Book Review: Scorcher by Clive Hamilton

Note: This book review is more measured in tone than my typical blog post, because it was originally written as a university essay.

Clive Hamilton, Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change, 2007, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne, 266 pp, ISBN 9 780977 594900.

The 2007 classic Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change, by Australian environmentalist academic Clive Hamilton (then-director of the Australia Institute, a left-wing think tank), expertly deconstructs Australia’s climate and energy policy and exposes its shady roots. As the title suggests, Hamilton argues Australian climate change politics has been polluted by industry lobbying and the result will be a hotter world. Though now out of date by six years and two governments, the book provides historical context which remains relevant today for anyone seeking an understanding of Australia’s past, present, and future climate policies. However, Hamilton neglects to advocate workable solutions in any detail, and his prognosis for the future has proven too optimistic.

The quasi-chronological order, as Hamilton alternates between developments in Australian policy, global talks, business, and the media, can at times be disorienting. In many places, the sorting of information into chapters appears somewhat arbitrary. However, Scorcher is written in a more accessible style than its 2001 version, Running from the Storm.

Chapter 1 immediately grabs the reader’s attention by spelling out the book’s central argument in no uncertain terms: Australian governments (particularly under John Howard) have been captured by fossil fuel lobbyists, most of them formerly senior public servants. Hamilton’s primary line of evidence is former Liberal speechwriter Guy Pearse’s 2005 thesis. Pearse interviewed a number of unnamed industry lobbyists who called themselves the “greenhouse mafia” and bragged about their influence, providing memorable quotes such as: “We know more about energy policy than the government does… We know where every skeleton in the closet is – most of them we buried” (p. 4).

The greenhouse mafia boasted they were even able to gain access to internal government processes, drafting ministerial briefings, cabinet submissions, and costings (which if true would be illegal). They also had direct access to the Prime Minister. They were included on official government delegations to climate talks. They played government departments against each other and undermined Howard’s first Environment Minister Robert Hill by accusing him of trying to sneak things past the Prime Minister. They intimidated more progressive businesses into staying out of the climate debate. The result was a government which heard the same message from all sides which it trusted: the interests of the fossil fuel industry equalled Australia’s national interest.

Hamilton also cites leaked minutes from a 2004 meeting between Prime Minister Howard, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, and fossil fuel CEOs, intended to be kept secret for fear of an outcry from the renewable energy sector. The minutes reveal Macfarlane was concerned the government’s Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) “worked too well” (p. 11); and Howard was looking for a credible alternative policy to replace it, to protect the fossil fuel industry. The meeting agreed on an energy R&D fund which was then dutifully announced.

Chapter 2 outlines the basic problem of global warming, emphasizing the scientific consensus and the required economic transition away from fossil fuels (the main cause). Of the three schools of thought identified by the SOC254 lectures, Hamilton is in the “act now” category. It also explains the author’s principles for a fair distribution of emissions cuts between countries: polluter pays, ability to pay, historical responsibility, participation by medium-sized emitters like Australia, and leaving most fossil fuels in the ground. Two of his principles are potentially problematic: restricting legal rights to pollute (because it involves creating rights to pollute in the first place, and in practice the limits tend to be too weak or unenforced or offset); and assigning responsibility for emissions only where they enter the atmosphere (because ethically Australia bears a share of responsibility for its fossil fuel exports).

Chapter 3 examines Australia’s emissions. Hamilton notes Australia is the worst per-capita emitter among developed countries, and insightfully points out “Australia has not yet picked the low-hanging fruit” of cutting emissions (p. 43). However, Hamilton’s suggestion that trade-exposed industries be compensated for climate policies is unwise because it dilutes the investment signal.

Having laid these foundations, Hamilton launches into his history of Australian climate policy. Chapter 4 covers the pre-Howard era, beginning in 1981 when a confidential intelligence agency report warned the Fraser government that the emerging problem of greenhouse warming might lead to political pressure to restrict fossil fuel use, and thus threaten Australia’s coal exports. Hamilton goes on to relate how in 1990 the Hawke government adopted an internationally recommended target to reduce emissions 20% by 2005, and how that target was spectacularly missed because Hawke and Keating implemented it through toothless voluntary policies with no costs, which were ignored, and grant programs which paid polluters for actions they would have taken anyway.

Chapter 5 recounts how in the leadup to the Kyoto climate talks in 1997, the Howard government lobbied for an especially lenient target for Australia because of its high emissions (a reversal of the “polluter pays” principle). Australia claimed it faced uniquely enormous costs from climate action, based on economic modelling funded by polluting industries, based on extreme assumptions, and most importantly, very dishonestly presented. Resources Minister Warwick Parer claimed stabilizing global emissions at 1990 levels would cause a “reduction in the savings of a [Australian] family of four of about $7600”, failing to mention this supposed “reduction” was relative to business-as-usual over 25 years (p. 62). As the talks drew nearer, the government claimed even more outlandish costs with no basis in fact. The government believed the European Union was plotting to advance its trade interests at Kyoto (perhaps due to psychological projection).

Chapter 6 covers the Kyoto conference itself, where Australia demanded not only an emissions growth target but also a loophole that would allow Australia to vastly exceed it: inclusion of land clearing emissions. Australia bullied other countries into agreeing to this by threatening to block the agreement after midnight on the final day. Because Australia’s land clearing emissions were unusually high in the base year, 1990, it would be able to dramatically increase its emissions and still meet its target. This point is vividly illustrated on p. 81 by a graph comparing Australia’s emissions trajectory with and without land use.

Chapter 7 covers international developments from 1998 to 2004, as the details of the Kyoto Protocol were hammered out. A handful of recalcitrant rich countries, including Australia, formed the Umbrella Group to lobby for loopholes. After the election of George W. Bush, the US announced it would not ratify Kyoto, and Australia followed suit. Nevertheless, the Protocol came into force after Russia ratified in 2004.

Chapter 8 describes the domestic aftermath of Kyoto. Hamilton points to leaked documents showing the Australian Cabinet secretly decided in 1998 to not ratify Kyoto before the US, and Parer told fossil fuel lobbyists Australia could “sit back and do nothing” (p. 102). The environment department made half-hearted attempts to implement mandatory climate policies such as emissions trading, but they were stifled by a bureaucratic Australian Greenhouse Office which allowed the energy and industry ministers to veto proposed climate policies. The only effective policy to survive this gauntlet was the MRET; otherwise Howard continued to adhere to Keating’s voluntary approach.

Chapter 9 is a lightweight description of some Australian businesses shifting to slightly greener policy positions, for example in favor of ratifying Kyoto. Chapter 10 takes a detour to discuss climate change denialism, which Hamilton traces to American industry-funded front groups and right-wing think-tanks. This is ground well-trodden by other books (such as Climate Cover-Up), but Hamilton provides an Australian perspective, examining the Lavoisier Group established by Hugh Morgan and Ray Evans from Western Mining Corporation, who campaigned vociferously against the Kyoto Protocol.

Chapter 11 comprehensively documents how a concerted campaign of disinformation lulled the public. The right-wing media, particularly News Corporation, constantly cast doubt on climate change science in the public mind, importing denialist arguments from the US. An Australian right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, sponsored Australian tours of international anti-environmentalists such as Denmark’s Bjorn Lomborg. The government ran environmental awareness campaigns which placed the responsibility to act on individuals. Meanwhile, Australian environmental groups were slow to take up the climate issue and were in any case despised by senior members of the government and press gallery. Thus climate did not become a major political issue until 2006.

Chapter 12 returns to Hamilton’s policy narrative, recounting the statements and actions of Howard’s penultimate Environment Minister Ian Campbell from 2004 to 2006. “Comical Ian” provides some comic relief in an otherwise very serious book – eg. he dismissed a report on Australia’s emissions by saying: “It’s basically adding up all of the increases in the emissions but it isn’t taking into account any of the measures we’re doing to reduce emissions, so it’s only part of the equation” (p. 172). Campbell used his environmental protection powers only to stop a wind farm on the grounds that it might have killed an individual bird within a millennium.

Chapter 13 covers international developments around 2005, particularly Australia’s promotion of the Asia-Pacific Partnership, a voluntary agreement which Campbell trumpeted as a replacement for Kyoto but went nowhere. In Chapter 14, Hamilton gleefully narrates the events of 2006, which saw a (long overdue) breakthrough in media attention and public awareness that not even the right-wing media could quell, and increasingly desperate attempts by the dying Howard government to greenwash itself. When in late 2006, Howard suddenly announced a taskforce to design an emissions trading scheme, it surprised even fossil fuel lobbyists (though the taskforce would be stacked with their representatives). In an interview, Treasurer Peter Costello was unable to explain what the new policy was. “Howard was floundering”, Hamilton gloats (p. 212).

Perhaps because the book covers such a long period of time, some domestic policy developments are glossed over. Most notably, there are only passing references to the Energy White Papers of 1988 and 2004, which most explicitly set out the government’s central aim of expanding the fossil fuel industry.

In general, the book presents a well-argued case that Australian climate policy has been captured by the fossil fuel lobby. Although some of Hamilton’s claims originate from unnamed inside sources or personal communication, which are impossible to verify, the bulk of evidence arises from examination of the government’s policies and deceptive justifications. Hamilton’s depiction of the internal workings of the government is consistent with the policies that came out. Some of the book’s sources are difficult to quickly follow up seven years hence. Some claims made about effects of specific policies are based on analyses from Hamilton’s own think-tank, the Australia Institute, whose neutrality may be disputable. However, it cannot be disputed that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions (excluding land use) rose dramatically from 1990 to 2007. And despite having worked as a resource economist for the Australian government in the 1980s, Hamilton certainly shows no trace of bias toward the mining industry.

Up until the final chapter, readers may have wondered why the government allowed itself to be captured by the greenhouse mafia. Chapter 15 concludes the Howard government’s overall strategy on climate was to sabotage international climate action to protect Australia’s coal exports from lower demand, misguidedly believing this to be in Australia’s national interest. Hamilton argues this explains Howard’s contradictory arguments (eg. insisting on an ultra-lenient Kyoto deal then renouncing it) and his willingness to lie and cheat to protect industry. By antagonizing China, Australia and the US created a stalemate, which was exactly what the fossil fuel lobby wanted. Hamilton’s sabotage argument is speculative but makes much sense. However, it is worth adding that Australia has been far from the only saboteur in the climate talks – almost all countries have dragged their feet on committing to domestic action, and many have actively undermined the talks.

As is customary in books about climate change, Hamilton repeatedly proclaims a “turning tide” of support for climate action in his enthusiasm to convince Australians to get on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, this is the one aspect of the book that has turned out to be badly wrong. Far from Australians “facing up to the truth about global warming”, as Hamilton predicts on p. 230, the tide of public support has receded. Hamilton also could not have been more wrong in predicting “there would be popular acceptance if a government were to introduce compulsory measures, such as a carbon tax or mandated shifts to renewables” (p. 53). Hamilton’s claims of a green revolution well underway in business look silly six years on, and his praise for Rupert Murdoch’s purported conversion looks downright embarrassing. After all of Hamilton’s supposed causes for optimism, global emissions continue to rise faster than ever. However, there is a kernel of truth in the argument Hamilton was trying to make: having dug itself deeper into the fossil fuel economy, Australia will likely be stranded whenever the rest of the world finally does act decisively.

A related weakness is that the book never really presents either its own alternative set of climate policies (it comes closest on p. 227 when it calls for sweeping changes to Australian lifestyles) or any strategy for achieving them. Hamilton criticizes the Howard government for abandoning the Kyoto Protocol and emissions trading proposals, and praises businesses who support them, yet when Rudd and Gillard embraced those policies it became clear they still fall far short of what is required. To be fair, Hamilton is clearly aware of the shortcomings. And since writing Scorcher he has abandoned optimism, now believing it is too late to prevent dangerous climate change.

Now that the Liberals have returned to power on a platform specifically promising to dismantle the weak climate policy regime built by Labor and the Greens, and return to a Howard-like voluntary approach, Scorcher remains as relevant as ever.

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