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Professor Chubb responds to Maurice Newman

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 23 January 2014


The second challenger to Mr. Newman's dismissive view of the AGW scare was Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. Now Professor Chubb is not a Nobel Prize winner, but he was an exceedingly able experimentalist, a vice-chancellor in two universities, a senior bureaucrat and someone who is most travelled in the corridors of power. I have known him for more than twenty-five years, and worked with him for a time during the Dawkins years. He came to his present position on his retirement from the ANU.

The title of his op-ed is 'Surely CO2 is a culprit', and while he shouldn't be blamed for it (it is usually the sub-editor who chooses the title for your essay, and I can't recall ever being asked if I agreed when I had put in my work) the title does embody the whole spirit of the AGW scare: that there is a crime, and we know who dunnit. Professor Chubb's essay carries through that theme. It is a rhetorical exercise, built around questions for which he doesn't supply any answers, but for which the right answer is assumed, and will be obvious to any reader of the right persuasion.

Take this one. "We have pumped two trillion tonnes of a greenhouse gas, CO2, into our atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, at a rate faster than ever before. Why should we presume that it would have no effect?" The right answer is that we shouldn't presume, and that the effects have been bad ones. Evidence? Well, I'm not aware of any substantial body of evidence that the effects have been bad ones, and the jury is still out on whether or not there have been any discernible effects at all that can be distinguished from natural variability. Potential good effects are a perceptible greening of arid areas in the past decade or so, and a great increase in food production over the last quarter of a century, the latter aided, of course, by greater agricultural knowledge, more investment and more fertiliser.

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There are six of these rhetorical questions, the kind that are put to you in cocktail party discussions. They are all part of the 'precautionary principle' approach to 'climate change', and their point is to put you on the defensive. In fact, the AGW scare is a hypothesis, and those who support it need to be able to defend it. The rest of us have no need of an alternative theory, nor are we obliged to answer these rhetorical questions.

The level of this contribution is really disappointing, given Professor Chubb's undoubted intellect. Some of us, he says, aren't worried that the planet's temperature has gone up 'by just a few tenths (0.9C) of a degree. I wonder if they'd be as sanguine if their core body temperature increased by the same few tenths of a degree'. How on earth is that comparison relevant? What if he'd made the same point about an increase in temperature in my house or my car? The jump to medical diagnosis is a common one in these jousts, but that's the closest Professor Chubb gets to it, thank goodness.

What is really interesting is a passage towards the end, where he suggests that the 'climate change' debate should be 'a healthy and constructive discussion based on all the empirical evidence, not bits of it…' I and many others have been asking for that sort of discussion for years, and we might ask the Chief Scientist why he hasn't initiated such a debate much earlier in his term.

And why indeed is he talking that way now? My guess is that he can sense the shift in the winds. No one much is talking about 'settled science' any more in this field. The climate models have simply failed to predict the lack of significant warming despite the continual increase in CO2, and there is no obvious reason why the warming should resume its former trajectory. Yes, adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere should increase temperature, but the effect is logarithmic, and plainly there are other factors that are at least as powerful.

Around the world you can see the retreat, not just in Australia. The BBC recently ran a story on the cooling sun, an unthinkable initiative a couple of years ago. The Australian's preparedness to provide space for the Newman/Schmidt/Chubb essays, and the hint that the Fairfax newspapers are thinking of allowing sceptical comment in their own pages, not just over the holiday period, suggests that the reality of global warming is beginning to penetrate the editorial floors.

And what is that reality? That we know much less about all of this than was confidently set forth by some scientists and politicians five years and more ago. It may be that warming will be a net benefit to humanity and to life generally, and it looks pretty likely that carbon dioxide is not the 'culprit' it was said to be.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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