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Hot air rises in greenhouse

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Thursday, 10 May 2007

So much has been spoken and written about climate change that at times it seems the whole world has been screaming about how industrial emissions are changing climate. But despite all the screaming we are still short of any ideas about reducing emissions that would make the slightest difference, and never mind any of the budget initiatives.

The sheer volume of screaming triggered by the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has certainly had an effect in at least one area. The electorate at large is finally paying attention. We know this because the Howard Government, which has previously shown only a mild interest in the climate change debate, is suddenly making an effort to be seen to be doing something.

This is unlikely to be the result of any sudden conversion to the cause by the Prime Minister or any of his cabinet. Instead it is almost certainly because the issue of climate change is turning up in Liberal Party focus groups and research.


The Liberal Party does not pay any attention to the likes of newspapers, demonstrations, or fierce speeches by activists as indicators of the opinion of the electorate at large, for the very good reason that those indicators are no guide of any kind to the electorate‘s inclinations - or at least of those voters who are likely to vote conservative. Instead, the Liberals do their own research, including focus groups, and that research is starting to show that people are feeling concerned.

So now that the government is inclined to do something, what should it do? Or, more accurately, what should be seen to be doing?

First, there is no point in setting any emission targets as a result of the IPCC projections. A closer look at the panel’s summary report shows just how feeble the report is as a basis for any kind of hard policy. On page 16 of the “Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis” (PDF 1.25MB) summary for policymakers put out by the IPCC a chart lists the factors affecting climate in 2005 as the panel sees them: their effect, the error range, and the assessed LOSU factor, where LOSU is Level of Scientific Understanding.

Of the nine factors listed, counting non-carbon dioxide industrial greenhouses gases as one factor, four are given a LOSU rating as low, two are rated medium-low, another as medium. The greenhouse gas factors - carbon dioxide and other - are the only two factors to get a high LOSU rating. In addition, most of the factors are given a high error margin - in some cases the error margin is almost as large as the effect the factor is supposed to produce.

Although the IPCC is to be commended for its frankness in compiling the table if the report had been about anything else but climate change policy makers would have taken one look at that table and dismissed the projections out of hand. To base policy on projections from essentially unverified computer models trying to make predictions 100 years out is bad enough, but expecting anything useful out of a model where scientists know very little about most of the factors concerned is in the realm of comic opera.

In addition, the table only lists one natural factor - solar irradiance - which it given a low LOSU. However, it’s now widely acknowledged that climate has frequently changed just as fast, if not faster, in pre-industrial times. To leave natural factors out is ridiculous but there is no way to put them in, because the basic mechanism is not understood.


Greenhouse industry lobbyists (which includes a number of scientists) when confronted with these problems, dismiss them by saying there is “a consensus”, and have got away with this due to the deep public confusion over what this supposed consensus is supposed to apply to.

There is now a consensus that climate is changing but there was never any consensus over the IPCC projections. The panel scientists have stated that their own work as 90 per cent certain, but that assertion remains their assessment of their own work. An incomplete list of eminent scientists who have publicly expressed reservations about the IPCC projections, or that the present warming is due to human activity, is at the end of this article.

But enough of this whining. As far as the bulk of the electorate and all of the activist minority are concerned the world is going to become much warmer because of human activities, and we should do something to stop things becoming worse, so we should just pick an emissions reduction target and stop confusing the issue! But what can be done in Australia that would make the slightest difference? That answer is nothing, or at least nothing that would make a direct difference.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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