Why some scientists diverge from the mainstream

A while ago, a friend sent me a link to an article by Richard Lindzen as an example of a respectable scientist who sits on the “skeptical” side of the fence in the global warming debate. At the time, I noted that Lindzen was also known as a skeptic of the link between smoking and lung cancer, but aside from thinking it was an interesting coincidence that he fell twice into the skeptical camp on such emotional topics, didn’t ponder it much more.

However,  recently I listened to a lecture by Naomi Oreskes (presumably connected with her recent book) where she provided a possible explanation of the link between the two views that also can explain why a respectable scientist is willing to diverge so far from the mainstream position.

We don’t hear debates about whether the sun-goes-around-the-earth or the earth-goes-around-the-sun any more. There isn’t disagreement on whether driving a car is dangerous, or whether excessive sun-baking increases the chance of skin cancer.

But when it comes to climate science, there is a very visible debate. If there was a clear split in the climate science community, that would be one explanation. Although, all major national science academies fall in the climate change believer camp, and in an essay in Science, Oreskes found that of 928 randomly selected abstracts on climate change, exactly none argued against the idea of human-influenced global warming. (Other similar studies can be found listed here.)

I’m not interested in discussing here who is right or wrong, but noting that the respectable scientists who are arguing a skeptical position regarding climate change are a small group indeed. It’s not a bad thing for science that they exist, as educated debate improves our body of knowledge, and such a debate needs people on both sides. However, it must be a tough job for the individuals involved. It’s natural to wonder why they would do it.

Due to the politicisation of the field, and the implications for certain industries depending on resulting policies, I’m not surprised that scientists who argue against climate change are effectively given a megaphone. On the other hand, I would be surprised if this was a sufficient reason for respectable scientists to adopt positions that they didn’t believe.

Oreskes proposes that the reason is: many scientists in the skeptical camp are fierce believers of capitalism and the free market. Hence they will naturally assume that any argument leading to a conclusion of greater industry regulation must be wrong, and will look very hard for the flaws in it.

An example of such a scientist, according to Oreskes, is Fred Singer.  Not only is he a climate change skeptic today, but in the past has been skeptical of the link between (second hand) cigarette smoke and cancer.  In the case of second hand smoking, he was arguing against the US EPA‘s desire to regulate smoking.

So, perhaps this applies to Lindzen as well. In that case, his skeptical views on both the dangers of smoking and climate change are not co-incidental at all.

Of course, if scientists all agreed on everything, then we wouldn’t need scientists. But I find it interesting to understand what might motivate scientists to disagree when it must seem like the whole scientific community is in agreement against them.

A Modest Proposal

Tony Abbott
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Dear Tony Abbott,

Your new climate change policy for the Liberal Party is certainly interesting: a 5% reduction in national emission levels from those of the year 2000 by the year 2020, but without implementing an energy trading scheme or carbon tax. Although it doesn’t sound like you’ve quite settled how you’ll achieve this yet, you are looking at options such more regulations and new government subsidies. You are clearly open to options which the Labor Party is traditionally closed to.

However, as someone who might be willing to take on radical yet reasonable policy positions, I would like you to consider a simple measure that will cost the government nothing, yet easily achieve your target. Pass a law that makes it illegal to eat meat.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” found that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock sector, which is more than the emissions from all the cars in the world. We have been looking for emission savings in all the wrong places.

Having Australia become the first country to go vegetarian would demonstrate global leadership and really show those United Nations guys that we can do without their pesky energy trading scheme. If China can introduce a one child policy, then surely we can introduce a one food policy. Almost a third of Indian people are vegetarian, which is like if seventeen entire Australias were vegetarian. The global thinking is consistent: I have been assured by a very knowing fellow in London (author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change) that people ought to go vegetarian for the climate’s sake.

According to the Australian Government’s Department of Climate Change, “Tracking to Kyoto and 2020” report, our emission levels in the year 2000 were 553 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent gasses. A 5% reduction is a reduction of 27.7 million tonnes. Vegetarianism will easily achieve this.

As the Garnaut Climate Change Review notes, “Australia’s per capita emissions arising from agriculture are more than six times the world average, more than four times the OECD average” and the Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing industry is the largest industrial contributor to emissions, accounting for 29.3% of industrial emissions. Garnaut attributes 123.7 million tonnes of emissions to beef cattle alone.

Meat & Livestock Australia estimates that “50.7kg of red meat was available for consumption by each person in Australia in 2006-07” while a Japanese study estimates that each kilo of beef “generates the equivalent of 36.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide”. At a population of 20 million, that is an equivalent of about 37 million tonnes of greenhouse gas from meat eating.

Even more dramatically, an analysis by the Vegetarian Network Victoria forecasts Australia becoming completely carbon neutral within 3-5 decades of adopting vegetarianism if land currently used by cattle was reforested. Ask the Labor Party if their tax is able to achieve that.

There is also the opportunity to snooker your colleague Mr Turnbull, who seems to be positioning himself as a sort of Australian Al Gore. By adopting vegetarianism, you can occupy the highest of moral ground, while also being against taxation and climate change. High ground is the safest position to be in these troubled times.

Your role-model and mentor John Howard took strong measures in 1996 to ban all the dangerous guns (thank goodness we got to keep the safe guns). This type of bold leadership is what we need in the climate crisis of 2009.

Yours faithfully,


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