Increasingly, the road to Copenhagen resembles a suburban street on Halloween with the number of climate change freak shows and stunts reaching a nadir in recent weeks. Nicholas Stern says we should turn vegetarian in order to combat climate change. If you must eat meat, eat kangaroos, says Ross Garnaut, because marsupials emit negligible amounts of methane. And that champagne you drank on Melbourne Cup day? Scientists scolded us with a report that a 750ml bottle of bubbly could produce 100 million bubbles, releasing five litres of carbon dioxide.
Yet far from rallying people to the cause of immediate action on climate change, every new cri de coeur may be turning people away. Could it be that those derided as the great unwashed are beginning to ask more questions than their smart political leaders or the bastions of intellectual curiosity in the media?
Late last month, activists gathered at Sydney Opera House to listen to Sydney mayor Clover Moore announce that “the time for talk is past”. “Already we know that this building, our Opera House, for decades a symbol of optimism and the human spirit, is under threat from global warming,” she says.
The Opera House under threat? That would be from rising sea levels, right? Just like the small island nation of Maldives where, last month, the president conducted a cabinet meeting underwater to remind the world that his country would be rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels. Kitted out in full scuba-diving outfits, Mohamed Nasheed and his ministers sat at a table underwater off the coast of the capital of Male.
As planned, the president’s stunt made headlines across the globe. Send us money - and lots of it - is his message. The media love stunts. They are so easy to report. Sadly, the media is not inquisitive enough to report those who question the circus acts of climate change. A week after the Maldives underwater show, Nils-Axel Morner - a leading world authority on sea levels - wrote an open letter to the president telling him that his stunt was “not founded in observational facts and true scientific judgments”.
Morner is a former professor who headed the department of paleogeophysics and geodynamics at Stockholm University and past president (1999-2003) of the International Union for Quaternary Research commission on sea level changes and coastal evolution. INQUA was founded in 1928 by scientists who aimed to improve the understanding of environmental change during the glacial ages through interdisciplinary research. In other words, the Swedish professor has gravitas when it comes to sea levels.
Alas his letter did not make headlines. That is a shame. Morner says there is “no rational basis” for the hysterical claims that the people of Maldives - or the rest of the world - are threatened by rising sea levels. And he sets out some facts.
Fact number 1: During the past 2000 years, sea levels have fluctuated with 5 peaks reaching 0.6m to 1.2m above present sea level. Fact number 2: From 1790 to 1970 sea levels were about 20cm higher than today. Fact number 3: In the 1970s, the sea level fell by about 20cm to its present level. Fact number 4: Sea levels have remained constant for the past 30 years “implying that there are no traces of any alarming ongoing sea level rise”. Fact number 5 (and I am paraphrasing here): The notion presented by the President of the Maldives that his country will be flooded is bunkum.
Yet, last week a federal parliamentary report told Australians to make plans to evacuate if we live on the coast. Warning that the “time to act is now”, the bipartisan report said the 711,000 addresses within 3km of the Australian coast - and less than 6m above sea level - face threats from rising sea levels. The report called for an inquiry by the Productivity Commission to examine the need for bans on homes within these areas.
Viewers of the 7pm News on ABC1 were told by a Richard Branson lookalike - complete with longish wavy grey hair, beard and crisp white shirt - that the township of Byron Bay would be completely flooded by rising sea levels. His expertise? He is a resident of Byron Bay.
Despite the headline grabbing rhetoric about climate change calamity, recent polls reveal that more and more people appear to be challenging the orthodoxy. The most recent Lowy Institute poll found that while 48 per cent of Australian believe that global warming is a serious and pressing problem, the numbers are down 12 points since 2008 and 20 points down since 2006. “This is also the first year that it has not had majority support,” said the Lowy Institute.
A poll by Ipso Reid in Canada in September found that global warming has dropped down the list of people�s concerns. Indeed, a full 41 per cent now say the threat has been overblown. In the US, Associated Press reported on a poll last month that found 57 per cent of people believe there is clear evidence that the world is heating up, down 20 points from three years ago. These are some trend lines worth watching.
Perhaps we are wising up to modern day millenarianism where end-of-the-world cults - those who have the most to gain from their fear mongering - preach calamity. Remember Y2K? The cult back then comprised computer experts. They predicted disaster. Planes would fall from the skies. People would be caught in halting elevators. Chaos would descend on anything that relied on a computer, from financial markets to utilities. Governments duly prepared for disaster with the BBC reporting that global preparations for the millennium bug were estimated to have cost more than $US300 billion. All for nought. Nothing happened. It was, as James Taranto wrote in The Wall Street Journal, the hoax of the century.
Maurice Newman, who was chairman of the federal government’s Y2K committee told The Australian last week that “in pressing the urgency for compliance, the committee members relied heavily on confirmatory bias. Most of this came from so-called experts who had much to gain from creating a sense of alarm. The consequence of widespread inaction was claimed to result in chaos and systemic failure. As there was no alternative authoritative voice, this became perceived wisdom and was certainly believed by the committee. As such the Y2K phenomenon took on a life of its own.”
Deja vu? Preparing for the deluge of rising sea levels, we were treated to footage last week from parliamentary question time starring Julia Gillard and her gumboots. Appropriately she was followed on ABC1 by Bananas in Pyjamas. Could man-made climate change turn out to be the greatest hoax of the present century? Certainly, ordinary people are beginning to ask questions.