Date created: 15/11/08 3:02 PM
Last modified:15/11/08 3:02 PM
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

Denial industry in full cry

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

16 August 2007

With John Howard’s conversion on the issue of climate change last year, it seemed that policy debate on the issue could finally proceed on the basis of mainstream scientific research, rather than fringe viewpoints and conspiracy theories. Some senior ministers remained unconvinced, but they seemed willing to keep quiet.

The latest report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation throws all this into doubt. Four of the six government members of the committee (Dennis Jensen, Jackie Kelly, Danna Vale and David Tollner) signed a dissenting report denying that human activities are disturbing the climate in dangerous ways, and describing those who accept the mainstream view as “fanatics”. If this is the view of government members of a committee on science, we can only guess the currency of such ideas within the government as a whole.

The dissenting report is the usual sorry stuff, familiar to anyone who has followed this debate, though the nonsense about climate change on Mars, Triton and Pluto will be new to many. It’s the latest of many talking points put forward by the denial industry, none of which have stood up to scientific scrutiny. Its main advantage is that it is too new to have been comprehensively refuted in reports like those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Of course, climate changes as a result of natural processes. A huge amount of scientific effort over the past twenty years has gone into examination of the causes of the observed warming of recent decades. The outcome of this research, documented in four successive IPCC Reports has been a steady increase in confidence that the majority of recent warming is caused by human activity. When the IPCC process began, back in 1988, much of this warming was still in the future. The two decades since have been warmer than any since instrumental records began in the 19th century, closely fitting the predictions of climate modellers like James Hansen of NASA.

There’s little point in debating these issues further. The really interesting question is why such obviously deluded beliefs remain so influential on the political right, at least in Australia and the US. The answer lies in the creation of a complete parallel universe, with an array of think tanks, news sources and experts, and a conspiracy-theoretic view of the world, in which an (admittedly imperfect) organization like the IPCC can be seen as a stalking horse for socialism or world government.

Much of the initial impetus towards the creation of this parallel universe came from corporations whose interests appeared to be threatened by policy responses to global warming. Internationally, the leading actor was ExxonMobil, which funded dozens of groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the George C. Marshall Foundation. In Australia, as has been documented recently by Guy Pearse in High and Dry, a similar role was played by parts of the coal industry, and by sympathetic public servants, collectively referred to as the Greenhouse mafia.

The business sector has, with only a handful of exceptions, abandoned its attempts to discredit climate science. Firms like ExxonMobil are now more concerned with shaping the policy response to global warming than with continuing to promote confusion and doubt.

But now that the disinformation machine has been created, it’s proving impossible to shut it down. Too many commentators have locked themselves into entrenched positions, from which no dignified retreat is possible. The problem has been reinforced by developments in the media, where rightwing talk radio and blogs have formed a closed circle of tribal loyalty, in which hostility to science is taken for granted. Spurious talking points are picked up and amplified by these groups, eventually finding their way into the opinion columns of writers like Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, and then into the opinions of conservatives in general.

All of this is reminiscent of the left in the declining days of Marxism (perhaps unsurprisingly, since so many of the leading participants are converts from one form of Marxism or another). It is symptomatic of a wider preference for dialectical skill over factual reality, evident in the consistent misreading of events that has characterized the Iraq war.

Nothing except a prolonged spell out of power seems likely to cure this kind of thinking. And to the extent that the government’s lack of any real belief in the need to do anything about global warming becomes apparent to voters, such a cure becomes more likely. No doubt John Howard is wishing that his backbenchers would keep their thoughts to themselves.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

Read more articles from John Quiggin's home page

Go to John Quiggin's Weblog