A position of authority guarantees neither knowledge nor wisdom. [22 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]
You probably don’t need to be told that the male of our species is more inclined to risky behaviour than the other half of the population. It’s how we’re made.
It’s risky behaviour to ignore the advice of all the world’s national science academies and the vast majority of government science agencies that human greenhouse gas emissions are a future danger.
A 2011 US study that looked specifically at deniers of human-induced climate change, using polling data obtained over the decade to 2010, found strong evidence that such people included a disproportionately high level of conservative white males.
There was a further refinement. The study, by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, found that one category of conservative white males “express an even greater degree of climate change denial”. These were the especially confident ones: those who say they understand global warming very well.
The evidence was “compelling”, said McCright and Dunlap, that in denying a human role in climate change such men were responding to what they saw as a threat to their identity and the systems that supported them. In other words, their denial is a defence mechanism.
Most of us have just enough confidence to get by and no more, but some have it in spades. Those who come most readily to mind are corporate heavyweights, people used to giving orders who get irritated when others question them. People who don’t allow time for doubt, especially self-doubt.
People like Dick Warburton, chairman of Westfield Retail Trust and a some other financial organisations, and now in charge of the Abbott government’s review into Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET).
Or like David Murray, former head of the Commonwealth Bank, Peter Costello’s choice to head up the Future Fund, and recently-appointed head of the Abbott government’s financial system inquiry.
Or Maurice Newman, former chair of the Australian Stock Exchange and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and now heading up the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.’
“I am not a denier of climate change,” Warburton said in February when he was appointed to head the RET review. “I am a sceptic that man-made carbon dioxide is creating global warming.” That’s all right then.
Murray went a few steps further last November when he told an ABC-TV interviewer that “the climate problem is overstated”. Like his fellow business-chief Warburton, he believes the scientific wisdom about human-produced carbon dioxide causing warming is simply wrong.
Murray said that disputation among climate scientists revealed a breakdown in scientific integrity. Never mind the 20 years of evidence cited by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that 97 per cent of scientists concluded that humans caused global warming.
Then there’s Maurice Newman, who as chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council is now firmly ensconced in Tony Abbott’s ear. Like Warburton and Murray, he built his career in financial institutions, including many years at the head of Deutsche Bank’s Australian arm.
Like Warburton and Murray, Newman discounts the science behind human-induced warming, but in his case it’s much more antagonistic. He has embarked on open warfare against the science and one of its outcomes, the development of renewable energy, especially wind energy.
Newman went on the attack in two newspaper columns on 31 December 2013 and 15 January 2014. He said the theory of human-caused warming was a massive popular delusion, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was actually a political body that had been “captured by the green movement”.
(Just by the way, the IPCC liaises with governments but is led by and mainly made up of working climate scientists. Its current scientific report is written by over 600 scientists drawing on over 9200 research papers, and vetted by 1000 expert reviewers, mainly scientists.)
Newman presented as a champion of the poor. Those who drove the “climate change delusion”, he said, favoured the rich and powerful (people like him) “at the expense of the poor and powerless”.
Deploring “childish personal attacks” by those he disagreed with, he drew on media reports and two prominent US contrarian scientists, Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen, to declare that we’re now witnessing “the unravelling of years of shoddy science and sloppy journalism”. Ouch.
A rural property owner, he has vigorously opposed establishment of wind farms both on nearby properties and elsewhere, claiming that their turbines are a threat to human health. He has close ties with anti-wind farm groups, including the Waubra Foundation.
Last year a Victorian government publication, “Wind farms, sound and health”, questioned the health risk from wind farm noise, saying that at normal residential distances a wind farm was quieter than a car 100 metres away, and that inaudible sound of any frequency can’t affect health.
Newman is unmoved, and in January got none other than Tony Abbott to call for yet more wind farm research by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The NHMRC is showing signs of wind farm research fatigue. Having reviewed the science in 2009, it instigated another review and two months ago said it had found “no reliable and consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans”.
Warburton, Murray and Newman are men of power. They have no scientific training, but from their lofty perch, they and their government allies have concluded that the combined effort and findings of virtually all practising climate scientists count as nothing against their word.
They may enjoy delivering their opinions, and so might we except for the impact of their statements, from positions of authority, on the reputation of science and the future of everyone.