A time to end the ideology of climate debate

[The following post appeared first as an Op Ed article in the Courier Mail Monday 7 February 2011, p 27 under the title “Climate is more than one storm”]

Through weeks of record rains, winds and floods protagonists on both sides of the climate change debate have claimed Queensland’s sorry summer as vindicating their case.

At times the political point scoring has fully justified Mark Twain’s lament about “Lies, damned lies and statistics”.

“Is it climate change?” quite simply is a question that cannot be asked usefully of any single flood, drought or cyclone or even sequence of weather events – because one event in itself yields no scientifically valid answer.

The science of ‘climate change’ requires the data and perspective of decades and centuries, but in the hands of vested interests and ideologues is debated out of context with selective and incomplete information.

Even the elementary difference between weather and climate, explained by NASA as simply “a measure of time”, is pretty much ignored.

Scientists talk about the ‘weather’ as being what happens in the atmosphere over a few days or at most a season.

For a span of months and years they will refer to short term ‘climate variability’ like El Niño or La Niña – which some suggest may also be influenced by even longer patterns such as Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) that tips every two or three decades.

By themselves, however, neither weather nor climate variability data explain the most important finding of climate science, that the global atmosphere is warming and that the human contribution through fossil fuel emissions is increasingly significant.

While the extreme, indeed highest on record, sea temperatures in the neighbouring western Pacific Ocean and Coral Sea principally explain current cyclonic intensity and record rainfalls, they are both reflective of climate variability – La Niña – and also of potentially longer term patterns – climate change.

As for using a hundred years of record weather data to make conclusions about future climate change, climate scientists are the first to acknowledge they have none or very little confidence in historical climate statistics as predictors of future climate.

A bigger Brisbane flood in 1893 than in 2011 does not disprove a link between the heat radiating functions of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere and global warming.

Nothing relevant or useful is proved by all this conceptual confetti but for the community to be distracted from a genuinely well informed discussion about the intermediate to longer term and the risks we face with climate change.

2010 has been the hottest and most severe weather year on record globally.

Queensland’s worst cyclone in over a century, the flooding that was Australia’s largest natural disaster, economic dislocation across our state, and community upheaval and personal trauma give an insight to the future if the risks of climate change are ignored.

As American scientists told their Congress this week, it is time to end the “ideological and partisan” debate about climate change and get on to dealing with the economic, national security, and health risks it brings .

Delayed action they said means more severe and costlier impacts.
It is a message which will resonate positively with many in Queensland, because it applies equally to our own governments at all levels.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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