This afternoon ABC Science broadcaster Robyn Williams delivered the 2010 Commonwealth Day address at a lunch organised by the Commonwealth Day Council of NSW at the NSW Parliament. The theme was Science, Technology and Society. This is an edited version of his speech.
A central plank of the Kevin O7 election was climate and a way to restrict carbon dioxide emissions. Three years after the election, we have nothing. And another election on the way.
The issue has been bombarded with misinformation.
There has been an unrelenting campaign to destroy trust in the IPCC and mainstream climate science. Find a fault – and there is always something a nitpicker or Jesuitical actuary can find – and use it to demolish the entire edifice of scientific research going back decades.
Accept no counter arguments. Reject authority. Professors are suspect, willing to utter any catechism for a grant. And if massive evidence is offered dismissing your arguments about the Earth cooling – then ignore it, and just retort with the same old denial, only more loudly.
And it’s working. Public acceptance of climate science and legislation to control gases has plummeted in the last few months. As the Economist magazine wrote in December, “It is all about politics. Climate change is the hardest political problem the world has ever had to deal with. It is a prisoner’s dilemma, a free-rider problem and the tragedy of the commons all rolled into one.”
As for Copenhagen, as my friend Colin Macilwain wrote in Nature last week: “The consequences of quiescence are serious. There was no deal on climate change in Copenhagen last December because none of the leaders in attendance felt under real public pressure to deliver one.”
Here in Australia? Well, we’re told: climate change science “is crap”. A bipartisan effort to present a means of dealing with this hardest problem was ambushed, then destroyed.
The big question to ask, beyond the debating points and political gambits is whether there is a real problem to face?
The answer is YES. Undoubtedly yes. Our elected governments have acted accordingly and offered solutions. These solutions may be expensive, but only when examined through a limited vantage. Prompt action, we are assured, will be cost-effective. Undue delay, unduly large cost.
At times such as these, we expect goodwill, a sense of national urgency, and a respect for evidence. Bipartisanship, if we’re lucky.
Instead, we have a shambles. Science itself is under attack. It is being relegated to a relativistic sideline, where any opinion must have equal merit, where you can bury Darwin, trash the value of vaccination, take herbal unguents instead of science-based medications and avoid GM everything in case it makes you grow horns or give birth to an alien.
Or do we have a complete shambles? Actually, not quite. As with so called fundamentalist views among Muslims or Christians, it is a loud minority attracting all this attention, a persistent few in the blogosphere, overwhelming those of you with commonsense and erudition. A recent survey conducted by the Federal Government (in Oz) and presented at ICONN (the nanoscience conference two weeks ago) reveals that 84 per cent of us feel that science and technology are improving society. This survey is one of several that show a majority of us do not wish to occupy the extremes of political opinion or invective.
So why does the opposite seem to prevail? Three reasons, I suggest.
One is that the scientists themselves have been naive, even lazy. When I asked Tim Flannery and Philip Campbell, editor of the journal Nature, their opinion of so called deniers like Ian Plimer, or the incongruous toff Lord Monkton, they just shrugged and said “the climate debate has moved on.” Well, it hasn’t. It’s gone backwards. Not least because the scientists, in the main, have been passive, restrained and much too polite. And after Climategate – too much mea culpa. It’s time for them to get their skates on. To be aggressive in the cause of truth.
After the Climategate debacle and theft of the personal emails of climatologists going back over 10 years the journal Nature finally tackled the smear that science was faking its data.
“This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country’s much needed climate bill. Nothing in the emails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real – or that human activities are almost certainly the cause.”
The paradox is that allowing this chaos to continue is likely to delay, catastrophically, any moves to combat climate change itself.
Another reason we hear the voices of the extreme the loudest is that the new media allow many citizens to occupy their own nether world where they need never come across an opinion that conflicts with their own.
A third reason extremists seem to dominate has been the powerful use of lobby groups. Now, it so happens that we keep well away from lobbyists in our science broadcasting, left or right, green or brown, because they are unstoppable, often shameless and rarely alter their messages, despite the evidence.
We go by published research results, in top journals and commentators with a reputation for probity … the evidence is clear. We need to change policy and to do so urgently.