Changing minds about climate change

ABC1 is set to screen the documentary I Can Change Your Mind About Climate Change, in which climate activist Anna Rose and Liberal Party heavyweight Nick Minchin will do as the title suggests.

They’ll try to change each other’s minds on a 56,000-kilometre globe hop speaking to his experts, her experts and neutral experts picked by the producers.

I haven’t seen a preview of the show but I have read the book that Rose has written, titled Madlands, described as ‘‘a journey to change the mind of a climate sceptic’’.

One reason that I took to the book is that Rose is a Newcastle girl. A co-founder of the 70,000-strong Australian Youth Climate Coalition, she tells of a journey of environmental awareness that began when she and the late David Arkless – who died as a 16-year-old in a cliff fall in 2003 – ‘‘set up the Merewether Greenies together’’ at Merewether High School.

Now married and living in Sydney, Rose has become a leading figure among environmental campaigners. She says people tried to talk her out of debating Minchin, who she describes as ‘‘one of the remaining few high-profile climate sceptics in Australia’’.

The book plays out much as you’d expect. Rose doesn’t move from her position. She says Minchin ‘‘does seem to have partly changed his mind, accepting that a doubling of CO2 does cause warming of at least 1.2° Celsius – but many of his previous assumptions, like that this level of warming doesn’t cause harmful impacts, haven’t been altered yet’’. She can’t understand why Minchin and the people he takes her to see won’t accept ‘‘the science’’.

In this regard, the book is as much about the politics of climate change as it is the science.

Or, as Professor Mike Hulme, of University of East Anglia ‘‘email Climategate’’ fame, describes it to Rose, our attitudes to risk. Hulme, who Rose describes as a ‘‘slightly controversial character in climate change circles’’ because of his ‘‘conciliatory’’ attitude towards sceptics, summed up his feelings in a 2009 book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

In a Norwich pub, the neutral expert Hulme tells Rose ‘‘an analogy about home security that he’s obviously practised’’ to describe differing attitudes to climate change.

Hulme’s wife worries about burglars, he doesn’t.

He says both have been ‘‘exposed to exactly the same empirical evidence’’ about burglary rates in Norwich, and there’s no point in either of them trying to change the other’s mind.

Rose thinks ‘‘it’s a terrible analogy’’, saying a ‘‘better one would be a burglar who robs you, then floods your house’’.

Personally, I think it’s absolutely appropriate.

People do look at risks differently. And interpret data differently. Early on in the book, Rose quotes Minchin as saying: ‘‘Only 3per cent of the [CO2] emissions are human, 97per cent are actually natural.’’

Rose responded by saying this description ‘‘wasn’t a lie’’ but it was ‘‘misleading’’. She says humans are adding to the natural carbon cycle by about 3per cent a year, a figure that seems to be fairly widely accepted.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) aligned view is that this relatively small amount of carbon is adding to a global biosystem that was previously in balance. One of the pioneering pieces of climate change work, the ‘‘the Keeling curve’’, shows the steady increase in global CO2 that the distinguished climate scientist, the late Professor Charles Keeling, found in atmospheric samples taken from 1958 onwards from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

Rose calls the Keeling curve ‘‘an iconic symbol of the destructive impact of humans on the planet’’.

But to step outside the book for a minute, there’s another way to read the Mauna Loa numbers, as Macquarie University’s Professor Murry Salby has been arguing recently.

Professor Salby, with 30years of research in atmosphere and climate matters, says humans emit about 5gigatonnes a year of carbon. The oceans emit about 90gigatonnes and the land 60gigatonnes, with most of these emissions balanced by natural carbon sinks.

In an August 2011 presentation to the Sydney Institute – available on Youtube – Professor Salby said his work on the Mauna Loa record showed the ‘‘net global emission of CO2 depends intrinsically on temperature [while] human emission does not’’.

‘‘The popularised view is that CO2 is driving the bus and climate is along for the ride,’’ Salby says. ‘‘The observed behaviour reveals just the reverse’’. Google Salby’s name and you’ll find plenty of rebuttal. ‘‘Murry Salby, confused about the carbon cycle’’ at skepticalscience.com is a typical posting, but Salby has plenty of supporters and is no flake arguing outside of his academic area.

This week, he told H2 Review ‘‘the temperature dependence of net CO2 emission clearly accounts for changes in the observed record from one year to the next – changes that are plainly incoherent with human emission’’. He says anyone who thinks the science is settled is ‘‘in Fantasia’’, and that ‘‘science without discourse isn’t science, it’s advocacy’’.

I Can Change Your Mind About Climate Change screens at 8.30pm on Thursday, April 26, followed by a Q&A climate debate. Maybe they can get Professor Salby into the audience.

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