Good work, George Monbiot

Jumping the shark

Untill Tuesday night Ian Plimer was the respectable face of climate scepticism in Australia. Plimer looks the part of the distinguished professor, and as a geologist gives the impression of understanding the long run forces affecting the earth’s climate, as opposed to the ephemera that excite the global warming alarmists. On top of that, he was known as as an eloquent debunker of creationism, which earned him credibility as a rational mind as well as immunity from accusations of rightwing ratbaggery. A non-scientist, concerned citizen, while appreciating the significance of the IPCC findings, could still hold some doubts about global warming as long as someone like Plimer disputed the consensus position.

But on Lateline it all came crashing down. The eminent Plimer looked like a rat in a trap. Tim Lambert summed it up nicely :

Rather than admit to making any error at all, Plimer ducks, weaves, obfuscates, recites his favourite catch phrase, tries to change the subject and fabricates some more. When confronted with the fact that the USGS says (backed with scientific papers) that human activities emit 130 times as much CO2 as volcanoes, Plimer claims that the USGS doesn’t count underwater volcanoes. When told that the USGS specifically said that they do count undersea volcanoes, Plimer invented a story about how the nature of the rocks under the ocean proves that there must be unobserved emissions.

Plimer’s tendency to obfuscate has been evident not just in his statements on the science, but in his contribution to the policy debate as well. I heard him somewhere — I wish I could find it again — trying out his own version of Abbott’s suggestion that a tax on carbon, paid back as transfers to households, is just pointless ‘redistribution’.

If there was any doubt that Plimer is now a tool of the anti-ETS campaign, this snippet from an interview with Luke Bona on 2gb (Alan Jones’ station) removes it.

Bona: Penny Wong is saying changing our economy is crucial to fighting climate change. I wanna ask you, because I don’t understand this… How can changing our economy cool the temperature? 1. I’ll say again what she said. She said: ‘changing our economy is crucial to fighting climate change.’

Plimer: Well, I’m not so sure how throwing money up in the air and flushing it down our sewerage system is going to stop change climate. I think she needs to explain the science behaind that sort of statement. That’s the sort of statement you make in the front bar of a pub after you’ve been there all day.

So, to say, as Penny Wong did, that changing the economy (i.e. switching to energy-efficient and clean energy technologies) would cool the temperature (by reducing the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is not only wrong but equivalent to the ravings of a drunk. You would need to be irredeemably partisan to put the matter in terms like that. It may also be a case of Plimer’s wallet speaking for him.

I don’t know if Monbiot is aware that the Australian Government needs Opposition support to pass its ETS legislation, or how delicate the balance of opinion is in the Liberal Party is. But a debate like that has the potential to decisively shift that balance. Judging from a couple of the reactions on Lateline‘s comments thread, some Plimer fans were deeply disillusioned. Whether that will translate into more ’emails and faxes’ and another change of leadership remains to be seen.

  1. Plimer chuckles, as though this a self-evidently ludicrous connection[]
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Antonios Sarhanis
14 years ago

Two key things struck me about that interview:

1. Has Plimer published a paper containing his calculations on carbon dioxide emissions by volcanoes? If not, why not?

2. His failure to answer the question as to why he chose a baseline year of 1998 to compare all subsequent yearly temperatures was unfortunate.

Peter T
Peter T
14 years ago

Plimer would be very lucky to get a paper on his “calculations” on volcanoes published in any peer-reviewed journal. Not only is he wildly out in his estimate of emissions, his claim requires some a number of deep-sea volcanoes erupting constantly without changing the deep-ocean chemistry (CO2 dissolves in water, so there would be a distinct signature), these volcanoes having ramped up coincidentally with the industrial revolution, and – oh yes – there has to be some related offset in atmospheric oxygen. In short, would not get to first base, and Plimer knows it.

1998 is the usual denier cherrypick (a strong El Nino). And it only works even then if you use only the strat and end points – the average temperature (using all years post 1998) still shows a rising trend.

I think his main aim is to sell his book, and he seems to be succeeding in that.