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Dr. Ron Smith

Climate and politics: Advice for the committee

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The Finance and Expenditure Select Committee inquiry into the emissions trading scheme will be mainly concerned with examining the potential impact of envisaged climate change mitigation measures on the New Zealand economy and the future well-being of New Zealand citizens, as well as the likely effect of any ‘breaking-ranks’ on our diplomatic and trade relations. But it cannot avoid also addressing the extent to which the underlying scientific assessments are in doubt.

Citizens will not forgive politicians who ought to have ‘looked before they leapt’. It is not as if there are no warning voices. There is a growing chorus of criticism of the official dogma in the matter of human-induced climate change and this chorus includes many persons who seem well-qualified to claim our attention; scientists in the appropriate disciplines, including some who have been part of the official United Nations’ process. Moreover, the content of their critique points to two disturbing facets of the debate: the complexity of the evolving theory of climate change and the extent to which there are matters which are still not adequately understood. In the mind of this writer, this puts the Committee in a very difficult situation. It will need to be more than usually sceptical about the argument from authority.

In an ideal world, political leaders and policy makers should be able to rely on the scientific establishment (Royal Society, National Academy of Sciences, United Nations International Panel on Climate Change), in the same way that we rely on doctors for advice regarding our health, or engineers in the matter of the strength of bridges. However, there are two circumstances in which the scientific authority system is likely to break down. One of these is where a fundamental paradigm is under challenge whilst the professional leadership remains wedded to an earlier established view. This happened spectacularly in Geology in the Twentieth Century in the matter of plate tectonics, when the extraordinary concept that continents were actually moving in relation to one another was proposed and resisted by the professional establishment for nearly fifty years.

The other factor that can undermine reliance on scientific authority is where there are strong ideological factors in play. These factors may be religious, as in the case of the repudiation of evolution by Christian scientists. They may also be more generally ‘political’, as in the case of a strongly-held world view that rejects science and modernity and longs for a return to purer, earlier times. In the case of the climate change debate, both these influences are at work.

Two hundred years ago, if you had wanted an understanding of combustion and corrosion you would have been told that it was a matter of phlogiston. Things that burned did so because they were rich in this material. The flame that you saw was actually the phlogiston leaving. The reason why the residual ash could burn no further was because all the phlogiston had gone.

If, sometime in the second half of the Eighteenth Century, you had approached the most eminent scientist of the day (Joseph Priestly), he would have undoubtedly said that ‘the science is settled’. He might also have added that he, himself, had made substantial contributions to our knowledge in this area with his discovery that certain gases (he would have said ‘airs’) were particularly supportive of combustion (they made things burn more brightly). This was because these ‘airs’ were deficient in phlogiston. Priestly called the gas he had discovered dephlogisticated air. We call it oxygen but Priestly went to his grave talking about phlogiston and dephlogisticated air and this was long after Lavoisier had established the oxygen theory of combustion and Phlogiston Theory was consigned to the waste-bin of history.

Even so, it is noteworthy, that supporters of the old theory (the established/establishment theory) were going to extraordinary lengths to save it. Gases receiving phlogiston (as something burns), lose volume (the candle in the bell-jar experiment). Phlogiston must have negative volume! Corroding metals gain weight. Phlogiston must have negative weight! The fact is that there was no such thing as phlogiston. Or to put the point more carefully, phlogiston theory (the phlogiston model) was not well supported by facts in the world and, ultimately, it had to go.

There are grounds to believe that this may be true of Anthropogenic Global Warming theory. Certainly, there is an accumulating body of evidence which seems to challenge the presently accepted view (the paradigm) about the drivers of climate change and there are some of the same kinds of ‘fudges’ being offered in an attempt to save the paradigm. For this reason, the Committee cannot simply accept the authority of prominent elements of the scientific establishment.

There are too many gaps in the data and too many uncertainties in the theory and these won’t be resolved easily.

On the other hand, it seems very evident that the proposed mitigation measures (carbon ‘taxes’, or subsidies to favoured non-carbon-producing sources) have the potential to inflict considerable economic harm as they put up the price of energy at home and of our exports abroad. There seems to be little ground for uncertainty about this.

The appropriate policy for New Zealand is to take no immediate action on the matter of supposed climate change mitigation, whilst carefully watching developments abroad. Protestations of virtue notwithstanding, there is considerable evidence that other larger economies are balking at the likely costs and beginning to notice how little effect earlier abatement measures seem to have had on carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. They may also begin to notice actual recent temperature trends, which do not seem to be in accordance with the projections of the official model.

The other thing that absolutely must be done is to take steps to broaden the sources of scientific advice available both to the Government and to the public. This will not be easy. The global warming faction is substantially institutionalised, not only in such bodies as NIWA and the Royal Society, but in the universities.

This arises not simply because these organisations wish to please their political masters (having bought into the presently dominant paradigm) but also because of a fundamental shift in the way research is funded. We no longer fund (or indeed value) speculative, critical, open-ended investigation but rather permit a system in which interested parties pay for ‘research’ for their purposes (in terms of our earlier discussion, within the paradigm). Of course, it is not being argued that there should be no applied research; merely that this ought not to be the dominant, or indeed exclusive mode of research activity in our universities.

As far as the science underlying climate change is concerned, expectations of commercial advantage from the public support of mitigation measures have given rise to a range of ‘derivative’ industries which hope to profit from trading in ‘credits’, or supplying subsidised products (‘bio-fuels’, or windmills). They have money to spend on ‘research’ but they are not interested in any activity that does not support the particular world view that is conducive to their advantage. This, together with an unwillingness on the part of public agencies, to support or consult anybody who is not committed to the cause, has given a highly misleading impression of the degree of consensus behind anthropogenic warming theory.

In the longer term, and particularly as far as the universities are concerned, the system of university research support needs to be reset to support researchers and not favoured ends. This would be an enormous benefit to more enlightened public policy over the whole spectrum, and not simply climate change.

More immediately, the Government needs to establish a specific

‘Climate Policy Fund’ which would be available to researchers who would offer to critically review the evidence for the notion that anthropogenic carbon is likely to produce global warming and that this would be a bad thing. More positively, such studies might also set out, without preconceptions, to add to our understanding of the mechanisms of climate change and enable us to better predict future periods of warming, or cooling. This fund might be seen as a kind of ‘positive discrimination’ designed to offset the narrow practices of earlier times and bring an essential contestability to public policy in this domain.

It is to be hoped that Parliament will anyway make a point of seeking out critical opinions on the science in relation to the immediate inquiry. If the select committee also adopts the policy of deferring any commitment to specific policies involving carbon charges or subsidies (as recommended above), it may also benefit from some expert evaluation of present policy assumptions and settings. And if the universities take their responsibilities to act as ‘critic and conscience’ of society more seriously than they have in recent years, we may also have a public which is more understanding and more supportive of Government policy in this most complex domain.