Fielding, Pell and our climate education problem

Unfortunately a general poor understanding and respect for science and statistical analysis amongst people like Steve Fielding and George Pell makes it difficult to persuade the community to take action to control carbon emissions.

As reported by Andrew Freedman in Climate Spectator yesterday, a new report has been released by the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration and the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre documenting how the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is likely to have increased the probability of extreme events occurring over 2011.

This piece of work is a very useful contribution to efforts to educate the public about climate change. That’s because it is incredibly difficult for the community to make sense of the huge natural variation in weather that we experience even within hours, from the more subtle but longer-lived changes likely to occur over many decades through increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases.

Underneath all of this variation is some underlying physics about the amount of energy entering the earth’s atmosphere from the sun and the amount leaving. One simply can’t explain the average temperature of the earth without reference to gases which act to trap some of this heat from the sun. So all else being equal, if you increase the concentration of these gases, the earth will warm.

Yet all else is not equal, and temperatures across the earth vary a lot. Plus some energy is absorbed by the oceans and so doesn’t register on air-based temperature gauges.

Also, greenhouse gases are emitted and absorbed from a wide range of natural and human-based sources, and there are interaction effects between the warming induced directly by greenhouse-gases and other climate forcings, such as the reflectivity of the earth.

So while the underlying physics is unambiguous, isolating the impacts due to human releases of greenhouse gas is all incredibly complicated. So scientists have to spend inordinate amounts of time and effort collecting and analysing data, using very sophisticated methods to try to separate out what changes in climate might be naturally occurring, versus those related to human’s increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The quality of the research undertaken as well as the credentials of the scientists and institutions involved are impressive.

That’s why I find it incredibly amazing how their work can be so easily dismissed by people like Steve Fielding, former Family First Senator, and also Cardinal George Pell as a beat-up or fabrication; when neither of these people have much experience or training to assess the veracity of this work.

Indeed, I find it puzzling that both these people choose to rely and cite extensively the advice of a single person, Ian Plimer, over an extensive number of peer-reviewed scientific papers authored by a large number of incredibly well qualified scientists from some of the most well respected scientific institutions around the globe. 

I can’t help but laugh at the exquisite irony of how these two people who tend to interpret what the Bible has to say quite conservatively, have teamed up with a person in Ian Plimer who has spent a fair bit of effort debunking religious mysticism and mythology within the Bible.

How is it that Steve Fielding can believe in the Creation story of the Bible while at the same time relying heavily on Ian Plimer’s advice about climate change, which makes extensive use of geological studies that suggest the Bible’s Creation story is bunk?

Unfortunately, Steve Fielding and Cardinal Pell are not alone.

In fact just today the Queensland Liberal-National Party Convention passed a resolution calling on Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek to remove "environmental propaganda material", particularly "post normal science about climate change", from the curriculum. I'm not precisely sure what they have in mind by "propaganda" but I'd prefer we left the science curriculum to scientists rather than members of a political party.

There are a large number of people within the Australian community with a conservative religious outlook who are already suspicious or resentful of science. Instead they like to believe that God is ultimately driving events in the world. I don’t believe that all religious people think this way, for example Reverend Tim Costello is deeply concerned about global warming. But there is a significant segment of the community whose religious views make them unreceptive to the idea that humans could cause dangerous climate change.

In addition, a more widespread challenge is a general poor understanding amongst the community of scientific principles in general, and in particular, a poor grasp and scepticism of statistical analysis and a preference for relying on one’s own direct experience and memory. This leads to a pervasive folk wisdom about the weather, where large segments of the population seem to have an opinion about what’s going on with the weather and a general view that weather forecasters always get it wrong. This seems to be particularly prevalent amongst farmers, with their keen eye on the rain gauge.  These people often fail to realise the value of large sample sizes of weather measurements over extended periods and geographies that can provide you with underlying patterns amongst the large day-to-day and place to place variation or noise.

This ignorance of statistical analysis is perhaps best exemplified by the global warming doubters pointing at 1998 being warmer than subsequent years as if it constitutes absolute proof that global warming is a hoax. Meanwhile, these people completely ignore the accumulated data from the past century and also a range of other natural proxies for temperature change over far longer time scales that suggest this past decade has been abnormally warm.

The extended drought of 2002 to 2007 being broken by extraordinary levels of rainfall and floods has acted to confuse the Australian community about whether global warming is occurring and whether they need to worry about it. Overcoming widespread misunderstanding about climate almost requires one to go back to base principles, as the Climate Institute is now trying to do with the Carbon 101 campaign. But retaining people’s attention for long enough to explain the complexity of climate change is an incredibly difficult task without a sustained crisis to concentrate their minds.