How the media bungled the reporting of sinking Solomon Islands

First reported in the Guardian.

Links between climate change and the sinking of five islands in the Pacific Ocean have been exaggerated, the author of a widely reported new study has said.

The report, published on Friday, tracked the shapeshifting of 33 reef islands in the Solomon Islands between 1947 and 2014. It found that five had been washed away completely and six more had been severely eroded. The study blamed the loss on a combination of sea-level rise and high wave energy.

Many media outlets, including the Guardian, jumped to the conclusion that the islands were lost to climate change. But this largely misinterprets the science, according to the study’s author, Dr Simon Albert.

“All these headlines are certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle. I would prefer slightly more moderate titles that focus on sea-level rise being the driver rather than simply ‘climate change’,” Albert told the Guardian.

The major misunderstanding stems from the conflation of sea-level rise with climate change. As a scientifically robust and potentially destructive articulation of climate change, sea-level rise has become almost synonymous with the warming of the planet.

However, as Albert’s paper points out, the ocean has been rising in the Solomon Islands at 7mm per year, more than double the global average. Since the 1990s, trade winds in the Pacific have been particularly intense. This has been driven partly by global warming and partly by climatic cycles – in particular the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

“These trade winds have basically pushed water up into western Pacific and have driven these exceptionally high rates of [sea-level rise] in the Solomons,” said Albert. “The trade winds are partly a natural cycle but also the recent intensification is related to atmospheric warming.”

The proportion of the extra rise driven by climate change was not considered by Albert’s study.

Areas of the Pacific where seas are rising at closer to the global average have not yet experienced the same loss of land as the Solomon Islands. A few studies, based on comparing aerial photos of islands from world war two with current satellite images, have thus far have been inconclusive. There is even a suggestion that atolls in the central Pacific are getting bigger.

The loss of land in the Pacific is a totemic image of climate change. Residents of low-lying nations see incursions of the sea where it did not use to be and blame the burning of fossil fuels. This study shows that the issue is more complex than this. But it also contains a dire warning.

By the second half of this century the sea-level rise across the Pacific will be close to the rate observed in the Solomon Islands in recent decades. Albert’s team also observed a disturbing trend of wave energy increasing along with local sea-level rise, meaning islands exposed to high seas were trounced into oblivion.

In this respect, the drowning of these lands is a window into the future. For the first time, we can see clearly that the amount of sea-level rise we expect from climate change will overwhelm entire landscapes.

“The key aspect I stand by is that these observations from the Solomons are a warning of things to come irrespective of if climate change alone caused it or a range of factors,” said Albert.

It appears that in some cases journalists did not contact the researchers and instead quoted from a comment piece the authors wrote on The Conversation website.

“This is the first scientific evidence,” said the authors, “that confirms the numerous anecdotal accounts from across the Pacific of the dramatic impacts of climate change on coastlines and people.”

This was used to justify erroneous headlines. Albert told the Guardian: “I understand why these more dramatic titles are used and it does help bring attention to the issue that I firmly believe will become a major issue for the islands in the second half if this century from climate change.”


Tasmania’s bushfires: a human-made calamity on par with the razing of Palmyra’s temples

First published on the Guardian

It is a three-hour, thigh-torturing climb to reach Tasmania’s high central plateau. Ancient myrtle rainforests flank the slopes. In years gone by, springs and streams gushed from the soaked highlands above, feeding the ferns and tall, old trees. The track passes Norm’s spring, from which local legend holds it is good luck to drink. But in these parts the luck has run dry.

Last year Tasmania suffered its driest and hottest spring. At the nearby Miena dam, October’s rainfall was just 10.2mm, a record 65mm below average. The second driest November followed.

For the world heritage-listed ecosystem above, these normally sodden forests are a fortification against the fires that perennially torch the lowlands. But their fluorescent mosses turned a circumspect pastel green in the heat. By the time December and January broke summer heat records, they were just waiting for a spark.

On 13 January a huge, dry electrical storm set more than 70 fires rampaging across the island. Within days the flames tore through the dried-out defences and into the world heritage area above. For more than a month, fire has rolled back and forth across the fragile plains.

At the lip of the plateau a spectacular field of cushion plants once marked the northern edge of Tasmania’s vast world heritage area. These fragile plant communities build on the skeletal wood of their ancestors. As the centuries pass they construct huge, alien-green mounds that bulge from the peat. Today they look like a tray of burnt sponge cakes.

A long glacial valley stretches out below, devoid of colour, filled only with twisted black branches and burned stones; a monument to entropy. The rocks still radiate heat even though a fortuitous cloudburst put out the flames weeks before. At every step the normally spongy soil bursts into puffs of dust. The torched bark of thousand-year-old pencil pines shines iridescent black.

Only in tiny pockets has some life survived. Due to some inherent extra wetness, a protecting rock or a random swirl of the wind, here and there a few square metres of peat still shout forth little fantasias of sphagnum moss, pineapple grass, honey richea and cushion plants. Like funeral photos of a young life cut short, these still-glorious toeholds only accentuate the bitter, irredeemable tragedy of the surrounding acres of ash.

When vandals of Islamic State blew up the temples of Palmyra, the sickened world responded with appropriate and universal rage. The director general of Unesco, the UN body that oversees world heritage sites, called it a “war crime”.

As the burning of Tasmania enters its sixth week, Unesco remains silent. But if the dire warnings of forest scientists are correct, this summer heralds a new era of decline for this great Gondwana ecosystem. Unlike eucalyptus forests, these plants have not evolved to cope with regular bushfires. Once burned, they die. In a region that has rarely experienced fire, the blackened trunks of millennial trees will burn again and again. Some fire-resistant species will remain but the change will be absolute.

The beginning of its end is a theft from us all. Two-thirds of the plant species on the plateau exist nowhere else on earth but Tasmania. According to one estimate, 4% of the world’s remaining pencil pines – among the longest living of all trees – have been lost in these blazes.

The British explorer Gertrude Bell once wondered of Palmyra’s temples whether “the wide world presents a more singular landscape”. For the pilgrims who visit Tasmania’s wild sanctuary, there is only one answer. They come, from both near and far, to worship a different articulation of the divine. Or, as one local bushwalker puts it: “This is where we go to have fun.”

Away to the west, fires still burn. Tasmania’s fire service says they are contained. Thankfully, the weather failed to produce the dire northerly buster that would have sent the fires deep into the wilderness. Damage has been limited to 22,000 hectares of the vast 1.5m-hectare park. The Tasmanian government has been at pains to point out that the great majority remains intact. Rather than the final cataclysm, the ruined valleys at the northern edge are a premonition of a warmer, less wonderful world.

Unesco says it is “not in a position to speculate about the extent to which global warming is responsible for this particular fire”. Earlier this month the Tasmanian premier, Will Hodgman, attacked “activists” for “almost gleefully capitalising” on the fires, which he said were “naturally caused”.

But this ignores the unnatural rarity of these particular fires and the circumstances that preceded them. If they had been lit by arsonists, says David Bowman, a forest ecologist from the University of Tasmania, “that would be bad, but you would understand that that was preventable”.

Instead the rising background of climate change combined with a huge El Niño to create conditions in which peat bogs were dry enough to burn for the first time in perhaps a thousand years. Tasmania’s rainfall has been decreasing since the 1970s, accompanied by a rise in annual average temperature of half a degree. Last week research confirmedthat even with an El Niño in effect, the occurrence of Australia’s three hottest-recorded springs in the past three years was “almost certainly” caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate scientists have also predicted that lightning strikes will happen 12% more frequently with every degree of warming.

“It’s a historically significant event,” Bowman says.

Deep in the valley, a tiny grove of pines is still green. From afar the trees (which look to be about 500 years old – young by pencil pine standards) appear to have been protected from the fire by a rocky slope. But closer inspection reveals that the peat burned right up to their bases. Licking flames singed the bark at the bottom of their trunks. Then, inexplicably, the fire turned away. Perhaps this was the moment the rain came to douse the flames. The chubby needles of the pines remain soft and lively. But if these trees are going to ride luck like this their end cannot be far away.

The parents of these young trees may have been young themselves when the citizens of Palmyra still walked their desert streets. The razing of these old treasures are two points on the wide spectrum of human failure. Along with the fractured temple of Baalshamin, Isis have broken the statues of Hatra in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban blasted the great Buddhas of Bamiyan. All of these places carried the aegis of world heritage. This week news comes that the violence of climate change has turned towards another Unesco wonder, the Great Barrier Reef.

At the edge of the central plateau, a half-torched wooden signpost bears Unesco’s world heritage symbol, signifying the interdependence of nature and human ingenuity. Nothing within eyeshot is now worthy of such lofty recognition. Amid the blackened clumps of the cushion plants, the icon is a travesty.

10 reasons to be hopeful we will overcome climate change

Read the full list on the Guardian.

For the last few months, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have been at record levels unseen in over 800,000 years. The chairman of the IPCC, an international panel of the world’s top climate scientists, warned earlier this year that “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change”.

Future generations will no doubt wonder at our response, given the scale of the threat. It’s known that death, poverty and suffering await millions, and yet governments still vacillate.

But solutions are available. Here are ten reasons to be hopeful that humans will rise to the challenge of climate change.Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 17.08.58

Will carbon capture and storage ever make fossil fuels safe?

Eco audit verdict from 21st May, 2014 – Full story here

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a vital technology for avoiding dangerous climate change. MPs, Shell, the IPCC, the energy industry, the IEA and environmentalists all agree, with a minimum of vitriol. It’s almost eerie. Why is CCS, championed in every corner, stalling?

The large up-front cost of the test projects means governments are faced with investing billions in projects that they don’t know will work. Fossil fuel companies meanwhile, have little incentive to stump the cash themselves until carbon pricing forces their hand. This means that despite some good initiatives, enthusiasm for investment has been lacking.

Of course the unanimity surrounding CCS is an illusion. Everyone likes this, but for different reasons. Fossil fuels companies like it, because it allows their business model to have a future without being culpable for breaking the carbon budget. Green groups like it because it offers an opportunity to reduce the carbon impact of industry. British MPs like it because Britain will be able to make lots of money burying other countries’ emissions beneath the North Sea.

Perhaps the most convincing judgement is that of the International Energy Agency (IEA). Whose modelling shows that fossil fuel power with CCS is not simply a way to continue burning fossil fuels, but a key element of the cost-effective pathway to carbon abatement. A huge positive about this technology is the decarbonisation of the baseload power supply, thus complementing the impact of renewables, rather than competing with them.

Will it ever make fossil fuels safe? No. It will only ever capture most, not all, carbon emissions. And it might serve to slow the transition away from coal and gas. But it does offer the chance to make industries like steel and cement, for which we do not currently possess alternatives, much less polluting. For this reason alone it should be pursued. Further, the prospect of attaching CCS to bio-energy power plants and actually removing carbon from the atmosphere while producing electricity is a real and exciting prospect.

But today’s wisest observation, from Dustin Benton and others, was that CCS alone cannot carry our hopes for a stable climate. We must continue to invest in all abatement technologies and not put all our money on the horse that is still in the stable.

Reaction to Times report on rejected climate scientist

Climate scientists reacted agrily today at an apparent attempt to paint the discipline as ‘activist’. The Times ran a front page story that a paper written by Lennart Bengtsson had not been accepted because its findings were uncomfortable for climate scientists. The Science Media Centre gathered reaction today from some of the UK’s heavy hitters.

Prof Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London, said:

“The publishers of the journal concerned, IOP, express astonishment that the story of this rejected manuscript made front-page news.  Of course it’s perfectly normal for scientific papers to be rejected for a whole variety of good reasons.  But the reason it made front-page news in this case was because of the previous pressure brought to bear on Professor Bengtsson, from a variety of quarters including from other climate scientists, which made him resign his position as an academic advisor to the GWPF think-tank.  This is the real story here: why certain climate scientists believe it’s their role to pass public judgement on whether a scientific colleague should offer advice to political, public or a campaigning organisations and to harass that scientist until they ‘fall into line’.

“This episode tells us a lot about how deeply politicised climate science has become, but how some scientists remain blind to their own biases.”

Dr Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science at University College London, said:

“The rejection of a scientific paper becoming front page news is a surprise.  Scientific papers get rejected all the time. In top journals nine in ten papers get rejected; there is nothing unusual about it.  Decisions about publication are made by editors, not reviewers, so it is entirely wrong to selectively quote from reviewer comments alone.

“What counts are the reasons the editor gave for rejection.  They were because the paper contained important errors and didn’t add enough that was new to warrant publication.  Indeed, looking at all the comments by the reviewer they suggested how the paper might be rewritten in the future to make it a solid contribution to science.  That’s not suppressing a dissenting view, it’s what scientists call peer review.”

“I suspect that the rejection of a scientific paper hitting the news is simply because Professor Bengtsson has strong links to campaigners at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“The full referee’s report that has been released by the journal shows that Professor Bengtsson’s paper was rejected because it was not good enough.  While it did include an inappropriate comment about the perceived impact of the paper on media coverage, this was just a single phrase in the referee’s detailed and constructively critical review, which pointed out the technical limitations of the paper. It is clear that the recommendation to reject was based on the poor quality of the paper.

“It is not a surprise that Professor Bengtsson is upset about the rejection, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the decision was based on concerns about the paper’s impact on the media.  Most researchers who receive such feedback respond by improving a paper and re-submitting it for publication.  But it appears that Professor Bengtsson has decided instead to allow himself to be used as a pawn in the disinformation campaign by climate change ‘sceptics’.” 

Prof Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

“Professor Lennart Bengtsson’s resignation from the GWPF Academic Advisory Council has received wide coverage and raises important issue.

“Whatever anyone’s views are on the role, motivation and integrity of the GWPF in this matter, it is up to individual academics whether or not to associate themselves with it.

“It is regrettable that perceived political stances on the climate issue are apparently so affecting academic activity.  The Grantham Institute at Imperial has always opposed such behaviour, believing that scientific progress requires an open society.  We try to engage with a wide range of figures, some with radically different views on climate change.”

“The outcome in this case is probably a reflection of the ‘us and them’ that has permeated the climate science debate for decades and which is in part an outcome of – and reaction to – external pressure on the climate community.

“This episode should not distract us from the fact that we are performing a very dangerous experiment with the Earth’s climate.  Even by the end of this century, on current trends we risk changes of a magnitude that are unprecedented in the last 10,000 years.  How we respond to that is a matter of public policy but scientists clearly play a key role in providing policymakers with the evidence they require.”

Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, said:

“As scientists we rely on peer review to ensure that the very best science is published.  You can’t cry foul and run to the media when you manuscript is turned down – however famous you are.

“In this case the independent reviewers suggested there were flaws in the science – and, even more damning, that it was not original.  The reviewers were right: publishing bad science does not advance the science or the policy relevant discussions at all.

“On the question of climate sensitivity to doubling carbon dioxide, there are already many excellent papers published which give a huge range from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C.  So even if this flawed paper been published it would have said nothing new or original.”

Prof Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford, said:

“No self-respecting scientist would reject a paper on the grounds that it might fuel climate scepticism.  However, according to the journal, the paper contained errors and did not sufficiently advance the science.”

Prof Myles Allen, Head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, said:

“Whether there is a story here at all depends on whether you read ‘unhelpful’ and ‘harmful’ in the quotes I have seen as meaning ‘harmful to our collective understanding of the climate system’ or ‘harmful to the case for a particular climate policy’.

“If the reviewer meant the first, then there is nothing wrong with them saying so.  Part of the job of a reviewer is to point out statements in a paper that are liable to cause misunderstanding.  The problem is that journalists can now spin this as meaning the second.

“The real tragedy here is that climate scientists are now expected to check their comments in an anonymous peer review to ask themselves how they might ‘play’ if repeated in the Times or the Mail.  The progress of science since Galileo has depended on the principle that an anonymous graduate student can point out errors in a paper by a Nobel laureate confident that their comments will be used solely for the purposes of editorial judgement.

“The peer review system has its faults, of course: good papers get rejected, bad papers accepted, and reviewers have their prejudices which editors have to take into account.  But overall, it has served us well, and there is a lot more than climate science at stake if we allow it to be undermined by forcing scientists to consult their lawyers before recommending that a paper is rejected.”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“In the interests of transparency and informed debate, Professor Bengtsson’s paper should be made public along with reports from the referees and editor.  Only this will prove that his paper was rejected by the journal for sound scientific reasons rather than politics.  The peer review process is always susceptible to inappropriate comments from referees, but it is up to editors to ensure the integrity of the process.”

Dead birds on the floor – the building of the climate consensus

Published in the Guardian May 12, 2014

Climate scientists are canaries in the global coalmine – highly attuned proxies, who sense danger before we blunder into it. For decades, various researchers have issued calamitous warnings about climate change. But was there a moment when science collectively, definitively, dropped off the perch? And why do we keep ignoring the litter of dead birds on the floor?

During the 1990s, scientists were still debating the most basic assertions of climate change science. Was the world indeed warming? Consensus was growing, but slowly and many scientists remained undecided.

Two bold scientific statements bookended the decade – James Hansen’s statement to the US senate in 1988 and the 1999 hockey stick graph. Maligned and celebrated, the two were influential in bringing climate change into the public consciousness. Yet both were accused of using unproven methods to reach their conclusions, damaging the credibility of climate science and paving an easy road for denialism.

Hansen, head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the energy and natural resources committee of the United States Senate in 1988 that his research on human-induced global warming was unequivocal. “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

The next day, the New York Times ran the headline “Global Warming Has Begun”. It was a galvanising moment for public opinion and Hansen became a poster boy for the environment movement, but not all were convinced.

“Hansen was a scientist that bumped right up against the edge of activism and a lot of scientists have been very uncomfortable going over into that. And rightly so … if you’re seen too much as an activist then people won’t trust your science,” said Marshall Shepherd, 2013 president of American Meteorological Society.

The US National Climate Assessment (NCA), released last week, echoed Hansen’s words 26 years later: “Climate change is already affecting the American people”.

But even the NCA, built as it was on the work of 800 scientists, has beencriticised for a lack of nuance.To maintain credibility, climate science must walk the narrow ledge between conservatism and activism.

Some scientists feel the hockey stick graph, published in 1999, dangled both feet over this edge. Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes used data gathered from tree rings, lake sediments, ice cores and corals to recreate the global temperature over the past 1,000 years. The image they produced was a startling visual communiqué of the world’s post-industrial warming trend. It was featured prominently in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2001 report.

But Mann et al’s willingness to use unproven methodology irked some scientists, including Hulme: “I don’t think it was seminal for scientists. To me that was never a decisive interventional piece of evidence. The data was absolutely scanty.”

Shepherd disagrees. “I think it would be characterised as a watershed moment in climate science,” he says, although he recognises it as “one of the singular most polarising graphs or scientific pieces of data that exist”. He says the paleo-climate data used to create the graph has since been showed to be “pretty good”.

The problem for Mann and Hansen is the world wants to see all the canaries keeling over together, a clear public moment of unequivocal proof. Shepherd says the public wrongly see science like a court case, in which reasonable doubt can outweigh a larger body of evidence. But science has a natural indifference to the desire for certainty. Each time a scientist gets too far ahead of the curve it makes the scientific community deeply uncomfortable. Disagreements of this kind can be latched onto as evidence that the scientific process is flawed, fuelling the denial movement.

Consensus on climate change built incrementally through the 1990s until, by the time the 2001 IPCC report came out (with the hockey stick graph in it), there were very few scientists who felt uncomfortable attributing some climate change to human activity.

But Hulme says there was no collective eureka moment and there will always be doubt and questions. “Science doesn’t really do that. It is always an unending process of confirmation, correction, refutation … It is the collective social practice of science that in the end gives science its particular credibility and status. But it’s a rather harder thing to get to the bottom of because you can’t just focus on one charismatic individual.”

Notably absent from the consensus building of the 1990s were the voices of climate scientists from developing countries, says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. For the most part, this was because the research was simply not happening. But increased interest from political leaders during this time led some countries (mainly in the Indian subcontinent, China and southeast Asia) to implement climate science programmes. Even so, the imbalance perpetuates today.

Bhushan says climate scientists from the south “still play a very little role in developing consensus on climate change negotiations.” The latest IPCC report drew more than 90% of its research material from developed countries.

Scientists participate in the compiling of IPCC reports with funding from their governments, meaning wealthy countries can afford to participate more in the process. This has the effect, Bushan argues, of politicising the reports, which he says have focussed unduly on the impacts of climate change on the developed world.

February’s Guardian eco audits

The French today join the US and China as the latest country to crush its stockpile of seized ivory. But is it an empty gesture? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

As experts line up to draw links to climate change, Karl Mathiesen, with your help, looks at what is causing the series of storms and floods hitting the UK.

In the wake of a sodden winter, a series of sinkholes have opened up across Britain. But are they a natural phenomenon or induced by human activity. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

More than 1 in 20 badgers took more than five minutes to die after being shot by government contracted marksmen. After the badger cull also failed to meet its target number of kills, can the policy proceed? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

December eco audits

Will energy bill changes be carbon neutral?

As European diplomats meet in Brussels to decide Europe’s 2014 fishing quotas, Karl Mathiesen, with your help, investigates whether recent reforms can create a sustainable fishing industry.

Are the UK’s carbon targets too low?

Should the government have more, not less, ambition on carbon reduction? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

Can new EU legislation protect fish stocks?

As European diplomats meet in Brussels to decide Europe’s 2014 fishing quotas, Karl Mathiesen, with your help, investigates whether recent reforms can create a sustainable fishing industry.

Should rich countries pay for damage caused by global warming?

Guardian Eco Audit

21 November, 2013

Developing nations have said the issue of loss and damage is a ‘red line’ which must be addressed for talks in Warsaw to progress. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates the basis for the demands and how it could impact progress at the climate conference. 

See how the debate unfolded here.

The World Is With Howard On Climate Change

Published in New Matilda

7th November, 2013

Listening to him speak was comforting. Like hearing your father’s voice after a long time apart. John Howard’s idiosyncrasies have grown more pronounced as his seventies have progressed, the pauses and dysfluencies longer, the rhetoric less incisive. It all serves to enhance the vaguely adorable Elmer Fuddiness. In aesthetic terms, it was oddly pleasurable.

The auditorium at London’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers was packed to the oak-lined gunnels to receive the annual lecture of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).  As a retired warhorse Howard has rarely weighed into public discourse. But preaching to a choir of “climate realists”, Howard seemed at ease.

He made several arguments about climate change, most of which were so tired they were hardly worth waking up and wiping the dribble from their lip. There was the old line about science, by nature, never being resolved. He claimed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been infiltrated by a fifth column of climate ideologues, while saying his own position on climate change is informed by instinct. He dipped into GWPF founder Nigel Lawson’s book, An Appeal to Reason, and pulled out the notion that our grandchildren are waging intergenerational tyranny upon us from the future.

“The present generation should not carry too heavy a burden so that future generations are only 8.4 times better off rather than 9.4 times wealthier,” he said.

As Lenore Taylor pointed out on Wednesday, Howard completely missed the point about the causal link between climate change and bushfires. His speech, called “One religion is Enough”, berated the intolerance of climate “zealots”. Although which single religion he thinks is enough he declined to say.

The audience looked like it had been pressganged from the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall. They all had a chuckle when Howard said there had been a “magnificent change of government” in Australia and how wonderful it was to have centre-right chums ruling Commons at the same time. He really played to the 11 women in the 200-strong crowd when he said: “The history of mankind has told me of his infinite capacity to adapt to the changing circumstances of the environment in which he lives.”

It all seemed rather innocuous; an anachronism, harmless old blokes wagging their chins to the tune of dead ideas. It might have even been a bit embarrassing for Tony Abbott to have his mentor making statements like:

“The high tide of public support for over-zealous action on global warming has passed. My suspicion is that most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the issue. Of course the climate is changing. It always has. There are mixed views not only about how sustained that warming is, seemingly it has not warmed for the last 15 years, and also the relative contributions of mankind and natural causes.”

But against the temptation to write him off (and gleefully bash Abbott by association) rubs a hard truth: John Howard represents the way the world acts on climate change.

Serious politicians now recognise that climate change rhetoric is in vogue – it won’t do to meet IPCC findings with anything but solemnity and hand wringing. But there exists a vast gap between how the world speaks and how it behaves.

Howard said his long-standing opposition to the Kyoto Protocol had been vindicated by its manifest failure to deliver a global framework to tackle carbon emissions.

He said: “It is highly unlikely that a compact of that kind will ever be achieved. Notwithstanding President Obama’s strong commitment to cap and trade in his state-of-the-union address in February of this year, there remains a bipartisan reluctance in the United States to embrace agreements of this kind.”

Vox Europa says cap-and-trade has become the whipping boy of a poisonous debate in the US Congress, tarnishing it beyond any hope of implementation.

In Australia, Abbott says he is concerned about climate change and that he has the most powerful plan to approach its mitigation. The Direct Action Plan has the added benefit of avoiding confrontation with Australia’s powerful mining sector. But scientists and economists say it won’t work. Just yesterday, Howard’s own Treasury secretary Ken Henry called the policy “bizarre”.

China, India, Brazil and the rest of the world shrug their shoulders and keep on building their middle class any way they can. Europe forges on bloody-mindedly with carbon reduction, but can’t bring the rest of the world with it. And Russia? Let’s not even go there.

Even if every country meets it current carbon reduction pledges, the UN Environment Program predicts the world will still warm beyond the 2C safe target.

Howard also made recommendations on how to mitigate the effects of the warming he is so “agnostic” about. Invest in renewables (if you can afford it) and go nuclear. Which is essentially what the world is doing.

He wrapped up by giving a rousing testimonial to “the shale revolution” which he said was “a real game changer”. He listed as its major benefits its ability to wean the west off middle-eastern oil and reduce the carbon emissions he had just spent an hour saying might not be so bad.

Again, it sounded a little bit like an old fossil going into bat for his namesake fuels. But of course, Howard is right on the money again. It is estimated that thanks to fracking, US natural gas production will increase by 3.4 billion cubic feet per day during 2014 to reach 69.1 Bcf/d by years end.

As Howard ended his speech, the GWPF’s Benny Peiser rose to warn guests that there was a large protest outside. Howard looked bemused. Not for years had one of his speaking appearances been met by a rowdy mob. But of course, it was a coincidence. Masked austerity protesters were remembering the fifth by marching on Guy Fawkes’ old target at nearby Westminster. The announcement plunged the hall into disorder. Most of the blue bloods rushed towards the front exit, keen to rubberneck the protest. Some insisted on using the back in case the riff-raff were dangerous.

Howard stood momentarily still as bodies rushed one way or the other. For a brief second he struck the figure of a confused, elderly man, wondering what all the fuss was about. Then the moment passed, the old shark smile was back. He disappeared through the back door, vigorously pressing flesh with the men who have long stood with him on the brake.