08 July 2008

Deniers of "the science"?

Professor Ross Garnaut is the eponymous author of Australia's "me too" version for Kevin Rudd of Lord Stern's climate change review to former UK PM Tony Blair. Stern's report, like Garnaut's, describes the outcomes of a series of fiendishly complicated climate change economic models that his army of bureaucrats ran through some impressively powerful processors a couple of years back. The point of all this expensive highly credentialed taxpayer funded prognostication by the Stern and Garnaut boffins, seems to be to try to demonstrate to we rubes that, although the cost of slowing our economic growth by taxing carbon emissions is huge, these computer models projecting planetary climate change when combined with models of a nation's economy over the coming decades, show us that the economic cost of climate change if we don't eliminate growth in CO2 emissions, is even greater than the cost of their proposed solution. So lets pay the price now for a pay off later.

This is a spectacularly brave hypothesis and a difficult sell. Governments in developed countries have somehow convinced themselves they need to sell this astonishingly ambitious proposition to taxpayers and voters. This is being done so that these developed countries can then in turn morally leverage developing countries (whose carbon emissions are growing fastest) to follow the developed countries lead, and voluntarily raise the cost of their economic growth by restricting carbon emissions. Only then is there a chance that these carbon emission reducing schemes can have a remote prospect of success in even slowing the rate at which the globe is warming. We need the developing nations to participate otherwise the scheme cannot be sufficiently global in operation to actually reduce global CO2 emissions. And because the developing nations are developing they are fast developing into the biggest contributors to the planet's CO2 emissions. If we only succeed in agreeing to reduce carbon emissions in developed countries, who contribute a declining proportion of the world's CO2 emissions each year, and let the developing nations continue emitting unabated, then these hugely interventionist schemes will have no material effect on our planet's climate at all. It doesn't look like a very rational position to believe that India, for one, is going to buy the developed nations' bill of goods on this. India has recently published its own version of the Garnaut and Stern reports, and it seems to take a quite different position on this from the one proposed by the Professor and the Lord.

It is clearly essential to the assertion of this amazing multi-layered centrally co-ordinated global effort to reduce human production of an essential life-cycle gas, that the hypothesis that CO2 build up is causing the planet to warm, is unquestioningly accepted by participants. If there was any doubt about this scientifically, why would anyone buy into a project to build a grandiose edifice to King Canute? And then, to make it even harder for the really smart types who have set themselves the task of persuading us to do all this, they also have to convince us that a warming planet is a bad thing, ie not a "good thing" (though this has proved easier than anticipated since, perversely, it seems people really love scary stories).

So right on cue, after tabling his "Draft" report last week (which is the update of his March "Preliminary" report and the precursor to his promised "Final" report in September), the Professor confirmed the pre-emptive imperative of such a scheme, by eliciting some gleeful media attention by labelling the unpopular New South Wales Treasurer, Michael Costa, "a well known denier of the science" for questioning the economic sense of the Professor's proposal.

So just what is this thing he calls "the science"? From the introduction to his Draft report it seems he is referring to these computer models of the climate effects of a continued and accelerating build up in CO2 in the atmosphere. These computer models have emerged as great tools for scientists to test complex hypotheses. Economists have been inflicting modelling outcomes on the public for ages and many of us have learnt to treat them with with a little scepticism after watching the annual budget forecasts get continually recast as the actual historical data comes in. We have learnt from experience that tiny tweaks to small variables in these models can make massive differences to the outcomes they project. But now that proper university trained real scientists have models too, and scientists only deal in facts, surely their models will be accurate. It seems you can create devilishly complicated scenarios with thousands of constantly changing variable bits and moving constants to represent a planet's climate, that no human mind could possibly unravel unaided, and yet still produce a precise outcome (42). Even just to enter the data to run one of these economic models of a climate model, you've got to be pretty damn smart, let alone to actually create a model. In fact it seems you're only equipped to run a model if you've had lots of practice with models, and have received high marks for doing models from modellers. This appears to be "the science" that the Professor says the NSW Treasurer is "denying".

It is a bit disconcerting therefore that one of the early things you learn from reading the Professor's "Draft" report is that one of the two main causes of all this excess CO2 in Australia is the poverty busting prosperity that Australia has undergone since Professor Garnaut's farsighted reforms of the Australian economy in the mid to late 1980s. Why is it that there is no mention here of the economic growth and CO2 emission increases that occurred from 1945 to 1975, during the post-war economic boom? Surely if couldn't be the inconvenient truth that global temperatures cooled dramatically in this time frame. To ignore this would be so unscientific for someone who is so in favour of "the science" as Professor Garnaut, that this is scarcely conceivable, unless ... could there be a tinge of hubris here?

You get a vague feeling of unseemliness when you read the Professor's introduction to this "Draft" report, because he does seem to be overtly preening himself whilst discussing Australia's economic performance after 1985. And he is amazingly precise about this too. He attributes exactly half of Australia's contribution to current global CO2 increases, to Australia's good economic performance during this period from late 1980s to the present. This also happens to co-incide with the period following his time as economic adviser to the Hawke and Keating Australian federal governments, when they introduced some pro-market reforms that eventually paid their prosperity dividends to the country.

This is the guy that they want us to trust with engineering the biggest and most complicated piece of centrally planned income redistribution in Australia's history. I confess to feeling slightly uncomfortable about whether he has the character to fairly and dispassionately juggle and make meaningful decisions in the chaos of projections, models, adjustments and tax distortions that he is prescribing for us all, when he takes the opportunity whilst introducing his "Draft" report to slyly buff up his own CV, without telling us. In the process of course he conveniently sweeps under the carpet some of the most troubling contemporary evidence that increased carbon emissions do not increase global temperatures: the fact that global temperature decreased from 1945 to 1975, during the post-war economic boom.

Let's see if we can effectively apply the "Truth bests Justice, Justice bests Freedom, Freedom bests Truth", threalmic process to this vexed climate change issue. There are many confusing and contradictory currents, eddies and whirls in this complicated farrago, so it should lend itself to the process.

Prof Garnaut would say, in fact seems to actually say, that the justice of trying to ensure that future generations do not suffer catastrophic effects from preventable climate change, override our freedom to trade in markets and buy and sell goods and services without undue government intervention, because such profound justice considerations override our desire for freedom to make our own choices.

Others would argue that whether or not such massive proposed intervention is justified depends on whether the proposition that it will achieve what it is setting out to do, abate global warming, is truthful enough to warrant such encroachments. After all, in the Professor's own analysis, the scale of the proposed intervention will impair wealth creation and poverty alleviation by preventing free markets setting resource allocation price signals without distortions. For this to be justified on moral grounds the CO2 link with catastrophic global warming damn well better be true. And even this sets to one side the even more troubling issue, that even if it is true, what possible effect can unilateral action by Australia ,which contributes about 1.5% of world CO2 emissions, have on global climate.

My sense of it is that our scientific understanding of the causative link between CO2 build up and global temperature increase has not been sufficiently established, yet. Most of what the Professor seems to call "the science" in this debate are the modelled projections based on hypotheses that assume a causal link and that its decree of effect on temperature has already been established. My reading of the available and comprehensible science (I just can't seem to get "radiative forcing") on the causation issue (not the modelling) is that the scientific jury remains out on the precise scope and size of CO2 effects on the planet's climate. It seems likely that CO2 has some role to play, but the more recent temperature and emission data of the last 10 years suggests that even with the massive increases in CO2 emissions from the runaway China and India boom, there has been negligible if any increase in global temperature in the same period (the believers say the real temperature effect is currently masked by a La Nina oscillation in the currents of the world's oceans). But the absence of a dramatic temperature increase to correspond with the dramatic build up of CO2 during the last 10 years, does at least suggest that the co-relation might not be linear, and could be something closer to logarithmic, ie increases in CO2 have less and less temperature effects as they build up beyond a certain threshold. In which case any temperature effects from further CO2 build up are likely to be substantially less than the IPPC projections currently suggest. There is considerable scientific literature in both physics and natural science observation to suggest this proposition is being taken seriously by climate scientists. And we are learning quite a lot with all this scrutiny of the climate, in particular that our climate processes might be more robust and complicated than any of the climate models have previously considered.

So, if the truth does best the justice of the Professor's climate abatement proposition, then the proposition looks shaky. There is also some troubling data for greenhouse believers suggesting that there has been little or no increase in the measured temperature in the troposphere over the last 20 years. These troposphere temperature observations seem to directly contradict the greenhouse hypothesis, which predicts a faster warming in the troposphere than at the earth's surface. Maybe the data or the hypothesis prediction is wrong, but either way this anomaly should give open minded thinkers pause before becoming definitive about this.

And even if the truth of the assertions of anthropogenic global warming were not so impaired then, we would still be free to try to refute these assertions with evidence and be able to conjecture alternative hypothesis that better fit the observed climate changes. Freedom bests the assertion that a version of the truth here is the only one.

So it seems everyone can potentially make use of this handy mechanism to make a convincing case for their preferred position. One simply changes the emphasis or the positioning of a proposition from its truth to its justice to its liberation, depending on what opposition or blockages are anticipated or emerge. And, here's the good bit, you can still continue to believe in your own bullshit, even whilst knowing that you are just adopting a process, because whichever posture you adopt it can be legitimately systemically defended, whilst also remaining open to systemic attack.


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