McKibben vs Bernardi – science vs anecdote

Last night's Q&A program pitted environmentalist Bill McKibben against anti-climate science Cory Bernardi, in a familiar climate debate. The AFR's Michael Stutchbury's position however, shows why tackling emissions will be a great challenge.

Last night’s ABC Q&A program didn’t spend much time discussing the issue of climate change, but it nonetheless represented an excellent microcosm of the broader political debate on the issue.

On one side you had Bill McKibben, who has dedicated his life to the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He is trying to put the fear of God into investors that money in fossil fuels is like investing in the horse and buggy industry at the dawn of the motor vehicle. 

In the other corner was Cory Bernardi, one of the ring leaders behind the toppling of Malcolm Turnbull because of his support for an emissions trading scheme, who believes global warming is a fraud.

But on top of this, and perhaps more interesting, was the involvement of Michael Stutchbury, editor of the Australian Financial Review and former economics editor at The Australian. While not at the same extreme end of the debate as Bernardi, his comments illustrate the extremely difficult task confronting those who want Australia to take serious action to reduce emissions.

The debate was a highly familiar one to those that have been engaged in the climate debate for the last few years.  

Bernardi’s argument was along the lines of:

‘Well, the Earth’s climate changes all the time, always has, always will and this happened well before we came along burning fossil fuels. Oh and by the way the world stopped warming since 1998 and I just saw an article the other day saying Chlorofluorocarbons were the real culprit of warming not CO2. Lastly and very importantly fossil fuels are really useful and Bill until you can fly over to Australia in a plane operating off wind power, I’m not really interested.’

McKibben’s response delved down in physical and mathematical specifics:

‘It has been known for a very long time that the molecular structure of CO2 traps heat which can be measured in a lab.  Even at the turn of the 19th Century Arrhenius managed to calculate that rises in CO2 would have a significant warming effect. The entire Arctic is melting before our eyes. If you stick a pH strip into the Sydney Harbour today it is 30 per cent more acidic then it would have been 40 years ago. The atmosphere holds 5 per cent more moisture leading to more extreme droughts and then floods. Peak scientific institutions like Australia’s own Academy of Science back the view that we’re causing global warming. We can only afford to burn 560 gigatonnes of fossil fuel carbon if we’re to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees.’

Then Stutchbury was brought into the conversation. His view paraphrased:

‘Yep, I have to accept that the bulk of scientific evidence suggests global warming is real. But Australia is making a lot of money from selling fossil fuels that underpins our standard of living. Also we should be proud that this is helping the poor of China and India out of extreme poverty. If we didn’t sell them fossil fuels they’d get it from somewhere else anyway.’

In watching the short exchange, it brought to mind the differences in view you get when you climb from the forest floor up to the top of 30 metre tall fire watch towers that are dotted around Australia’s national and state parks (example shown below). 

Graph for McKibben vs Bernardi – science vs anecdote

The height of these fire towers enables fire authority staff to see 360 degrees for tens of kilometres into the distance across vast swathes of the park. They can then spot the location of fires far into the distance so they can be attacked well before they present a dangerous threat to life or property. On the ground below these towers there is also often a view of the surrounding park, but it is obscured by the surrounding trees.

Bill McKibben was like the person sitting up high in fire watch tower able to look across the entire forest and holding some pretty big binoculars. He’s describing in quite precise terms the location and size of a large bushfire several kilometres to the north and moving quickly towards us.  

Cory Bernardi on the other hand was down on the forest floor with thick forest to the north of him and looking south with squinting eyes saying, ‘there’s no smoke I can see or smell, you must be out of your brains Bill.’

McKibben beckons Bernardi up to the watchtower, but Bernardi says he prefers the view down on the ground and can see heaps of the forest already. Besides that there’s a really nice picnic laid out on the ground with lots of delicious food he’d like to eat. 

McKibben then yells out to Stutchbury. Stutchbury admits McKibben has got some pretty good binoculars and probably has a better view, but that picnic looks really, really yummy. Besides the fire might take some time to reach them, by which time they’ll be able to escape or it might change direction. 

McKibben tells him they don’t have time to eat the picnic and he’s got some food back at his place they can all eat. Stutchbury knows McKibben’s a health freak and the food won’t be as tasty as that on offer at the picnic. He decides to ask Bernardi his opinion and after balancing up their respective views, he elects to sit down and enjoy the picnic.