Features Australia

Illusion of knowledge warming the planet

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

In this the 30th anniversary year of the IPCC, we should look back and remember the original sin with which it was born and how that has condemned us to dishonesty in science, ignorance-based policies and social division on a global scale.

Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, in an essay for the New York Times Magazine in 1930, concluded there were limits to science. When the number of factors to consider became too large, the scientific method failed us, he wrote. Like weather patterns, for example. ‘Occurrences in this domain are beyond the reach of exact prediction because of the variety of factors in operation, not because of any lack of order in nature.’

Judging by policies such as the catastrophic renewable energy obsession, the uncertainty of many climate scientists has not alerted politicians. ‘Understanding uncertainty associated with the complex, nonlinear and chaotic climate system, let alone managing it, is a very challenging endeavour. Hence it is tempting for scientists and policy makers to simplify uncertainty to make it appear that the appropriate considerations have been undertaken,’ says acclaimed climate scientist Dr Judith Curry.

She argues that the IPCC ‘oversimplifies the characterisation of uncertainty by substituting “expert judgment” for a thorough understanding of uncertainty. They look at “evidence for” and “evidence against” (but somehow neglect a lot of the “evidence against”), and completely neglect to acknowledge ignorance. The bottom line is that the climate system is too complex with myriad uncertainties for simple reductionist approaches to understanding and managing uncertainty to be useful.’

The challenge, she says with unflinching optimism, is ‘to open the scientific debate to a broader range of issues and a plurality of viewpoints and for politicians to justify policy choices in a context of an inherently uncertain knowledge base.’ Inherently uncertain knowledge base…

The recently deceased and much acclaimed Stephen Hawking held the view that ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’

So the first challenge is to convince policy makers (and other stakeholders and observers) that it is an illusion of knowledge that has underpinned current energy policies. That illusion has been generated by those in the scientific community for whom certainty in this subject was the irresistible dark side.

There is a perfectly apt quote attributed to Mark Twain (in the movies The Big Short, as well as in An Inconvenient Truth, ironically enough): ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’

What is known – uncontestably – is that Earth’s climate changes. Warming and cooling periods over the millennia are well understood (even by scientists wishing to hide some of these events in pursuit of an agenda).

What is known for sure ‘but just ain’t so’ is that carbon dioxide is the key driver of global warming (never mind there hasn’t been any warming for two decades). That assertion, so far unquantified and uncertain, has underpinned all climate-related energy policies as if it were known.

The ‘original sin’ 30 years ago that has blighted the study of climate change was the narrow and unscientific framing of its objectives in terms of an anthropogenic cause: burning of fossil fuels, notably coal. Carbon dioxide was pre-selected as the forcing agent for global warming when the IPCC was established.

‘The IPCC produces reports that support the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is the main international treaty on climate change. The ultimate objective of the UNFCCC is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [i.e., human-induced] interference with the climate system’.

So it is evident that ‘greenhouse gas concentrations’ were pre-emptively assumed to be ‘dangerous’ to our climate. Warming and human activity were thus stapled together both in the scientific formulation and in the broader socio-political sense. This approach has doomed scientific study to be hobbled by a presumptive approach that defies genuine science, curtails robust research and leads to disastrous public policies.

Scientists who caution against such certainty about the factors that drive climate change are routinely disparaged, shouted down and insulted. This is so even when they present reasonable and reasoned arguments, such as Australia’s late Bob Carter, whose 2015 book Why scientists disagree about global warming, with co-authors Craig Idso and S. Fred Singer, dares to be balanced, informed and rational.

In the book’s concluding chapter, they write: …climate scientists, like all humans, can be biased. Origins of bias include careerism, grant-seeking, political views, and confirmation bias.

Probably the only ‘consensus’ among climate scientists is that human activities can have an effect on local climate and that the sum of such local effects could hypothetically rise to the level of an observable global signal. The key questions to be answered, however, are whether the human global signal is large enough to be measured and if it is, does it represent, or is it likely to become, a dangerous change outside the range of natural variability? On these questions, an energetic scientific debate is taking place on the pages of peer-reviewed science journals.

Rather than rely exclusively on IPCC for scientific advice, policymakers should seek out advice from independent, nongovernment organisations and scientists who are free of financial and political conflicts of interest.

As Dr Curry points out, the disagreement leads to uncertainty:

The disagreement (among scientists) is not so much about observational evidence, but rather about the epistemic status of climate models, the logics used to link the observational evidence into arguments, the overall framing of the problem and overconfident conclusions in the face of incomplete evidence and understanding.

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