Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Canberra Lowers the Flag on Science

By Ian Lowe

Science has already disappeared from sight in the new Abbott government.

When the new Australian government was elected in September there was speculation about who might be the new Minister for Science. Sophie Mirabella had shadowed the portfolio in Opposition, but she lost her re-election bid.

In one of the more amusing interventions, a Western Australian politician who is still denying climate science put his hand up and expressed interest in the job. That could have been a world-first – an anti-science Minister for Science!

But the end result was just as perplexing. I scanned the full list of ministers, deputies and parliamentary secretaries: no mention of science at all anywhere! There is a Minister for Education, an Assistant Minister and a Parliamentary Secretary for Education, so presumably someone will have responsibility for tertiary education and might be aware of the research being done in universities. But where does the responsibility for CSIRO and other government science agencies rest? Nobody could give a straight answer when Australasian Science went to press.

With a Coalition Senator attacking in print what he called the “propaganda” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it does not augur well for the next 3 years.

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The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report was still in review as I file this column, but its alleged findings were already being used by the press to misrepresent the science. The main charge, attracting banner headlines, was that the new report had backed away from earlier calculations of the rate of warming.

The Australian seized on a claim by London’s Daily Mail, a dubious source even by British tabloid standards, that the IPCC’s fourth report had said the average temperature was increasing by 0.2°C per decade. This claim led them to portray a calculation, rumoured to be in the new report, of 0.12°C as a massive backdown and evidence that climate science is in disarray.

In fact, as Prof David Karoly of the University of Melbourne pointed out, the fourth report gave a range of 0.10–0.16°C per decade, so the mean estimate was 0.13°C. The 0.01°C “backdown” is a minuscule amendment rather than a retraction.

To be fair, there are questions in the latest science about the slowing of the increase in surface temperatures. This may be due to increasing absorption of heat by the oceans, which appear to be warming faster than was projected, or it may have other causes.

Science is always a work in progress. At one level, the denialists are right when they say that the science is not “settled” – but they are totally wrong when they infer that it is so uncertain we should not respond.

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Cases in the Queensland courts have raised the interesting issue of jurisdictional boundaries and where the State’s responsibility ends. I gave evidence last year in a case concerning the proposed Xstrata mine at Wandoan, arguing that the mining and export of steaming coal would lead inevitably to the coal being burned and producing carbon dioxide. Since it makes no difference to the global atmosphere whether the coal is burned in Toowoomba or Timbuktu, the environmental impact of the proposed mine should include the contribution to climate change of it being burned.

In that case, the Queensland court decided that the State is only responsible for local environmental impacts and declined to consider the contribution to global levels of carbon dioxide. That decision gave the mine the green light, but the downturn in prospects of selling coal has caused the proponent to shelve the proposal.

This year another case is before the Land Court in Brisbane: the Alpha mine proposed by an Indian company and Gina Rinehart’s Hancock corporation. Once again the court is being asked to decide where the State’s responsibility ends.

We prosecute heroin dealers because we hold them responsible for the inevitable consequences of their trade. Nobody is harmed by the act of sale, but the harm ensues when the product is used.

We know that those who buy coal won’t store it. They buy it with the explicit intention of burning it. In my book, that makes the vendors responsible for the carbon dioxide and its long-term impacts.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.