Some statements have a stunning impact. One made by Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in Australia last year is an example. He said the difference between two degrees of global warming and four is human civilisation.
If the world is warming, and if average temperatures might exceed 2 degrees above those prevailing between, say, 1850 and 1950, then humanity is at risk. In assessing the seriousness of that risk, the issues are, first, the likelihood that the risk will eventuate; and, second, the consequences if it does.
If the risk is small and the consequences limited, the steps required to avoid it will be quite different from those that will be necessary if the risk is substantial and the consequences horrendous.
The evidence of experts may be very helpful in reaching conclusions about these matters. But some experts are better than others. It is probable that no climate scientist has more impressive credentials than Dr Schellnhuber.
Climate warming ‘serious and human-induced’
He is a leading member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations. It maintains that climate warming is serious, and is human-induced. These conclusions are based on information garnered from all quarters of the globe. Thousands of scientists contribute. Nearly 200 countries, and the World Meteorological Organisation, are members.
As far as I am aware, nobody of any comparable expertise has challenged Schellnhuber’s proposition that global warming by as much as two degrees, let alone four, would be a disaster of epic proportions. That conclusion is therefore highly relevant to the assessment of the overall risk we face. If it is correct, the second of the three issues in assessing risk is already answered.
The evidence about the first issue is contested, although the weight of scientific opinion is that the sceptics are wrong. And on the evidence available, only one answer is possible to the question of whether the risk of disastrous global warming must be taken seriously: it must be taken very seriously indeed.
No-one can completely ignore these risks
We can differ about the certainty of the science. The sceptics may be correct in contending that their scepticism is based on better science than that of their opponents. But that is not the point. The sceptics cannot rationally contend that the science of their opponents is so unreliable that the risk to which those opponents point is a risk that can be ignored.
This, nevertheless, seems to be the position of Maurice Newman. He is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, and a man of substance. But he, like me, is a self-confessed layman on matters of climate science. That, of course, is no excuse for a failure to critically scrutinise the evidence.
If I have any particular qualifications for joining the debate, they are that for more than 21 years as a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria I was required to base my judgments on a rigorous examination of the evidence. This frequently included the evidence of contending experts in areas with which I had little or no familiarity.
An unfortunate view
In an article published in The Australian on January 15, Newman contended that since its establishment in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been ”not a panel of scientists but a panel of governments driven by the UN”.
He also asserted that the IPCC was a ”cartel” which, with ”hundreds of billions of dollars at stake … will deny all contrary evidence”. In essence, Newman seems to allege that the IPCC is corrupt, and its work of no value.
Such a conclusion beggars belief. Most people are basically honest. In the absence of hard evidence to the contrary, it must be accepted that at least the overwhelming majority of IPCC scientists are honest and appropriately qualified. If in their professional opinion the world is at risk, it would be their imperative duty to warn us. If they did not, and the risk became the reality, they would rightly be excoriated for their failure.
There is another point. If the IPCC were corrupt, it would not tell its paymasters what they do not want to know. But it has consistently told its member governments that they must take difficult measures to avoid the global warming which the IPCC maintains is occurring. This is the last thing that governments want to hear.
And if indeed there are ”hundreds of billions of dollars at stake”, it is likely that these funds are on the table because member governments are satisfied that the IPCC is on the right track, and that the money is required so that further vital information can be obtained.
Neither Newman nor anybody else has established that the risk of harmful global warming can be discounted. If the increase goes beyond two degrees, the consequences will be catastrophic. The steps required to avoid the risk must be tailored accordingly.
We cannot in conscience ignore the interests of our children, our grandchildren and subsequent generations when so much depends on what we do now. Other interests – of individuals, of business, of political parties – pale before the interests of the entirety of humankind.
With so much at stake, no government that takes seriously its primary duty to protect the future of its citizens can do otherwise than immediately tackle climate warming with every reasonable means at its disposal.
By David Harper. Source: The Age
David Harper was appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1992, and retired from the Court of Appeal in June last year.
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