I wish, oh, I wish I was a climate skeptic
The combination of a record heatwave and the hundred plus fires that are currently burning across Australia has seen the issue of “climate change” once again become hotly debated.
How else do you explain this? Photo: Drew Fitzgibbon
Dr James Arvanitakis -
Those who think that we are experiencing human-induced climate change, including the majority of the world’s scientists, are now pointing the various events around us and saying, “this is what climate change looks like!” The many who refuse to accept the evidence, from your average ‘Jane and Joe’ to the various sceptic groups, point to some statistic or point to some extreme event that has failed to eventuate and argue that the ‘science is still out’.
So what is the evidence for each side?
As a cultural theorist and someone whose PhD was focused on the history and philosophy of science, I have long been fascinated with the way that debates about climate change have often divided the Australian community.
In my research at the University of Western Sydney, I have analysed the evidence for climate change. In 2010, the British Royal Society, one of the world’s most significant scientific bodies, released a report titled Climate Change: A Summary of the Science, that looked at 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 report attempted to look at the various positions that exist around climate change. Not only did it weigh up the evidence, but it also provides us with important insights into both scientific research and the nature of knowledge.
On the evidence before it, the Royal Society stated that there remains some uncertainly about climate science. But at the same time, it also makes the point clearly that uncertainly means the evidence is incomplete rather than that the phenomenon is not happening. As scientists tend to be a conservative bunch, they tend to use words like ‘uncertainty’ and ‘probability’, and like to set caveats pointing out when something 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 — they have got so many things wrong that what they say no longer matters.
On the evidence, Stephan Lewandowsky, a Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia, recently elaborated on the process of scientific peer review, explaining how it works to exert quality control and to retrospectively self-correct earlier errors: though not a perfect process, it attempts to hold research to account by making it anonymous before it is reviewed.
Lewandowsk also looked at the number of peer-reviewed articles published by scientists at the UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre that support arguments against anthropogenic global warming since 2007. The results? Zero to the sceptics — out of 110 peer-reviewed articles on climate change.
So what has been the response of climate sceptics? Over the last few months I have been analysing the various prominent sceptic websites and articles and here is a summary of their positions
1.The first is that all scientific research is fraud: sceptics questions every step and assumption, looking for weaknesses and uncertainties, and seeing this as fraudulent rather than accepting that this is the nature of scientific research into complex systems;
2. All academics are on a gravy train – unlike the mining magnates who are assumed to be unbiased: this is an accusation that is continuously repeated about everyone from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to Tim Flannery (and me). The argument is that we are only in it to access government research funds;
3. We humans cannot possibly impact the climate – its too big: They fail to accept that we already have had an impact on the oceans, arable land, deserts and forests.
4. Various high profile sceptics like Alan Jones understand science and research better than the scientific community: while the scientists put caveats of uncertainty around complex models, the confidence in which such sceptics refute the research seems to confirm their superiority; and
5. The process of peer review is a crock while industry-funded research seems reliable and credible: While I agree that the procedure of blind peer-review has many limitations and frustrations, it is one that attempts to limit bias and open up everyone to criticisms by their peers. Industry-funded research rarely has that luxury.
In a recent twitter exchange, a climate change sceptic accused me of fraudulently creating anxiety and fear amongst my students.
The thing is, I want the science to be wrong and look for every bit of evidence to deny climate change. That way we can all get along with the things we love doing without any considerations for the consequences.
But at some point, the evidence, while not perfect, is no longer deniable – and action has to be taken before it is too late.
Dr James Arvanitakis is a lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Western Sydney and is a member of the University’s Institute for Culture and Society. A former banker, James has worked as a human rights activist throughout the Pacific, Indonesia and Europe. He is currently working with the Whitlam Institute looking at issues confronting Australia’s democracy.
James researches a broad range of areas including hope, trust, globalisation and political theatre. His latest book, Contemporary Society: A sociological analysis of everyday life, is an Australian sociology textbook and was launched in February 2009, which has given rise to a weekly radio spot on FBI Radio in Sydney (94.5 fm).
James has worked extensively with a number of non-government organizations, including Oxfam Australia and Aid/Watch, and is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Development. He blogs at JamesArvanitakis.net.