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Born to believe or not to believe

A public forum in Melbourne has explored the state of the public debate on climate change science. Kate Scarff went along to hear about the media's role in the debate.

As the seats in the room rapidly filled, my attention was drawn to shocking images being randomly projected onto a screen.  Snapshots of third world poverty, congested US city streetscapes, baby chicks funnelling down a pipe and a mime displaying extreme facial torture.

While the images made me uncomfortable, it didn’t bother two people – meteorologist David Karoly and social psychologist Yoshihisa Kashima.  Reclining back on their chairs, hands loosely clasped, the two professors from the University of Melbourne knew they had a captive audience seated before them that believes in climate change science and the consequences of not taking action on global warming.

Last Thursday, the public forum ‘Who’s telling the truth about Climate Change? And who can we trust?’,  organised by A Grandstand for the Environment Inc, attracted close to 150 people.

The welcoming mood in the room was in stark contrast to the aggressive attack Karoly received from Alan Jones in an interview earlier this year.   Heads nodded in agreement as Karoly defended the findings of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report and the more recent Climate Commission’s Critical Decade report.

Karoly also repeated his rejection of the claims of prominent climate change sceptic, Australian geologist, Ian Plimer.  In his book, Heaven and Earth, Plimer says underwater volcanoes are responsible for increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) – not the burning of fossil fuels.

Rejecting Plimer’s arguments, Karoly said levels of CO2 are lower in the ocean than the atmosphere and carbon isotopes prove that increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are actually coming from burning fossil fuels.

‘Also the increase in methane and nitrous oxide is not explained by underwater volcanoes, unless you believe in magic underwater volcanoes.  And they are just as likely as having fairies at the bottom of your garden,’ he said.

Karoly said Australians need to reduce their carbon emissions in order to keep global warming to 2°C.  Scientists have projected that total accumulative global carbon emissions need to stay below one trillion tonnes to keep global warming to 2°C, the threshold that scientists predict will prevent irreversible impacts of climate change.  With a global population close to seven billion, our personal allocation of carbon emissions is close to 140 tonnes.

‘With the average Australian emitting 20 tonnes of carbon per year, we will use up our allocation in seven years if we don’t change our behaviour,’ said Karoly.

Professor Kashima also explored why the climate change debate has polarised people as either climate change believers or non-believers.

Raised in Tokyo in the 1960s, Kashima described his childhood being of a time when ‘Japan was producing, producing, producing and polluting, polluting, polluting’.  He recounted a story about his school closing for a day because of pollution in the air leading to inhalation problems.

Kashima said confounding the issue is the fact that climate change is very difficult to detect using first hand experience.

‘Very few of us will live 100 years.  Very few can remember the average temperature when they were a child.’

Rapid developments in technology coupled with nuclear disasters and other technology failures are causing people to question the science, according to Kashima.

For those who do believe in climate change, many questions are raised. Are we to blame?  Who is to blame? What technology is to blame?  Who is responsible for taking action?

Kashima said collective action on climate change faces many psychological barriers.  He said there will always be uncertainty about other people and if they will follow suit.  When we collect information from other people we naturally talk to people with the same kind of ideas.  But there is always another social network of like-minded people with a different set of ideas.  Clusters of groups arise resulting in polarisation of opinions.

Professor Karoly believes the media has acted irresponsibly when communicating the science of climate change.  Referring to Czech president Vaclav Klaus’ address to the National Press Club (NPC) on July 26 and the earlier address by Lord Monckton on July 19, Karoly expressed his disappointment that the NPC had recently chosen several climate change denialists to speak on the topic who had no expertise in climate change science.

As the evening drew to a close, a question to Professor Kashima from the audience drew a large cheer: ‘If Julia Gillard contacted you 6 months ago and asked for advice on how to sell her carbon tax, what would you have said?’

Answering the question on Kashima’s behalf, Karoly said that selling a price on carbon was not helping people to act on climate change.  Instead, Prime Minister Gillard should have framed her pitch a different way.

‘We pay a price for waste disposal.  We pay a price for sewerage disposal,’ he said.

‘Companies (not individuals) should pay a price for carbon dioxide disposal.’

Kate Scarff is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University and is part of upstart‘s editorial team.  You can follow her on Twitter: @katescarff

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