Researching Climate Change in an Era of Political Denial


That the social debate around climate change is a ‘culture war’ should come as no surprise to anyone observing current political debate in Australia, the US, UK and Canada. In contrast to much of the rest of the world where climate science is rarely debated, in the Anglo-Saxon world the culture war around climate change rages on with increasing vehemence.

In Australia, the election of the conservative Abbott Government has been marked by a targeted hostility to all things climate change. This has included the introduction of legislation to repeal carbon pricing, the disbanding of the Climate Commission, cuts to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the PM’s business advisor publicly stating that climate change is a ‘myth’, former Prime Minister and Abbott mentor John Howard expressing his ‘agnosticism’ about climate change; and the list goes on.

This focus on climate change has also extended to research funding. For instance in the lead-up to the election, Liberal MP Jamie Briggs claimed the discovery of widespread ‘waste’ in Australian Research Council (ARC) grant funding of ‘increasingly ridiculous research grants’, with a special focus on funding in the humanities especially those projects that mentioned ‘climate change’. This message was amplified by the Murdoch press and climate skeptic bloggers such as Jo Nova. More recently, Government cuts to CSIRO funding have been reported as resulting in major staffing reductions at Australia’s premier scientific research establishment.

And last Thursday we were treated to another sign of the new Government’s attitude to climate change research. As reported in Hansard, Queensland Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald stated that he believed far too many research grants were being awarded by the ARC to studies of climate change, a situation he characterised as ‘appalling’ (pp.88-9). Indeed he argued that:

‘unless you indicated in your application for a research grant that you were doing something with climate change then you were unlikely to get a grant, with the result that if you applied for pure and applied research in areas that did not relate to climate change you were, as I say, unlikely to receive funding.’

The Senator implied that this over-emphasis on climate change in grant funding was the product of ideological fashion dictated by the previous Labor Government. However, he provided no evidence to support these claims. Indeed, an analysis of past ARC Discovery grant rounds from 2002-2013 demonstrates that less than 4% of awarded grants have addressed the topic of climate change (with the high point being 2010 when 7.4% of grants had a climate change focus, dropping to just 2.9% in the latest Discovery round). These figures certainly don’t suggest the sort of subject bias suggested by Senator Macdonald. Moreover, I would think the ARC itself would be somewhat surprised at the Senator’s claims given the ARC’s traditional independence in the rigorous assessment of grant applications.

However, perhaps more alarming is the tenor of the Senator’s speech suggesting that climate change should be less of a focus for future scientific and academic research funding. Given that climate change (and associated issues such as ocean acidification) is probably the most pressing environmental, economic and social issue confronting our nation, this would appear to be an amazing position for a national government to adopt.

In discussing this issue with colleagues there has been much anecdotal commentary that it would be unwise to submit a grant application focussing on climate change in the coming ARC round given the apparent political hostility to the issue. I’d like to think this sort of supposition is misguided, however having read the good Senator’s speech I’m beginning to wonder whether my colleagues fears might have some foundation.

With the next round of ARC Discovery projects due for submission early next year, here’s hoping the Minister for Education clears up this uncertainty and takes the Senator at his word that future ARC grant rounds do ‘not run to the ideological direction of the government of the day’!

Republished in RenewEconomy

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12 thoughts on “Researching Climate Change in an Era of Political Denial”

  1. This, then, is modern Australian conservatism. O tempora! O mores! Nevertheless, read mark and inwardly digest, folks. Start up a file. In years to come, maybe as little as 3-5 ‘angry summers’ people of this ilk will be seen,even by the nongs who voted them in, for what they are: tiny-minded, blinkered, cloth-eared, philistine know-nothings who believe Einstein was a racehorse and that Muffin the Mule should be a punishable offence. Big Climate Change rallies everywhere on Sunday 17th.!!! Our motto should be– go forward with the knowledge we have, not backward to the years of the Inquisition.

  2. Evan,
    Yes indeed – documenting this insanity is important (and a key part of my current research) – although I sometimes wonder given our current trajectory whether there will be future generations to read about this new Dark Age of irrationality?

  3. It makes me laugh – in a sad way – when MacDonald berates the ARC for refusing to fund research by “scientists” who “have a different view [to the IPCC]”. I don’t imagine these projects are very good.
    Thanks for the posts and tweets.

    1. Cameron,
      Yes it would be interesting to know who are these scientists the Senator refers to, and if i fact they submit applications to the ARC Discovery rounds. The article by Graeme Readfearn provides an indication of who the Senator gets his information on climate change from – some well know climate change ‘sceptics’ in the mix it seems, but I have my doubts they would submit to the ARC for funding:

  4. Senator Ian MacDonald said “There is a body of opinion that does not accept the IPCC’s on climate change.” Based on my own knowledge of the issue, I believe this to be true. He goes on “there are eminent scientists who have a different view and some of them have applied for research grants but none of them have ever received one in recent years in Australia.” This point is probably also true in respect of the previous Howard Government and if accurate should ring alarm bells for any scientifically minded person.
    Senator MacDonald goes on “I think that is appalling and I really think that the Australian Research Council needs to be more balanced…”. I couldn’t agree more, but I gather I’m in the minority amongst those who have commented here. If ARC and similar international funding bodies have in fact only been funding one side of the man-made climate change debate, this certainly does shed a different light on the claim that there are many thousands of man-made climate change papers.
    Any reasonable person must thus surely realize the reason there are many thousands of man-made climate change papers is not necessarily evidence of the strength of the theory itself, but most certainly evidence of the one sided institutional funding generating those papers.
    The important question that then needs to be asked is; has science been hijacked by politics? I would expect any scientifically minded person to support Senator Ian MacDonald in raising such concerns. It’s those who denigrate him with their pitchforks who would have us return to the Dark Ages.

    1. Bill,
      Firstly, the Senator’s claims lack any corroborating evidence, in that we do not know:
      (a) if any “eminent scientists who have a different view” did in fact apply for ARC grant funding;
      (b) whether any of these applicants were unsuccessful; and
      (c) assuming (a) and (b), why they might have been unsuccessful.

      The ARC Discovery round has a success rate of around 20%, with significant variation across academic fields (in my field of business and management their were only 5 Discovery grants offered in the whole country in the latest round out of a total of 732 grants!).

      Your contention that there is a body of climate researchers out there that are being refused ARC grant funding because they hold some alternative view is simply lacking in evidence. Show me who these individuals are and their peer-reviewed publications. As pointed out above, the ARC grant assessment process is tough, and all researchers expect many knock-backs (just ask Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt at ANU who also tweeted that he missed out on the most recent round!). These rejections occur as an outcome of a highly-competitive process of review with multiple assessors and a panel of experts. There is no credible claim that could be made about political interference in the ARC’s reviewing process.

      However, where political influence can come to bare is after the the ARC deliver their recommendations to the Minister. Here I am afraid to say the Coalition have form. In 2003 and 2004, then Education Minister Brendan Nelson vetoed a number of grants recommended by the ARC, for what appear to be largely political reasons:

      The point of my post (republished in RenewEconomy) was to challenge the Senator’s allegations that too many ARC grants were being awarded to climate change issues in preference to other concerns. As my data highlights this is simply incorrect. In fact I would argue that given the catastrophic environmental, economic and societal implications of ‘business as usual’ GHG emissions (4-6 degrees Celsius average warming) – this is an issue to which much greater research effort should be directed.

      Lastly, you imply there is a meaningful debate about the basic concept of anthropogenic climate change. As you will see I am not a climate scientist, my expertise is in the field of organisational change and business, however I defer to those who have legitimate expertise and knowledge (as I would do in any other field). Given that around 97% of climate scientists worldwide (and all of the major national Academies of Science) agree on the basics of anthropogenic climate change, there really isn’t much debate about the science in my humble opinion. In fact having taken climate science courses I am surprised how the basic physics of AGW is so often challenged. As others have noted (, this social debate is not about the science it’s about values and ideology – a culture war that goes to the heart of our understanding of our society and economy.

  5. christopherwrightau you write “Given that around 97% of climate scientists worldwide (and all of the major national Academies of Science) agree on the basics of anthropogenic climate change, there really isn’t much debate about the science in my humble opinion.”

    The fact that you quote that figure shows that you aren’t particularly careful in doing your research. The earliest genesis of the 97% claim was a two question survey (known as the Doran survey), completed as part of a masters Thesis in 2009 where it was determined that only 79 of the respondents were suitably qualified in climate science having recently published in the area, to be included in the assessment of ‘all climate scientists’. Of course most of those were in the US. 77 of those answered ‘YES’ to the two questions which from memory were, do you think humans are adding CO2 to the atmosphere and do you think this is making a significant contribution to global warming. Without actually defining what was meant by ‘significant’. We can only speculate how many people would have answered yes to both questions but would be called Climate Skeptics because they do not believe science has proved humans have caused MOST of the warming since 1950, or that the warming is DANGEROUS or even if they did, that the best way to deal with it is through a carbon tax, or emissions trading scheme.

    The second and most recent genesis of the 97% claim was an excruciatingly embarrassing paper which claimed to look at 11,944 abstracts of peer reviewed papers to determine which were assess to opine that humans were causing climate change. There were major methodology and analytical faults with this ‘research’.

    A major fault was that the definition of the so called Climate Change scientific consensus change three times throughout the paper. Something apparently missed by the peer reviewers. But worse than that was that more than 62% of the abstracts where no opinion was expressed were simply excluded from the final calculations to determine the so called consensus. When you actually boiled down how many of the abstracts expressed that humans were responsible for most of the climate change being experienced and that it was dangerous, the actual number of the original abstracts reviewed which satisfied that definition was just 0.3%.

    I suggest you read ‘Climate Consensus and ‘Misinformation’: A Rejoinder to Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change’ David R. Legates et al 2013. As the authors wrote “The 97.1 % consensus claimed by Cook et al. (2013) turns out upon inspection to be not 97.1 % but 0.3 %. Their claim of 97.1 % consensus, therefore, is arguably one of the greatest items of misinformation that has been circulated on either side of the climate debate.”

    It is important that this misconception is cleared up because too often people who do not believe the position painted by the UN IPCC, or CSIRO or the likes of Tim Flannery or Al Gore, which I might add have all had a pretty poor record of predictions over the last 20 years, are painted as ‘Climate Deniers’.

    The fact is there is a fairly broad continuum in the scientific community between pretty much every one who agrees that humans are causing some warming and a small minority who think that any additional CO2 pumped into the atmosphere is balanced by natural feedback mechanisms. However along that broad continuum is a huge range of views about how much humans are warming the planet, how detrimental that warming is, if at all. There are many scientists who believe that any warming up to around a couple of degrees would be a net benefit to the world. And then there is the argument about the cost/benefit of cutting emissions to reduce or maintain temperatures versus taking mitigating action.

    By not opening your mind to the reality that there is a broad range of views, you force people to pick between one of only two choices they are being given. That is not good for science or the community.

    1. John,
      This side debate has been comprehensively covered elsewhere:

      The Legates et. al. paper appears in a relatively unknown education journal with a low impact factor. It ain’t Science or Nature!. So although the climate denial blogosphere seem to see this as some sort of ‘slam dunk’ – I think you guys are kidding yourselves.

      As to the more general points about climate science – sure keep telling yourselves there are masses of scientists out there who challenge the vast scientific consensus on AGW. If that makes you feel better – great. But if you actually go and speak with people with expertise in the relevant fields (geophysics, geochemistry, geology, soil science, oceanography, glaciology, palaeoclimatology, ecology, biology, biochemistry, biology, mathematical modelling, computer science, and statistics) I think you’ll find you’re on something of a fool’s errand.

      Finally, you note ‘many scientists who believe that warming of a couple of degrees would be a net benefit to the world’ – please send me the peer-reviewed references as I would be interested to see the analysis. Most of the literature I’ve seen suggests 2 degrees will be pretty catastrophic and 4-6 degrees (where we are ending doesn’t bare thinking about). See Prof Kevin Anderson’s Cabot lecture for instance:

      In any case, I come back to my original intent in the post re the good Senator’s unsubstantiated claims. There is clear evidence that only a very small proportion of ARC grant funding is directed to the issue of climate change (despite the pressing urgency of this issue). Moreover, there is simply no evidence to support the claim that researchers are being knocked back in ARC grant rounds because they reject AGW.

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