TRUTH AND POLITICS February 26, 2009Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics.
Perhaps truth and politics are strangers, but should that be the case?
John Quiggin raises the issue of Dr Dennis Jensen, the Federal Membeer for Tangney, a physicist but not a climate scientist. As a self-proclaimed climate sceptic Dr Jensen is getting his name in the papers. According to Cathy Alexander:
Dr Jensen cast doubt on the apparent scientific consensus that humans are affecting the climate.
“Albert Einstein was very much criticised by Hitler, and Hitler actually had a group of 100 top scientists in Germany write a book called 100 scientists against Einstein,” Dr Jensen told reporters in Canberra.
“Einstein was asked: `Doesn’t it bother you Dr Einstein that you’ve got so many scientists against you?’
“And he said: `It doesn’t take 100 scientists to prove me wrong, it takes a single fact’.”
I am not much interested in Godwin’s Law. I find these arguments irrelevant and boring. The journalist did not ask Jensen for the grounds for this scepticism, although he made reference to some specific issues in his 2004 maiden speech to Parliament.
So I thought that I would see if I could check out the state of the scientific findings on the issues he raised. I take it as a highly trained scientist, Dr Jensen understands the physics and mathematics underlying climate science. He is better equipped than most people to follow the arguments. Scepticism and scrutiny, as I understand it, is intrinsic to scientific process. It gives rise to further research and to more careful observations. And it is the reason why scientific papers are reviewed by peers.
Over four years ago now, Dr Jensen raised as one ground for doubt the effect of heat islands on terrestrial temperature readings. Sure this is an issue, but according to this report, when terrestrial and satellite temperature recordings are compared they show the same trend of global warming. There is a nice graph:
Secondly he raises the lack of evidence for an increase in polar temperatures. The BBC in October 2008 reported a recent study that confirmed that “the rise in temperatures at the poles was directly attributable to human activities”. Pallab Ghosh, Science correspondent for BBC News quotes Professor Phil Jones:
“Our study is certainly closing a couple of gaps in the last IPCC report.
“But I still think that a number of people, including some politicians, are reluctant to accept the evidence or to do anything about it until we specifically come down to saying that one particular event was caused by humans like a serious flood somewhere or even a heatwave.
“Until we get down to smaller scale events in both time and space I still think there will be people doubting the evidence.”
Isn’t this position failing to see the forest for the trees? As a scientist, although perhaps not as a politician, Dr Jensen is bound by the truth, even if it might be a conditional truth that we cannot know everything with absolute certainty. As a politician, he has to address the issue, as a matter of conscience, as to when and what form public policy should address the issue.
John Tierney in The New York Times argues that climate scientists are not being honest brokers. He quotes:
Dr. Pielke, a professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado, is the author of “The Honest Broker,” a book arguing that most scientists are fundamentally mistaken about their role in political debates. As a result, he says, they’re jeopardizing their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming.
Most researchers, Dr. Pielke writes, like to think of themselves in one of two roles: as a pure researcher who remains aloof from messy politics, or an impartial arbiter offering expert answers to politicians’ questions. Either way, they believe their research can point the way to correct public policies, and sometimes it does — when the science is clear and people’s values aren’t in conflict.
But climate change, like most political issues, isn’t so simple. While most scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is a threat, they’re not certain about its scale or its timing or its precise consequences (like the condition of California’s water supply in 2090). And while most members of the public want to avoid future harm from climate change, they have conflicting values about which sacrifices are worthwhile today.
A scientist can enter the fray by becoming an advocate for certain policies, like limits on carbon emissions or subsidies for wind power. That’s a perfectly legitimate role for scientists, as long as they acknowledge that they’re promoting their own agendas.
Uncertainty of itself is not a reason to do nothing, nor does it suggest that the worst case will not happen.