Most scientists say that global warming is not only real, but is already contributing to extreme droughts, floods and the melting of the polar ice caps. But a few scientists still insist the idea is bunk. With the Kyoto Protocol about to come into force, Melissa Fyfe investigates the doubters, their financial backers and whether they are worth listening to.
At 401 Collins Street on Monday night, 50 men gathered in a room of plush green carpet, pottery and antique lights to launch a book about the science of climate change. Some of them were scientists. But many were engineers and retired captains of industry. Presiding was Hugh Morgan, president of the Business Council of Australia and former Western Mining boss. The master of ceremonies was retired Labor politician Peter Walsh.
Climate change is about science, but not just about science. It's about business and politics and wielding influence. The men - there was just one woman present - were all climate change sceptics, members of an organisation called the Lavoisier Group that argues global warming is nothing to worry about.
The book they launched - the latest weapon in the tussle for hearts and minds over global warming - was by Melbourne climate change sceptic William Kininmonth, former head of the National Climate Centre, part of the Bureau of Meteorology. He argues that global warming is natural and not caused by humans burning fossil fuels.
The book, Climate Change: A Natural Hazard, blasts the models used by climate scientists to predict and simulate what is happening. They are flawed, he says. "Climate change is naturally variable and it poses serious hazards for human kind," he writes. Focusing on man-made global warming is "self-delusion on a grand scale".
The only problem for the sceptics is that the vast majority of scientists think they are the ones that are deluded. "There's a better scientific consensus on this than on any issue I know - except maybe Newton's second law of dynamics", Dr James Baker, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, has said.
The Lavoisier Group challenges the orthodoxy and insists that that doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong. Named after a French scientist celebrated as a father of modern chemistry (and also famous for marrying a 13-year-old girl and meeting his end under the French Revolution's guillotine) the group was born in Australia in the 1990s specifically to question - some say undermine - greenhouse science and the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to cut global-warming emissions.
Secretary Ray Evans describes the 90-odd Lavoisier members as a "dad's army" of mostly retired engineers and scientists from the mining, manufacturing and construction industries. Many, he says, regard climate change as "a scam". It is unclear how much Hugh Morgan supports Lavoisier financially, but members pay an annual subscription of $50 and the annual budget is around $10,000. When they want to print a pamphlet to distribute at universities or take an advertisement in a newpaper - as they did in The Australian a few years ago - they appeal to members for money.
In Australia, the group is the obvious embodiment of the movement, but the idea has also been taken up by right-wing think tanks, such as the Institute of Public Affairs, and also feeds into a global network. It is a sophisticated machine that has successfully created the impression that climate change science is mired in uncertainty.
Scientists and environmentalists say the sceptics have been so good at spreading their message they have slowed action mitigating global warming. In Australia, the sceptics have been so persistent that the CSIRO, which employs some of the nation's leading climate scientists, has been forced to be far more proactive in defending climate change science .
Observers say sceptics have influenced attitudes of policy makers and politicians. A consultant and industry adviser on greenhouse gases who declined to be named, said: "I think the sceptics have had an impact. I think Australia's reluctance to ratify the Kyoto protocol has come down to the tactics of these groups that are supported by industry."
The nation's climate experts worry - mostly in private - that sceptics will delay action on climate change for another decade, using the same tools of hired guns and questionable scientific evidence as the tobacco industry wielded to deny cancer links in the 1970s and 1980s.
Recently, the sceptics have been on the back foot. Last week, the once-languishing Kyoto Protocol got its start date of February 16. This will set in train international mechanisms such as a global emissions market worth billions of dollars and financial incentives for renewable energy investment in developing countries.
Like the US, the Howard Government refuses to participate in Kyoto but says that by 2012 Australia will meet its targets anyhow.
It probably will, because recent decisions to end land clearing count as "credits" under Kyoto. The Howard Government backs the science that says most of the warming in the past 50 years was due to human-produced emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere that would normally radiate to space.
The 2504 scientists and reviewers who work under the banner of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) look set to make even stronger pronouncements about the role of humans on climate in their next assessment, due in 2007. The scientific mainstream has become more confident about how global warming is affecting the world, particularly in the past 10 years. The panel's chairman, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, told The Age: "One can say scientifically it is human action that is driving the bulk of changes that are taking place today."
Meanwhile, the evidence of climate change keeps mounting. Last century's global warming of 0.6 degrees - 0.8 degrees in Australia - may sound small, but an extra 1.5 to two degrees will mean the loss of coral and other delicate ecosystems. It is the most rapid warming the planet has seen in 10,000 years. In that time, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained constant at around 280 parts per million. It is now nearly 380ppm, a level the earth has not experienced for at least 400,000 years.
This month, an eight-nation report found global warming was causing the polar ice-caps to melt at such an unprecedented rate significant portions could be gone by century's end. Land temperatures made last month the hottest October on record.
But still the sceptics resist. Some are convinced that humans can't render change on something as large as the atmosphere. Many, like the Lavoisier Group, are concerned about the cost of Kyoto to Australia's resource-intensive economy. Others, such as William Kininmonth, have found fame in sceptic circles in the twilight of their careers. Academics like the Australian National University's Ian Castles, a former Australian Statistian, have become hardened in their scepticism because the IPCC has reacted slowly to criticism.
Still others, such as geologists, are cranky because their study of climate change over millennia has been ignored, they argue. University of Melbourne geologist Ian Plimer says this period of climate change is just "one frame in a three-hour movie". Climate change, he says, is "a dogma, not a debate".
The Lavoisier Group distributes the work of geologist Bob Carter, Ian Castles, William Kininmonth, Ian Plimer and a few other Australian sceptics. The Institute of Public Affairs, which receives funding from companies such as ExxonMobil, the most sceptical of the world's fossil fuel giants, also engages in the debate, scouring the web and email groups for evidence that climate change is natural. Early next month, the IPA is bringing to Australia Andre Illarionov, the economic adviser to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who lost the argument that his country should not sign Kyoto.
Recently, the doubters have been infuriated by NSW Premier Bob Carr's comments that in future, parts of the state will be like "living in an oven", and the Lavoisier Group is preparing a complaint to the ABC about its "appalling" and "sustained campaign" on climate change issues on Lateline and the 7.30 Report.
Australian sceptics are not as powerful as those in the US, where, for a long time, George Bush's Administration has also questioned the science.
Late last month, James Hansen, a director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, accused the Bush Administration of trying to stifle scientific evidence of the dangers of global warming. "I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it is now," he said.
In the past few years, with the exception of ExxonMobil, most fossil fuel companies in Australia are believed to have quietly accepted the climate science. But in their submissions to government, behind-the-scenes lobbying and through industry associations, many remain Kyoto-resistant and have argued recently against incentives for the renewable energy industry.
In the US, key sceptics have admitted to being on the fossil-fuel payroll, but Australians such as Ian Castles, Bob Carter and William Kininmonth say they are not paid for their views. However, earlier this year, before Russia had agreed to sign the Kyoto Protocol, Kininmonth accepted the International Policy Network's offer to fly him to a special climate science meeting in Moscow. The IPN is a right-wing think tank that has received funding from ExxonMobil and which networks with the IPA. But Kininmonth says he didn't know that. In an email to The Age, he said: "I was satisfied that it was a genuine invitation when the Russian ambassador telephoned me to co-ordinate obtaining a visa at such short notice."
Scepticism, of course, is a hallmark of science. Some global-warming critics are simply suspicious about the idea of consensus in the scientific community. As the Lavoisier Group's Ray Evans points out, the history of science is littered with hard-won battles of one man - such as Galileo - against a flat earth-like consensus. Evans also says he is a "Genesis 1:28 man". That's the passage that says: "God said to them 'Be fruitful and become many and fill the Earth and subdue it, and have in subjection the fish of the seas and the flying creatures of the heavens and every living creature that is moving upon the Earth".
The global-warming doomsayers, says Evans, are anti-development. Moreover, they stem from an environmentalism that has taken the place of Christianity, particularly in Europe. "To put it in its bluntest terms, when you don't believe in God you don't believe in nothing. You believe in whatever is the fashion of the day, and environmentalism has scooped the pool."
In some cases, scepticism has been good for climate science. US scientist Richard Lindzen, regarded as an outstanding climatologist, has forced his colleagues to address issues such as the role of convection, cloud and water vapour. But most of the handful of scientists around the world that could be called sceptics - and they are mostly not climatologists - do not, as Lindzen does, publish in the recognised peer-reviewed literature, science's method of fact-checking and filtering out bad science.
"Sceptics in Australia function to promulgate these essentially dodgy kinds of studies. And I don't think that is is too strong language to say they are dodgy," says Dr James Risbey, a climatologist at Monash University's School of Mathematical Sciences.
Climate scientists are frustrated that the sceptics' arguments persist, even though they say they have addressed them. There are many uncertainties around climate science, but they are often not the ones peddled by sceptics, they say. Kevin Hennessy, senior research scientist at CSIRO's Atmospheric Research, said one of the main uncertainties was saying what proportion of human activity versus natural variability could be blamed in recent climate events and trends - such as the drought in south-eastern Australia, the Canberra bushfires or Europe's devastating heatwave last year. It is also uncertain how much emissions of carbon dioxide will grow in the future.
Predicting population growth, the growth of economies and technological breakthroughs that will help reduce emissions are all difficult.
Scientists say they are still unsure about some of the impacts of global warming. The effect on coral reefs is clear, but there's limited understanding about the impacts on fisheries, for example. "Likewise we have a good understanding of impacts on some crops, but a limited understanding of impacts on cities," Hennessy says.
Hugh Morgan, probably Australia's leading sceptic in business and the force behind the Lavoisier Group, remains dedicated to the cause. "We are interested in this debate because we see that John Citizen is going to be asked to do some dramatic things to change his way of life in respect of matters (the community) doesn't understand."
While William Kininmonth is respected by his former colleagues at the Bureau of Meteorology and they agree about the climate's natural variability, they disagree that recent warming is natural. In a review to be published in March in the Australian Meteorological Magazine, University of Melbourne associate professor of meteorology Kevin Walsh will argue that Kininmonth has failed to present the case for natural warming. "Some of his detailed arguments are a little bit curious," Dr Walsh told The Age. "Some of his statements actually contradict well-accepted work."
But strangely enough, the Lavoisier Group heard that message on Monday night. In what seemed like a coup, Hugh Morgan had secured the respected John Zillman, former head of the Bureau of Meteorology, to launch the book. Dr Zillman agreed, but made it clear that there were significant parts of the book that he disagreed with. Dr Zillman, who is known to be quite conservative about climate science, said he was concerned about appearing at a Lavoisier Group book launch, but did so in the interests of debate.
He says he is not aware of any sceptic argument that has invalidated the mainstream science, and is now convinced - although would not have been 10 years ago - that it is mostly humans changing the world's climate. "I won't be expecting to be invited back as a regular," he said.