While on duty at the INTO COP17 exhibition booth today we received the unexpected visit of the climate sceptic Lord Monckton. He stopped because he read in the banner of the booth “National Trust” and immediately made an erroneous assumption with the words: “Thank God, I’ve found a booth that isn’t banging away about climate justice!”. Somewhat taken aback a colleague pointed to the opening words of the Victoria Declaration: “The failure to communicate the threat of climate change in terms which describe the dire implications for cultural identity, diversity and sustainability and consequential social degradation fundamentally weakens the prospects for global reform to combat climate change”. Monckton immediately retorted: “you can’t say that: what evidence do you have that there is occurring climate change, apart from natural phenomenon that has been occurring over millions of years”. With that, I entered the fray where many before me have gone. An hour and 20 minutes later, after a vigorous exchange of views we parted.
The debate between us left me reflecting on the ramifications of people like Monckton espousing the views they do with the confidence of an absolute belief in their interpretation of “facts” as they see it, driven by some sort of righteous indignation that others might question the accuracy of their statements. Our debate ranged far and wide as I queried his assertions and explored the intellectual process of choice – decisions on appropriate action – in the context of a lack of scientific unanimity. Faced with an assertion from Monckton that over the last 15 years global temperatures are cooling and that there absolutely no evidence that any anthropogenic influence on climate, I explored the concept of “evidence” explaining my own approaches as a Queen’s Counsel when inevitably faced with conflicting expert evidence in most cases in my career. We debated concepts of “balance of probability”, “beyond reasonable doubt” and the “precautionary principle”. Although I have frequently read about Monckton’s dogmatic views, today I was, to be frank, quite staggered at the extent of Monckton’s blinkered approach on all issues and when I say “all issues”, I mean it.
With our debate ranging over numerous disciplines in each of which Monckton spoke as though he was a highly qualified expert, I was compelled to inquire about his own training and qualifications. After a lengthy answer, I ascertained that he was an architect by training, which again caused me to muse about the veracity of his views expressed in a “do not challenge me” manner about many fields of science including meteorology, geological, chemistry, oceanography, biology and then in history, economics, sociology and political science. His manner of debate was that of a bully who ploughs on speaking over his opponent until he chooses to latch on to a word that triggers another diversionary tangent in the discussion. Being somewhat experienced as a QC in dealing with experts wishing to give a pre-set answer, I kept returning to key concepts and propositions as I was intrigued to understand more fully the intellectual processes which underpins Monckton’s confidence.
He was adamant that all reputable scientists who have allowed their work to be peer reviewed were in agreement with his views on the fallaciousness of anthropogenic climate change. Pointing out that statistically that assertion is clearly wrong given the very significant majority of climate scientists globally who maintain conclusions diametrically contrary to his, Monckton demanded I produce evidence of the truth of that observation again stressing that unanimously reputable scientists agreed with him. I replied that he was obviously allowing a value judgment on the scientific community to distort his analysis of evidence – he was pursuing a filtering process: in short, that any scientist who held a view contrary to his was not a “reputable” scientist and/or was not a scientist prepared to have their work peer reviewed. Thereby distorting the field of scientists considered, he arrives at the point whereby “all” reputable scientists agree with his views, simply because all others are discounted and thereby excluded from the field of those worthy of being considered.
He repeatedly asserted that all his assessments were based on empiric evidence whilst all those who asserted anthropogenic climate change erroneously relied upon modelling. He asserted good science must always be based on empiric evidence. I pointed out that in an ordered society the making decisions for the future, which quite obviously has not yet occurred, is frequently prospective based on estimates, modelling, analysis of “what might be” and so consequently empiric evidence as to what will occur is logically not available. Therefore, I said, there must necessarily be elements of prospective analysis in most intellectual processes focussed on the future. Simply if we wait until it happens, until we have the evidence, it may all be too late. Monckton asserted I was thereby simply avoiding empiric evidence.
Asking him to analyse the exercise of judgment on the hypothetical basis that scientific opinion was not unanimous, I then explained the application of the precautionary principle in the absence of scientific certainty. I suggested that logically and responsibly, in such circumstances the precautionary principle demanded taking cautionary measures in response to climate change (suggesting he accepts for the sake of the argument the existence of climate change), Monckton repeatedly avoided my frequent return to the logicality of the precautionary principle, saying that he utterly rejected that intervention in any form by government has ever in history succeeded. In effect, he was stating that a consequence of an application of the precautionary principle as I described it might require government intervention.
Monckton repeatedly stressed that there had never been, globally, an example of successful government intervention. I responded pointing out that in my opinion economic history was littered with examples where government intervention had proved its worth. I cited the post-war (2nd WW) economic reconstruction policies of the Australian Governments who funded the Snowy Mountain Hydro Scheme as a means of successfully kick-starting the Australian economy by building the nation’s then largest infrastructure project while simultaneously bringing to Australia 100,000s of migrants on assisted passage to stimulate economic health in a myriad of trickle-down capacities. While admitting he has not studied the SMHS, he ventured the opinion that most probably Australia would have been better off by the private sector being left alone in a free market and that the Governments most probably wasted their money. He said I could not say the SMHS benefited Australia in the absence of empiric evidence of what would have been the alternative scenario had the Scheme not been built.
Forcing Monckton’s attention back to the precautionary principle, I reflected on the legal structure of ordered societies being predicated on an acceptance that laws guard against the unacceptable happening, even if there is no absolute certainty that the unacceptable will happen. I took the simple example of road traffic laws which regulate the passage of traffic with traffic signals and regulate the speed of vehicles by enforcing speed limits, saying that in the absence of knowing whether more accidents will or will not actually occur, we choose by the exercise of the precautionary principle to take a cautious approach and regulate traffic as described. To my surprise, Monckton asserted that it would be far better if there were no traffic lights anywhere and that drivers should be allowed to exercise their own judgment as to what speed is best. He actually asserted that there were empiric studies that showed unregulated traffic was far safer resulting in fewer accidents. I responded incredulously, pointing out that in Victoria, statistical studies have proved a progressive decline in road deaths over the last couple of decades which has been directly attributed to more rigorously enforced and tougher road traffic laws. Monckton had the audacity to reject my conclusion that there must be a nexus between lesser road deaths in Victoria and tougher traffic laws, making an aside that Australians were notoriously some of the worst drivers in the world and that the lesser road deaths might be attributable to any number of factors.
Other gems from Monckton which emerged in our debate included the following.
* There is no evidence that any Pacific Island will ever be submerged by rising sea levels. He said that in fact they will progressively rise as being based on coral atolls, coral is growing and will progressively raise the islands!
* With respect to the usage of coal and petroleum oil, there will never be a shortage as there is a millennia or more of current supply and that geological processes are continually creating new coal which most probably is keeping up with human utilisation of the resource.
* Expenditure of any public funds on renewable energy was an outrage, driven purely by a manipulative process driven by self-interest and that any expenditure of such funding was a total waste as there is no point or merit in supporting such inefficient and ineffective energy production which can never be base load, so coal and gas must continue. The provision of subsidies and grants was a modern outrage and if withdrawn all such renewable projects would collapse proving the unsustainable reality of the industry,
* In response to my retort that there were many feasible base load renewable energy options, geothermal energy being a prime example, Monckton scoffed saying there was no empiric evidence that such geothermal projects will ever operate without massive subsidies and that in any event “Professor Tim Flannery had caused hundreds of millions of dollars to be sunk in to such a project in Outback Australia, that simply blew up proving the futility of the whole exercise. It’s an outrage!” Given my intimate knowledge of the geothermal energy industry in Australia, having served as chairman of Greenearth Energy Limited for three years, I was flabbergasted by this misrepresentation, not for the least reason that he associated Tim Flannery with the unnamed Australian project that blew up. I indicated to Monckton that it was apparent he was extraordinarily ill informed about renewable energy projects, especially the prospects of geothermal energy.
* There is no evidence of sea levels rising, in fact there was a frequently made misinterpretation of the common phenomena of land sinking around the world, such as through hydroscopic withdrawal of underground water along the British coast.
* There is no evidence of increased desertification globally, in fact for many decades there has been a progressive shrinking of the world’s deserts, such as is the case of the Sahara, with huge areas now becoming green with significant regrowth of vegetation occurring all around the African deserts.
Time and space does not allow me to continue with a fuller outline of my “discussion” with Monckton. Indeed, in my opinion, there is no merit in doing so, given that it is more of the same, as there is all too much reporting of Monckton’s outlandish views. Sadly the traction that Monckton has gained in the public eye due to the sycophantic approach of much of the media in the UK, Australia and the USA that irresponsibly feeds on the controversy of the man’s stance, has had an obfuscating influence on the public understanding of the reality of climate change and its impacts.