Schooling Colin Craig

If nine year olds went to university, our lecture theatres would be crammed with would-be astronomers and astrophysicists. I visited a primary school last week and pretty much every hand in the room was up for over an hour. Topics ranged from why we have daytime and nighttime through to black holes and galaxies. The kids didn't run out of concentration or curiosity and a bunch of them stayed on into their break to ask more questions; the morning ended when a teacher gently persuaded them to let me grab a cookie in the staffroom. I think I had as much fun as the kids - an amazingly diverse group - and their inquisitive intelligence and excellent teachers boosted my confidence in the future.

Last week I also blogged about New Zealand politician Colin Craig, and his willingness to give serious consideration to loopy conspiracy theories (cough -- moon landings -- cough), while confidently displaying his ignorance of some really basic science. As I wrote, Craig goes far beyond the standard hedging used by politicians who want to put off grappling with climate change ("it's complex", "the jury is still out", "scientists disagree", "I'm not a scientist"), and apparently believes that it is not even possible for human behaviour to significantly modify the climate. For instance, here is "Colin's Comment" from a Conservative party pamphlet

Human impact on climate is so small it is nothing compared to a single volcanic eruption or a sun spot. We simply do not fully understand the long term cycles at work in the world.
— Conservative Party Pamphlet

Now compare this to the facts. Global CO2 levels are rising (25% since 1960), a scary trend beautifully captured by the Keeling curve:

The Keeling Curve -- the annual cycle is due to plants extracting more CO2 from the atmosphere during the northern hemisphere growing season; the overall trend is in black.

The Keeling Curve -- the annual cycle is due to plants extracting more CO2 from the atmosphere during the northern hemisphere growing season; the overall trend is in black.

This increase in atmospheric CO2 levels is roughly consistent with world-wide fossil-fuel consumption (some carbon gets converted to biomass, while some is absorbed by the oceans, a source of concern in its own right), and its anthropogenic origin is not seriously disputed. Secondly, we've known for over a century that CO2 is a "greenhouse gas" and that it has an impact on climate. Yes, CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas, but human beings are twiddling with one of the knobs that controls the earth's climate system.

Of course volcanoes can affect global temperatures, but typical volcanoes only have a short-term impact and produce far less C02 than the constant burning of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, correlations between sunspots and climate have been explored, but a single sunspot is simply not that big of a deal.

The key debate is about climate sensitivity, that is, how the climate will change (and how fast it will change) as we change the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It's complicated, and scientists are throwing themselves at the problem with alacrity. But Craig isn't talking about sensitivity: taking his words at face value, he flatly denies that it is even possible for our species to meaningfully affect the climate. Even among denialists, that's an extreme stance. 

 

This is not Craig's only foray into climate science -- in April he was described as saying that "whether the sun has a hot day or a cold day 'is by far the biggest influence' on the Earth's climate". I'm not even sure where to start with that deep confusion between weather and climate, except to say it'll be a cold day in hell when the sun has a 'cold day'.

Craig doubles down on this remarkable hot-and-cold solar theory in an interview with the University of Otago student magazine Critic

The major influence, in my view, and far away the biggest influence on us is our sun. I mean, it’s the biggest influence on our climate, seasons, climate change and effect, because we’re slightly a different distance away from the sun.

Dear me. Some of the nine-year-olds I spoke to last week could teach Craig a thing or two. Yes, the sun is key to our climate, but that's not the point -- this is about climate change. Seasons are not due to being us "slightly a different distance away from the sun" -- if that was true, the northern and southern summers would happen at the same time. Rather, [Hello Rooms 10, 11 and 12!) the earth's tilted axis causes seasons: the hemisphere tipped toward the sun has longer days and shorter nights, leading to a phenomenon technically known as "summer". (Maybe Craig is trying to say this in his own words, but they're not very clear.) 

If Craig is talking about earth's varying proximity to the sun, our planet's elliptical orbit brings it closest to the sun in December -- but worldwide average temperatures usually peak in August, when we are close to our maximum distance from the sun. This comes about because land warms more quickly than ocean, and there is more land in the top half of the world than the bottom. Beyond being a nice snippet of science, it reminds us that "common sense" doesn't get you far with something as complicated as the climate system. It is true that the earth's track round the sun can change over thousands and millions of years as we are gently tugged this way and that by the other planets. (Is this what Craig is talking about, with his "slightly a different distance"? I have no idea). However, anthropogenic climate change is happening over decades, a relative eye-blink compared to the long-term cycles that govern the movement of the planets. 

 

One more example. The Conservative Party's website has a section called "Your Questions Answered", in which someone (Craig, presumably) answers a query about climate change as follows:

1. Climate change happens for many reasons. Geological events (volcanoes) and astological [sic] events (Sun flares) to name but 2 have a large influence. Fluctuation of the natural environment and temperature is normal.

2. Man made carbon generation and other human activity does have an influence on temperature locally. Stand on an asphalt pavement in the middle summer and compare this to standing in an open field and you get the point.
— http://www.conservativeparty.org.nz/index.php?page=FAQ

The volcanoes are back again, but with added "astological" spice, suggesting that Craig's understanding of astronomy is at about the same level as his ability to spell it. Again, where to start. Solar flares (if that's what he means by "sun flares") are transient events with little or no long-term impact on the climate system. I am scratching my head about the asphalt pavements -- possibly he's referring to the notion that urban heat islands could bias long-term land-based temperature datasets, a claim that was definitively rebutted by the Berkeley Earth re-analysis of global temperature records. 

I could go on, but it gets to be like shooting fish in a barrel. Taken as a whole, Craig's thinking on climate science is about as reality-based -- and as useful to New Zealand -- as the belief that milk bottles will hatch into baby calves if you leave them in a warm cupboard for a couple of weeks. 

 

Craig's lack of detailed scientific knowledge is not unusual. My school visit reminded me that the average nine-year-old is often more actively engaged with science than the average adult, and even if you once knew exactly how many moons Jupiter had and why the seasons change, the details may have become a little hazy over time. There's no shame in that; grown-ups have many things on their minds. The problem lies in not acknowledging or even seeing the limits of one's understanding. Colin Craig is confidently campaigning on a policy that mixes profound misconceptions about basic science with hand-me-down climate-sceptic talking points. This, together with his willingness to entertain crazy conspiracy theories, should be of concern both to voters and to his potential coalition partners.