Hail to the climate geeks


GeekThe word geek has changed from a term of derision to one of smiling respect and even a badge of honour. It is employed almost exclusively to describe people with aptitude in technical matters — computers, mathematics, engineering, the physical sciences.

The members of the Climate Commission would no doubt be happy to be called geeks. They've released a report that put in context Australia's contribution to climate change and worldwide efforts to ease its effects. Their evidence comes from numbers, some of which are not encouraging. For example, Australia is the 15th largest emitter of greenhouse gases; per capita, we make the greatest contribution of any country to climate change.

It seems there is far too little 'geek' representation in the halls of power. In the US, 55 of the 100 senators are lawyers, but the senate does not have even one scientist or engineer; in the UK House of Commons, only one of the 650 members was a scientist in a previous career. The figures for geeks in the Australian parliament are better, but they are small beside those with backgrounds in law, media, economics and business.

Recently, Joe Hockey was heard complaining to parliament about the way the present government has wasted money on research: 'Hang on — there was $145,000 for a study of sleeping snails, to determine 'factors that aid life extension'! There was $210,000 to study the early history of the moon. You can imagine Tim staring out longingly from the window at the Lodge at the moon and thinking, "You know what, Julie? We should have a good look at that. Why don't we spend $210,000 to work out what happened before Neil Armstrong got there?"'

I don't know what the snail study was, and ignoring for a moment how the Hansard writer knew to use that exclamation mark, I would be most surprised if the life extension to which the research refers did not have relevance beyond gastropods, including to older citizens who unlike Hockey may have an interest in the results.

But I do know that the early history of the moon has long been an area of research. Notwithstanding the Shadow Treasurer's mockery, it is important to know whether the moon is a result of a collision or near collision with the earth, whether it started out as a planet inside mercury, or whether there is some other explanation for its origin and composition. It has relevance for tides, for tectonic shifts, for life on this planet.

Apart from all that, it bodes ill for the clever country if the next Federal Treasurer finds amusement in serious scientific research — and remember that such a study needs to go through rigorous processes of value and importance before it can even begin.

Science is comfortable with being wrong, with a culture that insists you change your mind when evidence shows that your theory will not hold up. Contrast the name-calling and vituperation that follows when circumstances cause a politician to change her mind. It would be nice if there was a change of mind among those who insist that we are the only country acting on climate change and that what we do is inconsequential; they will find evidence in the statement of climate commissioner Tim Flannery who describes both of those assertions as 'lies'.

And science has the uncanny habit of improving our lives in serendipitous ways that surprise even the researchers. Think of the developments that followed the work of the 19th century geek James Clerk Maxwell, work Hockey would probably have raised a laugh at. 'There's Maxwell over in Scotland with his meaningless strings of Divs and Curls and partial derivatives. And some Italian shyster thinks that this gibberish may lead to messages being sent through the air. Perhaps Jimmy should go easy on the Laphroaig!'

Science is poorly served by the kind of media balance that is demanded in less certain areas of study like economics or law or the arts. Bad science has no right to impartiality: if something is wrong, it should be stated as being wrong and that should be the end of the matter. Flat earthers or people who campaign against the triple MMR vaccine or gangs who vandalise CSIRO crops do not deserve the same kind of air time or sympathetic column inches as real scientists.

Another report, from the US, shows Arctic ice coverage is at a historically low level and seems to be declining. Anyone living within a short distance of the Australian coast would be well advised to be aware of that fact. 


Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Joe Hockey, climate change, Tim Flannery



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Existing comments

You mean like Tim Flannery? For all of his dire predictions, he does not seem to be so worried that he feels the need to move from his house on the sea.

MJ | 22 August 2012  

It is natural for most of us to seek well-being and comfort for our families and ourselves but this should have limits and not grow like a cancer into selfishness and greed. Those politicians who pretend that climate change is nonsense or. at least, unlikely - in the the face of expert findings - are playing on unworthy motives in voters in a grab for power at any price. Shame on them!

Bob Corcoran | 22 August 2012  

Indeed, Mr O'Shea. It is extraordinary that in an age when technology is allowing us to increasingly understand the wonders of the world, so many in positions of power/influence hold medieval views. I believe that children should be introduced to science and the "scientific method" in primary school and thenceforth in a meaningful way so that they can understand the necessary iterative process you mention. Some honest scientists question the rate of climate change, and their views must be respected and given the weight they deserve. However, certain completely unqualified commentators imagine they are correct in their conclusion that climate change has little to do with humans. In the face of their inability to comprehend the depths of their own ignorance, we can only hold our breath as we wait for them to put up their shingles as neurosurgeons.

Patricia | 22 August 2012  

Another article on Eureka Street that promotes global warming alarmism while giving a swift kick to a conservative politician. Well what's new, boys and girls?

Andrew Plunkett | 22 August 2012  

Thanks Frank. One reason that the rate of temperature rise has been slower since ~2000 than in the preceding decades is that more of the trapped heat is now melting ice than back then. One consequence of this is that Alaska's state budget is already being affected by the need to move whole communities to higher ground. Perhaps conservative opposition to mitigation in Australia will wane in line with property values of Gold Coast canal estates.

David Arthur | 22 August 2012  

Thank you Frank for a timely piece. Both politicians and church leaders need to understand science as an essential part of our contemporary culture. To deride scientific research is to deny ourselves of an important way God can speak to us in our modern world. Leadership in our situation of global peril requires the twin pillars of holiness and critical research. Let us pray that our political leaders appreciate the value of both.

Roger | 22 August 2012  

So Tim Flannery says it's a "lie" to say that what Australia does to curb emissions is inconsequential. On March 25 last year, he expanded on this opinion with Andrew Bolt: "If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow the average temperature of the planet is not going to drop in several hundred years, perhaps as much as a thousand years." That's the world. Not just little Australia. Gee, thanks for pointing out the "lie", Climate Commissioner Tim. Nice to know the carbon tax is not for nothing.

HH | 22 August 2012  

In a few decades time, more or less, our children's children will chuckle when they realise we are having this debate. It'll be like, "Did you know they actually thought the earth was flat in olden days?"

AURELIUS | 22 August 2012  

"Another report, from the US, shows Arctic ice coverage is at a historically low level and seems to be declining. Anyone living within a short distance of the Australian coast would be well advised to be aware of that fact." Prescinding from the fact that vessels such as the submarine USS "Skate" surfaced in clear water at the North Pole back in the 1950s, and from the fact that we are still gently recovering from the Little Ice Age of a couple of centuries back, and from the fact that Arctic ice distribution is a product of currents and winds, we should note that Arctic ice is mostly SEA ice. So its melting will do zilch to raise global sea levels, in Alaska, or in Noosa. But if any coastal dweller not cognizant of this fact and its implications is seriously worried by global warming effects, please, please contact me. I am prepared to charitably relieve them of their doomed property at the drastically reduced price they offer as a consequence of this projected calamity. In particular, I'm anxious to assist property owners on threatened luxurious tropical isles. I feel your pain and I'm here to help.

HH | 22 August 2012  

Frank has reminded us that geeks, who rely on observations of real things like sea temperature, ice melt (and ice takes a lot of latent heat before it becomes water) and weather extremes, finding that a warmer atmosphere is less stable than a cooler one.
Getting policies that are accepted by the majority is very hard as political points are scored by fostering uncertainty about the urgency we are facing. It would indeed be of great value if there were a more cohesive policy direction from the Church (knowing how broad the realisation of climate change is by the Vatican), even if it were just to underline that the entirety of "God's work" is at stake here. I fear that our grand-children will not be laughing about us but bewailing our studidity for not acting sooner and more decisively.

Mike Foale | 22 August 2012  

@Mike Foale, I think that you wrongly credit too many climate scientists as basing their work on the emperical method. How often has it been the case that their wild predictions are based on computer modeling? Modeling has its place to be sure. However, its critics often say that the climate is too complex for these models to account for all the factors that inflence climate. What's more, I have read that no models can even account for the weather that has been. Given this is the case, how can we trust them to get the future right?

MJ | 23 August 2012  

A valuable article Frank. We certainly need more geeks (I mean scientists) in parliaments so the legislators can be aware that their policies are affecting the Climate in ways which should be a great concern.While we may not experience the consequences of our exploitive life style, our grand children certainly will.I doubt they will thank us for it either! I have been observing and recording the weather for almost half a century.I can state that human induced climate change is happening.It's not models but mundane daily observations that tell me it is very real.Tim is a very dedicated scientist, who is now well used to the shrill abuse from the climate change deniers (flat earth society).

Gavin | 23 August 2012  

Well done Frank! Well done Tim Flannery! Scientists like Tim Flannery are the prophetic voices of our time. As prophets, calling us to acknowledge the truth of human-caused climate change, they will get hammered by those with vested interests in pollution, and those who have been duped by their insidious propaganda campaigns. I'd love to ship the climate change skeptics and deniers offshore to Kiribati and leave them there until they admitted the truth that island nations like this are being drowned by the rising waters of the expanding ocean, caused by our slow response to taking action on climate change.

George Allen | 25 August 2012  

New Scientist June 2, 2010: "AGAINST all the odds, a number of shape-shifting islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are standing up to the effects of climate change. For years, people have warned that the smallest nations on the planet - island states that barely rise out of the ocean - face being wiped off the map by rising sea levels. Now the first analysis of the data broadly suggests the opposite: most have remained stable over the last 60 years, while some have even grown." Bottom line: of 27 islands studied, 86% either remained stable or grew, 14% shrank. And Kiribati? "...the research showed similar trends in the Republic of Kiribati, where the three main urbanised islands also “grew” – Betio by 30 percent (36ha), Bairiki by 16.3 percent (5.8ha) and Nanikai by 12.5 percent (0.8ha)." (TVNZ report: "NZ research shows Pacific islands not shrinking" June 3 2010) What happens when "geeks" turn out to be "deniers"?

HH | 27 August 2012  

Yes, HH, the keys words in the story you quoted are "Against all odds", suggesting that failing to act on climate change is a gamble, but acting on it is the wise thing to do.

AURELIUS | 28 August 2012  

A picture is worth a thousand words! Under the internet heading, 'Kiribati Youth Talk About Global Warming TouTube' I've just seen Kiribati pictures of ocean waves crashing into an island home, a 'drinking' well contaminated with salt water, the dead trunks of coconut palms standing in the rising sea water, the fringing coral reef dying because of the warming ocean water, a young Islander telling of how the climate has changed so much that they are now short of drinking water, and an island leader appealing to the outside world to take action on climate change. Why not see this for yourself? The call to all Christians is a call to ecological conversion. We owe it to the Kiribati Islanders, and others suffering imminent threats from climate change! We owe it to posterity! George Allen

George Allen | 28 August 2012  

GA, Kiribati and other islands are certainly running short on drinking water ... simply because the growing population is taking out more water from the potable freshwater lens than the rain can resupply. Nothing to do with global warming. Waves have crashed onto coral atoll islands during big storms since time immemorial. Human activity such as road building, and changing currents (again, sometimes caused by man digging of new channels through the reef) can change the shape of the atoll's shoreline, exposing vegetation to sea water. Overfishing of beaked coral-grazing fish such parrot fish, means less healthy coral, and a diminution of coral sand, which builds up the atoll. Mining of coral for building also has drastic impacts on the reefs, with consequences for the shape and size of the islands. Coral islands face serious ecological challenges as populations increase and increase their footprint with rising material standards of living. The consequences of "global warming" - such as rising sea levels - is so far not one of them, and to assume it is distracts from real action that needs to take place now to meet those challenges. (Note that in since 2004, the rate of sea level rise, steady over many decades has actually decreased.)

HH | 29 August 2012  

HH, I suggest you go the 'Climate Institute Kiribati' website, from which I quote, "Over the past 20 years Kiribati has already experienced coastal erosion, sea level rise, more intense storm surges, and declining fish stocks due to climate change. Erosion devastates development near the coast, storms have indundated taro and bana subsidence crops, and drinking water has been salienated by storm surges and sea level rise... In 1997 Kiritimati was devastated by an El Niño event that brought heavy rainfall and flooding, resulting in a half-meter rise in sea level. Roughly 40% of the islands’ coral died and their 14 million birds, reputed to be among the world’s richest bird population, left the islands ...

Other extreme weather events have seemed to increase in intensity. For example, less than a week before the Kyoto Protocol went into effect, Kiribati was ravished by a 'king tide' -- an example of the kind of sea-level rise that is predicted to occur as global temperatures increase. During the king tide thousands of people were affected by waves that reached 2.87 meters (9.5 feet) -- devastating some villages, sweeping farmland out to sea, and contaminating fresh water wells." The islanders are planning relocation!

George Allen | 02 September 2012  

Thanks, GA, but follow the references from that site. None is a peer reviewed paper documenting any sea level rise in Kiribati greater than the gradual global rise due to global defrosting from the Little Ice Age. The statement that an El Nino gave rise to a half metre rise in sea level is, frankly, bizarre. Is the document seriously suggesting that as a result of an El Nino storm event, the SEA LEVEL around Kiribati rose half a metre - and nowhere else in the world - and stayed there? Where are the sea level charts documenting this extraordinary phenomenon?

Moreover, drinking water from the freshwater lens simply cannot be salienated by sea level rise. Freshwater is lighter than saltwater, so it always floats above it. If the sea level rises, so does the freshwater lens. No: the real concern is that the lens itself is diminishing in size due to overuse. And I don't see how storm surges could affect this: the freshwater will make its way to the top of any surrounding saltwater, however that saltwater influx occurs.

The document has no peer reviewed references. It is quite frankly, alarmist nonsense, and deserves the same short shrift as the Maldive Is government's manifestly dishonest claims. I continue to believe that Kiribati has serious ecological problems, but none stemming from global warming.

HH | 03 September 2012  

Thanks HH! I quote the following from'The Independent' 4/9/12: "We're considering everything... because we are running out of options," the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, said yesterday in Auckland, where he is attending the Pacific Islands Forum. He said that his small, impoverished country – where the highest land is no more than two metres above sea level – urgently needed the world to take action on climate change.

Vulnerable Pacific nations have acquired a powerful new ally, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who visited Kiribati on his way to the Auckland conference. In a speech on Tuesday, Mr Ban warned: "For those who believe climate change is about some distant future, I invite them to Kiribati. Climate change is not about tomorrow. It is lapping at our feet – quite literally in Kiribati and elsewhere." Beachside villages in Kiribati – which consists of 33 coral atolls sprinkled across two million square miles of ocean – have already had to move to escape the encroaching waves. Water supplies have been contaminated by salt water, and crops destroyed. Erosion, caused partly by storms and flooding, is increasingly serious."
I believe Ban-ki-moon. I'm doing what I can to reduce my carbon footprint.

George Allen | 04 September 2012  

GA, you're quoting a politician with a vested interest in talking up climate change, and a UN Secretary-General who would arguably face if not the sack, then at least world-wide vituperation, from the global-warmista community if he voiced a skeptical view on the matter.

There are no new facts in their assertions. There are no peer-reviewed references here gainsaying the New Zealand scientists' 2010 report I cited above, documenting stability and even growth of Islands such as those in Kiribati. And I'd be really impressed to see peer reviewed documentation of that half-metre rise in sea level around Kiribati - but nowhere else in the world - during an El Nino you referred to above. Are you not even a tiny bit suspicious of this?

HH | 04 September 2012  

HH,Whether the half metre sea level rise reported at Kiribati is true or not, the sea levels continues to rise around the globe,because of climate change. I quote from the Australian Academy of Sciience Climate Change Questions and Answers Booklet,p.9. "Sea Level has risen around Australia at a rate if about 1.2 mm per year since 1920, resulting in coastal inundation events becoming more frequent. Since the establishment of the Australian Baseline Sea-level monitoring Project in the early 1990's, sea level measurement relative to the land has risen at about 2mm per year in the south east, and over 8mm per year in the north west." It is therefore evident that sea levels do not rise at the same rate everywhere. A sea level rise of half a metre with one La Nina event does seem excessive and I have no peer reviewed science to either confirm or refute this. Of course, the islanders at Kiribati are not the only islanders being affected by sea level rises. Those living on some of the Torres Strait islands are also facing relocation in the future. I believe that Cartaret Islanders are already being relocated. And Tuvalu has problems too. Sea-levels are rising!

George Allen | 05 September 2012  

Thanks, GA, for being honest and up front re the (alleged) half metre rise.

The reported rate of global sea level rising fits in with the uncontroversial global defrosting from the Little Ice Age, not just with an alarming dangerous, manmade global warming model. And there are, as you point out, variations and exceptions to the reported general rule of rising. Eg: Kiribati! As indicated in the peer reviewed Kench/Webb paper I have cited above, the main islands have not only not sunk but actually grown over the past 60 years. Now, this need not be because sea levels aren't rising around Kiribati, but possibly because the island atolls are rising with the rising sea, in a process first guessed at, I believe, by Charles Darwin.

It's true that the Carteret Is are sinking. But interestingly sea levels are not rising alarmingly at Bougainville, a mere 50 miles away. I'm sure you're aware that one explanation for this disparity is that the whole area sits in a complex tectonic zone, which mean that some regions are rising while others are falling. Another 6k x 12k island in the Solomons 200k away from the Carterets rose 3 metres in 2007!! Nothing to do with freezing, global or local.

HH | 06 September 2012  

HH, I refer to your earlier comments about statements made by Tim Flannery. I don't find the two statements you referred to as contradictory at all, as you appear to do. Tim Flannery reportedly said that it's a "lie" to say that what Australia does to curb emissions is inconsequential. I strongly agree with him. We are currently the biggest carbon emitters in the world, per capita, and need to set a much better example in this regard. What an irresponsible attitude it would be for us to keep polluting as we do. That would encourage others to follow a very bad example! I also agree with Tim's other reported statement to Andrew Bolt: "If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow the average temperature of the planet is not going to drop in several hundred years, perhaps as much as a thousand years." There is no contradiction here. The point made is the long-lasting greenhouse effect of increasing the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Of course, the more greenhouse gases we emit, the greater will be the global warming effect and the more catastrophic this will be for life on earth, including human life! Act now!

George Allen | 06 September 2012  

GA, first: the very fact that you’re busily online at this blog indicates you don’t interpret pharisaically your professed maxim to “Act now!” with respect to reducing the carbon footprint, at least in your own case. No complaint there: I’m relieved whenever sanity prevails. Secondly, you'll notice I didn't say that Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery's statements I cited were logically contradictory. My point was that the paleo-mammologist expert's argument is only trivially true. As in, oh yeah, it's a "lie" that for Australia to curb emissions is inconsequential, because: if the whole world were to cut its emissions totally tomorrow we'd notice a temperature effect in...maybe a thousand years. Ergo, if little Australia alone cut its emissions totally tomorrow we'd notice a temperature difference in, say, about 100,000 years (or more)... but that's not "never ever", so yes, it must be a big fat lie to predicate "inconsequential" of a reduction - let alone total cessation - of emissions in Australia. Finally: which is your narrative? Is it that we’ve so done ourselves in that a total cessation in CO2 emissions from tomorrow morn will only begin to have an effect hundreds, perhaps a thousand, years hence? If so, how does it square with the story our political leaders are urging, that if the world halves (or whatever) its emissions by 2050, we have some chance of avoiding a devastating 2+ degree rise in temperature by the end of this century? These seem to be contradictory statements, unless there’s a middle position of Byzantine complexity: that halving our emissions from mid-century will stabilize global temperatures at less than a devastating 2 degree increase from now for up to perhaps a thousand years and then they’ll begin to drop. But, where’s the peer-reviewed evidence for that?

HH | 07 September 2012  

HH,I am acting now! With 26 solar panels and a solar hot water system in operation, I just got a $300+ credit for electricity! I quote from the 2010 Australian Academy of Science Questions and Answers booklet, p15, "If emisssions continue unabated, current mid-range estimates are for 4.5 degreeC higher global average temperatures by 2100, which would mean that the world would be hotter than at any time in the last few million years. Sea level would continue to rise for many centuries. The impacts of such changes are difficult to predict, but are likely to be severe for human populations and for the natural world. The further climate is pushed beyond the envelope of relative stability that has characterised the last several millennia, the greater becomes the risk of passing tipping points that will result in profound changes in climate, vegetation, ocean circulation or ice sheet stability."

My narrative is that the quicker and better all human populations reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the more we can reduce both global temperatue rise and sea level rise, both of which are already happening. I suggest you view "Hot Planet? BBC Documentary YouTube." I doubt if you'd buy beachfront land in Bangladesh!

George Allen | 07 September 2012  

"I doubt if you'd buy beachfront land in Bangladesh!" GA,this may very well be off your radar by now, but if you can point me to some specific properties in Bangladesh or wherever - say, Kiribati - that are heavily discounted due to projected global sea level rise, I'd seriously be very grateful. From my observations, there's been no discounting of property values due to imagined climate change. Please tell me otherwise ... I'm anxious to capitalize!

HH | 13 September 2012  

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