A routine meeting of a Senate Estimates Committee on 21 February 2011 provided an opportunity for the Chairman, Senator Doug Cameron of New South Wales, to allow the head of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology Dr Greg Ayers to use parliamentary privilege to ridicule Cardinal George Pell and to attack and denigrate one of Australia's most distinguished geologists, Ian Plimer.
The attack had its origins in an article on climate change written by Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, and published in the Sunday Telegraph of 7 February 2010. In an attempt to resolve some of the contentious points, at the following Senate Estimates hearing Senator Ian MacDonald put a number of questions bearing on the article to officers of the Bureau of Meteorology.
Senator MacDonald then conveyed to Cardinal Pell the Bureau of Meteorology responses and sought comment. Cardinal Pell, in a letter to Senator MacDonald of 8 July 2010, noted that the Bureau of Meteorology "acknowledged the veracity of most of the factual statements set out in my article" but did note that the Bureau took issue with three specific claims.
Cardinal Pell then elaborated on the disputed points justifying, with references, his stance. His letter was incorporated in the 18 October 2010 Hansard record of the Senate Estimates Committee.
On 21 February 2011 Dr Greg Ayers, the Director of Meteorology, sought and was granted leave to respond to the Cardinal's letter, ostensibly because the Bureau of Meteorology was not represented at the earlier hearing when it was tabled and incorporated into Hansard.
Dr Ayers commenced by noting that "the assertions made in the Cardinal's letter .... are based not upon contention in the climate science field but on a book written by Professor Plimer entitled Heaven and Earth - Global warming: The Missing Science. Dr Ayers then claimed that the contents of the book were not scientific.
In a disingenuous abrogation of responsibility he stated it was not him making this claim but "by people in the scientific arena and it has been very heavily criticised for not presenting science but presenting a polemic from one individual." Dr Ayers was clearly upset that Professor Plimer had published, to worldwide acclaim, a book that successfully challenged the orthodoxy of human-caused dangerous climate change, that is, a polemic!
In support of his claim that Professor Plimer's book had been "widely reviewed by people in the scientific arena", Dr Ayers provided only two citations: an online commentary by Professor Ian Enting of Melbourne University, and an Opinion published in The Australian of 9 may 2009 written by Professor Michael Ashley of the University of New South Wales.
In a diatribe that concluded by labelling the book as "pseudo-science", Professor Ashley misconstrued that if Professor Plimer was correct then "thousands of oceanographers, solar physicists, biologists, atmospheric scientists, geologists, and snow and ice researchers during the past 100 years" were fundamentally wrong.
Actually, Professor Plimer made no such claim for he drew on many of the works referred to in order to demonstrate that the construction and conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are flawed.
Professor Ashley, whose training and interests are in "electronics, optics, and computing (both computer hardware and software) with the goal of building new and interesting astronomical instruments", and who has no apparent expertise in climate, from a position of ignorance has vilified a distinguished Australian Earth scientist. Dr Ayers chose to have an extract from this opinion read into Hansard as a primary plank in his attempted refutation of points made by Cardinal Pell.
The first issue covered in Cardinal Pell's letter was the temperature record of the last 2,000 years and the Bureau of Meteorology's claim that "temperatures in recent decades have been warmer than those of the Middle Ages". Citing examples and references from Professor Plimer's book and other sources Cardinal Pell identified the likelihood that the Roman Period (250BC to 450AD and the Middle Ages or Medieval Period (900-1300AD) were indeed warmer than now. Evidence included historical, archaeological and paleontological data (such as pollens) pointing to warmer and wetter conditions during those two earlier times.
In an attempt at ridicule, Dr Ayers commented: "Grapes are grown in England today. There are more than 400 vineyards. That sort of evidence is not science". The important qualifier omitted by Dr Ayers was that in those earlier times it was identified that grapes were grown "as far north as Hadrian's Wall". If today there are vineyards north of Hadrian's Wall then Dr Ayers may have a valid point!
The point at issue is the claim of the IPCC that Earth's temperature has been stable and warming only commenced with industrialisation and its emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning.
The overwhelming evidence, partially summarised by Professor Plimer, is that there were warmer periods in recent times, likely warmer than now. Undoubtedly the Roman Period was warm and followed by cold with freezing of many European rivers in winter (the Dark Ages) and advance of mountain glaciers, including along the Rocky Mountains.
The relative warmth of the Medieval Period is also well documented it was a period of retreat of mountain glaciers, colonisation of Greenland and abundant harvests, population growth and increasing wealth in Europe. The return of cold leading to the Little Ice Age during the middle second millennium was accompanied by abandonment of Greenland colonies and the advance of mountain glaciers. The recent warming and retreat of mountain glaciers must be viewed in this context of ongoing change and not through the narrow prism of carbon dioxide.
The second point of contention is Cardinal Pell's statement that "fluctuations in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere demonstrated by chemical analysis cast strong doubt on the IPCC's assumption that the level of CO2 in 1750 (less than 280ppm) represents a pre-industrial equilibrium which modern society has destroyed."
The statement was supported by reference to a summary of observations made since 1812 using accurate chemical analysis that shows significant fluctuation in measured concentration. In contrast, the IPCC relies on ice core analysis for its earlier estimates. Dr Ayers omits to mention that the concentrations trapped in ice core bubbles represent a smoothed average over decades as the top tens of metres of firm snow slowly compact to permanently capture the air bubbles.
Dr Ayers, in dismissing the early accurate carbon dioxide measurements, would have strengthened his case if he had also noted that a significant proportion of modern measurements made at Mauna Loa and other background monitoring sites (on average more than 40 percent of observations) are routinely rejected.
The reasons are set out in the operational monitoring documents and relate to the innate local variability of carbon dioxide because of nearby sources and sinks. The data that makes up the modern record are the results of filtering that is rationalised as representing the background well-mixed concentration.
The third contentious issue was Cardinal Pell's statement that climate modelling is "a very slender reed to rely on" in establishing the link between carbon dioxide increase and warming.
Instead of addressing the issue, Dr Ayers resorted to arguing over minutiae. Firstly he notes that Cardinal Pell has included nitrogen in a list of greenhouse gases, of which it is not. Instead of raging about misrepresentation Dr Ayers could have as easily noted the editorial oversight and that the reference should have been to oxides of nitrogen, which are!
In a challenge to the statement that "carbon dioxide derived from human activities such as burning fossil fuels accounts for a mere 0.1 percent of the greenhouse effect" Dr Ayers presented bewildering and complex logic to conclude that if the statement is true "the greenhouse effect is 223 degrees and without it our planet would be as cold as the outer planets".
In contrast, Cardinal Pell's conclusion follows directly from his preceding statement that was not challenged: "The main greenhouse gas is water vapour, which accounts for 98 percent of the greenhouse effect". If this is accepted then anthropogenic carbon dioxide emission, which is about 5 percent of the natural background emission of carbon dioxide (according to the IPCC) cannot contribute more than 0.1 percent to the greenhouse effect, as noted by Cardinal Pell.
The climate system is a complex one for which there are many unknowns and uncertainties. Unfortunately there has emerged a political ideology, supported by the misplaced confidence of the IPCC, demanding major social change that has as its basis a presumed link between human activities, especially burning of fossil fuels, and dangerous climate change.
The government has embraced this ideology as a political objective and the full resources of government are being marshalled to ensure any opposition to the ideology is crushed. History shows the dangers of corrupting science in the service of political objectives. Lysenkoism in communist Russia and Hitler's scientists in Nazi Germany are but two examples.
The corruption of democratic processes, as witnessed in the recent Senate Committee hearing, is a slippery slide that can only lead to a totalitarian state. Anybody, whether a prominent community leader or internationally recognised scientist, who dares address the unknowns and uncertainties to question the tenuous basis of the ideology (the slender reed) and its political objectives, is too readily exposed to official condemnation and ridicule.
The use of Senate Estimates as a vehicle for bureaucrats to denounce those who do not fall into line with the official doctrine of human-caused global warming only underscores the lengths that the government will go to ensure that science is in the service of its policies.
A more constructive role for the Senate Estimates Committee would have been, as Senator MacDonald was attempting, to investigate the soundness of a contentious policy for which the economic, social and environmental outcomes, whether beneficial or deleterious, have not been adequately quantified but will affect Australians for generations to come.
William Kininmonth is a former head of Australia's National Climate Centre and consultant to the World Meteorological Organization. He is author of Climate Change: A Natural Hazard (Multi-Science, 2004).