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)!
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.
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?