return to articles list

article published in Quadrant Online 5 October 2009

Doomed Planet

“Today’s debate about global warming is essentially a debate about freedom. The environmentalists would like to mastermind each and every possible (and impossible) aspect of our lives.”
Vaclav Klaus
Blue Planet in Green Shackles

Debating global warming
Global Warming and Uncertainty – What is the appropriate response?

by Tom Quirk

On October 2 the Economic Society, unlike a recent report by the ABC, arranged a two-sided presentation on Global Warming and Uncertainty – What is the appropriate response? The advocates for what turned out to be markedly opposing views were Des Moore, the former Deputy Secretary of the Federal Treasury and Harry Clarke, Professor of Economics at La Trobe University. 

Des Moore led off by quoting Paul Krugman and admitting to being amongst those who might commit “treason against the planet”. He discussed the arguments of a number of those who had indulged in this activity. One might be tempted to include the Productivity Commission that pointed out “independent action by Australia to substantially reduce GHG emissions, in itself, would deliver barely discernible climate benefits, but could be nationally very costly”. Stern and Garnaut have both acted as advocates but, avoiding responsibility, declined any substantive assessment of the science. Yet at the heart of the IPCC reports is the assessment of uncertainty. As reproduced in one of the graphs circulated by Des Moore the IPCC report assign numerical uncertainty to the radiative forcing and hence a large uncertainty for the increase of temperature. However not all of the contributions to uncertainty are derived from statistical measurement analysis but some come from expert opinion. This is one point where others could, quite legitimately have a view. 

There is a well documented, even a published peer-reviewed study showing the success rate of expert predictions was little better than that of generalists. The approach to probable risk is important. Indeed in industries such as mining or pharmaceuticals there is a staged evaluation procedure. At the discovery stage you need at least 95% confidence before committing millions of dollars to serious evaluation. The IPCC claims a 90% certainty but how far would a chief geologist get in proposing mine development on the strength of a claimed 90% certainty that an ore body would support a billion dollar development? 

Des Moore posed three questions that arise from the economic estimates of the future that, according to Garnaut’s modelling, show “material living standards are likely to grow strongly through the 21st century, with or without mitigation”.

You might well ask why Garnaut excludes nuclear power when in the one model run where he allows it to play a role it supplies 27% of electricity by 2050! The questions all point to the uncertainty of the future. The National Broadband Network is the contemporary equivalent of the railway expansion of the late nineteenth century. Politicians promised an enhancement of the human condition but now the railways at least in the UK enable the transport of warring football tribes while the car is the preferred mode of transport. So you have technological uncertainty and of course political uncertainty that might interrupt the assumed continuous creation of wealth. 

Des Moore’s assessment was that:

the large uncertainties about the timing and extent of the alleged mitigating action said to be needed suggests that no case exists for governments to start a comprehensive program now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


there are fundamental faults in the science used to justify mitigatory action by governments; that claims of a consensus on the IPCC science have no credibility and that account is not taken of the long history of faulty analyses by scientists; that examination of the temperature and CO2 concentrations data indicates little or no causal connection between changes in the two; that there is no substantive evidence of threats from rising sea levels or melting of sea ice in the Arctic or Antarctic; and that there is no evidence that droughts occur when temperatures increase. 

Hence his conclusion that “a policy based on adaptation by the private sector is the appropriate response to alarmist analyses proposing mitigatory action to prevent supposed dangerous global warming”.  

Harry Clarke comes from another part of the forest. He is “not out of the woods” but he has clearly seen “the light at the end of the tunnel”. The science of climate has been developing for two centuries and is now certain, even incontrovertible and certain in its uncertainty. The IPCC reports are accepted: they had the best scientists.

There are no Rumsfeld doubts here only the sad development of climate delusionism that has been “fostered by press balance ideas – giving sceptics an unwarranted ‘right’ to equal treatment”. Perhaps we have reached the tippling point! Anyhow there are “only one or two genuine sceptics” amongst the scientists. Science has addressed the sceptics on such matters as warming since 1998. Garnaut employed two statisticians from ANU who showed that warming continued. 

Clarke’s approach is authoritarian, “the majority is the message”. His approach to the analysis is through CBA (Cost Benefit Analysis) with the most intriguing point being catastrophic uncertainties that occur with non-negligible probability. Here we have left the shores of risk for the deep water of uncertainties where we need the Rumsfeld compass but find that we “should act irrespective of discount rates or strategic issues” when this approach, unlike that of the Productivity Commission “favours unilateralism and taking prompt action”. Indeed, the greater the uncertainties the more the need for government action. 

Harry Clarke, unlike Garnaut, acknowledges without qualification the potential role of nuclear power but he sees adaptation as a disaster unless mitigation policies are introduced. Agriculture, heading for oblivion, at least in the Murray Darling Basin. in the Garnaut Review as we become a net food importer, needs investment in information and R&D and a redesign of policies to reduce the need for adaptation! An enhanced rural press? 

In conclusion Harry Clarke would actually prefer a consumption based emissions trading scheme but he believed a global ETS would some how reduce costs by 20%. An ETS scheme is cheaper than a tax. 

The audience of some seventy were more excited by Harry Clarke dismissing the science as decided and the paucity of sceptics rather than any economic issues that were put to them. 

The difference of approach is of course the treatment of uncertainty. Des Moore sees the estimated risks as too uncertain for any action while Harry Clarke sees the uncertainties include a potential for disaster and wants to act. The only island of agreement in the ocean of uncertainty was nuclear power!

return to articles list