carbon dioxide
Photo by Guy Bowden on Unsplash

As an environmental scientist, I have long puzzled as to why climate science is so contentious.

When I first studied climate science, we were expecting an ice age but back then, it was just a guess. As more carbon dioxide data became available, the increase was evident and instead of an ice-age, scientists – and others – realised the planet’s atmosphere was warming.

That’s the thing about scientists – they follow the evidence. If new evidence comes in, showing a different pattern, then they amend their interpretation to fit the facts. Scientists wonder about new ideas as much as anyone, but don’t usually rush to take sides.

In universities, a new idea is tested rather than debated – and rarely to the extent of believing or denying it. Science does not require belief because it is not a faith. Although science is explained by knowledge, at its fundamental level it is a method.

Scientists gather evidence and see a pattern in what is observed. Most scientific ideas start as a hypothesis then mature slowly with better data and insight. As the idea broadens, it engages more scientists (in other fields) and then goes beyond science. Eventually it is discussed by ethics committees, law makers, politicians, economists, artists and anyone else who is fascinated by a new idea.

But climate science did not follow this careful path. The idea went through several name changes – greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change, climate emergency – and took a short-cut around the analytical academics who usually scrutinise with disinterest.

Normally, the process of scientifically peer-reviewed publication irons out inconsistencies before the public is informed. But in this case, climate science became a public debate too early in its development. People watched a piece of science squirm through all its squabbles, out in the open.

Global Warming gained notoriety when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979–1990). As a scientist herself, Thatcher saw usefulness in this young theory for her politics. And as a politician she used it to argue against coal and in favour of nuclear fuel in power stations. As a result, the idea was dragged into a bitter fight between the UK government and coal mining unions.

But after leaving politics in 1990, Thatcher said little more about climate science. In her 2002 memoir, she criticised former USA Vice-President Al Gore for his “doomist” predictions.

Australia did not have the UK’s fight between coal and nuclear power, but it did have a huge rise in energy consumption around the same time. I witnessed this first-hand when I worked in power stations as a scientific investigator.

New pollution laws at the time were bringing air pollution under control so I hoped carbon dioxide (Global Warming) would be the next to be controlled. But that didn’t happen. Regulators did not classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant. That’s why it did not get the safeguard of having limits and penalties – as applied to other industrial fumes.

There is a precedent for controlling carbon dioxide at the smokestack. During the 1970s and 1980s, sulphur dioxide was also emitted from power stations. It caused acid rain in regions of Europe and America. Governments regarded this as pollution and several governments acted collectively to enact laws that transcended borders.

But carbon dioxide was more complex. Policy makers realised that it was far more widespread than power stations and not easy to pinpoint as a pollutant. Instead of being controlled the way sulphur dioxide was, carbon dioxide became the subject of trading schemes, pricing and taxes.

Carbon dioxide defies being defined as a pollutant – it is an outlaw and hero in one molecule. This ubiquitous gas can do multiple things. When emitted from power stations, cement factories or vehicles, it is an unwanted pollutant.

Paradoxically, it keeps life alive. Plants breathe carbon dioxide like we breathe oxygen. It also insulates the planet – a comfort blanket in the sky – but it can overheat the climate if there is too much.

Carbon, along with water, is one of the fundamental cycles that stabilises our weather, energy and food. Throughout history – as many societies took carbon from underground and released it to the sea and sky – it caused a (presumably) unintended consequence.

Now, contemporary society is being condemned for its enterprise, development and affluence. National governments are making decisions on climate change that can look like either a threat, or salvation, to citizens.

Any attempt to explain the global scale of disturbing the planetary carbon cycle runs the risk of looking like a universal theory – trying to explain everything. The scope covers energy, industry, agriculture, forestry and consumerism – everything that an advanced economic system needs to function.

Then again, a theory that addresses nearly everything appeals to its supporters. So, like a charismatic leader, climate change is all things to all people. To industrialists, climate change feels like an affront to their efforts. To environmentalists, it feels like a circling of the wagons to defend what’s left of society.

As more sectors of society have become involved, each perspective has spawned a win or a loss – a belief or a denial.

Regulatory agencies can feel trapped in the dilemma of declaring carbon dioxide a prosecutable pollutant, while knowing it is also life-giving. Centralised power companies can feel pushed out of the energy industry, after decades of service. High energy users, like airlines (and their passengers) can feel hounded for having benefited from harnessing fuels that emit carbon dioxide.

The older generation who raised their standard of living from carbon fuels can feel guilty that their grandchildren will pay for it. Taxpayers can feel that polluters should pay instead of being bailed out with public money. Small island nations can feel they have paid with their homeland, for a world problem that was not of their making.

Economists, especially, have been drawn into the discussion. Some have re-worked economic theory to allow industry to account for environmental consequences.

Farmers can feel entitled to payment for the revegetation they are expected to do to counterbalance excessive carbon dioxide. Money speculators can feel entitled to trade in a new-found commodity if governments put a price on carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy enthusiasts can feel entitled to advocate for nuclear fuel as an alternative to carbon-fuelled power. Entrepreneurs can feel they have the answer – a renewable energy industry to replace carbon fuels.

Right wing voters can feel that climate change is bringing instability. Left wing voters can feel that climate action is too slow.

The extent of climate disturbance is too broad to have narrow solutions. The science around the idea is too complex for simple answers.

So the challenge for government is to choose a climate policy that is based on science yet inclusive of the spectrum of sectors and perspectives. Sadly, to date, the Australian government has been constrained by binary thinking and partisan answers.

Citizens deserve better than a policy paralysed between believers and deniers. A fresh way to proceed is to accommodate the many viewpoints that have been swept into the vortex of this idea. Evidence shows that a climate policy has no basis for blaming one sector or glorifying another.

Just like any complex policy, climate policy requires answerability for the disruption that has happened, as well as fair dealing for its consequences. Anything less compassionate is too small for the size of the problem.

Suzanne Little is an environmental writer and sustainability consultant.

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  1. A molecule of many and curious scientific properties… and loaded with political/ideological propensities. Seems that one person’s Carbon d’oxide is another person’s Carbon dieoxide.
    Thoughtful article Suzanne.

  2. Suzanne Little is to be congratulated for her clear, non-condescending (from a scientific ivory tower) and informative text.
    She establishes with humility that scientists can and do change their minds as new evidence is discovered. For example, the prediction that the world was becoming cold mid last century to the scientific evidence-based realisation that the opposite is true, the world is becoming warmer.
    Little examines that scientists collect evidence and when they have sufficient to support and illustrate their hypothesis; they bring this hypothesis to other scientists and a mixture of different thinkers, ethicists, Lawyers, Artists, Economists, Politian and other concerned parties. She emphasized the importance of keeping a lid on the scientific ideas, from the general public until; the scientists have established clarity and maturity of the scientific ideas and supportive knowledge.
    I especially like Susan Little’s realisation that the public: –

    ‘deserve better than a policy paralysed between
    believers and deniers.”

    And that: –

    “Evidence shows that a climate policy has no
    basis for blaming one sector or glorifying another.”

    Suzanne Little’s final sentence sums’ up the situation perfectly: –

    “Just like any complex policy, climate policy
    requires answerability for the disruption that
    has happened, as well as fair dealing for its
    consequences. Anything less compassionate is too
    small for the size of the problem.”

    1. Suzanne I’m sorry spelling your name incorrectly, I have recently spent a great deal of time with a Susan by emails.

  3. Great article Suzanne. It helps explain the duality of carbon for all: the good and the bad. And even more importantly shifts the blame game and offers a pathway for leaders and governments to follow – if they only would.

  4. Congratulations Suzanne for a well-written piece about climate change on a scientist’s point of view. I hope that the world leaders would listen to what the scientists say based on research. What we are seeing and experiencing as lay people, are irrevocable and devastating effects of climate change that unless something is done about it at its current state, the world we live in will continue to have these catastrophic effects. May we all speak in one voice and be heard!

  5. Thank you Suzanne for this illuminating piece on why the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere has entered the public eye at such early stages so as to cause polarisation. The CO2 emitted by both deniers and believers must be significant and is a big waste 🙂 Both camps are hurting the scientific research that’s needed to understand what’s really going on and we as humans are the real problem, not CO2, all too eager to jump to conclusions that suit us and unable to sit patiently (some philosopher said all of our problems comes from our inability to sit quietly in a room by ourselves) and let the scientists observe.

  6. Great article!

    I love it that you listed so many of the ‘stakeholders’ to accentuate the complexity. As a longtime tree-hugger I was conscious of a few on your list but not nearly all of them.

    Can a complex problem like this be broken into smaller components? Can you recommend any books that might look at the solutions using these parameters?

    1. Thanks Rita,
      Yes it’s overwhelmingly complex. It’s has taken me a lifetime to get across it & I’m still learning.
      I suggest you read articles & blogs by ‘deniers’ to get more perspectives like those I described (there are lots – I couldn’t fit them all into the article, e.g. coal miners).
      It might be uncomfortable to do this but it overcomes the binary thinking that has characterised climate science.
      There is no book I can recommend to explain climate science to cover its complexity or be independent of bias, because each author usually presents a viewpoint.
      That is why I wrote the article.
      Regards Suzanne