Hard News by Russell Brown


A voice of reason and authority

I'll do John Key the credit of assuming he knew he wasn't just buying the name when he appointed Professor Peter Gluckman as his Chief Science Advisor recently. Because Gluckman hasn't wasted any time in indicating that his advice will be frank, independent and, well, scientific.

The Office of the Prime Minister's Science Advisory Committee has followed up a crisp assessment of the issues in a decision on "whether it is medically possible to remove pseudoephedrine from cold and flu tablets, so helping to combat the methamphetamine epidemic in New Zealand" with an article headed, simply, Climate change.

The author(s) -- Gluckman is not credited and he may well have collaborated on the text -- lays out the basis of the expert consensus about climate change and its causes, and then draws a brutal, but appropriate, comparison with scepticism about anthropogenic climate change:

… sceptical views are important, as they force the scientific community to seek carefully for flaws in the analysis. A similar debate occurred about AIDS, where a minority of scientists maintained for a long time that the disease was not caused by a virus. This view was manifestly wrong in the eyes of most scientists, but nevertheless some distinguished scientists, albeit usually not experts in virology, took different views until the science became irrefutable. The political consequences of this denialism had tragic results in some African countries.

And summarises, with an eye to the limits of knowledge:

Science has done its best to reduce the uncertainty and now has a high level of confidence that something must be done now, and that if nothing is done we will all suffer as global temperatures rise.

There is a remote possibility that if we did little or nothing then the temperature would not rise to unacceptable levels. But we cannot gamble the future of the whole planet on the low probability of that occurring. We do many things in life that are based on the balance of probabilities, for example we think it prudent to insure our houses and wear seat belts in our cars not because we plan to have a fire or a crash, but rather because we are weighing the cost of the insurance premium or the minor inconvenience of putting on the seat belt against the significant risk of damage to our finances or ourselves if those events were to happen.

It is the same with climate change – the collective wisdom of the scientific community is that action is needed to address global warming because without action the potential risk to the planet and ourselves is too high.

Leading to this conclusion in the final paragraph:

There is no easy answer -– the science is solid but absolute certainty will never exist. As part of the global community, New Zealand has to decide what economic costs it will bear and what changes in the way we live will be needed. We must be involved. This is a global challenge, and a country like ours that aspires to be respected as a leading innovative nation cannot afford to appear to be not fully involved. Indeed, such a perception would compromise our reputation and potential markets.

The relatively concise guide with which Gluckman has provided us here is hardly unique in the contentious field of climate science, but it carries the weight of a Prime Ministerial appointment. And, more importantly, it does not simply explain science, but approach an important social and political issue from a scientific perspective.

Long may it continue. Not everyone will always agree with Gluckman, and science in itself will not always satisfy -- we might need to hear too from artists, judges, authors and entrepreneurs -- but at a time when a fool such as Ian Wishart is trotting around delivering speeches to farmers about "the truth behind climate change", and making absurd legal threats against journalists, it is immensely valuable that we should hear not only a reasoned voice, but a voice with authority.

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