Juggling science and denial

In light of Charles Chauvel’s parliamentary question — brought to our attention yesterday in a comment — I thought I should buy a copy of Investigate magazine (against the grain though it goes) and have a look at the John Key interview. 

Investigate‘s question, was, as might be expected, heavily loaded, talking about the “fast becoming…open revolt in the scientific community about whether humans are contributing significantly to global warming at all,” and asking what care is being taken “to ensure that climate change theory is accurate and how New Zealand is going to be affected if it is wrong?”

Key’s reply settles on “flexibility built into the system so that if the science either firms up considerably more or deteriorates, and the climate change sceptics are right, we have an ability to alter the impact on our economy.” 

He continues the having it both ways theme by adding that it would be irresponsible of us not to play our part when it comes to climate change but we should also not be prepared to “completely sacrifice our economy” in the name of climate change when other countries are just not prepared to do that.  He finally refers to Australia as having said they are willing to support a 5% reduction in Copenhagen for Annex one countries when people have been talking about a reduction of 25 to 40%.  He doesn’t say whether he regards Australia as a reliable guide in the respect or as a delinquent trying to escape the rules by which every one else has to live.

It may sound reasonable, but it doesn’t make sense in the light of the science.  What does he mean by the science firming up considerably more?  Does he think it is tentative and unsure in its basic thrust?  Is the problem for him that its warnings are of necessity predictive?  Does he think we should wait until Greenland has shed enough ice into the sea to raise sea level by a metre or two?  Until the Himalayan glaciers have disappeared completely and hundreds of millions are suffering the consequences? 

I assume that in fact he has little idea of the science himself and instead of enquiring of the appropriate people he falls back on the notion that it may all be a big fuss about nothing.  Not siding with the so-called sceptics, but making a big allowance for the possibility of their being right. Which is about all the organised denialist industry is seeking at this stage. 

The complete sacrifice of our economy is a myth propagated by those who have a vested interest in business as usual.  (Or think they have a vested interest in it – their children and grandchildren will suffer its consequences along with everyone else’s, but they don’t seem to find time to contemplate that.)  Decarbonising an economy does not mean sacrificing it. It is deeply disappointing to hear Key suggesting that it does.  Admittedly we need the world to move in concert on this, but some things can already be done without serious harm, and countries which get things under way are in a stronger position to lobby the international forums for adequate reduction targets.  The Australian government’s response at this stage is risible and one hopes Key wasn’t suggesting we should be guided by them.  

Political leaders who juggle science and denial are not taking science seriously.  In the case of anthropogenic global warming the science matters deeply for the human future.  John Key should have replied to Investigate that there is no revolt in the scientific community and that the NZ government’s policies will be determined at very least by the findings of the IPCC, with the recognition that some of those findings are already being revealed as too conservative.

35 thoughts on “Juggling science and denial”

  1. Yes, I think the tactic is to delay as long as possible.

    It’s lacking courage somewhat, because what they should say is what they believe, ie, AGW is IMHO, unproven alarmism.

    However, giving the impression of doing something, while actually doing bugger all is what Sir Humphrey taught all young Ministers.

  2. this is no “young minster” – it’s the prime minster.

    I think it’s safe to say that he’s the only sceptic government leader on the planet (noting that Vaclav Klaus is a president – and isn’t involved in day to day running of Govt)…

    He might live to regret this once his little nimby bubble is exposed internationally. The term “international laughing stock” springs to mind.

  3. …I agree. This is an extremely high stakes game.

    As far as being isolated, well perhaps so, but that’s looking into a crystal ball (like the British Met.Office with their forecasting).


    … but I think that Japan may also be positioning itself on the sceptical side of the debate…


  4. Also of interest:

    Hon JOHN KEY:

    “The contingency is that the Government is going to work aggressively on producing a balanced response to environmental responsibilities and our economic issues. The member also needs to recognise that probably the biggest single risk to countries taking climate change policies seriously is the global recession. The leaders I have talked to, I can assure the member, are so focused on the recession that they are not particularly focused on climate change at the moment.”

    More here:

  5. Yes, that puts an economic priority perspective into the debate. And although JK and Kev may have a difference of opinion over AGW they seemed to get on all right. Seemed quite matey. No hissy fits or name calling there…

  6. Greg, thanks for the link to question time, which I hadn’t seen. I don’t think it substantially alters the perception that the PM does not fully appreciate just how serious the climate crisis is. It cannot be put on the back burner while the economic crisis is addressed. It needs to be ahead of all other considerations, and woven into our addressing the economic crisis. Solving the problem of greenhouse gas emissions does not mean saying to hell with everyone’s jobs. It means steering us towards a decarbonised economy which will still have plenty of work for people. Of course we have to consider impacts on the economy, but not with the option of avoiding or delaying facing the issue. Pleading the need for balance doesn’t acknowledge the imperative of a safe future climate for human society.

    Ayrdale, I wish you’d give us a rest from Watts Up With That. You have already referred to the Japanese matter in a previous thread, and John Mashey’s comment referred you to a website post which put it in a much less significant perspective than you seem to claim. Much ado about nothing was the title.

  7. Thank you Bryan.
    A “de-carbonised economy” ? A pipe dream surely … although working towards it is what we’re doing now isn’t it ? JK’s cycle track up the length of NZ for example.

    Although yes, as you say, I’d imagine there’ll be plenty of work for people in a de-carbonised economy, making saddles and what not…

  8. “A “de-carbonised economy” ? A pipe dream surely”

    Ayrdale even if we could safely carry on and burn all the fossil fuel it’s a pipe dream which we’d have to turn into a reality at some stage. The wherewithal is actually available right now. Perhaps you weren’t visiting us when I reviewed Ten Technologies to Save the Planet , and there have been plenty of other recommendations in other books reviewed on this website.

  9. Ten Technologies doesn’t include nuclear technology in its top ten, but only on grounds of relative cost at this stage. Other writers have it higher up their list, including William Calvin whose book will be reviewed here in the next few days.

  10. Ayrdale, while you may glibly assert that a “de-carbonised economy” is a pipe dream, it is something that will happen, slowly and in stages out of neccessity.
    From a New Zealand point of view, is it not better to stay in step with the rest of the world, rather than drift behind and face far harsher economic penalities down the line?
    This current recession is actually a perfect time to take some meaningful steps in retooling our economy, to ensure that when we do pop out of it we have “sustainable” (in every sense of the word, including enviromentally) growth.
    Economic growth and climate policy may have been mutually exclusive in the past, but to still treat them as such now, in the face of the noises coming from the rest of the developed world will hurt us in the long run.

  11. Yes, good points Tim.

    I guess re-tooling our economy though is going to take an inordinate ammount of dollars, and time, after the shambles coming to light now. (ACC liabilities $21.87 billion, KiwiRail worthless …2 consecutive news items from tonight’s paper, etc, etc)

    Staying in step, as you put it is exactly what we are doing, witness Key’s comments re the Transtasman relationship after his cordial visit last week. And I guess “staying in step” isn’t very clear, what step is it ? and won’t be until the Copenhagen talks at the end of this year.

    The initial rule of medicine to a sick patient applies.

    First, do no harm…

  12. As far as medicine goes that’s fair enough 🙂
    To continue the medical anology, tackling climate change is a bit like giving a patient a drug to combat a nasty virus. You take the drug, there might be some short-term inconvienience, but it does eventually clear out the virus. You don’t take the risk and ignore it, because the patient may get a lot worse and it would be too late, or at least far more painful.

    By staying in step I was simply pointing out the difference between the way Key thinks about climate change and someone like Obama. Key isn’t willing to be forthright on the issue, relying on fairly vague verbage.
    I hope that after Copenhagen he firms up.

  13. Thank you Brian for that link, I particularly like Barry Brook, at Brave New Climate and have added him to my blogroll.

    And Tim, I take the analogy of the drug and the virus, but remain to be convinced that the diagnosis made at this stage is accurate, and that the recommended remedy will do the trick. To continue on with the medical example, I would still be ordering diagnostic testing, including waiting for results from Ibuki, and Cloud at CERN and others.

    Yes, I agree, Copenhagen will be Waterloo…

  14. Not from here.

    Re Copenhagen to follow on from the above, news just in is that the USA is putting the brakes on somewhat, which is fascinating really…

    “Speaking to policy analysts, business leaders and a handful of U.N. climate negotiators, State Department envoy Todd Stern said he is intent on hammering out a global emissions treaty that the U.S. Senate can ratify. He argued that pushing for overly ambitious midterm targets is not required by the science and would undermine the political goal. ”

    “Not required by science”…an interesting phrase, don’t you think Tim and Bryan ? plus a caution to Europe not to get too enthusiastic or masochistic. Perhaps Obama is having a “road to Damascus” experience (and let’s not mention Al queda)…and what does he mean by “undermining the political goal” do you think ?? Fascinating stuff…


  15. Ayrdale, I can’t find the context for Roger Pielke’s report of what Stern has said, but the question of mid-term in relation to long-term targets is hardly a sign of back-pedalling. There is certain to be a lot of international debate this year on such matters and the important thing is that the US is committed under its new President to full and active involvement. Obama has certainly not retracted his commitment to an 85% reduction on 2005 emission levels by 2050.

    In relation to climate change legislation in the US Stern is reported as saying on Tuesday that “It’s been a long time now that countries have been looking for the United States to lead and take action,” he said. “I think nothing would give a more powerful signal to other countries in the world than to see a significant, major, mandatory American plan.” He would prefer to see it before Copenhagen, but there is doubt as to whether that is possible. It may be next year before it is ready.

  16. Bryan, forgive me for adding to the medical flavour of these posts, but that sounds very much like a comment from Dr Spin.

    Note that I didn’t mention any back pedalling…putting the brakes on is a little different…

  17. Bryan Walker:

    It’s worth noting that in John Key’s quote “balanced response” is completely subjective. No one is seriously suggesting only addressing one issue out of climate and economy – and everyone has their own idea of where the balance should lie. So his statement in itself is meaningless.

    (Not to mention that his statement also assumes that climate and economy are completely separate issues).

    I think the second half of the quote shows where Key personally thinks the balance should lie:

    “The member also needs to recognise that probably the biggest single risk to countries taking climate change policies seriously is the global recession. The leaders I have talked to, I can assure the member, are so focused on the recession that they are not particularly focused on climate change at the moment.”

    Personally I think taking an eye off climate change, and focusing too much on near term issues is dangerous. Countries such as the US and UK are richer and have the potential to move quickly on climate issues, leaving us with a fleet of smelly old-fashioned cars and a bad climate reputation detrimental to our agricultural and tourism sectors.

  18. Well Bryan, this is dramatic news…a split between Obama’s administration and the IPCC…

    …While many people have pointed to the fact that the science of climate change has advanced since the 2007 IPCC report, far more importantly, the ongoing discussion of policy options has rendered the IPCC obsolete. Pachauri has criticized the Obama Administration for its climate policies, so it will be interesting to see how the broader IPCC community reacts to the scaling back of expectations being set forth. This will be especially interesting as many IPCC scientists gather in Copenhagen later this month to “influence policy.” Will the Obama Administration be criticized by the scientists?…What will the Obama Administration do if it learns that a 15% reduction by 2020 is not possible or feasible?…

    I referred in my previous post to an excerpt from Stern’s speech…

    “He argued that pushing for overly ambitious midterm targets is not required by the science and would undermine the political goal. ”

    What’s your take on that amazing statement ? not required by science…undermine the political goal…

    See http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/

  19. Ayrdale, I see nothing dramatic or amazing in Todd Stern’s address. This is what he says:
    “Reducing 25-40% below 1990 levels would be a good idea if it were doable, since it would allow a less steep reduction path in the 2020-2050 time period. But it is not independently necessary; a somewhat steeper path in the latter period could make up for the slightly slower start.”

    He says this in the context of a speech where he is doubting whether the administration can get sufficient political traction to meet the 2020 targets which are being discussed. There is no suggestion that the US is now doubting the science of climate change – merely discussion of how to get to the necessary level of reductions in the light of the political realities.

    I can rarely work out what Roger Pielke is really getting at. He has said that he accepts the IPCC science of global warming. Is he claiming that unfortunately political realities mean that there is no hope of reducing emissions to a safe level? If so, why doesn’t he just say so, and announce that all we can do is hope to be able to adapt to the different planet we’ll have produced? Opacity seems to be his preferred mode. Or maybe he’s juggling too.

  20. Well Brian I think he is quite clear in this case…his main points…

    “First, in rejecting a 25-40% emissions reduction by 2020 target as unnecessary and unachievable Stern is openly departing from the both the conclusions and implications that many have taken from the 2007 IPCC report…”and,

    “The second important point to take from this passage is a realization that climate policy must be governed by common sense and what is politically “possible” and “feasible.””

    I’m interested in what you think are the implications for Copenhagen and
    the “realpolitik” behind Stern’s speech. And of course how the rest of “the environmental community” both on this site and elsewhere view this too…

  21. Is it just me or do these quotes seem to contradict what Key said in the house?

    “Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the United States Wednesday to harness historic global goodwill to pull the world out of its economic slump and lead the charge against climate change.”

    “President-elect Barack Obama sent a video message to a summit meeting on global warming organized by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, implying that despite the continuing economic turmoil, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will remain a central component of Mr. Obama’s energy, environmental and economic policies.”

    “The leaders I have talked to, I can assure the member, are so focused on the recession that they are not particularly focused on climate change at the moment.”

    Perhaps Key is only talking about Rudd?

  22. Ayrdale, Pielke doesn’t indicate what he thinks is politically possible and feasible. Of course if it proves not possible politically to address climate change adequately, and that is the verdict from Copenhagen, then the human future looks grim. If Pielke is keen on common sense I would hope this prospect would appal him as much as it does me. But who is to know what he means by common sense.

    There is a lot of debate to go on before and at Copenhagen and I doubt we should assume that Stern has already staked out a position from which the US will not move. I don’t see much point in speculating at this stage about how the discussions will go. I just hope they will involve full recognition of the warnings from science.

  23. Brian, if as you say “the human future looks grim” it can’t be too bad…after all, the Obama administration made the comment …

    “… that pushing for overly ambitious midterm targets is not required by the science…”

    In other words the science can’t be too grim… if it was really grim, then everything would be “politically feasible” wouldn’t it ?

    And “the warnings from science” that you mention are exactly what Stern is basing his comments on isn’t he ? Or are you talking about different warnings ?

  24. Ayrdale, Stern is talking only of midterm targets, not of the level of reduction required by 2050. To me it would make sense to start soon – indeed it would have made sense to have started long before now – but it may be possible (just) to make a case for smaller reductions now provided they are matched by much larger reductions a little later later. The grimness of the science is not in the slightest bit altered by what politicians do or don’t do about it. That is the point of my post. I don’t think Key has grasped the seriousness of the science. And as Greg points out he may be on shaky ground when he suggests that other leaders share his stance. But even if they do that doesn’t alter the science. Science is done by scientists, not politicians. They do policy, and god save us if they don’t get it right.

    I think we’ve about exhausted the usefulness of this series of exchanges. You don’t accept the science. I do. That’s not a chasm likely to be bridged any time soon. I’d be happy to leave it at that.

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