CLIMATE SPECTATOR: Gottliebsen's misinformed carbon revolt

Highly influential business people are trying to dismiss human-induced global warming as a theory. Unfortunately, their judgement is clouded by a fear of the Greens.

Climate Spectator

Robert Gottliebsen yesterday wrote an article that is incredibly concerning for those worried about dangerous climate change.

In the article Gottliebsen outlines how a range of highly influential Australian business people are working to galvanise business community opposition to the introduction of a price on carbon pollution. According to Gottliebsen, concerns about the carbon price’s economic impacts are causing business people to question the underlying rationale for why we should limit carbon emissions – that these could cause dangerous global warming.

This is not a new phenomenon. A regard for short-term self interest is an incredibly powerful motive that can cause people to hear what they want to hear, and see what they want to see. Back in the early 1900s in trying to reform dangerous working conditions in America, Upton Sinclair observed:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

That these Australian business people are trying to dismiss human-induced global warming as "a carbon theory” recalls a range of battles involving new ideas that were inconvenient to the established order.

This stretches back to the very beginning of science as a discipline. Back in the 1600s the Catholic Church attempted to quash arguments that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system. Back then the idea that the earth might spin around on its axis as it slowly moved around the sun seemed crazy. Nicolaus Copernicus’ mathematical calculations and astronomical observations were dismissed as speculative nonsense versus what we observed with our own eyes.

Today it seems incredibly odd that the Catholic Church felt the need to torture and even execute those that suggested the earth rotated around the sun. After all, what did it have to do with anything Jesus talked about in the bible? But a range of powerful people in the Church had staked their entire lives and reputations on documenting and teaching an explanation for the movement of the stars and planets where the Earth was at the centre.

Notably, Evolution and the idea that cigarettes cause cancer were dismissed as ‘just a theory’ by those who found these ideas inconvenient. At the time these explanations were proposed, they seemed to represent leaps of logic that were too incredible to be true. Yet through piecing together assorted disparate pieces of evidence, we have assembled a picture that strongly supports these theories.

Ian Plimer, a prominent critic of global warming whom Gottliebsen talks of highly, understands this concept very well. Plimer went out of his way to expose Noah’s Ark as a myth and take on religious people’s efforts to dismiss evolution as ‘just a theory’.

Plimer is certainly correct when he says the earth’s climate has changed a huge amount in the past. Anyone with a reasonable understanding of the earth’s geological history knows this is true. But it doesn’t represent any kind of refutation of the underlying basis for global warming – that humans will increase global temperatures by releasing gases that impede infrared radiation passing into space. In fact study of past changes in the climate provides much of the evidence to support this theory. Also study of how climate has changed in the past provides serious cause for alarm about what happens when the planet experiences rapid increases in temperature – mass extinctions.

Plimer most certainly knows this. When you raise his name with academic staff from Plimer’s old stomping ground at Melbourne University, many shake their head and sigh like a mother in regret over a wayward son. All believe Plimer was a very good geologist. But they are deeply troubled by his pursuit of arguments that are known to be false or, at best, dangerously stretching the truth. For example, they are disdainful of his assertion that volcanic eruptions release more carbon dioxide (CO2) than human activity. The United States Geological Survey has calculated that human emissions of CO2 are about 130 times larger than volcanic emissions, including submarine volcanic emissions.

From what I can gather Plimer is motivated by deep-seated concerns about the influence of some sections of the environmental movement that pursue an anti-technology, almost irrational crusade. Some of these people swear off vaccinations, nuclear power, fluoride in our water, nano-technology and genetic engineering as dangerous deviations from nature. Yet all of these technologies have the potential to enrich our lives, and even reduce environmental damage. These large benefits can substantially outweigh their risks. For that reason I can understand where Plimer is coming from.

Unfortunately I suspect that Plimer has let his worries about these green anti-technologists colour the way he looks at, and communicates the science around, global warming. Just as I suspect Gottliebsen’s businessmen have let their fear of the Greens' broader political agenda colour their judgement on the carbon price.

If you take an objective look at the carbon intensity of different parts of the economy, as I did in a Grattan Institute study, it is apparent that the carbon price (as legislated rather that what might be imagined from the statements of the Greens) is inconsequential for the majority of the economy. This is especially the case once you take into account the large amount of free permits provided to trade-exposed industry.

Interestingly, while many people refused to listen to Upton Sinclair’s urging on workplace safety for fear of threat to their salaries, we now know we can have safe workplaces and plentiful employment opportunities. The same will be the case after the introduction of the carbon price.