Schmidt warns of climate change red herrings

8 March 2020

Nobel laureate Professor Brian Schmidt says he is weary of debates about the science of climate change, warning of the danger of "red herrings".

In a wide-ranging interview with the Democracy Sausage podcast, the ANU Vice-Chancellor said non-experts were throwing bad science into public discussions and creating distraction.

"We are continuing to go over the same old crap, and a lot of it is just crap," Schmidt said.

"I don't mind, and indeed I insist upon, people who are experts coming in and questioning our understanding; that's part of science. That's how science works.

"The weariness comes from people who are not experts continuing to throw up crap science in public, creating a distraction, red herrings to the real debate."

Noting science "is never black and white, it is always about probabilities," Professor Schmidt stressed the planet faces the strong probability of warming by four or five degrees.

According to Professor Schmidt, who committed ANU to a target of net negative emissions in his recent State of the University address, that probability means urgent action is required.

"We need to be working really fast to mitigate that risk as fast as we can," he said.

"Technology is a really important aspect to that. But it's not just technology. We have to build up resilience for the change that is already coming and that means being able to adapt because change is coming and it is coming fast.

"At the same time, we also have to change our behaviours and get people thinking about this through every aspect of our planning within society.

"Because if we get this wrong it really is going to be catastrophic." 

The interview with Democracy Sausage co-hosts, former journalist and newly-minted professor Mark Kenny and political scientist Dr Marija Taflaga, follows a summer where ANU was hit by multiple extreme weather events, including a hailstorm, off-the-chart levels of deadly smoke, and the threat of bushfire.

These challenges, as well as the impact of COVID-19 and related travel restrictions on both ANU and the university sector, are all covered in the podcast.

"It has been a remarkable year, and one that has had our campus closed probably more times than it has in its history due to extreme weather events," Professor Schmidt said.

"The biggest impact has been on our glasshouses. We have some of the strongest plants sciences in the world. Every one of those greenhouses was smashed and experiments going back years... all destroyed.

"These are pieces of research that are meant to improve agricultural productivity around the world. So, it's a setback for us, but it's a setback for the world."

Professor Schmidt was also able to reflect on happier times, including the chance he got from ANU as a young researcher to investigate the accelerating expansion of the universe - a discovery that would see him jointly win the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011.

"I was the leader of a group of 20 people, almost all of them older than me and spread around the world. And one of the great things for me coming to Australia is that I was given by ANU the resources to run this team.

"Quite frankly, any other place in the world they would have said 'you're too young, let someone else do it'."

It's the kind of chance he's now committed to giving Indigenous Australians through the newly announced Kambri Scholarships. The scholarships give students $35,000 per year to study at ANU and aim to address underrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in higher education.

"I've been really excited by how the University has come together to say that this is an issue and we can make progress. And everyone is excited about being part of that journey," Professor Schmidt said.

"But we have a problem; under Australia's current education policy... we don't actually provide enough support for you to move to Canberra and undertake your studies."

Professor Schmidt said this undermines Indigenous students' "ability to be at this world-class institution and everything it has to offer".

"These scholarships are about getting around that shortfall. My goal is that any Indigenous student who is accepted to study at ANU, who has the ability to study at ANU, finance will not be the reason they don't come," he said.

Democracy Sausage is co-hosted by ANU scholars Professor Mark Kenny and Dr Marija Taflaga, and produced by the Policy Forum team in the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.

Listen to the full interview with ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt here.

Access past episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast, or wherever you get your podcasts from.