Getting back to scienceAustralia
Australian climate change scientists do not need much reminding, but if they were looking for evidence yesterday on how difficult the climate change debate has become, they did not have to look far.
Three years ago, the federal election campaign was heavily influenced by the issue of climate change and what political parties would do about it. They all agreed they should do something and committed to a carbon price.
Yesterday, in the ALP’s official campaign launch, in a half hour speech, the current Prime Minister Julia Gillard did not breathe a word about it.
Meanwhile, across the Tasman in New Zealand, which now has a carbon price, a group of climate sceptics, the Climate Science Coalition, asked the High Court to “set aside” the data used by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research to calculate climate change.
Scientists in New Zealand dismissed the action as a “nonsense designed to attract publicity and spread fear, uncertainty and doubt”. But that is exactly the problem the scientific community is facing: such actions are succeeding in doing what they are designed to do, to spread doubt.
Scientists are frustrated. Professor Andy Pitman of the UNSW told a climate change and business conference in Sydney last week that to say that the earth is warming is as scientifically complex as saying that if jump off edge of cliff, you will be subject to gravity.
Clearly, not everyone accepts that. If they did, we would already have a price on carbon and clear policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. But enough doubt has been sown to make this issue 'politically difficult' – Tony Abbott said yesterday he thought there was a “credible scientific counterpoint" to the work of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change – and scientists are recognising that they may be at least partly to blame.
The Australian Academy of Science has brought together leading climate change scientists and compiled a new document, released yesterday, that it hopes will better inform the broader community about the science that underpins the debate around climate change.
“There is a sense of frustration,” says Kurt Lambeck, the immediate past president of the academy. “This was a very important issue that was getting a lot of debate and consensus was being reached. Somewhere along the line, the debate started to fall apart.” He said the complexity of the science, and its uncertainties, particularly in predictive models, meant that it was difficult for many in the community to understand. Hence, the new document.
The document, titled “Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers,” is based around four principal lines of evidence – physical principles that say that greenhouse gases trap heat and keep the planet warmer than it would otherwise be; the record of the distant past, which shows that climate can be sensitive to small external influences; measurements from the recent past, which show that the earth is warming and that this is leading to other environmental changes; and climate models, which say that unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, and concentrations stablised, warming will continue.
The paper seeks to address seven questions: What is climate change? How has the earth's climate changed in the distant past? And the recent, past? Are human activities causing climate change? And if so, how it will evolve in the future? What will the consequences be? And how do we deal with the uncertainty?
Which makes it a significant document, and one that might not be easily distilled in newspaper headlines or radio and TV grabs, where a simple “no, it’s not” seems sufficient to challenge the contention that “yes, it is.”
“What is being attempted is probably one of the most complex challenges that the scientific community has ever faced and potentially one of the most important,” says Lambeck.
“There will be debate in scientific community on the science, mistakes will be made and they will be corrected. This is part of the process. The challenge for observors and reporters is to draw distinction between the genuine, and smokescreens by those who have little understanding of the science.”
Lambeck says the scientists had considered a large document, but were conscious of the need to make it accessible. He describes it as a “trustworthy reference book that is not too arduous too read.”
But not quite soon enough – or perhaps even simple enough – to push for inclusion in the re-election campaign of a fearful government. Just in time, perhaps, for the citizens assembly, when the ability of scientists to communicate their message in a series of sound-bites for the popular media, and deal with the naysayers, will test the limits of their patience once again.
This article first appeared on Climate Spectator on August 17.
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