There is an excellent op-ed by Garth Paltridge on the Australian Financial Review. I agree with almost everything he writes. I also much enjoyed his short book The Climate Caper.

Paltridge explains why climate science is far from settled:

Attempts to resolve the arguments are plagued with problems, a lot of which are inherently insoluble. There are many aspects of the behaviour of the natural climate system and of human society that are unpredictable in principle, let alone in practice. But perhaps the biggest of the underlying problems, and it is common to both arguments since it inevitably exists when there is large unpredictability and uncertainty, is the presence of strong forces encouraging public overstatement and a belief in worst-case scenarios.

and somewhat further on:

To the extent that there is such a thing as normal science, it relies upon accurate observations to verify its theories. Accurate is the operative word here. Climate research has to rely on spectacularly inaccurate data from information on Earth’s past climate. Even though there are vast amounts of atmospheric and oceanographic data to play with, together with lots of proxy information from tree rings and ice cores and corals and so on, abstracting a coherent story from it all is something of a statistical nightmare. It gives a whole new meaning to the old saying “lies, damn lies and statistics”.

Paltridge explains – like Mike Hulme did in his excellent book Why we disagree about climate change – that the real debate is not about the science but about many other agenda’s:

From the social and economic side of things, one might take much more notice of the global warming scare campaign if it were not so obvious that many of its most vociferous supporters have other agendas. There are those, for instance, who are concerned with preservation of the world’s resources of coal and oil for the benefit of future generations. There are those who, like the former president of France, Jacques Chirac, speaking at a conference on the Kyoto protocol in 2000, look with favour on the possibility of an international decarbonisation regime because it would be a first step to global governance (the president’s actual words were “For the first time, humanity is instituting a genuine instrument of global governance”.) There are those who, like the socialists of the 20th century, see international action as a means to force a redistribution of wealth both within and between the individual nations. There are those who regard the whole business mainly as a path to the sort of influence which, until now, has been wielded only by the major religions. More generally, there are those who, like the politically correct everywhere, are driven by a need for public expression of their own virtue.

Of course there is nothing wrong, or at least not much that is wrong, with the ideals behind any of the above agendas except perhaps the last couple on the list. But the battles over them should be fought in the open and on their own merits rather than on the basis of a global warming crusade whose legitimacy is founded on still-doubtful science and on massive slabs of politically correct propaganda.

I especially endorse this last sentence. As the science is not decisive whether the rise in CO2 is a real or big problem at all, the debate should be open on all these other agenda’s and these should be judged on their own merits. This open debate unfortunately isn’t there, because most stakeholder just invoke the threat for climate change as the most important and single reason for their agenda (whether it is renewable energy, action against deforestation, social injustice between North and South etc.).

According to Paltridge climate science is close to being postmodern science and he calls this a dangerous beast:

But the real worry with climate research is that it is on the very edge of what is called postmodern science. This is a counterpart of the relativist world of postmodern art and design. It is a much more dangerous beast, whose results are valid only in the context of society’s beliefs and where the very existence of scientific truth can be denied. Postmodern science envisages a sort of political nirvana in which scientific theory and results can be consciously and legitimately manipulated to suit either the dictates of political correctness or the policies of the government of the day.

Note that Paltridge (72) is a former CSIRO scientist. He now criticizes CSIRO for acting agenda driven:

Climate science has transformed itself from a research backwater a few decades ago into one of the greatest public-good scientific cash cows ever devised. In Australia, for instance, there is a separate federal Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency specifically devoted to implementing (buying?) the social change required to limit global warming. The livelihood of many of the climate scientists within the CSIRO and elsewhere is now dependent on grants from that department. It is not a situation conducive to sceptical outlook and balanced advice. When a tendency toward postmodern science is mixed with a single, generous and undoubtedly biased source of money, it is not surprising that things can go very wrong very quickly. (…)

In the particular case of CSIRO for instance, the encouragement starts with a formal mission statement to the effect that CSIRO seeks to achieve “a profound and positive impact on the most significant challenges and opportunities facing Australia and humanity”. Good stirring stuff of course, except that “impact” can get translated to “influence” in the reviews of its scientific programs, and the mission statement can be interpreted as justification for devoting a large fraction of overall scientific resources to the business of creating a market for one’s scientific advice.

Fortunately he sees some light at the end of the tunnel:

It is mildly encouraging now, perhaps as a result of the Climategate scandal, that we are beginning to see a new generation of climate scientists look again with a properly jaundiced eye at the question of uncertainty and how it might be assessed.

Read the whole essay here.

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