As an environmental scientist, I have long puzzled as to why climate science is so contentious.
When I first studied climate science, we were expecting an ice age but back then, it was just a guess. As more carbon dioxide data became available, the increase was evident and instead of an ice-age, scientists – and others – realised the planet’s atmosphere was warming.
That’s the thing about scientists – they follow the evidence. If new evidence comes in, showing a different pattern, then they amend their interpretation to fit the facts. Scientists wonder about new ideas as much as anyone, but don’t usually rush to take sides.
In universities, a new idea is tested rather than debated – and rarely to the extent of believing or denying it. Science does not require belief because it is not a faith. Although science is explained by knowledge, at its fundamental level it is a method.
Scientists gather evidence and see a pattern in what is observed. Most scientific ideas start as a hypothesis then mature slowly with better data and insight. As the idea broadens, it engages more scientists (in other fields) and then goes beyond science. Eventually it is discussed by ethics committees, law makers, politicians, economists, artists and anyone else who is fascinated by a new idea.
But climate science did not follow this careful path. The idea went through several name changes – greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change, climate emergency – and took a short-cut around the analytical academics who usually scrutinise with disinterest.
Normally, the process of scientifically peer-reviewed publication irons out inconsistencies before the public is informed. But in this case, climate science became a public debate too early in its development. People watched a piece of science squirm through all its squabbles, out in the open.
Global Warming gained notoriety when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979–1990). As a scientist herself, Thatcher saw usefulness in this young theory for her politics. And as a politician she used it to argue against coal and in favour of nuclear fuel in power stations. As a result, the idea was dragged into a bitter fight between the UK government and coal mining unions.
But after leaving politics in 1990, Thatcher said little more about climate science. In her 2002 memoir, she criticised former USA Vice-President Al Gore for his “doomist” predictions.
Australia did not have the UK’s fight between coal and nuclear power, but it did have a huge rise in energy consumption around the same time. I witnessed this first-hand when I worked in power stations as a scientific investigator.
New pollution laws at the time were bringing air pollution under control so I hoped carbon dioxide (Global Warming) would be the next to be controlled. But that didn’t happen. Regulators did not classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant. That’s why it did not get the safeguard of having limits and penalties – as applied to other industrial fumes.
There is a precedent for controlling carbon dioxide at the smokestack. During the 1970s and 1980s, sulphur dioxide was also emitted from power stations. It caused acid rain in regions of Europe and America. Governments regarded this as pollution and several governments acted collectively to enact laws that transcended borders.
But carbon dioxide was more complex. Policy makers realised that it was far more widespread than power stations and not easy to pinpoint as a pollutant. Instead of being controlled the way sulphur dioxide was, carbon dioxide became the subject of trading schemes, pricing and taxes.
Carbon dioxide defies being defined as a pollutant – it is an outlaw and hero in one molecule. This ubiquitous gas can do multiple things. When emitted from power stations, cement factories or vehicles, it is an unwanted pollutant.
Paradoxically, it keeps life alive. Plants breathe carbon dioxide like we breathe oxygen. It also insulates the planet – a comfort blanket in the sky – but it can overheat the climate if there is too much.
Carbon, along with water, is one of the fundamental cycles that stabilises our weather, energy and food. Throughout history – as many societies took carbon from underground and released it to the sea and sky – it caused a (presumably) unintended consequence.
Now, contemporary society is being condemned for its enterprise, development and affluence. National governments are making decisions on climate change that can look like either a threat, or salvation, to citizens.
Any attempt to explain the global scale of disturbing the planetary carbon cycle runs the risk of looking like a universal theory – trying to explain everything. The scope covers energy, industry, agriculture, forestry and consumerism – everything that an advanced economic system needs to function.
Then again, a theory that addresses nearly everything appeals to its supporters. So, like a charismatic leader, climate change is all things to all people. To industrialists, climate change feels like an affront to their efforts. To environmentalists, it feels like a circling of the wagons to defend what’s left of society.
As more sectors of society have become involved, each perspective has spawned a win or a loss – a belief or a denial.
Regulatory agencies can feel trapped in the dilemma of declaring carbon dioxide a prosecutable pollutant, while knowing it is also life-giving. Centralised power companies can feel pushed out of the energy industry, after decades of service. High energy users, like airlines (and their passengers) can feel hounded for having benefited from harnessing fuels that emit carbon dioxide.
The older generation who raised their standard of living from carbon fuels can feel guilty that their grandchildren will pay for it. Taxpayers can feel that polluters should pay instead of being bailed out with public money. Small island nations can feel they have paid with their homeland, for a world problem that was not of their making.
Economists, especially, have been drawn into the discussion. Some have re-worked economic theory to allow industry to account for environmental consequences.
Farmers can feel entitled to payment for the revegetation they are expected to do to counterbalance excessive carbon dioxide. Money speculators can feel entitled to trade in a new-found commodity if governments put a price on carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy enthusiasts can feel entitled to advocate for nuclear fuel as an alternative to carbon-fuelled power. Entrepreneurs can feel they have the answer – a renewable energy industry to replace carbon fuels.
Right wing voters can feel that climate change is bringing instability. Left wing voters can feel that climate action is too slow.
The extent of climate disturbance is too broad to have narrow solutions. The science around the idea is too complex for simple answers.
So the challenge for government is to choose a climate policy that is based on science yet inclusive of the spectrum of sectors and perspectives. Sadly, to date, the Australian government has been constrained by binary thinking and partisan answers.
Citizens deserve better than a policy paralysed between believers and deniers. A fresh way to proceed is to accommodate the many viewpoints that have been swept into the vortex of this idea. Evidence shows that a climate policy has no basis for blaming one sector or glorifying another.
Just like any complex policy, climate policy requires answerability for the disruption that has happened, as well as fair dealing for its consequences. Anything less compassionate is too small for the size of the problem.
Suzanne Little is an environmental writer and sustainability consultant.
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