6 – Climate change and scaremongering

Climate change is in the news again, thanks to the new movie “The Day After Tomorrow”. It seems that the consensus is that the movie is scientifically inaccurate, but will be effective in changing people’s attitudes to the issue. People involved in the climate change industry seem to think that this is OK, or even good. I think it is appalling. How can it be alright to use inaccurate scaremongering to drive public opinion? I guess it is only different by degree to the existing public debate on climate change, which is full of scaremongering and distortions.

No doubt the people involved with the issue are earnest, but some of them do seem to have difficulty understanding what might constitute prudent and responsible public policy. My favourite recent comment from a climate-change scientist, which I heard on ABC radio national, is that although the official scientific projections don’t look that scary, they are full of unknowns, and we need to worry about those, especially the unknowns we don’t even know about — the unknown unknowns! Apparently we should be willing to spend billions in order to combat these unknown unknowns. I’m sure he was serious.

On another matter, there is a fascinating controversy currently brewing about one of the key papers underlying the position of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on greenhouse; Mann et al. 1998. A geologist (McIntyre) and an economist (McKitrick) have tried to reproduce the results of their stats, and in the process found lots of errors in the basic data and worries about the stats. When they redo the analysis, they get a radically different result. Mann et al. found that temperatures have been pretty stable since 1400, until they shot up at the end of the 1900s (described as the “hockey stick” result). Using the same data and methods, but with errors removed, M&M found that the late 1900s are pretty unremarkable and that the 1400s came out as quite a bit warmer! Mann got defensive and kicked out, without addressing any of the concerns raised by M&M about his own work and seemingly dodgy scientific practice, especially his unwillingness to disclose data and methods. In the process it looks like he may have just dug a bigger hole for himself, though time will tell. The M&M paper is accessible on the web (it’s very readable, although necessarily very detailed about the errors). It will be fascinating to watch it all play out. Read the details on M&M’s site at:


David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

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