Culture

Malcolm Roberts Taking On Australia’s Top Scientist Proves How Broken Climate Debate Has Become

This is what scientists have to deal with in this country.

Every day we spend arguing over the science of climate change is a day we lose in the fight to actually do something about it. That’s why it’s so fucking infuriating to see the nation’s top scientist forced to waste his time explaining the scientific method to a member of the goddamn Federal Parliament.

The politician in question, of course, is One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts. Elected to the Senate with a paltry 77 first preference votes, the self-proclaimed modern-day Socrates gained notoriety earlier this year after he declared on national television that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by NASA. It was weird.

Roberts has since asked the scientists at CSIRO to provide him with “data that proves claims that humans affect global climate change,” because apparently the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community isn’t enough.

This brings us to Thursday’s Senate estimates hearing, where Roberts finally got the chance to interrogate Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr. Alan Finkel, who under the circumstances did a remarkable job of not openly weeping about this whole sorry state of affairs.

The obvious temptation here is to make fun of Roberts for his ridiculous opinions. Hell, we’ve done it in the past, and I reckon we’ll probably do it again in the future.

But take away the tragicomic theatrics of it all, and this exchange gets to the heart of how fundamentally broken public debate on climate change really is, and what an impossible job the global scientific community is faced with.

Roberts wants “empirical evidence” presented in a way that is “short and simple.” And to an extent, that’s understandable – we all want things explained to us in a way that we can understand. But as Finkel points out, that’s not how science works. “Science is complex,” he says. “Especially today with the issues that we’re tackling, many of which are decided through modeling and statistic approaches, it’s not always as simple to say ‘here is a definitive piece of evidence one way or the other.'”

Scientists also have to contend with constant attacks on their credibility. When Roberts asks Finkel “on whose data” he relies in order to make the assertion “that the temperature is going up and up and up,” Finkel responds with a list of some of the most reputable scientific organisations on the planet, including NASA, the UK Bureau of Meteorology, America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and “pretty much…every major scientific organisation in the world.” But how is Finkel supposed to respond when Roberts then expresses skepticism as to the integrity of their findings, or indeed, the legitimacy of audits into said findings?

Sure, Finkel may be one of the best educated men in the country, but keep in mind he’s talking to an elected parliamentarian who doesn’t even believe that weathermen are legit.

The reality is, anyone can question the legitimacy of a report, no matter how baseless their questions may be. Likewise, you’re never going to be able to disprove conspiracy theories to an absolute certainty, particularly when crackpots are hell bent on believing them. And that’s to say nothing of the countless corporate and political organisations whose profit margins depend on meaningful climate action being delayed for as long as humanly possible.

It’s also not hard to understand why normal people buy into this stuff. When a concept is difficult to wrap your head around, and accepting it would mean taking action that you don’t particularly want to take, it’s pretty tempting to latch on to people like Roberts – especially when mainstream media outlets keep giving him a platform.

At a certain point though, as Finkel explains, “you’ve got to have confidence” in the intelligence and integrity of the literally tens of thousands of scientists who have repeatedly asserted that a) climate change is real and b) it’s going to fuck us if we don’t do something about it.