Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott – who is still giving public speeches – just told an audience at the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London “It’s climate change policy that’s doing harm. Climate change itself is probably doing good; or at least, more good than harm.”
But what do experts have to say about his claims?
Professor Roger Jones is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies at Victoria University and a Research Leader at Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
“I read the speech in full,” Professor Jones told Gizmodo. “Abbott is clearly quite unhinged from reality.”
“He tells the GWPF the lesson he has learnt, from being in, then out of government, is to speak his mind. And what a strange, bizarre place it is. Surrounded now by a big fence that clearly refuses the entry of facts and the egress of any sense, just like our Federal Parliament House.”
Professor Jones says Abbott does “an interpretive dance through every denialist talking point he can muster”.
He calls out that Abbott’s talking point about the science being settled was actually coined to campaign against climate science. “So in using it, shows exactly where he is coming from.”
“And to decry measurement for anecdote when he claims that a host of extremes are ‘not more severe than they were in the 1800s’, to prefer a 100-year series of photos on Manly Beach reinforces that.”
“His arguments hold less substance than his speedos.”
Professor Steven Sherwood is an ARC Laureate Fellow and the former Director of the Climate Change Research Centre at The University of New South Wales.
Professor Sherwood calls Abbott’s comments as “the usual mix of misdirection, falsehoods, and tirades against ‘brigades’ who supposedly say this and that but are never clearly identified.”
“Even if all of Abbott’s statements were true, they would not add up to a coherent argument that we are better off continuing to promote 19th-century technologies that will drastically and permanently change our atmosphere, when we have practical alternatives,” he says.
Professor Sherwood points out that scientists don’t know everything, but what we do know “tells us unequivocally” that we would be in for massive warming of the planet if we continued on the current course.
“This judgment of the global scientific community is based on known scientific principles and evidence For example, the palaeotological record supports this judgment, in contrast to Abbott’s claims.”
Professor Sherwood says Abbott’s most important false claim is probably that models have been wrong.
“In fact models are nearly dead-on in predicting overall global warming so far,” he confirms. “They don’t predict every detail, but were never expected to.”
Professor Sherwood calls Abbott’s assertion that a few photographs of the beach taken from his neighbourhood are a more accurate record of global sea-level than the global network of tide gauges and satellite altimeters, “the funniest” of his false claims.
“In a way, that says it all.”
But let’s get to the actual quotes from Abbott.
Abbot’s pearls of wisdom include comparing the criticism of climate change deniers as in “the spirit of the Inquisition, the thought-police down the ages”.
Oh, and of course he reiterated his belief that the “so-called settled science of climate change” is “absolute crap”.
Professor Sherwood: “If a group of people were telling kids that cigarettes were good for them in order to get them to take up smoking, I bet Abbott would rightly seek to ostracise that group.”
Abbott also called the efforts taken to combat climate change are just like “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods.”
Professor Sherwood: “What is so ironic about this statement is that deniers of climate change are saying that, as a society, we should continue to obtain all of our energy from brown mud that we dig out of the ground, and that doing anything more advanced is too hard for us.”
“It’s climate change policy that’s doing harm. Climate change itself is probably doing good; or at least, more good than harm.”
Professor Sherwood: “Business and other knowledgeable communities agree that, at least in Australia, it is not climate policy but the lack of a climate policy that has stymied investment and caused the growing problems with supply that we now face.”
“There’s the evidence that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide – which is a plant food after all – are actually greening the planet and helping to lift agricultural yields,” he spoke, with his human mouth.
“In most countries, far more people die in cold snaps than in heatwaves, so a gradual lift in global temperatures, especially if it’s accompanied by more prosperity and more capacity to adapt to change, might even be beneficial.”
Professor Sherwood:: “Greening the planet, yes; lifting agricultural yields, not significantly. And while more people globally do die in cold snaps, we face fundamental limits to heat tolerance but not to cold tolerance, and heat impacts increase drastically with each degree of warming whereas cold impacts do not decrease as much.”
“With several degrees of warming tropical regions would be facing massive problems due to heat stress, possibly challenging their very habitability.”
Professor John Quiggin is an Australian Laureate Fellow (Economics) at The University of Queensland
Professor Quiggin told Gizmodo the first thing we need to see is that “Abbott does not deserve to be taken seriously”.
“His talking points are drawn from the same parallel universe that gave us denial on the harms of smoking and asbestos, while promoting absurd fears about wind turbines, vaccination etc. He displays the ignorant rejection of science characteristic of the entire political right.”
“To address the specific talking point, for slow rates of warming, and modest total warming, say 1 degree over a century, benefits and costs roughly cancel out,” Professor Quiggin.
“But as the rate of warming increases, the costs rise and the benefits fall.”
Professor Quiggin says this is true in particular of CO2 fertilisation.
“As the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, fertilisation benefits decline, while plants’ demands for water increase.”
Dr Jim Salinger is an Honorary Research Associate (School of Environment) at the University of Auckland
Dr Salinger gets to the point.
“Tony Abbott does not know what he is talking about,” he told Gizmodo.
“It is climate change where you have increased greenhouse gases causing warming and more extremes such as floods, droughts and heatwaves.”
Dr Salinger points out it going to causes climate extremes “which will be beyond the toleration of humankind”.
“That is why over 190 nations have signed the Paris Climate Accord.”
Update 5:45pm: More experts have contacted us to address Tony Abbott’s claims.
Dr Christopher Brown is a Research Fellow (Australian Rivers Institute) at Griffith University
“As a marine scientist I can say with confidence that climate change is doing more harm than good to Australia’s ocean life and our industries that depend on the oceans,” Dr Brown told Gizmodo.
Dr Brown then turned to four major examples of this.
“Heat waves have caused die-backs of crucial habitats that support marine life,” Dr Brown pointed out.
“The impacts of heat waves include two consecutive years of widespread coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef and widespread diebacks of seaweeds in Australia’s southern seas. Corals and seaweeds are both fundamental habitats for many marine organisms.”
Dr Brown says that that Australia’s oceans are warming is “absolutely undisputable”.
“Warming seas are causing northern animals to migrate southwards, and these migrations can be catastrophic for marine life. In Tasmania, an invasive sea urchin is devastating seaweed forests.”
The loss of seaweeds due to heat waves and invasive herbivores is highly likely to affect our valuable abalone fisheries, Dr Brown says, and also the numerous types of reef fish that are popular with recreational fishers.
“Warming seas in Tasmania are affecting salmon aquaculture, a >$100 million dollar industry. Salmon prefer cooler waters and as the seas get warmer salmon growth is reduced. Tasmania’s East Coast is one of the fastest warming oceans in the world.”
Dr Paul Read is a Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Societies Institute, University of Melbourne
“At the risk of taking him out of context, it’s good to hear that Mr Abbott has finally come around, by his own words, to accepting that higher concentrations of carbon emissions affect the biosphere at a planetary level,” Dr Read told Gizmodo.
“Unfortunately he’s been a bit slow to catch up with the rest of us since declaiming, in 2011, proposed legislative action as ‘chasing an invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless substance’.”
Dr Read has a suggestion for Abbott.
“Perhaps Mr Abbott would have taken less than six years to realise the power of such a substance had he simply held his breath. At least long enough to stop speaking and start listening enough to realise that there are indeed other ‘invisible forces’ capable of affecting us other than God.”
Dr Read says it is “ironic” for Abbott to likening climate scientists to the Spanish Inquisition and similar animistic cults worshiping volcanoes.
“I enjoy his turn of phrase but I need to point out that serious climate scientists put a great deal more careful thought and experimental effort into interpreting evidence and assessing what is likely versus what is possible.”
In terms of Abbott’s claims about climate change being beneficial, Dr Read says “Yes, it is possible that climate change will offer some wins in some areas ranging from shipping to crop yields, especially among farmers who adapt to changing conditions. But a more careful analysis would also balance this against deforestation and, more importantly, the relative pace of competing forces.”
As to his claim about cold killing more people than heat in most countries the same applies, Dr Read says.
“A study in The Lancet in 2015 provides a meta-analysis of sorts that puts extreme heat and cold as responsible for 0.86 per cent of total mortality. Again it would be wise to check the trends across time before interpreting the work in the context of climate change, given that heat deaths are increasing according to the World Health Organization and the global reinsurance giant Munich Re.”
It would also be helpful to consult the climate models on the rate and possible outcome of change, Dr Read says.
“Then we need to factor in other climate-related death rates that might come from vector-borne diseases, desertification in Africa, ocean acidification, megafires, maybe even resource wars; not only rates and possible outcomes but also probabilities.”
Dr Read says the wet-bulb temperature is the metabolic limit for human survival and also needs to be examined with reference to outcome probabilities.
“The complexity of such models are dazzling and should not be lightly discarded by skilled verbiage serving political ideologies of any side. If I appeal to nothing more than the Precautionary Principle we have a moral duty to our descendants to weigh the evidence carefully and soberly, whatever the outcome, and to act accordingly, perhaps even quickly, lest we leave them with a far steeper adaptive curve to climb – for subsistence alone, much less the luxuries we and our generations have squandered since we first knew of the problem.”
“In the meantime Mr Abbott can put on another layer of clothing if he’s feeling the cold from being too long on the outer.”
Emeritus Professor Will Steffen is from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University
Professor Steffen broke it down into three main points for us.
1. The science on climate change is very well understood – it has been carefully studied and debated for several decades in the scientific literature, and the evidence is absolutely clear – the Earth’s climate is warming at a very rapid rate (in geological terms) and there is no doubt that human emissions of carbon dioxide, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, is the major driver of the rapid warming trend.
2. There is overwhelming evidence that climate change is already having serious impacts to people (e.g., deaths in heatwaves, more serious bushfires, flooding Bangladesh, severe tropical cyclones in the Caribbean, etc.) and to the natural world (severe bleaching of the Great Barrier reef, wildfires in California and Canada, etc.). There is no doubt that climate change is doing far more harm than good.
3. Impacts on agriculture are complex, but generally negative — primarily due to extreme heat and shifts in rainfall patterns. These impact often outweigh the so-called “greening” effect from rising CO2 concentrations.
Update October 11 7:53am: More experts have contacted us.
Professor David Karoly is a Professor of Atmospheric Science (School of Earth Sciences) at The University of Melbourne, and Chief Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science in Melbourne
Professor Karoly calls Tony Abbott’s comments “interesting in several ways”.
“They are not new, as they just repeat many statements that circulate on the internet and in climate change denial blogs,” Professor Karoly points out.
“All have been either rebutted or shown to be unimportant to national and international decisions to act to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to limit global warming to less than two degrees above preindustrial levels.”
Professor Karoly told Gizmodo that some of Abbott’s statements are correct – but are either irrelevant or unimportant to the scientific evidence supporting the adverse, and dangerous impacts of climate change occurring now – and getting worse.
“Yes, there may be some short-term benefits for some people and sectors from a warmer climate and higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere,” Professor Karoly says.
“But numerous studies have shown that these benefits do not offset or outweigh now or in the future the adverse impacts on people, the environment and the economy from human-caused climate change.”
Professor Karoly said the most interesting aspect of Abbott’s comments is that “they appear to reveal his true colours once more”.
“They are inconsistent with his multiple statements as Prime Minister of Australia in 2015 when he stated that he accepted that climate change was real, that action was needed to avoid dangerous climate change, and that Australia would support the Paris Agreement as part of the UNFCCC – and do its share of global efforts to limit global warming to under two degrees.”
Update: October 12 2:20pm: More experts are coming forward.
Dr Olaf Meynecke is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Griffith University
Dr Meynecke told Gizmodo there is now very strong evidence that climate change is dramatically altering the environment.
“The impacts so far already outweigh all suspected benefits,” Dr Meynecke says.
“Hundreds of species have fallen extinct as the result of climate change impacts, and many natural disaster have been linked to climate change including the 2016 coral die off in the Great Barrier Reef.”
Dr Meynecke points out that more than 30 per cent of the largest living structure on earth (the Great Barrier Reef) has died as a result of global warming.
“The economic loss by climate change has also been discussed in a number of scientific publications showing that yields have fallen in many countries,” Dr Meynecke says. “Droughts and floods related to climate change have caused enormous economic loss. Islands are being lost was we speak due to sea level rise.”
Dr Meynecke says there is no doubt that those with already very little resources are at the highest risk.
“There is an estimated 400 000 to 500 000 people dying as a direct result of climate change per year worldwide and this number is going to increase drastically,” Dr Meynecke told us.
“We are not in the position to negotiate between benefits and impacts of climate change. The only suitable response is to undertake strong mitigation and adaptation measurements to counteract climate change.”