The RBG Affect: Where the Rubber ‘Meats’ The Road On Science, Global Warming And The Convenience Of Hypocrisy


US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg knew a lot about activism and the fight for women’s rights. And like the current battle to arrest global warming, RBG also knew a bit about people ignoring the bleedingly obvious when it suited. Geoff Russell explains.

Physical scientists often repeat experiments. It’s mostly a rite of passage for young scientists to get more precise answers to old questions than their elders. Mathematicians similarly delight in new proofs to old theorems. In 1928, Elisha Loomis published a book of 365 proofs of Pythagoras’s Theorem.

A person who says “Let’s not reinvent the wheel” has probably never built anything.

The process is loosely called “replication”. If two groups can’t perform the same experiment and get the same result, then there is a problem. Identifying the problem is a terrific way of learning stuff. There is no substitute for sleepless nights thinking about why something doesn’t work.

A huge landmark study in 2015 pointed to what some have called a replication crisis in psychological science. A consortium of researchers tried and mostly failed to replicate 100 pieces of psychological research. Others have pointed to similar problems in medicine. Watch that space.

And in climate science?

Happily there isn’t any replication crisis in climate science. Probably because it’s really just very complex physics; and physicists have been repeating, checking and scrutinising each others’ work for over 100 years. In 1887, the first ever Michelson-Morley experiment was performed… by Michelson and Morley… who else? The experiment is all about relativity and the speed of light; the details don’t matter. But the work has been repeated at least 30 times since, with increasing accuracy.

Remember the famous climate science hockey stick graph? This was a graph in the 2001 IPCC report on the global climate showing that current temperatures were dramatically higher than anything for 1,000 years.

Climate change deniers criticised the methodology, so teams of scientists from all over the planet repeated the work; again and again and again. By the time of the 2007 IPCC report, some 12 teams had replicated and confirmed the results. This isn’t quite like the Michelson-Morley experiment, there is a much wider intrinsic range of reasonable results that count as confirmation, but the original work stood up well.

If different methods get the same result, then you can be far more confident of it. You can still find climate change deniers saying the hockey stick has been discredited; because they, like Donald Trump, simply make stuff up. They lie.

Michael Mann, one of the original hockey stick study authors, wrote a book about the saga in 2012; “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”.

Here’s a recent version of the hockey stick graph:

The dark blue is the original graph with its light blue error margins. The green dots show a 2013 replication; a new estimate using quite different methods. The red line is the global mean temperature as of that replication.

An inconvenient replication

November 2020 saw another replication result – meaning a new paper using a different method to check something already widely believed – by climate scientists. But it’s a result not widely known and even less widely accepted by the general public or many environmentalists.

This result appeared in one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, the aptly named Science, which should have been enough to make it headline news in many countries, particularly Australia.

Why here in particular? Because it pointed the finger fairly and squarely at our meat centric lifestyles as a major climate change villian. Because we have more of both cattle and sheep than people in Australia. Because we deforested 100 million hectares of land to graze those sheep and cattle and grow their feed.

We feed them the lion’s share of our grain harvest every year. Beef cattle consume close to 4 million tonnes, dairy cattle consume 2.6 million tonnes… while we consume less than 3 million tonnes. Even pigs and chickens consume way more than us at some 5 million tonnes.

A cattle feedlot, outside Merriwa in the NSW Hunter Valley. (IMAGE: Chris Graham, New Matilda)

The title of the new paper says it all: Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets.

But just in case it isn’t clear, the paper says that even if, miraculously, we stopped all fossil fuel emissions instantly, the impacts of animal agriculture would still see us exceed 1.5 and possibly 2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels.

And if that still isn’t clear, it means that none of the three biggest political parties in Australia has a climate friendly climate policy; not even the Greens; or Greenpeace, or Craig Reucassel, or Elon Musk.

Put yet another way, even if we achieved “net” (or even real) zero fossil fuel emissions by 2025 or 2030 or 2050, that won’t halt the rise in global temperatures… because of our meat production and the land we keep deforested as part of that system. The Greens, for example, in defiance of the science, have a policy in favour of the worst form of meat production from a climate perspective; extensive agriculture.

British writer George Monbiot (currently recovering from Covid-19) summarised the science beautifully back in 2019. But aren’t I talking about a new paper? Yes, but it’s an old result. Everybody who has been paying attention knows this stuff… except our politicians and many in the environmental movement.

How long has the connection between livestock and climate change been known? In general terms, people have known that animal agriculture was a serious climate issue for over 30 years, but I think it was first implied most strongly in 2008 by one of the planet’s best climate scientists, Dr James Hansen.

In a long and detailed paper, Hansen argued that we needed to do three big things to stabilise the climate: slash short-lived climate killers like methane; build a clean energy infrastructure; and roll back 200 years of deforestation. The first and the third of these require slashing animal agriculture. He showed clearly that none of these was optional; all three were absolutely essential.

Former NASA scientist and the ‘Father of Climate Change’ Dr James Hansen, at the COP21 talks in Paris. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell, New Matilda)

In 2010, a couple of other climate scientists made it explicit. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Nathan Pelletier and Peter Tyedmers made the case against meat production as a climate vandal abundantly clear. They showed clearly that it didn’t matter what else we did, animal agriculture was enough to screw the planet.

There have been other papers along the way.

But did you see coverage of the Science paper on the ABC News? Did you see any of our Green eco-warriors shouting about it? Of course not. “Listen to the science” is something they shout about to Scott Morrison, but it’s more a matter of do as I say, rather than do as I do. They are very selective when it comes to science.

The new paper by a team from the Universities of Oxford, Stanford, Minnesota, and California recalculates the impacts of animal agriculture using the latest data. Here is their summary:

We show that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would prevent the achievement of the 1.5°C target and, by the end of the century, threaten the achievement of the 2°C target.

They calculate the impacts on the climate of various possible changes to the food system: slashing waste, increasing yields, eating less, and eating plant rich diets. The biggest impacts, it’s no surprise, come from plant rich diets. Writing in a mainstream journal, the authors don’t use words like “vegan” or even “vegetarian”. Why not?

Here, finally, is where we come to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The RBG Affect

If you haven’t already seen it, I’d urge you to watch the 2018 film “On the Basis of Sex”, inspired by the life of the recently deceased US Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

There is a brilliant court room scene where the young RBG is trying (indirectly) to argue for the rights of women to a panel of judges in the early 1970s. One of the judges was a great advocate for black rights, so you’d think she could appeal to the clear parallels. But no. Ginsburg is warned very clearly by her colleagues that it’s easier for judges to think rationally about black rights than about women’s rights; because women’s rights could impact their personal domestic relationships.

So it is with meat and many environmentalists. “I love meat” overrides “I love the planet”.

When I wrote, for example, to Professor  Tim Flannery at the Adelaide Museum some 15 years ago and suggested he make the Museum restaurant vegan, as a powerful symbol of the kind of changes we need to stabilise the climate, he replied that he was a “proud eater of flesh” (I still have the email!)

Over the past 15 years, the replications of the basic science showing the overwhelmingly devastating impact of animal agriculture on both biodiversity and the climate have been numerous. That’s how it is when a result is solid in a quantitative science. Has Flannery changed? Not as far as I know. Have the Greens? No.

This is RBG vs male judges all over again. Objectivity and science are easily ignored when a person puts their taste for burgers ahead of science, rationality and the planet. It doesn’t matter how many times a result is replicated and the authority of the scientists involved, the blindness of selfishness isn’t limited to the coal industry, it is a rotten canker at the heart of our environment movement.

How are they to convince others to listen to the science, when they ignore it so comprehensively themselves?


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