Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The Global Warming Debate

Now I'm one to be odds with the media in general, and for the most part it's justified. Most news is just trivia, sensationalised and put forward to ignore the real issues of the time. At least there is some culpability in the news, something that can't be said the same for opinion pieces. Now blogging is entirely opinion, there is no culpability to this blog any more than the next. The same can be said for the internet in general, there's no punishment for being wrong or intellectually bankrupt, in fact we see the opposite where ignorance draws the gullible and feeble into believing what is otherwise absurd. It's the trappings of the medium and there is little any of us can do about it except strive for accuracy and hope that in the end people will inform themselves through other materials. The media is a completely different story though, the accountability of opinion is simply not there as speculation is free speech.

Today while listening to news radio there was talk on the Garnaut report commissioned by our government in order to work out set measures to tackle the climate change problem. On the radio we had journalists with no scientific training trying to defend either side without much clue as to what they are talking about. It turned into a farce when a political correspondent used a straw man about not being able to predict the weather next week as an excuse not to trust the science on climate change. And that is where the climate change "sceptics" turn out a lot like creationists, the same arguments creationists use against evolution are used by climate change deniers (they aren't really sceptics). It's bogus that these misinformed pundits have their weight of opinion thrown around as if it were credulous. Being objective does not mean showing both sides in equal light when one side has far more weighting behind it's evidence, and it's time that journalists stopped pussyfooting around controversial issues when one side is clearly backed by empirical data.

Climate change politics
It's important to recognise that the science behind climate change has been around for decades, it's not just a recent calling. Politicians and business have been ignoring the problem and neglecting to act. It's getting to the point where drastic measures are going to be needed across the globe to stem the tide. While there have been politicians who have spoken up, they were few and far between. In any case, despite scientists warning for decades very little has been done. The issue that the climate is not only changing but we are having an effect on it should be a non-issue. The climate is changing, we are having an effect on it, to what extent is uncertain and what exactly will happen is unknown.

One thing that is needed is a global solution: Australia while being one of the worst polluters per capita only accounts for a small percentage of global emissions. The two worst polluters, China and the US, are for one reason or another not seeking to be part of a global solution unless it's on their terms. Pandering to spoilt superpowers aside (a lot of the conservative objection to acting is precisely that); we are a minor contributor to the problem and without the major players backing any move it's sure to fail. And in a way they are right but it's weak way of getting out of responsibility: by shifting blame onto major polluters it neglects what we've done and what we can do about it. On the documentary Nice Guys Finish First, Richard Dawkins talked of a field that was being slowly destroyed by grazing. Each farmer only slightly contributed to the cause but as a whole it was devastating. If a farmer decided it was best to limit the numbers in his herd grazing, then it would serve no advantage because that farmer would miss out and other farmers wouldn't. It's that same deadlock with the climate crisis, it takes risk for countries to come out and try to change.

Technology doesn't happen overnight. It takes years of research and development, trial and error, failure. Working from scratch is always a risk and it could very well yield nothing of substance. To delay working towards finding new technology, for the sake of maintaining the current system, is a dangerous game. If the government doesn't invest, then it's up to private enterprise, but they won't invest unless they can justify the costs to the shareholders. Significant investment into cleaner technology to maintain our economy is vital for long term sustainability. That isn't disputed. What is under dispute is how and when investment will come about. Government can't go it alone, and neither can business. There needs to be bilateral support in order for it to have a chance of working.

Quite simply, the longer we wait the more sudden changes will be needed. Our modern civilisation is a very finely tuned organism that is reliant on certain resources in order to survive. As a result we have a centralised distribution system that is wholly dependant on fossil fuels in order to sustain itself. Any delay in making gradual changes means that the changes will have to be larger and more sudden. That risks the economy, and that risks the long-term future of our civilisation. Making smaller changes now and managing each smaller change to ease transition is really the only practical solution. Yes there will be losers in this model, and yes there will be economic downturn. But a robust economy should be able to handle that, a robust economy is one that is able to adapt to change.

If we develop the technology first, we are the economic beneficiaries when the technology is needed around the world. If we wait, we will pay a premium to cover the R&D costs that others have provided. At a time when we are having massive tax cuts, maybe a couple of billion a year could be set aside for research into a sustainable future. Same goes for fuel excise, with the federal opposition talking of cutting excise by 5c (which would be completely wiped out by profiteering and the constant rising cost of fuel), why not use the billions that 5c a litre would generate in order to fund research into transport that doesn't need petrol. That's a bit over 10% of the excise capital being put aside towards creating a sustainable future. Taking small steps like this should not be hard, nor should it be hard to sell to the people. It's sad that it takes the threat of global annihilation to gain enough attention to even consider making such changes. And the longer we wait, the more it's going to cost, and more risk will be involved. So that's why Australia shouldn't wait for the US and China, we should be masters of our own destiny.

Reporting science
Journalism has to be as objective as possible. Most of the time the way it's achieved is to show opposing opinions. The problem with reporting on scientific issues is that using the opposing opinions means garnering voices of dissent usually from outside the scientific community whose opinions should otherwise kept well away from discussions on science. For science is already objective, it's fought out in the academic arena well before ideas filter down into the public. So having a discussion on evolution with creationists is not being objective because creationists do not have equal weighting with evolutionary biologists. Just like having climate change deniers weigh in on the debate is not objective as they are going against the scientific method.

As climate change becomes more and more of an issue, political discussion of climate change will increase. Having politicians talking about the issue is bad enough already without having political commentators with no scientific training or understanding weighing in to further dilute the issue. As was shown in An Inconvenient Truth, the number of articles sceptical of global warming and the number of scientific papers sceptical of global warming were not even close to equal. This is a great disparity between those who strive to understand empirical data and those who report it to the public. It's not that they are oblivious to the scientific method (well some are), it's that the way they are taught to be objective doesn't apply to this particular field. It's important that we as consumers of the media recognise this fallibility of reporting and make a conscious effort to check for ourselves with publications that are reputable journals of scientific thought.

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