Treading on toes

Whoops, looks like I hit a raw nerve with the editor of the Gold Coast Sun. Two weeks ago, in his editorial section, he reproduced a shoddy metaphor which has been doing the climate denialist email rounds, trivialising the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere as though a small proportion is unimportant by default. He stated that it was the perspective of one Bob Robertson (no relation, fortunately) but offered no comment or criticicm of the piece. This is it:

Here’s a practical way to understand Mr. Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Imagine 1 kilometre of atmosphere and we want to get rid of the Carbon pollution in it created by human activity. Let’s go for a walk along it. The first 770 metres are Nitrogen. The next 210 metres are Oxygen. That’s 980 metres of the 1 kilometre. 20 metres to go. The next 10 metres are water vapour. 10 metres left. 9 metres are argon. Just 1 more metre. A few gases make up the first bit of that last metre. *The last 38 centimetres of the kilometre – that’s carbon dioxide. A bit over one foot.*

97% of that is produced by Mother Nature. It’s natural. Out of our journey of one kilometre, there are just 12 millimetres left. Just over a centimetre – about half an inch. That’s the amount of carbon dioxide that global human activity puts into the atmosphere. And of those 12 millimetres Australia puts in .18 of a millimetre.

Less than the thickness of a hair. Out of a kilometre! As a hair is to a kilometre – so is Australia ‘s contribution to what Mr. Rudd calls Carbon Pollution. Imagine Brisbane ‘s new Gateway Bridge , ready to be opened by Mr. Rudd. It’s been polished, painted and scrubbed by an army of workers till its 1 kilometre length is surgically clean. Except that Mr. Rudd says we have a huge problem, the bridge is polluted – there’s a human hair on the roadway. We’d laugh ourselves silly.

Having just completed teaching a course on Climate Change Adaptation, which re-honed just how much we stand to lose if the best available predictions are even close to accurate, I was pissed off, and wrote back at length. I wasn’t expecting my letter to be published, much less see a response, but lo and behold I’m front and centre in the next letters section (complete with an added picture of sign-waving greenies)!

Full text reproduced below... from the Gold Coast Sun, 16/12/09

Dear Shane,

I read with some dismay your editorial regarding climate change (Dec 9, p42). As someone with a prominent voice in the media, I feel you have a responsibility to your readership to do your best to promote reliable information – using your correspondent Bob Robertson’s ‘perspective’ on climate change does both your credibility and that of the Sun a disservice.

Allow me to use his argument in a different context.

Imagine one kilometre of atmosphere is a brand new motorway and we go for a walk along it, breathing it in at each step…

* The first 770m is nitrogen

* The next 210m is oxygen

* The next 10m is water vapour, 10m to go…

* The next 999cm are normal atmospheric constituents, 1cm to go…

* The next 9.999mm are normal atmospheric constituents, 1 micrometre to go. On the length of our fantastic stretch of motorway, our only obstacle is something which is seventeen times thinner than the finest of human hairs.

* Whoops! The last micrometre is airborne Polonium-210. We’re dead.

My point here is that small things can, and do, have large effects on people and the environment. I could, equally, suggest that a blood alcohol content of 0.2% is far too small to be a problem, or that injecting heroin isn’t going to be bad because the syringe I’m using is extremely thin. I would be horribly wrong in both cases, because suggesting that something at a low concentration is insignificant is a blatant fallacy.

Let’s look more closely at Bob’s ‘facts’:

* 97% of carbon dioxide is natural. What does this mean? Pre-industrial levels were around 270ppm, and now stand around 380ppm. How can you differentiate between natural and unnatural carbon dioxide, anyway? That sounds like a figure which your correspondent has conjured from an unsavoury location.

* 0.18mm is at the upper limit of normal human hair thickness, so he’s not checked his information there – a simple Google search would help.

* Raising the GST by 12.5%? Once again, I fail to see any justification for this figure whatsoever. A high-end figure being bandied around by the Opposition is $5 per person per week – unless we, on average, currently purchase a total of $44 of GST-taxable goods per week, Bob’s statement is incorrect. Unless, that is, he means raising the GST by 12.5% of its current level – in other words, to 11.25% – hardly the end of the world, but still not backed up by evidence.

More importantly, an ETS – if viewed as a tax – is not uniform across all goods and services. Some of the goods and services we consume emit large amounts of greenhouse gases. Australians are responsible for the highest per-capita emissions in the world. These gases are causing global problems which Australians, as a society, will have to pay for. The ETS internalises the cost – it’s a user-pays option. You can still choose to purchase emissions-intensive goods and services, but you will pay more for them. The price increases of more emissions-friendly goods and services will be relatively unaffected. Many of our basic goods and services are likely to remain almost unchanged.

You are entitled to pass on your views and those of others, but when making factual statements it is important to uphold a high standard of journalistic ethics and apply a deal of scrutiny to unsubstantiated information. As a twenty two year old, I face an uncertain and worrying future – trivialising an issue like climate change with the use of ‘cute’, fallacious and poorly substantiated metaphors is an irresponsible use of your position as an editor.


-David Robertson

So, there it was in black and white. I flicked over to his editorial to see if he’d opted to use his right of reply. Well, well, it looks like I got under his skin as much as he got under mine! Here’s his ‘clever’ response:

Okay, I might know a little bit more about both sides of the climate change issue than I let on… and I may have published Bob Robertson’s sceptic piece last week just to stir up the city’s resident tree-huggers.

One fact is: it was Bob’s ‘opinion’, not mine – and that was stated quite clearly.

And another fact is: there is more than one side to this debate, not just what the ‘realists’ would have you believe.

Personally, I just hope some common sense comes out of Copenhagen.

But as far as ‘opinion’ goes: you don’t have to Google a few big words, son to see that if the greenies had not locked up Kosciusko, our beautiful high country would not be so infested with bushpigs, blackberries, brumbies and… marijuana buds.

If you think the spelling of Kosciusko is incorrect (it was correct before the bureaucrats changed the spelling), I’m just showing off my age – but I don’t have to Google big words to make me sound smart.

At that point I stopped reading, as it was the end of that particular section of his editorial and the next part seemed unrelated. Upon a closer look, though, he continued his reply:

An old prospector shuffled into a small town in Texas, leading an old tired mule. The old man headed straight for the only saloon in town, to clear his parched throat. He walked up to the saloon and tied his old mule to the hitch rail. As he stood there, brushing some of the dust from his face and clothes – perhaps as a result of climate change – a 22-year-old gunslinger who loved to lecture on ethics and morals, stepped out of the saloon with a gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.

The young gunslinger looked at the old man and laughed, saying “Why, old man, have you ever danced?”

The old man looked up at the gunslinger and said: “No, I never did dance… never really wanted to.”

A crowd had gathered as the gunslinger grinned and said: “Well, you old fool, you’re gonna dance now,” and started shooting at the poor old man’s feet. The old prospector, not wanting to get a toe blown off, started hopping around like a flea on a hot skillet. Everybody was laughing, fit to be tied. When his last bullet had been fired, the young gunslinger, still laughing, hostered his gun and turned around to go back into the saloon.

The old man turned to his pack mule, pulled out a double-barrelled shotgun, and cocked both hammers.The loud clicks carried clearly through the desert air. The crowd stopped laughing immediately. The young gunslinger heard the sounds too, and he turned around very slowly. The silence was almost deafening.

The crowd watched as the young gunman started at the old timer and the large gaping holes of those twin barrels. The barrels of the shotgun never wavered in the old man’s hands, as he quetly said: “Son, have you ever kissed a mule’s ass?”

The gunslinger swallowed hard and said: “No sir… but I’ve always wanted to.”

There are two lessons for us all here:

1. Don’t waste ammunition.

2. Don’t mess with old people.

(I just love a story with a happy ending!)

And that’s where we stand at the moment. I’m thinking about whether I’m going to reply – probably not in the form of a letter, but maybe just as a tip of the hat to Mr. Watson for characterising me as a tree-hugging, moralising, whiskey-drinking, aggressive potential stoner who uses Google to appear clever. He obviously values his moral and ethical position very highly to defend it so vigorously!

Would it be rude of me to point out that he didn’t tackle any of my criticisms?

Categories: environmentalism, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Treading on toes

  1. Nathan

    Not sure exactly how one ‘googles a few big words to sound smart’…

    Google is clever, but it generally requires me to supply the big words. You could always search for an online thesaurus I suppose.

    • davidpj

      Nathan; you go to Google and type in “big words that make me sound smart.” There are plenty of hits. Of course, placing those words in a carefully constructed, conversationally correct climate change context is not something Google is able to help with. Nor does it help with thinking up marvellous 7-word alliterations.

  2. I guess that’s why he works at the Gold Coast Sun..

  3. Chris H

    Haha, that is hilarious. So where is his extra knowledge about climate change his claims to have? I can’t believe they actually published such a waste of space as his reply. The sad thing is loads of people probably bought his humor and let that distract them from the topic at hand. Your initial response what right on point, I was contemplating the same line when reading his article. With so much science and technical capabilities we are quick to justify our actions on “what we can measure”. I however am not quick to assume that we understand everything about something so complex as nature. What about the things we can’t measure? There is potentially phenomenons that we have no idea about i.e. The theory of relativity was a bit of a bomb shell. Also global dimming throws another spanner in the works. It doesn’t take an kind of scientist to realise though that the more we pollute our environment the worse our living conditions will be. This should be intuitive, but it seems commercialism has drive this sense from a lot of people. No doubt the Sun editor and his contemporaries will be delighted to see such a shambles at Copenhagen, weather for better or for worse.

    • davidpj

      I agree Chris, there are variables in the climate system that we know very little about – there is a chance that they will serve to negate the problems we are causing, or worsen them.

      I was chatting to someone about the motivation behind his reply – playing off the young vs old stereotype, using divisive language like ‘tree hugger’ – and it really does seem to be a distraction technique as you said. Does he think people will write off my letter because they don’t want to be seen as a tree hugger?

      The funny thing is that I didn’t even argue the case for global warming OR taking action (things you might expect of a tree hugger), I simply tried to explain why his previous article was factually incorrect and irresponsible. Upholding standards of fact-checking before publication doesn’t mean you are on one side or another, it just means you don’t print rubbish.

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