Today I attended the debate between UNSW computer scientist Dr Tim Lambert (author of Deltoid blog) and Lord Viscount Christopher Monckton of Brenchley.
The venue was the Hilton Hotel Grand Ballroom, and attendance was about 60% of capacity, that is roughly half the number of people who attended last time I was there, when it was packed to 120% of capacity for the launch of MySpace (remember MySpace? Neither do I…)
At any rate, I am pleased to report that the debate was indeed just that, a real debate, conducted civilly, in front of an attentive and polite crowd, and well moderated by Alan Jones.
It was neither the rabble-rousing denialist circus some feared it would be, nor an embarrassing excursion into Monckton’s many personal foibles. It was instead, a robust, articulate presentation and dissection of the factual content behind Monckton’s denialist propositions. Both speakers were modest, neither hyperbolic, and both approached the question in an open and non-dogmatic fashion.
In two fifteen-minute presentations, each speaker addressed the proposition that “manmade global warming is a real threat”. The substance of the debate hinged, I am happy to say, on a scientific question concerning the degree of climate sensitivity to differing concentrations of CO2. Namely, Monckton has independently calculated a level of climate sensitivity that is lower than the IPCC’s estimate, by a factor of approximately 7-8 times. Dr Lambert showed Monckton’s calculation to be based on a misunderstanding of data provided by a satellite scientist, one Professor Rachel Pinker (2007). Dr. Lambert also showed that Monckton’s thesis depends entirely on the climate sensitivity being a very low estimate, while the other denialist darling, Ian Plimer’s, thesis depends on climate sensitivity being a very high estimate. They cannot both be right, and perhaps both are wrong.
What followed was about 90 minutes of questions from the floor, which again was handled very calmly and coolly by all the proponents. Some of the questions were truly odd, and showed a very low level of understanding of science, and a very high level of paranoia and confusion among the (predominantly old and angry) audience members:
- One gentleman attempted to suggest that, since a lot of the world’s carbon is in the oceans, it is water vapour evapourating from the oceans, and not fossil fuels, that is causing warming (what is causing all that extra evapouration, he didn’t say). Neither proponent had the heart to tell the gentleman that water vapour is made of, well, water, not CO2.
- Another questioner thought that the 1976 international treaty banning weather-control devices (anyone heard of this?) showed that nations already had the technology to control the weather, so why aren’t they using it?
- Another questioner said that our government is being totalitarian about environmental issues, and he lived under Soviet occupation in the former Czechoslovakia, so he should know.
- Another questioner wanted to know whether Dr. Tim Lambert wanted to stop him from procreating with his wife (ewww).
- Another questioner wanted to know if continental drift wasn’t the real driver of sea levels.
Contrary to many who worry about functions like this providing a platform for denialists, I think the debate generated far more light than heat (sic). It is a credit to the way both proponents, and the moderator, and indeed the audience, conducted themselves that it was a fruitful and enlightening discussion.
I think perhaps the most important thing that came out of the debate is that it takes a lot of wind out of denialist sails when they meet a real-life supporter of AGW science and realise that we are not trying to drag civilisation back to the stone age, prevent people from having babies, wreck the economy, keep the developing nations in poverty, or any of the other shibboleths that drive the denialist circus. As Tim Lambert explained to the audience, as a computer scientist, he is first and foremost an engineer, and it is an interesting and important engineering problem to work out how to get as many people as possible enjoying a high standard of living, without trashing the planet in the process. That’s all.
It’s also apparent that many denialists have a huge chip on their shoulder about, apparently, “totalitarian” attempts to shut them down or the “refusal” of the media to cover their activities. This despite the fact that they had a full public debate, in a prime CBD location, with media in attendance, moderated by a top-rating radio host. AFAIK, no brownshirts or greenshirts stormed the Hilton and stopped the debate. We all went out for coffee afterwards.
It never hurts to put a human face on one’s opponents, and this forum did exactly that. The denialist audience (and it was about 95% denialist) saw the human face of AGW science: people grappling with data, wrestling with hard questions, and not trying to take away their ability to fly in aeroplanes or have babies. For that reason, I think that today science and understanding were the winners, and so really, everybody won.