Australian ex-Prime-Minister John Howard yesterday addressed the “Global Warming Policy Foundation”, a British climate change denialist group.
He described global warming as “a substitute religion” and himself as “an agnostic”. Like all deniers he objects to the term “denier”. In reality, there is overwhelming evidence that humans are warming the planet, and if you don’t want to be called a denier you shouldn’t deny the evidence. And if Howard’s not a denier, then why in 2011 did he launch a book instructing schoolchildren to raise denialist arguments in the classroom?
Howard went on to make this startling claim:
Politicians who bemoan the loss of respect for their calling should remember that every time they allow themselves to be browbeaten by the alleged views of experts, they contribute further to that lack of respect.
Personally, I’d have a lot more respect for politicians if they would accept the mountain of scientific evidence supporting the conclusion of 97% of climate experts that humans are warming the planet. To be fair, I agree with Howard’s point that it is not possible to be “above politics” because all decisions involve value judgements. But while politicians are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.
Howard recited a number of stock denialist arguments, all long since debunked. He complained that science “can never be absolutely certain”, an impossible standard. He attempted to discredit the link between climate change and extreme weather, despite having acknowledged it himself in 2006. He claimed climate action conflicts with raising people out of poverty, but in reality climate change will hit the poorest hardest.
He enthused about unconventional gas, nuclear energy, and not-yet-invented technologies, saying governments should not intervene to support renewables. In reality, new gas would lock in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades, unconventional gas may be worse than coal, nuclear is unlikely to be deployed on a large scale in the required timeframe, and we don’t have time to wait for new technologies to be invented. We already have the technologies needed to power Australia with 100% renewable energy, and we urgently need to scale up their deployment to replace fossil fuels.
Howard also claimed the Club of Rome was wrong to predict the world would run out of resources in its 1972 Limits to Growth report. In reality, we are currently tracking the report’s business-as-usual scenario.
Despite all the evidence, Howard insists: “I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated.” How many of the world’s problems must be caused by people who base decisions on their gut instinct?
Howard’s speech has a greater significance, however. Despite Howard being completely wrong on the science, his commentary on the politics is refreshingly truthful:
In 2004 the government I then led in Australia produced an Energy White Paper which rejected an Emissions Trading System, refused to adopt a mandatory target of 20% of electricity being sourced from renewables by the year 2020 (which had been recommended by a government appointed committee in place of the then target of 2.5%); reaffirmed our opposition to ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and most importantly said that investment in technology should have a higher priority than other measures in dealing with global warming.
Two years on, and late in 2006 my Government hit a “perfect storm” on the issue. Drought had lingered for several years in many parts of Eastern Australia, leading to severe restrictions on the daily use of water; not for the first or last time the bushfire season started early; the report by Sir Nicholas Stern hit the shelves, with the author himself visiting Australia, and lastly the former US Vice President Al Gore released his movie “An Inconvenient Truth”. To put it bluntly “doing something” about global warming gathered strong political momentum in Australia…
A joint Business/Government taskforce recommended an Emissions Trading Scheme, but one that protected our export exposed sector, including the mining industry. As well the Government indicated that Australia would support a new agreement to limit the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, provided that it bound all emitters.
Howard’s admission that his policy was an election ploy brings new credibility to my description of emissions trading as Phase 2 of the greenwash program, in which international offsets prevent decarbonisation in Australia. Howard noted he continued to refuse to act ahead of developing countries, and Labor won the 2007 election “as its views at the time were more fashionable than ours”.
New Prime Minister Tony Abbott is Howard’s successor as leader of the Liberal Party and has described Howard as his ideological father. Like Howard, Abbott and his colleagues rhetorically accept the science while spouting denialist canards. In 2009, Abbott reportedly said the science of climate change is “complete crap” but “the politics of this are tough for us. 80% of people believe climate change is a real and present danger.” Abbott has met with denier Christopher Monckton, addressed denialist think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, and assured the Mining Council of Australia that he doesn’t see fossil fuels as a threat. In January he remarked: “Just think of how much hotter it might have been the other day but for the carbon tax!” – demonstrating a failure to understand that CO2 emissions accumulate in the atmosphere over time. As recently as a week before the September election, he said “the argument among the experts is not quite the one-way street that it might have seemed four or five years ago.”
Several Abbott government appointees have also expressed denialist views. In September, Business Advisory Council chair Maurice Newman hinted the government should axe climate research at CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology because “They continue to propagate the myth of anthropological [sic] climate change and are likely to be background critics of the Coalition’s Direct Action policies”. Then last week former Commonwealth Bank CEO David Murray, who is expected to lead a government review of the financial sector, told ABC TV’s Lateline he sees no “evidence of integrity amongst the scientists” and the government should set up an inquiry into climate science instead of cutting emissions. Meanwhile, Queensland’s Liberal National government openly denies global warming and wants to remove it from the school curriculum.
As much as the Liberal Party is in denial, don’t assume the Labor opposition isn’t. Labor Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard forged ahead with Howard’s Phase 2 greenwash policy (with slight improvements made through the Greens’ negotiation with Gillard). New Labor leader Bill Shorten continues to equate climate action with emissions trading. And don’t assume Labor genuinely believes in emissions trading any more than the Liberals. Labor MP Nick Champion, from Shorten’s Right faction, recently told the Australian Financial Review: “Emissions trading is a system designed by market economists to appease the Green fundamentalists.”
Abbott has refused to comment on Howard’s speech, in which he gloated about Abbott’s rise to power:
Tony Abbott now has the great responsibility and honour of being PM of Australia because a little under four years ago he challenged what seemed to be a political consensus on global warming; won the leadership of his party by one vote; had it expressly confirm a change in its policy on the issue, and then confronted the incumbent government on global warming, with quite dramatic results…
Australians have now elected a government with a pragmatic attitude on global warming, and a determination to treat our great mining industry as a prized asset. 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.
Howard may be right: polls suggest most Australians are in one or another stage of denial. However, his narrative that Abbott won based on denialism ignores a point Howard mentioned in his speech: “He himself offered a direct action plan to deal with global warming, which involves direct financial payments for actions which reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” In other words, the Liberals still promise to act on climate change so many of their voters presumably expect them to.
There are other signs that a substantial number of Australians are not in denial – for example, recently newspapers have been full of letters-to-the-editor about the need for climate action. This is likely a reaction to another gathering “perfect storm”, with the release of IPCC AR5 and the NSW bushfires coinciding with the Government’s program of climate deregulation. As the summer ramps up, we can expect more extreme weather which may help to change more minds.
What is clear is that the most powerful Australians do not take the threat of global warming seriously. Unfortunately, they are simply wrong: climate change science is not a conspiracy or a “fashion”. Anthropogenic global warming is more evident than ever, and scientists are warning with ever more urgency that we are headed for catastrophe unless we leave most fossil fuels in the ground.
We are now in a situation where the Greens and climate activists are defending a policy approach first introduced to Australia by a climate denier and perpetuated by a party containing at least some who don’t believe in it either. In future, we should not settle for greenwash from either of the major parties. Australia needs to stop promoting emissions trading as the answer to climate change, protecting fossil fuel exports, and refusing to lead the world.
Our political and business leaders claim to be acting on climate change – but how can we believe them when we keep hearing senior figures let slip that they don’t even accept the problem exists?