By Professor Emma Johnston AO, President of Science & Technology Australia
and Kylie Walker, CEO of Science & Technology Australia
Professor Ian Plimer labelled the assertion that 97% of climate scientists agree humans are causing climate change as a ‘zombie statistic’ in the Australian this week – today we label his claim as a particularly pungent red herring designed to distract you.
Worse, this red herring is recycled, used by the likes of Ted Cruz in the Republican Presidential Primaries in 2016. Ted was roundly criticised at the time by leaders in the science sector, and since then the evidence for human-induced climate change impacts has continued to mount.
As Australia endures a record-breaking heatwave, raising temperatures to above 40 degrees across many parts of the country, we can’t help but ponder the motivation to distract from this fact. We are all feeling the realities of climate change first-hand. Let’s focus on solving the problem – or at the very least mitigating against the worst ravages – rather than arguing over whether 90%, 95% or 97% of scientists agree or disagree.
To set the record straight: the vast majority of climate scientists (the world’s experts in this area) agree humans are causing climate change. This has been confirmed by numerous studies; two of which Professor Plimer has attempted to discredit. There are numerous others that will always stand up against his criticisms – conducted by global authorities, professional researchers, and subjected to vigorous independent and international peer review. Conveniently, Professor Plimer did not mention the regular International Panel on Climate Change Reports, an analysis published by the journal Science on the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, or five other peer-reviewed articles that confirm more than 90% of scientists agree on the effects of human activity on climate change (an analysis of all of these is available here).
If Professor Plimer had credible evidence to correct the percentage of climate consensus, he would present it rather than criticise the work of others. Instead he has cherry picked two papers from the multitude, made claims based more on opinion than fact, and finished by asserting that “activists with no skin in the game are setting the scene for economic suicide”.
Scientists have skin in this game, every citizen on earth does. And climate-relevant evidence-based policies and practices are increasingly setting the scene to prevent economic disaster. Unmitigated climate change rings the death knell for much of Australia’s agricultural industry, it is causing the erosion and destruction of our natural tourism hotspots (including ecosystems deemed so internationally significant they’re on the World Heritage list), and it increases the probability of even more frequent and severe weather and natural disasters in this land of droughts and flooding rains.
Scientists are naturally curious. They question, always, and at the heart of all of their work is a passion to understand the world, and often to change the world for the better. Professor Plimer’s depiction of these women and men as “collections of argumentative sods”, self-interested and fuelled by “whacking big research grants for climate science” could not be further from the truth. Funding for scientific research is dropping and only a fraction of worthy grant applications are supported by public investment in Australia – we regularly argue that Australia can do much more to improve outcomes for the environment, health, energy, national security and more, if public investment in science is increased.
The major reward for individuals working in research is not monetary; the scientist’s reward is the thrill and responsibility of making discoveries; making a difference; finding solutions to the world’s wicked problems. Scientists are not motivated to stir discord and distraction in the interest of political gain or to sell a book. Throw away the red herring Professor and talk about the issues that matter. Australians can smell your recycled distraction from a kilometre away.