Otherwise fine, Simon Upton

Poles Apart: Beyond the Shouting, Who’s Right About Climate Change
Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869790455

When I learnt that Gareth Morgan was writing a book on climate change I groaned. Out of politeness, it was an inward groan. He had just made the admission to my face, and I was on his patch – or at least on his fund management company’s stall site at the Mystery Creek Farm Field Days. What on earth was he doing wading into a swamp from which many better qualified people had failed to emerge, I wondered?

Even as I uttered my groan I knew the answer. Gareth Morgan is on my list of the 10 most independent-minded New Zealanders who (1) bother to continue living here, and (2) care about preventing their country from foundering in a sea of complacency. This irrepressibly curious and energetic commentator couldn’t resist seeking to make sense of the avalanche of information and conflicting claims that surround the policy controversy of our age – and communicating his conclusions to the public at large.

That public is very large. To my pleasant surprise, Morgan and his fellow author John McCrystal have produced a book that has no hint of provinciality. Poles Apart may address itself to lay people in a jokey, journalistic style. (I loved the description of polar bears “retreating towards a kind of existential Dunkirk”.) But its exploration of the scientific premises in support of the theory of dangerous, anthropogenically induced climate change – and the continuing uncertainty that evidence for the phenomenon provides – is rigorous. The care with which this major international scientific debate is presented is little short of magisterial.

I have long considered that the strength of the theory in support of human-induced climate change made it a sufficient risk to be taken seriously. It is a conclusion I wish I could relinquish. Climate change is consuming the time of armies of negotiators and scientists. Already a decade ago, as a Minister, I was wishing the issue would go away since there seemed to be so many more pressing issues – biodiversity, water quality, toxic substances. That it hasn’t is testament to the resilience of the science in the face of some pretty concerted scepticism.

Morgan’s and McCrystal’s book is so good because it takes that scepticism seriously. All the major sceptical arguments are carefully dissected. The real uncertainties surrounding the impact of warming on the hydrological cycle and cloud formation are dealt with in some detail. There is no dumbing down of the scientific debate, and if the authors’ verdict is unequivocal – that the theory of climate change is coherent and is corroborated by the evidence garnered from observations – no respectable sceptic could argue that their conclusion was unsupportable.

Their analysis concedes some limited space for respectable scepticism but characterises much that is argued by nay-sayers as frankly lacking in rigour. That doesn’t make the motivation of sceptics any less interesting. They are too easily dismissed as being in the pay of fossil fuel interests (although some of them assuredly have been).

Morgan and McCrystal go some way to shedding light on why it is that otherwise reasonable people cling tenaciously to sceptical positions. But there’s an unsatisfactory shorthand to the conclusion that the debate “fits snugly over existing socio-political contours”. Why is it that political conservatives tend to scepticism? My hunch is that conservatives are inherently suspicious of pronouncements by and on behalf of government bureaucracies. That applies a fortiori when the pronouncing entity is the United Nations. But to dismiss information uniquely on the basis of its origins is a deeply ideological gesture that isn’t worthy of a scientific debate.

In any case, this doesn’t explain many of the amateur and not-so-amateur science buffs who refuse to go with the broad tide of the evidence. Morgan and McCrystal finger the rarefied world of peer-reviewed science as one potential source of the problem. For every paper that makes it into Nature, nine others fall by the wayside. There is plenty of opportunity for bruised egos.

But there is also to my mind a deep distaste on the part of many sceptics for the mediatisation of the climate science debate. For nearly two decades now, climate stories have been easy fodder for newspaper sub-editors wanting a headline. I suspect there are not a few scientifically literate citizens who feel insulted by the scientific illiteracy of journalists who repeat the questionable claims of lobby groups as though they were scripture.

Nobody has provided more hostages to the fortunes of illiterate journalists than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Morgan and McCrystal are rather severe (excessively so in my opinion) on this ponderous process that has been trying to pull together the science over a 20-year period. In a somewhat florid section they liken the IPCC’s pronouncements to that of a religious magisterium defending an orthodoxy in the face of schismatic sceptics.

It seems a little unfair to accuse the IPCC of arrogantly placing policy makers in direct communion with science while turning its back on the congregation (the public at large). The IPCC is a process. The use to which its conclusions are put is the responsibility of governments. So if, as Morgan and McCrystal complain, there is a gap between the science that the IPCC pores over and the general public, it is perhaps governments who should be assailed. But what can they do?

The authors of Poles Apart lamely call for “educating the general public”. Nice idea – but how good are governments at “educating” people in pluralistic democracies? And how sure can we be that they are free of influence when so much is at stake?

The fact is that this is a mind-bendingly complex problem – not just in gaining an understanding of the science but knowing how to respond in a way that is economically, socially and politically sustainable. The sort of short cuts that make slick public education campaigns appealing do not lend themselves to such demanding material. It is precisely those sorts of short cuts that have alienated quite a lot of literate citizens already.

Faced as I frequently am by otherwise intelligent people talking utter twaddle on this subject – usually emboldened by the liberating atmosphere of dinner parties – I have had plenty of time to mull the inadequacy of responses such as “go and read the IPCC’s conclusions, then come back and identify the crucial failings that lead you to this towering scepticism.” Actually, it’s not such a silly response – I’m certainly much more respectful of the handful of people who have bothered to do so. But Morgan and McCrystal have provided me with a more reasonable response: “Go and read Poles Apart and then we might be able to have a serious conversation” is, for the time being, a pretty fair challenge.

You can’t hold strong views without having reviewed the evidence. And you have to be prepared to crystallise your thinking. Theirs is roughly summarised as follows: the science is pretty irrefutable, the evidence is mounting, feedback effects associated with cloud formation are the biggest area of uncertainty. One-line verdicts will ordinarily bring scepticism in their wake. But Morgan and McCrystal have earned the right to have theirs taken seriously. 


Simon Upton is a Ngaruawahia-based reviewer and a former Minister for the Environment.