Senator Malcolm Roberts fails high school science in maiden speech

A schematic showing how greenhouse gases interact with the Earth's surface.

Climate science denialists will often fool people, and sometimes themselves, by cherrypicking the bits of evidence they think fit their argument.

At other times, they’ll construct elaborate conspiracy theories about human-caused climate change being a front for a New World Order, with the United Nations as the Illuminati.

But often, they just get things badly, horribly, terribly and embarrassingly wrong.

Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts of the far-right One Nation party had all this and more in his maiden speech to parliament last week. It made it all the way to the BBC.

“It is clear that climate change is a scam,” said Roberts, before laying down some hardcore sciencey stuff on Australia’s upper chamber.

He said “changes in the carbon dioxide level [of the atmosphere] are a result of changes in temperature, not a cause”. This, despite scientists being able to check the chemical signature of carbon dioxide gases that show the extra CO2 comes from the billions of metric tons of fossil fuels being burned every year.

Roberts tried to boil his whole understanding of atmospheric physics into one neat little paragraph. It went like this:

“It is basic. The sun warms the Earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot.

That is why their computer models are wrong. The UN’s claim is absurd. Instead of science, activists invoke morality, imply natural weather events are unusual, appeal to authority and use name-calling, ridicule and emotion. They avoid discussing facts and rely on pictures of cute smiling dolphins. These are not evidence of human effect on climate.”

Now I haven’t asked all of them, but I’m pretty confident that no climate scientist has ever used a picture of a dolphin — even a cute, smiling one — as “evidence of human effect on climate.” I might be wrong though.

Said Roberts: “Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.”

So, in the spirit of Greek philosophy (or something) I asked some climate scientists about Roberts’ statement on the “circulating atmosphere” and how it “can’t warm” the planet. And when I say I asked them, I mean I wasted their valuable time.

Professor Matthew England of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Climate Change Research Centre told me: “Where do you start? This denies that the atmosphere has any heat storage capacity, or that greenhouse gases re-radiate heat back down to the Earth.

“This really is high school geography that Malcolm Roberts has messed up here. We have known about the greenhouse effect since about the middle of the 19th century.

“We have directly measured warming of the oceans, for example, where about 90% of the human-caused heat has gone. You can measure that heat. And we know with absolute certainty that this heat has come from the atmosphere.

“Anyone in public office, as a Senator speaking about something as important as climate change, should be across these basic facts.”

Professor David Karoly of the University of Melbourne said: “Of course, Malcolm Roberts is wrong.

“There is a wealth of ‘empirical evidence’ from observations of the surface energy balance at every observing site around the world with relevant instruments and measurements.

“Downward long-wave or infrared radiation from the atmosphere to the surface is a vital component to warming the Earth’s surface. The atmosphere warms the surface and cools the surface. In fact, on average through day and night and over a whole year over the whole Earth’s surface, downward infrared radiation is more important than downward solar radiation from the Sun in warming the surface.”

Karoly also sent a schematic published by the UN‘s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which Roberts hates. While criminally bereft of smiling dolphins, the image shows how greenhouse gases interact with the Earth’s surface.

Professor Roger Jones of Victoria University has worked on several IPCC climate reports, which naturally will make Roberts uneasy. But he told me: “There is so much wrong in these few sentences that it is almost beyond parody — it turns the Senate Chamber into the theatre of the absurd.

“Malcolm Roberts broke the first law of thermodynamics, which is the simplest — the conservation of energy — and then broke the rest of them.”

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, also at the UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, started with the basics by pointing out to Roberts that the atmosphere is made up of gas. Then she got a bit technical.

“Greenhouse gases (GHG) which are present in the atmosphere absorb and re-emit particular wavelengths of radiation, under particular conditions. Each GHG absorbs and re-emits certain bands of the long wave radiation coming off the Earth.

“Yes, some of these re-emitted bands go into space, but some also go back into the atmosphere, thus heating it up. Long wave radiation essentially equals heat. More GHG equals more absorption and re-emitting of long wave bands, and that equals an increase in temperatures.”

So, there you have it.

Roberts broke basic laws of physics, managed to forget high school science and ignored the properties of the greenhouse gases he claims to have studied while working in the coal industry.

Apart from that, a pretty good effort?

[This article first appeared in RenewEconomy.com.au.]

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