often have a mild obsession with two proposed fluctuations in global temperature over the last few hundred years. They explain away the current warming trend by saying that we’re merely coming out of a cold period (the Little Ice Age), and that temperatures have been warmer in the past (the Medieval Warm Period), but the evidence for either of these is rather limited. This is related to another pet denialist obsession: the “hockey stick” graph, which shows that the current warm temperatures are unprecedented over at least the last millennium. It is essential denialist lore that the hockey stick has been discredited. In reality, it has numerous independent replications.

For question 2, on whether human activity is a factor:

This is the classic closed question, in that it implies mean global temperatures are being changed and someone must be responsible.

First, respondents are not asked this question if they previously said that temperatures remained relatively constant; so no, the question does not assume temperatures are being changed. It certainly does not assume that “someone must be responsible” – I have no idea how Ambler could have read that into it.

About half-way through his article, Ambler makes his biggest departure from reality, and one that cannot be excused by lack of information. This divergence begins as follows:

Of [the 3146 respondents], only 5% described themselves as climate scientists, numbering 157. The authors reduce that by half by only counting those who they classed as “specialists”.

The authors do no such thing. They categorise their 3146 respondents by field (climatology, geology, etc.) and whether more than 50% of their recent published papers were related to climate science. In the media, the most widely-reported statistics are, appropriately enough, for actively-publishing climatologists. However, this categorisation does not omit anyone, but merely provides more detailed information.

It is disingenuous to now use the “climate scientists” as a new population sample size. The response figure of 3,146 is the figure against which the 75 out of 77 should be compared and in this case we get not 97% but just 2.38%.

Ambler appears not to notice that there are statistics on the complete set of 3146 respondents, not just the 77 who happen to be actively-publishing climate scientists. Ambler’s 2.38% is the proportion of respondents who agree that humanity has an influence on climate and who also happen to be climate specialists. If you think that climate change is real but you’re not a specialist, Ambler is counting you in the total population but not in the “yes” pile (and so by implication in the “no” pile).

That’s dishonesty if ever I’ve seen it. D&Z expressly state in their summary paper that 90% of respondents overall agreed that temperatures have risen, and 82% agreed that humanity was a factor. Ambler expressly ignores these statistics and then tries to reverse engineer them using profoundly broken mathematics.

The original number contacted was 10,157 [sic] and of those, 69% decided they didn’t want any part of it, but they were the original target population. When the figure of 75 believers is set against that number, we get a mere 0.73% of the scientists they contacted who agreed with their loaded questions.

Ambler now wants to count non-respondents in the total as well, making the unsupportable implication that they would have said “no”. This is utter nonsense and is a complete corruption of general survey methodology. You use the data you have – that’s how science works – not by making assumptions about the data you don’t have.

Ambler ends by ridiculing media reports that quite fairly echo D&Z’s findings. Apparently they’re not privy to his powers of deduction, and neither am I.

An assault on the sensibilities

It’s probably about time I had something to say on matters unrelated to the Australian political situation. Which brings me to my other, recently neglected pet blogging topic – climate change.

I came to hear of the 10:10 campaign and Richard Curtis’s “No Pressure” short film via Deltoid, The Guardian and Climate Progress. I’m not sure whether I’d recommend watching the video yourself. Suffice it to say, it’s rather more gory than you would expect of a climate change action campaign. The reaction to the film was rather negative, and 10:10 has withdrawn the video (though of course it’s still available on YouTube).

I fancy there’s something of an overreaction going on, though. Once you accept that the gore is merely an appeal to a particular dark sense of humour – which it was – the only things you can really complain about are (a) that it’s not really that funny, and (b) that other people may mis-interpret it.

First, not being funny is not an especially heinous crime. I am frequently guilty of it, I’m sure, and yet I remain a free man.

Second, the people who will mis-interpret it are precisely those who were least likely to get the message in the first place. This is what Julian Morrow termed the “secondary audience”, in his 2009 Andrew Olle Media Lecture:

The secondary audience come to access controversial content because it’s controversial. The secondary audience often tends to be the very opposite of the target audience.

Morrow went on to discuss The Chaser’s “Make a Realistic Wish” sketch, which itself caused great rumblings of discontent. That controversy parallels the “No Pressure” controversy to an extent (though you might argue that the stakes are higher in climate change). Morrow elaborates on secondary audiences:

I don’t believe there’s any convincing evidence, or even a theory, that taking steps to try and placate the secondary audience is prudent, or can be effective. I tend to think it only fuels the fire. But I recognise that’s just as hard, probably impossible, to prove too.

His point is important. We can’t (necessarily) keep worrying about what the secondary audience will think. Almost by definition, the secondary audience is reactionary and less open-minded than the primary audience. Moreover, I worry about  sentiments like that expressed at Climate Progress:

The video is beyond tasteless and should be widely condemned. … None of this excuses that disgusting video.

It’s fine to (a) be personally shocked and other assorted adjectives, and (b) suggest that the film was a tactical error. But let’s not run off the rails. At worst, the film was an honest but misguided attempt at encouraging action on climate change. To say that it’s “beyond tasteless” beckons imagery of something much worse. It was merely tasteless, not beyond tasteless. To say that it “should be widely condemned” seems to invite blind outrage, and rather ignores the fact that it did, after all, have good intentions. This feels like a comment motivated by fear of those who might retaliate against you, not an honest assessment of the situation.

And I worry that it does merely fuel the fire, as Morrow speculates. It may simply add to the film’s notoriety and advertise it’s potential as a propaganda weapon for the denialists. One needlessly apologetic or appeasing remark and you may find yourself being held up as evidence of dissent, or even on a list of people who apparently oppose the AGW scientific consensus. I realise that denialists of all stripes can and do take perfectly reasonable and innocent remarks out of context whatever happens, but let’s not provide them with the material if we can help it.

This is what they’re after, I think. I am reminded of another story that did the rounds in the US several years ago. One Professor John Daly was widely reported as having advocated that “soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors”. This was immediately held up as evidence of the evils of liberalism. I recall an Internet forum discussion in which “the left” was challenged to condemn this professor. Fine, you might say, let’s condemn him. Ah, but not so fast there. If you do a bit of background reading, you’ll discover that Daly was expressing this sentiment in a private email (and was taken somewhat out of context). It was only brought into the public sphere by people looking to generate controversy. By being part of the condemnation roll call, you wouldn’t be saving face for “the left”, but rather legitimising a manufactured issue, and also legitimising the notion of collective responsibility for the actions of an individual.

So it is with the “No Pressure” film. Surely it isn’t too hard, when/if confronted, to argue simply and truthfully that the film was targeted at a “different”, “alternative”, etc. sense of humour. We shouldn’t be required to condemn it, nor take responsibility for it. Nobody was actually hurt (I assume). Frankly, if anyone was offended at the idea of being singled out for not feeling the need to take action on climate change, that’s their problem. We’re not talking about racial or sexual discrimination, but about the common good. At some point, your beliefs do become the business of everyone else. You almost certainly won’t like it, but neither will the rest of us like the idea of pulling our weight when you aren’t (simply because you don’t want to).

I shall quote Morrow again to conclude:

If you were just offended, unlike those who’ve been hurt, I don’t believe you’re owed an apology. You can demand one. And it’s possible that some people will say sorry to you – some for noble reasons, some for cowardly ones, some just to get you to shut up.

Was it right? (part 2)

This is a counterargument to a previous post, in which I argued the case for switching from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Prime Minister Julia Gillard (or rather, why certain objections were unfounded).

Gillard’s rise to power may have restored Labor’s popularity for the time being (and certainly at a very opportune moment), but the party has done very little to actually deserve this electoral reward. I also spoke about Gillard and climate change in my last post, but here I’m going to bring Rudd back into the picture.

Gillard’s position on climate change is essentially the one that Rudd had announced in April – that nothing would happen prior to 2013. This new policy decision is largely thought to have instigated Rudd’s (and Labor’s) precipitous fall in popularity in the first place. To rule out both an ETS and a carbon tax for another three years is an act of utter recklessness, as Rudd himself had passionately argued, and is inexplicable both pragmatically and idealistically. Further, it’s an insult to our intelligence for Labor to change the unpopular leader but not the unpopular policy.

But it’s more than that. The ETS delay was not truly Rudd’s policy in the first place. It was the NSW Right faction that pushed Rudd to delay emissions trading, one of the groups that lent its support to Gillard’s subsequent coup. Rudd was hamstrung by his own party and then scapegoated for the consequences of that very mistake. An anonymous Labor factional leader gave this assessment:

This crypto-fascist made no effort to build a base in the party. Now that his only faction, Newspoll, has deserted him he is gone.

This gives some strong hints as to the extent of Rudd’s unpopularity within his own party, but it’s hard to argue that this in itself justifies the demise of a sitting Prime Minister. Labor’s internal party politics are certainly no substitute for the will of the people, and Rudd’s poor showing in opinion polls is hardly unusual for a first-term PM, nor was it even necessarily of his own making. In his press conference on June 23 (on the eve of his dispatch) he gave a glimpse of his views, and foreshadowed Gillard’s policy positions:

If I am returned as the leader of the party and the government and as Prime Minister, then I will be very clear about one thing. This party and government will not be lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers, as some have counselled us to do. Also, on the question of climate change, we’ll be moving to a timetable on emissions trading, which is of the government’s decision, contrary to the views of some, in terms of when that best occurs.

Contrast the last sentence against Gillard’s “citizens’ assembly” idea. Rudd seems to be preemptively attacking Gillard’s appeal to populism, and so this meme must have been floating around in the party for a while. (I don’t even see what political advantage a “citizens’ assembly” could really convey. It won’t legitimise anything. It may involve “ordinary Australians”, but most ordinary Australians will be quite distant from it. The Opposition, not being constrained by reason or evidence, can paint it and its outcomes however they like.)

Gillard’s other major policy initiative that clearly distinguishes her from Rudd – offshore refugee processing (also alluded to in the above quote) – was very poorly handled. It was clearly designed to neutralise the Liberals’ xenophobic ramblings over boat people, but it sounds awfully like giving in to them. The other problem is that the policy relies entirely on international co-operation that had scarcely even been sought. It’s not clear that this co-operation will ever be forthcoming (except from Nauru, which would probably be too humiliating to consider, since it would nail John Howard’s colours to Labor’s mast), leaving this policy in limbo and playing right into the “failed-policy” mantra of the Liberals. Rudd, the diplomat, clearly wouldn’t have made such a fool of himself.

From one point of view, Gillard is an important symbol. Hopefully she can inspire future generations of women to fight their way to the top. Her rise to power may also have helped legitimise non-belief. (By contrast, it seems almost inconceivable that a US politician could openly admit to being a non-believer. Look what happens when one shows signs of doubting the complete literal truth of the Bible.) Neither Rudd nor Abbott, through no fault of their own, can be such a symbol.

Like most senior politicians, I’m sure Gillard does ultimately have what it takes to run the country. Even Abbott does, I’ll concede – it’s not as though we’re dealing with an Aussie version of Sarah Palin, after all. However, unlike Rudd, neither seem to have much vision – much sense of how the country could be made better. Gillard and Abbott play politics like chess, where the only objective is victory over the other; victory for its own sake.

Neither do they seem to have quite the expertise that Rudd possesses. Australia needs a delicate approach to foreign affairs; balancing our interests – and humanitarian interests – with the pragmatic realities of international relations. We probably owe much of our prosperity and security to good relations and carefully-negotiated agreements with other countries. I still trust Labor to handle this better than the Liberal party (mostly because a large part of the Coalition’s support these days comes from that section of the community that doesn’t understand why other countries even need to exist). However, Rudd was surely the better choice.

Whoever does win the election will have to work hard to prove retrospectively that they deserved it.

I vote for a hung parliament

How did it come to this? The Greens, supposedly a party of the “far left” (whatever that means), are now the flag bearers for a market-based policy – carbon emissions trading.

Rudd along with three successive opponents – Howard, Nelson and Turnbull — all pledged to introduce or support an ETS. Now the Labor Party has well and truly capitulated. What crumbs Gillard has to offer in lieu of a price on carbon look as bizarre and pitiful as those sprinkled before us by Abbott. Crikey has a good summary of the situation.

The most positive thing you can say about Gillard’s position is that it’s sufficiently ambiguous to allow some sort of action in the future. That’s what we’re left with, just six months after both major parties successfully concluded negotiations to pass ETS legislation. I can only gape in astonishment at the magnitude of the bipartisan failure of leadership having occurred in the intervening time. Gillard has just propelled this failure to new hitherto unknown depths of farce by abdicating responsibility to, quite literally, a random assortment of laypeople.

On the merits of its policies (climate change, asylum seekers and Internet filtering), the Labor Party frankly deserves to lose this election, and lose it badly. So, of course, do the Liberals, for many of the same reasons. I’m still of the mind that the Liberals deserve to lose slightly more, mainly because I’d prefer Labor’s incompetence over the Liberals’ incompetence and poorly-disguised ideological mindset, but it’s a close call.

The most positive election result I can imagine now is a hung parliament, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the House of Representatives (presumably as well as in the Senate). I don’t care to guess how likely this is, considering the Greens have never won a single seat in the House of Reps before. However, I expect they’ll be the beneficiaries of an electoral backlash. They deserve to do very well indeed, in my opinion, simply by holding to a broad policy that used to enjoy bipartisan support — the only climate change policy that even really deserves to be labeled as such. The prospect of a forced coalition with the Greens would surely help drag at least one of the major parties back to the negotiation table.

Gods, where’s Malcolm Turnbull when you need him? This is turning out to be a stinker of an election.

The ABC of climate change denial

The ABC chairman Maurice Newman’s thoughts on the reporting of climate change are, I think, symptomatic of the damage that denialism has inflicted. He was interviewed on Wednesday, and appears more than a little ignorant of the state our of climate knowledge, and even a little naïve regarding scientific processes.

Newman says:

My view on any of these topics is to keep an open mind and I still have an open mind on climate change, I have an open mind on a whole range of issues because I think that to have a closed mind leaves you in a position where if you take a strong stance you are likely to be wrong-footed.

And I’ve just made the point that I’ve been around long enough to know that consensus and conventional wisdom doesn’t always serve you well and that unless you leave some room for an alternative point of view you are likely to go down a wrong track.

This is all fine and good as far as platitudes go, and presenting alternative points of view is all very democratic. One can never be completely certain about scientific outcomes, after all.

However, there is a line, somewhere, beyond which we must accept that an assertion (e.g. that we are changing the climate) is sufficiently well-supported to be considered true, and that alternative view points (however well meaning) are so implausible as to be wrong. The truth is not absolute, but neither is it a matter of opinion, and providing “balance” in such situations is grossly misleading.

Newman’s mistake, perhaps, is in assuming that a consensus among scientists is just like a consensus among any other demographic. This rather misses the point of science. Scientists have fought long and hard  – certainly, a lot harder than anyone else – to understand the truth. Science does not just systematically invent evidence and stories to support pre-determined conclusions, as so often happens with political interest groups. Science exists so that we can have at least some people who don’t do this, so that the whole world isn’t just a fantasy land where the laws of physics can be amended by popular vote. Observers of politics may have difficulty swallowing the idea that anyone cares about the actual, real truth, because in politics it’s such an alien concept. This is really a terribly cynical and blinkered view point.

I think that there are points of view supporting what you’ve just said, there are other points of view which will discount that and they come from also eminent positions; these are not cranks. Many of the people who have a different point of view on the climate science are respectable and credentialed scientists themselves.

So as I said, I’m not a scientist and I’m like anybody else in the public I have to listen to all points of view and then make judgements when we’re asked to vote on particular policies.

Here Newman betrays something of an unwillingness to properly investigate the issue. Most of the people who have a different point of view on climate science are most certainly not eminent scientists. Most of them are bloggers (like me). And yes, there are cranks – Lord Christopher Monckton being a particularly spectacular example. Some scientists do fall into the dissenters’ camp, but most of them are not involved in climate science.

It’s interesting to note that, while denialist opinion is usually contrasted against the views of the IPCC, the IPCC’s reports themselves are based on the broad spectrum of views permeating the scientific community. If you’re after some sort of balance, you would do well to remember that alternate views have already been factored in by the IPCC. The only real debate is over the magnitude of climate change and its effects. Those who argue that it isn’t happening, or that we aren’t responsible, or that we can’t change anything, tend to be very light on relevant scientific credentials.

I am an agnostic and I have always been an agnostic and I will remain and agnostic until I’ve found compelling evidence on one side or the other that will move me. I think that what seems fairly clear to me is that the climate science is still being developed. There are a lot question marks about some of the fundamental data which has been used to build models that requires caution.

There are not a “lot of question marks” over this data. There’s simply a lot of hot air coming out of those who read and believe the things that Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts write. Newman has apparently bought into this sort of disinformation.

It’s highly unlikely that he would even recognise “compelling evidence” if it were presented to him. And why would he expect to, after all? What would he, as a layperson, accept as “compelling evidence” that anthropogenic climate change is real? Does Newman need to personally assess the evidence for other scientific theories as well? What would he accept as compelling evidence that quantum theory accurately describes the universe? What would convince him that a newly-discovered hundred-thousand-year-old skeleton represents a previously-unknown species of human? There is expertise involved in making such judgments. Laypeople like Newman, or indeed myself, cannot presume to be equals in this respect.

In other words, the reason Newman hasn’t seen any compelling evidence is that, in all probability, he doesn’t know what he’s looking for.

This is the subtle, deranged beauty of climate science denialism. Everyone is an expert! It doesn’t matter whether the denialists themselves win over any actual supporters. What matters is that they bring the credibility of science down to the level of punditry, in the eyes of their audience. The denialists succeed by creating agnostics who feel they are above the fray, who don’t even bother to distinguish between scientists and bloggers. I wouldn’t hold this against most laypeople, but for those who should know better, this is outright intellectual laziness disguised as a form of neutrality. Surely the chairman of the ABC has a duty to be better informed.

Climate reporting – compare and contrast

There’s a subtle difference here that I can’t quite put my finger on.

An article in The Register (by Lewis Page):

Agricultural brainboxes at Stanford University say that global warming isn’t likely to seriously affect poor people in developing nations, who make up so much of the human race. Under some scenarios, poor farmers “could be lifted out of poverty quite considerably,” according to new research.

The Stanford University report on which it was (purportedly) based:

The impact of global warming on food prices and hunger could be large over the next 20 years, according to a new Stanford University study. Researchers say that higher temperatures could significantly reduce yields of wheat, rice and maize – dietary staples for tens of millions of poor people who subsist on less than $1 a day. The resulting crop shortages would likely cause food prices to rise and drive many into poverty.

But even as some people are hurt, others would be helped out of poverty, says Stanford agricultural scientist David Lobell.

(My emphasis.)

The Register’s article is a transparent and spectacular case of selective reading. The Stanford report briefly discusses a complex set of effects, some of which are actually positive. The rose-tinted spectacles at The Register apparently have a problem seeing the opening paragraph, and instead treat the report as though it were some sort of vindication of climate inaction.

Climate researchers really can’t win in the face of such wilful distortion. If their research shows that the effects are all negative, they are portrayed as “alarmists”. If their research shows some mitigating factors, then these will be trumpeted as proof that climate change is a “scare”.

The title and subtitle of The Register’s article hint at the underlying attitude:

Global warming worst case = Only slight misery increase

The peasants aren’t revolting – they’ve never had it so good

The world’s poor have “never had it so good”, eh? I’m glad to see such overflowing concern for the less fortunate.