Tag Archives: climate change

Alan Jones goes after wind farms again, citing dubious evidence

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

Last week, Sydney radio announcer Alan Jones lambasted those concerned about climate change and what he called “renewable energy rubbish”.

Jones has been loose with the facts in the past, having been Factchecked in 2015 after confusing kilowatts with megawatts and quoting a cost for wind power he later confessed “where the 1502 [dollars per megawatt hour that he stated] comes from, I have absolutely no idea”.

Jones, who chaired the much hyped but poorly attended 2013 national rally against wind farms in June 2014 (see photo) told his listeners last week wind farms are “buggering up people’s health”.

He also said “harrowing evidence” had been given by sufferers to the 2014-15 Senate Select Committee on Wind Farms chaired by (now ex-) Senator John Madigan. He along with Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm, Chris Back and Nick Xenophon have been vocal opponents of wind farms.

Their report predictably savaged wind farms, while Labor Senator Anne Urquhart’s minority report was the only one I found to be evidence-based.

Jones then went on to interview Dr Mariana Alves-Periera, from the private Lusophona University in Portugal (world university ranking 1,805, and impact ranking 2,848) whom he described as a distinguished international figure.

She was “recognized internationally” and had published “over 50” scientific papers over 30 years, something of a modest output. Jones, who may or may not have read any of these publications, told listeners her findings were “indisputable”, there was “no opposing scientific evidence” and again in emphasis, “none of [her papers] have been disputed” to which Alves-Periera agreed instantly “no they haven’t”.

This is an interesting interpretation of the scientific reception that has greeted the work of the Lisbon group on the unrecognized diagnosis of “vibroacoustic disease” (or VAD), a term they have made their own.

I first encountered Alves-Periera when she spoke via videoconference to a NHMRC meeting on wind farms and health in 2011. She spoke to a powerpoint presentation which highlighted the case of a schoolboy who lived near wind turbines. Her claim was the boy’s problems at school were due to his exposure to the turbines, as were cases of “boxy foot” in several horses kept on the same property.

Intrigued by this n=1 case report, I set out with a colleague to explore the scientific reception that “vibroacoustic disease” had met. We published our findings in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2013.

We found only 35 research papers on VAD. None reported any association between VAD and wind turbines. Of the 35 papers, 34 had a first author from the Lusophona University-based research group. Remarkably, 74% of citations to these papers were self-citations by members of the group.

In other words, just shy of three quarters of all references to VAD were from the group who were promoting the “disease”. In science, median self-citation rates are around 7%. We found two unpublished case reports from the group presented at conferences which asserted that VAD was “irrefutably demonstrated” to be caused by wind turbines. We listed eight reasons why the scientific quality of these claims were abject.

In 2014 Alves-Periera and a colleague defended their work in a letter to the journal and I replied. They described themselves as the “lead researchers in vibroacoustic disease”. But as we had shown, they are almost the only researchers who were ever active on this topic, with self-citation rates seldom seen in research.

Other experts have taken a different view of the group’s work. One of the world’s leading acousticians Geoff Leventhall who also spoke at the NHMRC’s 2011 meeting, wrote in a 2009 submission to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin about the Lisbon group’s VAD work.

The evidence which has been offered [by them] is so weak that a prudent researcher would not have made it public.

Another expert said:

vibroacoustic disease remains an unproven theory belonging to a small group of authors and has not found acceptance in the medical literature

And most recently, the UK’s Health Protection Agency said the:

disease itself has not gained clinical recognition.

Leventhall concluded his review by saying:

One is left with a very uncomfortable feeling that the work of the VAD group, as related to the effects of low levels of infrasound and low frequency noise exposure, is on an extremely shaky basis and not yet ready for dissemination. The work has been severely criticised when it has been presented at conferences. It is not backed by peer reviewed publications and is available only as conference papers which have not been independently evaluated prior to presentation.

Jones told his listeners the reason wind turbines are not installed on Bondi Beach, down Sydney’s Macquarie Street or Melbourne’s Collins Street was because governments “know they are harmful to health”. His beguiling logic here might perhaps also be the same reason we don’t see these iconic locations given over to mining or daily rock concerts. Most people would understand there are other factors that explain the absence of both wind turbines, mines or daily rock concerts in such locations.

Jones has given air time to a Victorian woman who is a serial complainant about her local wind farm and who has written:

Around the Macarthur wind farm, residents suffer from infrasound emitted by the turbines, even when they’re not operating.

At a time when we are seeing unparalleled increases in renewable energy and reductions in fossil fuels all over the world, one wonders why this is still public discussion in Australia.

The ConversationSimon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Senator, You’re No Socrates

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

In ‘The Clouds,’ Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a sophist, suspended in a basket to enable him to study the skies.
Joannes Sambucus, 1564

So, we all knew Malcolm Roberts, former project leader of the climate denialist Galileo Movement turned One Nation politician, would make an ‘interesting’ first speech to the Senate. If you’ve been following Senator Roberts’ career, most of what he said was more or less predictable. The UN (“unelected swill” – take a bow, PJK), the IMF and the EU are monstrous socialist behemoths with a “frightening agenda,” climate change is a “scam,” the “tight-knit international banking sector” (a dangerous phrase given Roberts’ history of discussing international “banking families”) are “One of the greatest threats to our liberty and life as we know it.”

It may be startling to hear this in one concentrated burst, from a senator, last thing on a Tuesday afternoon, but if you’re familiar with the more conspiratorial corners of the internet this was all fairly pedestrian stuff.

What was more surprising, at least in passing, was Roberts comparing himself to Socrates:

Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.

A Socratic questioner in the Senate! The gadfly of Athens, who cheerfully punctured the delusions of the comfortable and reduced them to frozen bewilderment with just a few cheerfully framed questions like some Attic Columbo, has apparently taken up residence in the red chamber. This should be a golden age for rational inquiry, right?

Right?

Epistemic revolt

The choice of Socrates, like that of Galileo, is no accident. Both fit neatly into a heroic “one brave man against the Establishment” narrative of scientific progress that climate denialists like to identify with. Both eventually changed the trajectory of human knowledge. But along the way, both suffered persecution. Galileo was made to recant his “heretical” heliocentrism under threat of torture and spent his last years under house arrest. Socrates, charged with impiety and corrupting the youth and denounced in court by one Meletus, was put to death. Of course that’s not nearly as rough as the brutal suppression of Malcolm Roberts, who has been cruelly oppressed with a three year Senate seat and a guest slot on Q&A. But you get the idea.

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Most importantly, both Socrates and Galileo function here as emblems of a kind of epistemic individualism. They’re ciphers for a view of knowledge generation as a contest between self-sufficient individual thinkers and a faceless, mediocre ‘they,’ instead of a collective and social process governed by internal disciplinary norms and standards.

Roberts doesn’t simply like asking questions – anyone can do that. No, he wants to be like Socrates: someone who refuses to accept the answers he’s given, and dismantles them with clinical, exhaustive precision. Malcolm Roberts wants to work it all out for himself, scientific community be damned. If Socrates could, why can’t he? Why can’t each of us?

Distributed knowledge

But Socrates, living at the dawn of scholarly inquiry, had the luxury of being a polymath. “Philosopher” simply means “lover of wisdom,” and early philosophers were forced to be rather promiscuous with that love. Physicist, logician, meteorologist, astronomer, chemist, ethicist, political scientist, drama critic: the Greek philosopher was all of these and more by default. The intellectual division of labour had not yet taken place, because all fields of inquiry were in their infancy.

Also well known for their skill at Invisible Basketball. Raphael

Fast forward two and a half thousand years and the situation is radically different. The sciences have long since specialised past the point where non-specialists can credibly critique scientific claims. There is now simply too much knowledge, at too great a pitch of complexity, for anyone to encompass and evaluate it all. The price we pay for our expanding depth of knowledge is that what we know is increasingly distrubuted between the increasingly specialised nodes of increasingly complex informational networks.

That fact, in turn, emphasises our mutual epistemic dependence. I rely daily on the expert competence and good will of thousands of people I never see and will never meet, from doctors to builders to engineers and lawyers – and climate scientists, who wrangle with the unimaginably complex fluid dynamics of our planet.

So what do you if you find yourself up against a network of specialist knowledge that disagrees with your core beliefs? Do you simply accept that you’re not in a position to assess their claims and rely, as we all must, on others? Do you, acknowledging your limitations, defer to the experts?

If you’re Socrates today, then yes, you probably do. The true genius of Socrates as Plato presents him that he understands his limitations better than anyone around him:

And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. (Apology 29b)

Dismissing expertise

But deferring to those who know better is not the sort of Socrates Malcolm Roberts wants to be. If you want to be a Roberts-style Socrates, instead of conceding your ignorance, you cling to some foundational bit of putative knowledge that allows you to dismiss anything else that’s said, like so:

It is basic. The sun warms the earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot. That is why their computer models are wrong.

This is a familiar move to anyone who’s ever watched a 9/11 truther at work. While “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” has become a punchline, in some ways it’s the perfect battle-cry for epistemic rebellion. It asserts that if you just cling to some basic fact or model, you can use it to reject more complicated scenarios or models that seem to contradict that fact.

Jim Benton/Knowyourmeme.com

That move levels the playing field and hands power back to the disputant. Your advanced study of engineering or climatology, be it ever so impressive, can’t override my high school physics or chemistry. My understanding of how physical reality works is simple, graspable, and therefore true; yours is complex, counterintuitive, esoteric, and thus utterly suspect. I’m Plato’s Socrates: earthy, self-sufficient and impervious to sophistry; you, by contrast, are Aristophanes’ Socrates, vain and unworldly, suspended in your balloon far above the healthy common sense of the demos, investing the clouds with your obsessions.

Auxiliary Accusations

This leaves our would-be Socrates with the awkward fact that all those experts still disagree with him. How do you respond in the face of such disconfirmatory data? You could abandon your hypothesis, or you could deploy what Imre Lakatos called an ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ to defend it.

In Roberts’ case, as with many conspiracy theorists, this auxiliary hypothesis takes the form of a scattergun accusation. Climate science isn’t just mistaken, or even just inept, but “fraudulent.” Roberts is quite prepared to accuse thousands of people whose lives he knows nothing about of conscious and systemic corruption rather than admit he might be wrong.

From within Roberts’ rather Manichean worldview, that might seem to make a certain kind of sense: the forces of freedom are fighting an apocalyptic battle against the forces of repression. The enemy is positively evil, with its cooked climate data and insidious agendas and overtaxed bread. There is no need to spare the feelings of a foe so wicked. Those greedy bastards knew exactly what they were doing when they signed up for Socialist Climate Data Manipulation Studies in O-Week.

For anyone who claims to care about the quest for knowledge like Socrates did, the moral recklessness of such an accusation, from someone in such a position of power, should be cause for alarm. And when you’re trying to destroy the reputation of researchers because their message doesn’t suit your free-market pieties, you might just be more Meletus than Socrates.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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David Attenborough says the Great Barrier Reef is in ‘grave danger’ – it’s time to step up

The Conversation

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland and Tyrone Ridgway, The University of Queensland

Over three weeks, Australians have been taken on an incredible journey through the biology, beauty and wonder of the Great Barrier Reef, guided by Sir David Attenborough.

As individuals who have had the privilege of working on the Reef for much of our lives, the wonderful storytelling, exquisite photography and stunning production of the Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough has been inspiring. It’s a great reminder of how lucky we are to have this wonder of nature right on our doorstep.

Particularly special has been the wonderful black-and-white footage of Sir David’s first visit to the Reef in 1957, a trip down memory lane. His attachment and fascination with the Reef are hard to dismiss.

However, as the curtain closes on this wonderful series, Sir David concludes that the Reef that he visited nearly 60 years ago is very different from today.

Research backs up this personal experience. The Australian Institute of Marine Science has shown that the Great Barrier Reef has lost around 50% of its coral cover between 1985 and 2012.

A reef in peril

The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence. – Sir David Attenborough

As this television series has aired in Australia, an underwater heatwave has caused coral bleaching on 93% of the reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. Up to 50% of corals in the worst-affected regions may die as a result of this bleaching.

We should not be too surprised. Reef scientists have been warning about this for decades. In 1998, the warmest year on record at the time, the world lost around 16% of its coral reefs in the first global-scale mass coral bleaching event.

Before the current bleaching, the reef bleached severely in 1998 and 2002, with a substantial bleaching event in 2006 around the Keppel Islands. Outside these events, there has been moderate mass bleaching on the reef since the early 1980s (particularly 1983 and 1987), although never to the extent and intensity that we are witnessing today.

Rising sea temperatures

The current bleaching event has drawn widespread media coverage. One of the arguments we have seen raised is that coral bleaching is natural – and that the reef will bounce back as it always has, or even adapt to warming seas.

It is true that certain coral species, and even certain individual colonies within the same species, do perform better than others when stressed by warmer-than-normal sea temperatures. However, the extent of these differences is only 1-2℃. Given that even moderate climate change projections involve temperatures 2-3℃ higher than today, these differences offer little comfort for reefs like the Great Barrier Reef in a warmer world.

The observation that corals grow in warm areas of the globe is a demonstration that corals can and do adapt to local temperatures. However, the time frames involved are hundreds of years, not a single decade. Current rates of warming are much faster than anything for tens of millions of years, which makes the prospect of evolution keeping pace with a changing ocean even more improbable.

Mass bleaching is a new phenomenon that was first reported in the early 1980s. Before this, there are no reports of corals bleaching en masse across any coral reef or ocean region.

Experts are in agreement that mass coral bleaching and death on the Great Barrier Reef is driven by climate change resulting from human activities (mainly burning fossil fuels). This is the conclusion at the heart of the latest consensus of the United Nations scientific report.

Rising sea temperatures coupled with strong El Niños are unfortunately pushing corals to their thermal tolerance limits and beyond. It only takes a temperature increase of 1-2℃ to disrupt the special relationship between corals and tiny marine algae that live inside their tissue, resulting in bleached corals.

In fact, as CO₂ concentrations rise, sea temperatures will continue to climb – increasing the likelihood that mass coral bleaching events will become more frequent and more destructive. Recent research has shown that near-future increases in local temperature of as little as 0.5℃ may lead to significant degradation of the Great Barrier Reef.

Rising temperatures are not the only climate threat. Cyclones are predicted to become stronger (if less frequent) in a warmer world. Since 2005 there have been eight cyclones on the reef of category 3 or above – more than previous decades. We would argue this is evidence that these predictions are already coming true and form part of our current reality.

Heat stress is not just affecting corals on the Great Barrier Reef either. We are seeing reports of bleaching across all of Australia’s coral real estate (Coral Sea, Torres Strait, Kimberley, North West Shelf), the South Pacific and the central and western Indian Ocean.

It is likely only a matter of time before we start to see reports of bleaching from other coral reefs around the world. We are indeed dealing with changing times and a global issue.

It’s not too late to act

It’s not too late to act – but we will need very deep and significant action to occur within three to five years or face a collapse of ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef.

Climate change is just one of the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef. Fortunately, it is not too late to give the reef a fighting chance.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg on the future of the reef

However, it does require strong, immediate and decisive action from our political leaders.

In the lead-up to the federal election, we believe that four major steps are required by our leaders to ensure a future for the Reef:

  1. Mitigate: we need to – as per the Paris Agreement – keep average global surface temperature increases to below 2.0°C, and hopefully 1.5°C in the long term. This means we must adopt a pathway that will bring our greenhouse gas emissions to zero over the next few decades. Our leaders must live up to the global agreement that they committed to in Paris at COP21.
  2. Invest: we need to ultimately close our coal mines and stop searching for more fossil fuels. The experts tell us that we must leave 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground. Let’s invest in coral, renewables and the planet, and not in coal, emissions and ecosystem collapse.
  3. Strengthen: we need an urgent and concerted effort to reduce other non-climate change threats to build the resilience of the reef so it can better withstand the impacts of climate change over the coming years.
  4. Integrate: Australian and Queensland governments have begun a process to address declining reef health through the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. This plan has a strong focus on coastal water quality. The 2050 Reef Plan and its resourcing will need to consider climate change – especially given that it is likely to make achieving the objectives of the plan even more challenging and impossible (if no action). Otherwise we run the risk of ending up with a great plan for improving water quality by 2050 but no Great Barrier Reef.

We hope that Sir David Attenborough will help inspire Australians to demand action from their political leaders to ensure that this natural wonder of the world continues to inspire, employ, educate and generate income for generations to come.

It seems fitting to end with Sir David’s closing words with a call to our political leaders and fellow Australians:

Do we really care so little about the earth upon which we live that we don’t wish to protect one of its greatest wonders from the consequences of our behaviours?

After all, it is our Great Barrier Reef – let’s keep it great.

Or at least let’s fight to keep it.

The ConversationOve Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland and Tyrone Ridgway, Healthy Oceans Program Manager, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Coral Bleaching Taskforce: more than 1,000 km of the Great Barrier Reef has bleached

The Conversation

Morgan Pratchett, James Cook University and Janice Lough, Australian Institute of Marine Science

One of Australia’s most important natural assets, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), is being affected by the worst ever bleaching in its history, amid warmer than average water temperatures associated with this summer’s major El Niño event.

With extensive coral bleaching having been predicted as far back as October last year, Terry Hughes at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies convened the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce to document the bleaching, both from the air and at close quarters.

With our survey work still ongoing, a bleak picture is emerging: more than 1,000 km of the Great Barrier Reef shows signs of significant bleaching. In the worst-affected areas, in the GBR’s previously pristine far north, many corals are now expected to die.

Bleaching, such as on this anemone, is worst in the Great Barrier Reef’s remote north. Morgan Pratchett/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Author provided

Warning signs

At the start of southern summer it was predicted that bleaching would be largely restricted to central and southern parts of the GBR. As it turns out, the first indications of a problem came from scientists working at Lizard Island, in the reef’s remote north. In January, Jodie Rummer of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies was studying fish near the island when she noticed that many of the hard corals, soft corals and even clams were starting to bleach.

Shortly thereafter, staff from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, undertaking routine surveys in the northern GBR, reported that not only were many of the corals bleached on reefs near Cooktown, but some of the corals had already started dying.

The full extent and severity of the bleaching in the northern GBR became apparent when our colleague Terry Hughes led a team on a series of aerial surveys, similar to those carried out during the 1998 and 2002 GBR bleaching events.

It was expected that these surveys would show that bleaching was restricted to the reefs at and around Lizard Island. But detailed aerial assessments of bleaching severity at 500 reefs have instead shown that 95% of reefs stretching between Cairns and Papua New Guinea have experienced significant coral bleaching. Only four reefs showed no evidence of bleaching.

How do the surveys work?

During aerial surveys, each reef is given a score from 0, indicating no bleaching, to 4, indicating that more than 60% of the corals are bleached. Comparing the results of the latest aerial surveys to those from previous bleaching episodes, it is clear that this bleaching event is far worse.

In 1998 and 2002, fewer than 200 reefs were assigned to the highest bleaching categories (3 or 4), compared with 450 already this year. Moreover, aerial surveys are now continuing on reefs south of Cairns, where bleaching is also being reported.

Extensive aerial surveys are being complemented by in-water surveys by coral biologists. By getting in the water, scientists are better able to ascertain the severity of the bleaching, establish which types of corals have been worst affected, and make predictions about what proportion of the bleached corals are likely to die. The trade-off is that they cannot cover as many locations as an aerial survey.

In places where both aerial and in-water surveys have been conducted, the results match very closely. Near Port Douglas, for example, where aerial surveys revealed many reefs had a score of 4 (greater than 60% bleaching), divers have confirmed that at least 75% of the corals on the shallow reef top are bleached. Similarly, reefs in this region that scored only 2 or 3 from the air show corresponding levels of bleaching in in-water surveys.

The overall pattern

While bleaching surveys are ongoing, a distinct pattern is emerging, whereby the severity of bleaching declines from north to south. Virtually all of the reefs in the GBR’s remote far northern section have been hit very hard. Here, virtually all of the corals, including normally very robust types, are bleached.

Given the severity of the bleaching, we expect that many of the corals in this region will die. This is concerning, given that the GBR’s north was considered “most pristine” in the latest Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report.

Bleached coral near Port Douglas. Cassandra Thompson/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Author provided

Between Cooktown and Cairns – an area of the reef that is particularly important for tourism – the bleaching is much more variable. There are certainly some reefs where up to 90% of the corals are bleached and death rates are expected to be very high. But the extent of bleaching at other nearby reefs is much more moderate, enabling tourists to visit reefs that are still in good condition.

Further south, the extent of bleaching is even more variable and generally less severe. Ironically, the weather disturbance that persisted from Tropical Cyclone Winston, which devastated Fiji in February, helped to cool surface waters over the central and southern GBR, reducing the heat stress suffered by these corals.

Work is continuing to establish the southernmost extent of significant bleaching, but it is clear that a very large stretch (more than 1,000 km) of the GBR has been affected.

While the full extent of the bleaching, as well as the social, ecological and economic impacts, are yet to become apparent, this is undoubtedly the worst known bleaching event on the GBR. The National Coral Bleaching Taskforce will continue to coordinate research throughout 2016 to get a more complete picture of the severity and consequences of this event. The Taskforce is also currently monitoring thermal conditions on Western Australian reefs, which are now at their most critical time for bleaching to occur.

The ConversationMorgan Pratchett, Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University and Janice Lough, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Denialism

Denialism is a person’s choice to deny certain particular facts.  It is an essentially irrational belief where the person substitutes his or her personal opinion for established knowledge. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of denialism is a failure to recognise the distinction between opinions and facts.

Denialism should not be confused with modern scientific skepticism, which is the challenging of beliefs that are unscientific, irrational or based on insufficient evidence.  Instead of denying facts, modern skeptics test claims by analysing whether they are supported by adequate empirical evidence.

The philosophical skepticism of the Sophists and Pyrrhonists in ancient Greece (which was quite different to modern skepticism) consisted of doubting whether there can be any knowledge or facts at all, rather than denying particular facts.

Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature. For example, the term climate change denialist is applied to people who argue against the scientific consensus that the global warming of planet Earth is a real and occurring event primarily caused by human activity. 

The term evolution denialist or ‘creationist’ is applied to people who argue against the fact that life on Earth has evolved from earlier forms, instead of having been created by a supernatural being in its current form.

Other instances include Holocaust denialism, AIDS denialism and vaccination denialism.  The various forms of denialism present the common feature of the person rejecting overwhelming evidence, often with attempts to deny the existence of a scientific consensus or alternatively to allege a conspiracy theory to fake or conceal the evidence. Denialism is commonly one of the foundations of quackery and other varieties of woo.

The motivations and causes of denialism include irrationality, religion and self-interest (political, economic or financial), beliefs in conspiracy theories or even defence mechanisms meant to protect the psyche of the denialist against mentally disturbing facts and ideas.

 

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Climate change risk assessment


 

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Brian Schmidt on amateur climate science ‘experts’

Brian Paul Schmidt AC, FRS, FAA (born February 24, 1967) is a Distinguished Professor, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and astrophysicist at The Australian National University‘s Mount Stromlo Observatory and Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics; and is known for his research in using supernovae as cosmological probes. He currently holds an Australia Research Council Federation Fellowship and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2012. Schmidt shared both the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, making him the only Montana-born Nobel laureate. In June 2015, his appointment as the next Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, commencing in January 2016, was announced.

‘As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people. Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science. Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound. The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide. No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.’

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What has science ever done for us? The Knowledge Wars, reviewed

The Conversation

Will J Grant, Australian National University

The deadbeat boyfriend at the centre of Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit What Have You Done For Me Lately used to take Janet out to dinner almost every night. He used to do a lot of nice stuff for her. But – as the title asks – what had he done for her lately?

Like Janet, many people ask the same question of science.

Sure, since the 16th century, science has given us electricity and anaesthetics, the internet and statins, the jumbo jet, vaccines and good anti-cancer drugs, the washing machine and the automobile. But what has it done for us lately?

In fact, for many people, what science has done for us lately hasn’t been dancin’ till one thought one would lose one’s breath. Rather, it has delivered emotionally-charged fights over issues such as vaccination, whether everyone should be taking statins, anthropogenic climate change, genetically modified foods, wind farms and high-tension power lines.

Indeed, while most of us are happy with most of the products of science – not least our iPods, white goods and light bulbs – when it comes to some of the more contentious issues of science we’re not such a happy bunch.

You only have to look at comment threads on this site on articles about these topics to see just such unhappiness and disgruntlement. In such discussions, science isn’t a benign tool for understanding the natural world, but a villain intent on unleashing industries and technologies we don’t want, or forcing us to give up our SUVs or eat our broccoli.

In this sort of world you can understand why, when considering the state of things, many scientists have taken on slightly exasperated air.

Warts and all

Science is under attack from some quarters. 
Melbourne University Press

And so Nobel Laureate and National Living Treasure Peter Doherty has stepped into this breach to make the case for science. His new book, The Knowledge Wars, rests on the argument that we are in the midst “of a potential deadly conflict between the new knowledge based in science and the established power”.

That is, while science has often been in conflict with established dogma – from Charles Darwin to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren – for the first time in a long time science finds itself pitted against powerful economic and political actors.

In this space, Doherty’s work seeks to provide a practical discussion of the nature of modern science with the hope that we can all take on a more evidence-based view of the world.

Thankfully, this isn’t a ra-ra hagiography that just drums into us that science is the best thing that’s ever happened to us since our ancestors discovered the paleo diet (though there is some of that).

Rather, Doherty seeks to explore how science works in modern times, warts and all. This means instead of a recitation of a high school definition of science, Doherty provides a nuanced, thoughtful discussion of the limits of peer review; the economics of publishing; the scientific culture of critique; fraud, errors and outright criminality in scientific work; and the nature of modern data collection.

This makes it a valuable “behind the scenes” examination of what actually happens in modern science.

Renaissance again

The goal in much of this is not to directly convince those who, for example, reject the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s position on climate change, but to provide ammunition to those of us who find ourselves stuck in a conversation with such people.

We’ve all heard lines about “global conspiracies of scientists”. Yet no one who has a passing understanding of how science works could imagine getting a global community to agree on anything remotely doubtful.

Doherty’s central target (very much in keeping with the history of science, really) is blind acceptance of dogma based on the pronouncements of authority. Here he connects centuries of science from Galileo and Copernicus to Charles Darwin, Richard Feynmann, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.

We might even point to an earlier trajectory of empirically minded iconoclasts, from Prince Henry the Navigator to Heraclitus the Paradoxographer. Importantly, though those who reject the idea of anthropogenic climate change might point to such iconoclasts as rejecting scientific dogma, Doherty very much highlights such revolutionary work as part and parcel of the process of science. For him, the solution to any of the ills of science is more science.

At times The Knowledge Wars feels like a Wikipedia binge, ranging widely and wildly through invention and events of the last 500 years (although, to be fair, that’s often how I spend my Saturday nights). And, perhaps more fundamentally, it sorely misses a nuanced take on the economic sociology and history underpinning that period. For example, although central to much of scientific and social history of the last half millennium, “capitalism” doesn’t make it to the index.

But the bigger lament I have after reading The Knowledge Wars is one perhaps I share with Doherty. Modern science began with the birth of Renaissance men; with individuals who understood that wise governance requires an embrace of statecraft as well as high art and the latest advances in science.

Yet now, the very idea of Renaissance men and women seems anathema, a foolish dream that could never happen in this crazy mixed up world we now live in. But is that really so foolish?


The Knowledge Wars by Peter Doherty is published by Melbourne University Press and is available for A$29.99 in paperback and A$19.99 in ebook.

The ConversationWill J Grant is Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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The march of the king crabs: a warning from Antarctica

The Conversation

Kathryn Smith, Florida Institute of Technology

Changing wildlife: this article is part of a series looking at how key species such as bees, insects and fish respond to environmental change, and what this means for the rest of the planet.

Hundreds of metres below the surface of the freezing ocean surrounding Antarctica, the seafloor is teeming with life. The animals living there have no idea that an army is on the brink of invading their tranquil environment.

The army is composed of king crabs. Until 2003, there were no crabs in this fragile Antarctic ecosystem. Now, driven by warming waters, their arrival heralds a major upset.

The unique communities living on the continental shelf off Antarctica are found in no other place on Earth. Delicate brittle stars, beautiful sea stars, vibrant sea lilies, and giant sea spiders are among the spectacular inhabitants found there. The animals live side by side, with almost no predators to upset the balance.

For millions of years, the cold water temperatures in the Antarctic have stopped most predators from surviving in this harsh environment. But this situation is rapidly changing.

A yellow sea lily (top) and brittle stars on the continental shelf off Antarctica SeaSled, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Climate change is increasing temperatures across our planet, and the Antarctic is no exception. Sea temperatures in the Antarctic are rising at a faster rate than almost anywhere else.

With the increasing temperatures come new residents. Animals that have been absent from the continental shelf around Antarctica for millions of years are quickly returning.

The march of the king crabs

In every part of the world except the Antarctic, crabs are one of the major predators in seafloor communities. Their strong, crushing claws are deadly to snails, brittle stars, and other slow-moving animals.

However, on the continental slope and continental shelf surrounding Antarctica, icy water temperatures have kept crabs away. Crabs naturally take up magnesium into their blood from seawater, and they can usually control the level of magnesium in its blood. But at very low temperatures they cannot regulate it. Instead, the magnesium builds up in their blood.

It acts like an anaesthetic and eventually causes the crab to die. As a result, crabs have previously been unable to survive in Antarctic waters.

Water temperatures on the continental slope and shelf around Antarctica are now warming to levels that crabs can tolerate. Although they and other predators have been absent from the continental slope and shelf around Antarctica for millions of years, one group, the king crabs, have been living in the neighbouring deep ocean.

In the deep ocean around Antarctica, water temperatures have historically been warmer than on the continental shelf. But as shelf temperatures increase, the king crabs are beginning to move up the continental slope into shallower water.

In 2003, king crabs were seen on the continental slope off Antarctica for the first time. Since then, an increasing number of crabs have been reported. They are seemingly marching up the continental slope and towards the continental shelf, with nothing to stop them.

King crabs on the continental slope off Antarctica. SeaSled, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

A smorgasbord of delicious treats

If king crabs move onto the shelf, they will be presented with a smorgasbord of invertebrates. King crabs do not care much what they eat. Any animal that falls into their path makes a delicious treat.

In the Antarctic, the native inhabitants are particularly at risk. These animals have evolved without any major predators for millions of years. In other parts of the world, animals living on the seafloor have thick shells or hard skeletons to protect them against predators like crabs.

But in Antarctica, they have very limited defences against predation. The animals have very thin shells, soft bodies, and light skeletons. They are an easy target for the rapidly approaching king crabs.

Common animals on the continental shelf include fragile sea spiders, lightly skeletonized brittle stars, and soft-bodied sea cucumbers. SeaSled, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Climate change is already allowing king crabs to move into shallower areas of the continental slope off Antarctica than ever before. As temperatures continue to rise, we can only guess that the king crabs will continue their invasion onto the continental shelf.

When the crabs arrive, they are very likely to have a huge impact on the unique animals that live there. If nothing stops the king crabs from moving onto the continental shelf, the defenceless animals that currently live there may well become yet another casualty of climate change.

The ConversationKathryn Smith is Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Florida Institute of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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For this generation, and the next, it’s time to bring back the carbon tax

The Conversation

By Max Corden, University of Melbourne

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey will release the Intergenerational Report on Thursday, and has invited Australians to join in a conversation about the economy and the challenges facing the budget.

I’d like to argue the case for bringing back the carbon tax.

Tony Abbott, when leader of the Opposition, promised to repeal the carbon tax brought in by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. And he has fulfilled his promise.

Now circumstances have changed: the budget deficit and public debt have turned out to be important problems in the eyes of the government because of the somewhat unexpected decline in export prices. So Abbott, or his successor as prime minister, would be justified in re-imposing this tax.

The revenue from a carbon tax could make a significant contribution to dealing with the deficit problem. Of course, it would not be enough, and, as is well known, other measures or reforms to generate revenue for the government are available and certainly needed.

The carbon tax as a burden

Prime Minister Abbott certainly convinced his fellow Australians that this “great big new tax” would be a burden. But all taxes impose burdens or costs somewhere, whether on companies or individuals. One might reflect that, in current budgetary circumstances a “big new tax,” and perhaps more than one, is just what doctor Hockey ordered.

The carbon tax was paid by numerous businesses, but this did not mean they carried the final “burden”. Mostly they would have passed it on to their customers, both households and businesses. Essentially it might be regarded as a fossil energy tax.

When the tax was repealed Abbott argued households would benefit on average by A$550 a year, with gas prices to fall by 7% and electricity prices by 9%. His much-repeated and persuasive message was that the carbon tax raised the cost of living and this was “toxic” and “has been hurting ordinary people”. He also argued a tax that raised energy prices would have led to job losses.

All this seemed very persuasive. The persuasion was reinforced by the fact that earlier – essentially from 2007 to 2010 – electricity prices had risen sharply for other reasons, essentially to pay for the high costs of excessive investment in networks (poles and wires). In many minds those price rises were mixed up with the expected effect of the carbon tax.

Where did the revenue go?

But Abbott never refers to the government revenue that was raised because of the carbon tax. Did the tax not have any beneficial effects for households or businesses to compensate for the directly adverse effects of the higher prices of energy? Where did this revenue go?

In fact, some of it was used to compensate firms that competed in international markets, while a substantial part compensated low income households through reductions in their income tax. The latter was an important element of the Gillard program. What was taken out of the income stream by the carbon tax at one point was put back by the compensation at another point. If there were job losses at one end, there would be job gains at the other. Furthermore, reducing income tax, at least in the low income ranges, would increase the incentives to seek work, a highly desirable economic effect.

Possibly some of the revenue led to greater government spending which benefited households. By ignoring all these offsetting revenue effects Abbott was able to conclude that the carbon tax had a severely adverse effect on incomes and employment. Did he really believe this?

At this point one might ask: what was the point of the whole exercise when funds were taken out of the economy at one end and put back at the other. The answer seems obvious. The carbon tax would produce market inducements that reduced harmful emissions of greenhouse gases. Of course, if one does not believe that climate change is a problem, or that Australia could make any difference, the whole business seems pointless. And if one assumes that nothing happens to the revenue, the tax would seem not just pointless but harmful.

Use the revenue to reduce the deficit?

In the event of the carbon tax being reinstated, the whole of the gross revenue might be used to reduce the budget deficit. It would not finance increased government spending. How much money would be available? According to official estimates, in the first two years of operation the carbon tax raised A$15.4 billion in gross revenue.

If the carbon tax revenue actually reduces the budget deficit without compensating tax or spending changes elsewhere, the benefit would then be in the future (when debt is lower than otherwise), while the return of the “big new tax” would indeed impose a present cost. Hockey would then get his deeply desired budget improvement but this would still be at odds with Abbott’s desire to avoid new taxes.

The economic impact of climate change

Australia has a group of “realists” who do not deny climate change, but argue Australia generates such a small proportion of the world’s harmful carbon emissions that we cannot make any difference anyway. So, why bother with a carbon tax?

We can make a difference, and, above all, it is in our interest that we do. We may not be able to directly affect world climate alone, but it certainly will affect us, so we must try and influence collective global action.

First there is the direct effect of climate change on Australia, and especially its coastline, as set out by the CSIRO. Likely effects include reduced rainfall in southern Australia, more extreme fire weather, adverse effects on the Great Barrier Reef, on coastal populations, and so on. Particularly important for Australia are increasing heatwaves. Heatwaves have killed more Australians than all other natural hazards combined.

Second, the rise of the sea level in association with severe weather events is likely to have a serious impact on Australia’s neighbouring islands and island countries, including Indonesia, with many of its population of 250 million people highly vulnerable.

For selfish reasons we need to use our maximum diplomatic influence to encourage other countries to take the necessary measures to drastically moderate or avoid climate change. And we can only do this if we set an example ourselves. A restoration of the carbon tax would be the first step.

Of course, eventually this might evolve into an Emissions Trading Scheme. In both cases carbon emissions will be discouraged and the government will receive revenue.


Editor’s note: Max will be answering questions between 10 and 11am on Thursday March 5. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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