01.10.2012 Climate Change

Sowing Doubt

The climate change debate has been hijacked by powerful deniers, says Adrian Glamorgan

Traditionally, the Three R's never included an S for Science! I was astonished when studying to be a teacher that there were some teachers-to-be in our science unit who didn't know that sticking a knife in a live toaster was dangerous. Sometimes scientific ignorance is made a way of life. Californian legislators decided to "get down to basics", funded the three Rs and abandoned the S altogether. According to science historian Erik Conway, that's led to a generation of Californian kids who are scientifically illiterate. A 2009 study of Americans as a whole revealed that:

Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. (um...365 days most years, folks!)Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water.*Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

This is at a time when investigating scientific evidence has become more crucial than ever. Our community regularly has to decide a variety of scientific matters to do with the environment and our quality of life. How are we to manage persistent organic pollutants? What techniques should we use for stopping salinity? What is the safe level of lead in our bloodstream? There is often intricacy in the exploration: for example, in examining if there are dangers in eating Genetically Modified food we might ask whether we can rely on a one-off 90 day test as sufficient to determine safety?

Often a way forward comes out of a mixture of science, risk management and intelligent thinking. And the scientific challenges keep coming: Have we reached peak oil - and what does this mean for the future of city planning? How many lives will be saved by lowering the speed limit? In the country, what's the best way to cut down on the feral foxes without increasing rabbit populations? In the city, how are we to reduce asthma in children?

Many environmental questions are scientific issues of fact, toxicity, safety, physics and mathematics and biological systems. They are firstly matters of science but what to do about these big questions often have to become legislative decisions, made by parliaments, shaping policies in departments and actions by agencies. So is there a basic level of scientific literacy we need in a modern democracy?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) defines Scientific literacy as:

"the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity."

Without scientific literacy, how are we to appraise climate change, the most dramatic challenge of this century?

With co-author Naomi Oreskes, in Merchants of Doubt Erik Conway highlights a number of important scientific debates affecting public health, environmental science and quality of life: scientific issues such as tobacco and cancer; the hole in the ozone layer, the dangers of DDT, and climate change.

With each one, there was a small number of scientists, often well-respected, who raised questions of doubt and held back community action, to enable cigarette companies to continue selling their smokes to women, men and children; that allowed the ozone hole to grow larger, that allowed DDT to be used when the evidence was that it destroyed ecosystems. Oreskes and Conway show how free market fundamentalism, and an easy, unquestioning media, undermined community understanding and sapped the will to act.

One of the most important examples of the way the merchants of doubt skewed public debates, has been climate change. Most people don't realise, Conway says, that climate change science goes back more than 150 years, as scientists established that our third rock from the sun would be much colder but for the carbon dioxide, methane and other gases in the atmosphere that keep us cosy like a greenhouse.

Many of the early environmental gains were made by conservative Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt who introduced national parks. Right up until President George Bush Snr, there was bipartisan agreement.

But the nature of American politics was changing. A new strain of libertarian economics with hardline foreign policy began infiltrating the Republican Party. A number of right wing think tanks was set up to support the Star Wars missile defence program, and many of these think tanks employed notable scientists, now retired, who had one thing in common - they were Republicans, Republicans who had signed up to the free market. When nuclear war and SDI was no longer an issue, and the Cold War was over, these pro-free market Republican scientists, through their think tanks, turned their attention to environmentalists.

Conway shows that there is a long history of climate change science, but now it was being challenged, not as you would expect in universities, labs or peer reviewed journals, but through an orchestrated media attack by neocons.

Right wing think tanks took their libertarian economics into the science debate, manufacturing doubt, in order to ensure environmentalists never got to regulate the free market economy. The manufactured confusion has worked for free marketeers in a way that a true science debate could never have.

Just as happened with tobacco, the free-marketeer scientists used their knowledge of the scientific method to throw doubt into the debate. Having thrown doubt into the debate, in whatever small measure, they demanded and commanded that the "two sides" be dealt with fairly. In the course of this, with popular understanding confused by two arguments apparently in debate with each other, action on climate change could be heavily resisted.

If you want to read more about the role of free market fundamentalists in derailing the climate change debate, have a look at Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. But it does raise an important question. In a week when we are being told the Arctic summer ice could be gone entirely in 10 years, what is it going to take to motivate people into action around climate change? A six degree rise in temperature will wipe out 95% of the world's species. We must act.

With our country making such a modest (if not dismal) official promise of carbon pollution reductions, Australia might have not been in a position to speak truth to a number of the world's powers - but our innovative plan to fund renewable energy funds and provide relief for low income earners, paid for by carbon polluters through what will be ultimately a tradable licence linked to the EU, can now be a talking point.

Australia has its own Climate Change ambassador, Dr Justin Lee, with impressive previous postings as High Commissioner to Bangladesh (a useful introduction to the twin threats of sea inundation and shrinking Himalayan glacial flow into vital rivers), and former appointments to Indonesia (giving insights about forests management) and Papua New Guinea (and the challenges of sustainability that addresses poverty). More power to his work in international forums. We need more than an agreement to agree - we need agreements and roadmaps for change now.

In our own homes, we can walk our own talk, by taking simple steps to reduce carbon emissions/pollution and actually enjoy many co-benefits, such as saving money on energy. But developing our science literacy, and engaging others in scientific discussions is arguably as deeply necessary now as recycling cans. When people try to tell you that carbon dioxide doesn't increase temperature, or that it's pointless to act now because global warming is caused by the deforestation of Europe in the Middle Ages, or that they can pull their toast out of their plugged-in toaster (don't do this at home), tell them they're entitled to choose their opinions, but not choose their facts. We worked out CO2 warms the atmosphere more than a hundred years ago. The impact of burning fossil fuels lingers for decades, but most of the impact is felt right now, so let's act right now.

Don't believe in climate change, describe the facts of it. And apart from clearer thinking at home, a more scientifically literate population helps parliamentarians make the right decisions knowing that they'll be supported, and that distortions of science will not be rewarded.


Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism