Monthly Archives: August 2014

Wind Farm

Maurice Newman’s climate claims are a mess (at best)

Maurice Newman, Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, today fired the latest salvo in his one-man crusade against climate science. “What if the warmth the world has enjoyed for the past 50 years is the result of solar activity, not man-made CO2?”, he asks innocently. Don’t get him wrong, he has an open mind on climate change – his public writing merely poses hypotheticals.

In his most recent piece, Newman gives a masterclass in the history of climate change denial. He covers arguments from ‘it’s the sun’ to ‘science is now religion’, concluding with a quote from everyone’s favourite, Voltaire. For a while he is (partly) careful to maintain that he is simply questioning the popular view, not attacking it, but by the end it is clear that he thinks we should be investing heavily in heating our homes. He doesn’t mention it here, but getting rid of those pesky wind farms is also on the agenda.

By staking out the ‘reasonable skeptic’ position Newman attempts to cast doubt on the prevailing scientific view, fearful that the Australian public is content to continue acting like “primitive civilisations offering up sacrifices to appease the gods”. While even this concern seems misguided given the fluctuating opinion polls on the urgency of the problem – with desire for immediate action only now beginning to rise once again, and still below 50 per cent – his evidence is more problematic.

There are two driving forces behind the piece: David Archibald’s new book and Newman’s reading of recent research by IG Usoskin et al that solar activity was at a rare peak from 1959 to 2009.

Let’s start with Archibald. According to his profile, “After graduating from Queensland University in geology in 1979, he worked in coal and oil shale exploration in Queensland and then in oil exploration with Esso in Sydney.  A long period in stockbroking in Sydney as an analyst was followed by moving to Perth in 1999 to work for a private investor. He subsequently floated the oil exploration company Oilex in 2003 and then joined a Canadian-listed oil exploration company in 2006.  Also at that time, he was CEO of the mineral explorer Westgold Resources.” While it’s certainly possible for those involved in coal and oil to contribute to the debate, the former CEO of a mineral exploration company with a geology degree and no other qualifications (no apparent further study in geology or other sciences) is hardly the go-to guy for a question as critical as climate science. He also has a history of using limited data sets to prove his point.

This is where Usoskin’s research comes in, apparently to bolster the case for solar-driven climate change. First it is important to note that, contradicting Newman’s claim that researchers found “the modern grand maxima, which occurred between 1959 and 2009, was a rare event both in magnitude and duration”, the authors conclude that “the Sun is shown to operate in distinct modes – a main general mode, a Grand minimum mode corresponding to an inactive Sun, and a possible Grand maximum mode corresponding to an unusually active Sun”. In other words, the Grand maximum mode is a possibility.

As far as Newman’s argument goes, this is relatively not too bad. But his next claim, that “this research adds to growing evidence that climate change is determined by the sun, not humans”, does not follow from the researchers’ note that their findings could be used for future “investigations of possible solar influence on Earth’s climate”. Although interesting, the work hasn’t been done yet. Newman completely misrepresents the conclusion of the research he is referencing.

This isn’t helped by his next attack on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, seemingly fuelled by psychologist Philip Tetlock’s argument that “when journal reviewers, editors and funding agencies feel the same way about a course, they are less likely to detect and correct potential logical or methodological bias.” There is no significant issue with this claim in and of itself, although it was originally made with reference to psychology rather than climate science as Newman makes it appear. A larger problem is that Newman ignores Tetlock’s next sentence, “it is one thing, however, to argue that values can easily influence inquiry and quite another to argue that values inevitably drive and determine the conclusions of inquiry”, in favour of slamming the IPCC with no other supporting evidence of its apparent systemic bias.

Given his characterisation of those receptive to the IPCC and its findings as “acolytes” it’s unlikely that Newman would accept that scientists have actually put some effort into researching solar impacts on the climate. But they have, essentially finding that “since 1980, the sun and volcanoes have combined to cause a slightly negative global energy imbalance, which means they have had a slight cooling influence on global temperatures over the past three decades”. From the IPCC itself: “There is high confidence that changes in total solar irradiance have not contributed to the increase in global mean surface temperature over the period 1986 to 2008, based on direct satellite measurements of total solar irradiance. There is medium confidence that the 11-year cycle of solar variability influences decadal climate fluctuations in some regions.”

Unfortunately, since IPCC evidence is void in Newman’s view, there’s not much more to add here.

A selection of scientific claims are raised to build support for his case, including one from British climate scientist Mike Lockwood that Newman uses to create an image of a dramatically cooling world. But Lockwood does not expect a new little ice age – instead he believes that human-induced global warming is “already a more important force in global temperatures than even major solar cycles”. A convenient omission, and a strange one since that note is from The Washington Post.

Newman then rests on a series of platitudes about complacency and protecting the future. He also manages to compellingly tie in defence spending as an issue where the public has ignored the consequences of seeking immediate economic satisfaction at the expense of addressing longer-term problems (much as it has by focusing on global warming rather than deeply considering the possibility of the world cooling?). One of his last references to an external source is Judith Curry. Here he makes it appear as though she doubts human influence on the climate when she does no such thing, though she does attempt to reach out to skeptics to bring them on board.

Ultimately Newman’s argument is misleading, based on unconvincing evidence, and clearly demonstrates that he does not have “an open mind on climate change” as he often likes to claim. In light of the recent Australian Press Council adjudication on coverage of the IPCC’s report that The Australian’s “erroneous claim about the revised warming rate was very serious, given the importance of the issue and of the need for accuracy”, you would think its editors may steer away from such blatant stirring of the pot. 

Further, if Newman is worried about an overreaction to global warming, attempting to drive public attention and spending towards the terrifying threat of global cooling is hardly creating a less hysterical policy environment.

But that isn’t the point, the point is simply to generate doubt. And in that, unfortunately, Newman has likely succeeded with some of his readership, as well as with those he advises.


Photo Credit: Nicola Jones

George Brandis

If lawmakers insist on tackling the interwebs, they should make the effort to understand it

While Attorney-General George Brandis’ cringeworthy interview with David Speers has generated heated criticism of his understanding of metadata, “surfing”, and the internet in general, this is only the latest in a long line of instances where those in positions of legal authority have revealed their ignorance when it comes to the technologies they are dealing with.

It has been a rough week for Brandis, with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull publicly contradicting his preferred approach to internet piracy and Prime Minister Tony Abbott today announcing the government’s retreat on changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. These changes were Brandis’ cause célèbre but, ironically, the decision to back down was taken in order to more effectively advocate for the data retention laws his Sky News interview later turned into a Twitter laughing-stock.

With the common thread of an apparent lack of understanding of the 21st Century, its culture, and associated technology, it is easy to ridicule Brandis on each of these policies. Unfortunately he isn’t the first, or even the most significant, figure to take such an approach to internet regulation. Some may remember former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and his evolving (and ultimately ditched) web filter, followed by then Shadow Communications Minister Turnbull’s short-lived sequel, Web Filter 2: Election Boogaloo. Although these filter policies aren’t necessarily directly comparable to data retention for counter-terrorism purposes, they highlight a distinct ignorance of the value many now place on web access.

Across the Pacific, the judges sitting on the US Supreme Court bench – tasked with making decisions on some of the world’s most complex and vexed legal debates over technology, with the potential for tremendous impact on innovation and privacy – haven’t really “gotten to” email yet, let alone social media. The question of how much detailed knowledge those making policy and legal decisions must have is a fair one, as we can’t expect all decision-makers to be experts on all topics, but with the internet and associated technology increasingly becoming fundamental to global economies, cultures, and societies, this level of abstraction is disconcerting. Closer to home, a senior Australian public servant only last year admitted that they were not familiar with Tor.

This would be fine (who knows what Tor is, anyway?) if it weren’t for the fact that the public servant in question was actually a top advisor on national cyber-security policy and that Tor is essentially a tool used to browse the internet anonymously. If you’re thinking that this sounds like a great idea if you’re involved in illegal activity, or even terrorism, you’d be right. The problem, then, is not only that Tor is unknown to senior officials who really should know what it is, but also that when they do figure it out the impulse is to flag its users. There is a distinct difference between acknowledging the problems such a tool presents and assuming that its users are guilty. As a bonus, Tor was initially developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory as a way to protect government communications and received funding from the State Department and Department of Defense.

So what can we expect from lawmakers on technology and internet policy?

An attempt to understand the basic theory, social significance, and development work behind this technology would be a good start. It is fair that many in positions of authority are not across all aspects of online behaviour – as a Gen Y who studied software design at high school, I’m still constantly playing catch up – however, it isn’t good enough to hide behind generational ignorance when the internet is so essential to public and private life.

Whatever your opinion may be of him, George Brandis is an intelligent man. He is intrigued and driven by philosophical and legal debate. His and Tony Abbott’s confusion on the difference between internet activity and what websites are being visited is not good enough. It is one thing to disagree on the limits of privacy when it comes to national security; it is quite another to fail to take the time to seek a basic understanding of what these limits might actually mean. This applies not just to Brandis and the Prime Minister, but to all those attempting to grapple with the implications of online technology for public policy.