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Why is it so difficult to answer three simple climate questions?

By Bob Carter - posted Monday, 22 June 2009


By Bob Carter, David Evans, Stewart Franks and Bill Kininmonth.

Senator Steve Fielding recently undertook a well-publicised fact-seeking trip to a climate change conference in Washington.

Listening to the papers presented, the Senator became puzzled that the scientific analyses that they provided directly contradicted the reasons that the Australian government has been giving as the justification for their emissions trading legislation.
At the Washington meeting, Fielding heard leading atmospheric physicist, Professor Dick Lindzen of MIT, describe evidence that the warming effect of carbon dioxide is much overestimated by current computer climate models, and then remark tellingly: “What we see, then, is that the very foundation of the issue of global warming is wrong. In a normal field, these results would pretty much wrap things up, but global warming/climate change has developed so much momentum that it has a life of its own - quite removed from science”. Indeed.
And another scientist, astrophysicist Dr Willie Soon from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, commented that “A ‘magical’ CO2 knob for controlling weather and climate simply does not exist”. Think about that for a moment with respect to our government’s current climate policy.

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Quite reasonably, therefore, on his return to Canberra Senator Fielding asked Climate Minister Penny Wong to answer three simple questions about the relationship between human carbon dioxide emissions and alleged dangerous global warming.

Fielding was seeking evidence, as opposed to unvalidated computer model projections, that human carbon dioxide emissions actually are driving dangerous global warming, to help him and the public at large better assess whether cutting emissions will actually be a cost-effective environmental measure.

After all, the passed-down cost to Australian taxpayers of the planned emissions trading bill is of the order of $4,000 per family per year for a carbon dioxide tax level of $30 per tonne. And the estimated “benefit” of such a large tax increase is that it may perhaps prevent an unmeasurable one-ten-thousandth of a degree of global warming from occurring. Next year? No, by 2100.

It was our privilege to have attended the meeting between Senators Wong and Fielding at which these three questions were discussed between ourselves and the Minister’s scientific advisors, Chief Scientist Penny Wong and Director of ANU climate research centre Will Steffen.

The three simple questions that were posed were:

  1. Is it the case that CO2 increased by 5 per cent since 1998 whilst global temperature cooled over the same period? If so, why did the temperature not increase; and how can human emissions be to blame for dangerous levels of warming?
     
  2. Is it the case that the rate and magnitude of warming between 1979 and 1998 (the late 20th century phase of global warming) were not unusual as compared with warmings that have occurred earlier in the Earth's history? If the warming was not unusual, why is it perceived to have been caused by human CO2 emissions; and, in any event, why is warming a problem if the Earth has experienced similar warmings in the past?
     
  3. Is it the case that all GCM computer models projected a steady increase in temperature for the period 1990-2008, whereas in fact there were only eight years of warming were followed by ten years of stasis and cooling?
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As independent scientists, we found that the Minister’s advisors were unable, indeed in some part unwilling, to answer these questions.

We were told with respect to the first question that it needed rephrasing, because it did not take account of the global thermal balance and the fact that much of the heat that drives the climate system is lodged in the ocean. Que? What is it about “carbon dioxide has increased and temperature has decreased” that the Minister’s science advisors don’t understand?

The second question  “was the late 20th century phase of warming unusual in rate or magnitude” was effectively dismissed with the comment that climatic events that occurred in the distant geological past are not relevant to policy that is concerned with contemporary climate change. Try telling that to Professor Plimer.

And regarding the third question, and the matter of the accuracy of the IPCC’s computer models, we were assured that the models are improving all the time, and that better models still are in the pipeline. So the Minister’s advisors appeared to concede that the climate models that have guided preparation of the current ETS legislation are inadequate, but don’t you worry about that because the new, better models will get it right next time.

Scientific legerdemain, and an apparent inability to discuss the important climate change issue in simple terms that the public can understand, are not adequate responses to the crisp questions that Senator Fielding posed to the Minister and has yet to receive clear answers to.

It was reported in the Business Age last July that the Ministry of Climate Change’s Green Paper on climate change, which was issued as a prelude to carbon dioxide taxation legislation, contained seven scientific errors and oversimplifications in the first sentence of its opening section.

Almost 12 months on, our experience confirms that the balance of the scientific advice Minister Wong is receiving is quite simply inadequate to justify the exorbitantly costly upheaval of our society’s energy usage that is intended to be driven by the government’s emissions trading legislation.

All Australians owe Senator Fielding a vote of thanks for having had the political courage to ask in parliament where the climate Empress’s clothes have gone. Together with the Family First Senator, and the public, we await with interest any further answers to his questions that Minister Wong’s advisors may yet provide.

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A slightly abbreviated version of this article was first published in The Australian on June 19, 2009. Geologist Bob Carter, carbon modeller David Evans, hydrologist-climatologist Stewart Franks and meteorologist-climatologist Bill Kininmonth attended the meeting between Steve Fielding, Penny Wong, Chief Scientist Penny Sackett and ANU Climate Change Institute executive director Will Steffen.



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About the Author

Professor Bob Carter is a researcher at the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University. Copies of scientific papers and other media articles by Bob Carter can be accessed through his website.

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