Former prime minister and current backbencher Tony Abbott gave a speech at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate sceptic thinktank, on Monday night.
It was an interesting lecture in that it claimed that climate change isn’t real (the “so-called ‘settled’ science of climate change [is] absolute crap”) and also is real but nothing to worry about as the results could be beneficial.
But how accurate were his arguments?
In the same speech, Mr Abbott declared that Australia needed to adopt “evidence-based policy rather than policy-based evidence”, which seems like an excellent idea.
So let’s take him at his word and look at the evidence for the claims he has made.
Heatwaves are better than cold snaps
“In most countries, far more people die in cold snaps than in heatwaves, so a gradual lift in global temperatures, especially if it’s accompanied by more prosperity and more capacity to adapt to change, might even be beneficial.”
That first claim appears to be true: cold does kill more people worldwide than do heatwaves, at least according to a 2015 study published in the Lancet, mainly because of respiratory distress.
That’s set to change by the middle of the century, however, when the spread of tropical diseases and malnutrition (which we’ll come to in a moment) is estimated to kill an extra quarter of a million people a year, according to the World Health Organisation.
And while societies may well be able to better cope with these threats if they were “accompanied by more prosperity”, the areas worst affected by diseases like malaria are among the most disadvantaged in the world, with poor public health systems and often less than stable governments.
This also doesn’t take into account the other thing that’s happening along with Abbott’s “gradual lift” in temperatures, which is a lot more flooding.
The increased melting of the Himalayan glaciers is already having devastating effects in countries near the mountains and rivers fed by snowmelt, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and western China, who are already experiencing increased levels of droughts and floods and reduced quality of drinking water.
Carbon dioxide increases agriculture yields
“There’s evidence that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide (which is a plant food after all) are actually greening the planet and helping to lift agricultural yields.”
This one would seem to fit with what you remember from primary school science — plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen as a waste gas, having absorbed the carbon to grow. So you could be forgiven for thinking that more carbon dioxide means more plants means good things for the environment, right?
The problem is that increased carbon dioxide seems to reduce the level of nutrients in food crops, for reasons which are not entirely clear yet. A study published in Nature in 2014 grew some of the most important food crops in the high carbon dioxide environment predicted to exist in 50 years’ time, and the results were sobering.
As The Guardian summarised, “Wheat grown in high CO2 levels had 9 per cent less zinc and 5 per cent less iron, as well as 6 per cent less protein, while rice had 3 per cent less zinc, 5 per cent less iron and 8 per cent less protein. Maize saw similar falls while soybeans lost similar levels of zinc and iron but, being a legume not a grass, did not see lower protein.”
Aside from the obvious nutrition issues, iron and zinc deficiencies are linked with birth defects and developmental issues for newborns and are a huge problem for the developing world — not regions where popping a few multivitamins are going to solve the problem.
The study’s lead author, Professor Samuel Myers of Harvard University, even seemed to predict Mr Abbott’s claim: “There may be a little positive effect [from increased CO2], but the people who work in this area would not want to hang their hat on that in the face of the many other negative effects of climate change, including heatwaves, droughts and floods.”
We can tell ocean levels aren’t rising by looking at Manly Beach
“More than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”
This doesn’t seem like something that should need to be explained, but just because there’s not an elephant in your line of vision at every moment doesn’t mean that the existence of elephants is some sort of sinister conspiracy.
The rate of global sea level rise is less than 3 millimetres annually, with local fluctuations due to things like the topography, the time of the year, the position of the moon and the weather.
Even the eagle eye of Mr Abbott couldn’t possibly discern that sort of increase without assiduous measurement, since the actions of the daily tides are far greater than three millimetres.
While it’s hard to see such changes day to day, satellites are collecting that data all the time. And thus NASA have been using tiny changes in the Earth’s gravitational field to map where sea levels have changed as the warmed water in the oceans expands and polar ice caps melt.
The results are fascinating — between 2002 and 2014 (the end of the data collection period) sea levels have risen globally, including the tropics far from the ice caps. Australia, incidentally, has been strongly affected. Yes, even at Manly Beach.
People prefer clear policy to endless uncertainty
“The risk, when people know where you stand, is losing their support. The certainty, when people don’t know where you stand, is losing their respect.”
Mr Abbott’s speech came at an inopportune time for his Government, who are currently attempting to craft a national energy policy while — if recent comments by Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg are any indication — getting rid of the electorally popular and industry-supported Clean Energy Target.
This week’s Essential Poll numbers, which show the Opposition unchanged on eight points ahead of the Government in two party-preferred terms, suggest this claim could well be true.
Presumably we’ll see some “evidence-based policy rather than policy-based evidence” before too long.