Zealotry not in the public's interest

robert-manne-thumbProfessor Robert Manne
Email: r.manne@latrobe.edu.au

First published in Inquirer, The Weekend Australian, 25th April, 2009

Last week, The Weekend Australian published three pieces enthusiastically welcoming the publication of Ian Plimer's new anti-climate science book, Heaven and Earth - Global Warming: The Missing Science: an overwhelmingly favourable editorial, a lengthy interview with the author and a column by Christopher Pearson of gushing praise. In these three pieces not one word of criticism of Plimer was to be found.

It might have been supposed that the editors of this newspaper would wonder about the capacity for fair-mindedness of a geologist who describes the entire climate science community as "the forces of darkness"; who recently told Adelaide's The Advertiser that his book would singlehandedly "knock out" not one or several but "every argument we hear about climate change"; and who, in earlier work, had spent considerable energy trying to prove that Noah's Ark was a myth, the intellectual equivalent of a zoologist seeking to dispose of the belief that the serpent in the Garden of Eden could really have spoken to Eve.

Yet apparently, despite such obvious signs of zealotry, the editors at this newspaper experienced no doubts.

For The Weekend Australian to welcome the publication of a book as self-evidently extreme as this, on a topic of such significance, in a manner so comprehensively uncritical, raises serious questions about the responsibility of newspapers. I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to discuss them here.

On the question of human causation of climate change, the central point that Plimer challenges, there are among the scientists two broad camps.

In one camp are the tens of thousands of climate scientists in many discrete disciplines who, despite differences of emphasis and interpretation on many questions, regard it as now beyond doubt that, through the release into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, human beings have been responsible for post-industrial global warming. The work of these scientists has been summarised in four cautious reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the most recent, the IPCC argued that the evidence for human causation of climate change was unequivocal.

In the other camp are a few dozen scientists who are best described as global warming pseudo-sceptics. Most do not publish in the refereed climate science academic journals. Some have been financed by greenhouse gas-emitting industries and provided with moral support by anti-global warming lobby groups.

Many regard the work of the tens of thousands of climate change scientists as fraudulent and the IPCC as a sinister and vast international conspiracy. Plimer is a typical member of this camp.

Over climate change, citizens face an apparently acute dilemma. The question of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the Earth's future is by far the most important issue our generation faces. Yet those of us who are not trained scientists are in no position to make independent judgments on the fundamental scientific issues for ourselves.

This dilemma is relatively easy to resolve. In regard to the science of climate change, as Clive Hamilton has put it, the only decision citizens have to make is not what to believe but who. We can place our trust either in the tens of thousands of climate scientists whose work has been published in the relevant scientific journals and summarised by the IPCC, or in the few dozen pseudo-sceptics who dismiss mainstream climate science as a politically correct, rent-seeking hoax.

Precisely the same logic applies to the editors of newspapers. They are not climate scientists. It is incumbent on them, or so it seems to me, to accept that just as citizens cannot evaluate independently the scientific arguments and rationally choose to believe the conclusions of a handful of scientific pseudo-sceptics rather than those of the tens of thousands of the scientists researching and publishing in this field, nor canthey.

To avoid misunderstanding, one additional point needs, however, to be made. The consensual views of the climate scientists are our only reliable guide to the causes of global warming or what the impact of greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be. However, they cannot tell us what, given this knowledge, we must do. This is a decision that citizens must make within the framework of the democratic political process.

If the scientists are right, humanity is at present marching, with eyes wide open, towards disaster. The future of the planet now depends on whether human beings are capable of rising to the challenge of global warming.

Many industries that rely on fossil fuel emissions are working hard to safeguard their interests by convincing citizens of nations such as Australia to delay the tough decisions that must now be made.

Pseudo-sceptical scientists such as Plimer, who falsely help to convince citizens that the scientific knowledge in this field is fiercely disputed and basically unsettled, are among their most valuable assets.

It goes without saying that Plimer has every right to publish whatever it is he believes. However, for the editors of this newspaper to give books such as his the kind of enthusiastic welcome hundreds of others published in this country every year cannot dream of receiving and, even more, to treat their publication as important events, seems to me a grave intellectual, political and moral mistake.