Climate change

106 – The Great Global Warming Swindle

On July 12 ABC TV in Australia aired “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. This followed saturation promotion in days leading up to the broadcast, including items in various current affairs and news programs. They followed the broadcast with an interview with the film maker, and then a panel discussion of “experts”. It was one of their highest-rating programs for the year, but altogether it was an uninspiring two hours of television.

The main messages of the film were (a) that the key driver of climate change is not carbon dioxide, but is variations in solar radiation, and (b) that there is a climate change science industry that has a vested interest in creating alarm in order to generate an ongoing flow of research funds.

The film itself looked slick, and content-wise it had its moments, but overall there were too many flaws. In relation to the first message, I felt that the position put was far too black and white, with no ifs or buts. This made the film an easy target, because there are always ifs and buts. The ABC journalist Tony Jones showed that the key graph illustrating a tight correlation between solar radiation and global average temperature had been truncated in the 1980s, and that since this time the relationship has apparently broken down. There were various other points of criticism made, but this was the most telling. The response to this by film maker Martin Durkin was very unconvincing.

Solar radiation surely is one important driver of climate, but there are strong theoretical reasons to expect elevated CO2 to have some influence too. Predicting how much influence is extremely difficult, and as a modeler I don’t think the long-term predictions from climate models are at all reliable, but that’s not the same as saying that elevated CO2 levels will have no impact at all.

In relation to the second message, the film maker overplayed his hand badly by making the bald and untargeted statement that “we are being told lies”. In my view, the judgments of many climate scientists have been influenced by non-scientific factors, there are problems with the politicisation of climate science, and there is great overconfidence about predictions from complex computer models.

But I don’t think there are many scientists who knowingly and strategically tell lies. (A few appear to, but even they probably don’t think they are doing so.) The accusation of lies is easy to counter by wheeling out some passionate and well-informed climate scientists who clearly are not lying.

The real story about climate change is not as black and white as claimed by this film, nor by its opposition. As in most big environmental issues, the decision problem is complex, murky, and fraught with uncertainties and imponderables. And even if one takes the IPCC’s predictions at face value, one can still reasonably not support taking dramatic immediate action. That actually seems to be the position taken by most economists working in the area (notwithstanding the Stern report).

In the interview with the film maker, he came across (to me at least) as nervous and rather slippery.

The panel discussion was just awful.

The protagonists were again too certain of their positions. It is all black and white, apparently (or white and black if you’re on the other side).

The ABC had asked only two scientists (Bob Carter and David Karoly, from opposing camps) onto a panel of eight for a discussion about the science! These two got into an argument over the trend of global temperatures since 1998 which was just ridiculous. You can’t tell anything about climate on such a short time scale. They both should have known better. Apart from that, Karoly was a better performer in the debate, but it wasn’t much of a debate.

Two of the panelists emphasized that some big businesses are taking action, but this was completely irrelevant. As Michael Duffy (a journalist on the panel) pointed out, there are good business reasons for them to do that irrespective of whether they believe the science. In any case, why would we believe the opinions of business leaders (or, for that matter, of journalists – there were two on the panel) on questions of science?

The other journalist, Robyn Williams, contributed two of the lowest points of the discussion: appearing to cast aspersions on the credibility of Richard Lindzen (a well respected climate researcher who is a prominent critic of climate change orthodoxy) because he is a smoker; and claiming that the National Academy of Science review vindicated the Mann “Hockey Stick” graph of past temperatures, which is complete nonsense, but went uncorrected. In fact the Hockey Stick would have been an easy target, having been completely demolished by competent statisticians, but the program didn’t mention it.

Audience question time was even worse, and further highlighted the degree of polarisation that exists on the issue. Some audience members seemed rather unhinged and a number of the comments were completely incomprehensible. Where did they find these people?

There is a serious debate to be had, but this clearly wasn’t it!

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia