Ross Garnaut seems to believe that ‘scepticism’ about climate change is analogous to… or is, ‘dissent’. That is, he prefers to describe critics of his views using a term drawn from religious history, identifying someone who rejects a dogma. Myreaction on first reading was surprise at the use of a term that implies acceptance of man-made global warming is really a faith from which critics may ‘dissent’. Did Ross Garnaut understand that (obvious) implication, I wondered?
Of course, he would not be alone in describing climate change conviction as a faith. Charles Krauthammer recently offered a similar observation in his Washington Post OpEd. But it was not a view I expected Prof. Garnaut to adopt.
Answering the question whether it is possible for ‘dissenters’ can be scientists, Ross Garnaut invokes Gallileo, whom he wrongly describes as a ‘dissenter’—Gallileo was no such thing; Gallileo’s conflict with the Church was about the appropriate role of empricism and contained no basic doctrinal dissent—as an exception that proves his rule. Garnaut agrees that dissenters may have scientific points to make, but he adds that this contrary example tells us little about modern science. The illustration does, however, tend to confirm that he considers those whom he describes—a little pompously—as being in the majority with the ‘learned academies in the countries of greatest scientific accomplishment’ (p.6), are in some sense an ekklesia.
It would, I suppose, be fair to call ‘skeptics’ dissenters if they were merely aesthetic or doctrinal opponents of the environmental religion. But the ‘small minority [some minority — pwg] of reputed climate scientists’ whom Garnaut acknowledges reject the vague, over-blown claim of the IPCC (dignified by Garnaut as ‘bayesian uncertainties’) do so on the basis of emprically refutable claims. These claims include, for example, the entirely scientific (because testable) assertion that the statements in his Interim Report about an alarming acceleration of increases in global temperature are wrong in fact (witness the evidence of the temperature record for the past decade) or based on basic statistical errors in sampling and estimating a time-series trend.
When Prof. Garnaut concludes ‘the Dissenters are possibly right, and probably wrong’, what evidence does he adduce? None. Not a shred. This is depressingly consistent with the approach taken in his Interim Report. He does not consider that the science offered in contradiction of the IPPCC pronouncements (the hypotheses of ‘those who are best placed to know’—see p. 5 of his address) calls anything into question because it is ‘dissent’ and not science.
So much for name-calling. What positive reason does Prof. Garnaut offer for accepting the ‘uncertainties’ of the IPCC as reasonably indicative of a probability? No scientific reason, as it turns out. This is the most curious argument of all in his address. His reason for accepting the need for elaborate, ‘impossible-to-measure’ schemes of carbon-emission mitigation (the second two-thirds of his address) is a religious reason.
Prof. Garnaut invokes “Pascal’s Wager” (p.7)—a sort of bargain struck de profundis in the heart of this brilliant but deeply disturbed 17th century philosophe—to accept the existence of God on the basis of faith alone, rejecting the counsels of reason, out of fear of the (metaphysical) consequences. Pascal resolved to accept the existence of God out of an irrational fear of an eternity of torment in hell should he deny God and happen to be wrong.
This is a sympathetic tale, of course. It’s a ‘wager’ that many adolescents face at some point in dealing with a personal crisis. But as a psychic convenience, it is the abnegation—the abjuration—of science. Disagreements about climate change polices are not a personal crisis. They are a challenge to rational, democratically-informed, public policy. They deserve informed assessment and a careful dissection of interests (of present and future generations, in this case). In his address, Ross Garnaut has promised us elaborate economic models and detailed regulatory schemes based, ultimately, on an irrational framework (the models might not be all that reliable, either).