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John Quiggin

World shift a test for Labor

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

7 May 2008

For many years in the US, any initiative to protect the environment had to run the gauntlet of Republican opposition led by Congressmen, Doolittle and DeLay. This aptly named duo cut their teeth opposing measures to protect the ozone layer from CFCs, and went on to fight the good fight for timber and oil interests before becoming entangled in the Abramoff corruption scandal, and being forced to resign.

Doolittle and DeLay may be gone, but their spirit pervades the conservative side of Australian politics. On climate change, in particular, the urge to ‘do little and delay’ is supplemented by a large dose of delusion.

The central delusion is the belief that the scientific evidence regarding climate change is the product of a concerted fraud, hoax or conspiracy involving the United Nations, all the world’s major scientific organisations (including, among many others, the Australian Academy of Science, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology), the vast majority of scientists actually engaged in research on climate change, and even such conservative luminaries as Margaret Thatcher.

The supposed goals of this conspiracy vary from one theorist to another, ranging from the trivially venal (scientific alarmists drumming up grant money) to the absurdly grandiose (sinister UN bureaucrats seeking world domination).

All of these hypotheses and more were on view in Martin Durkin’s film The Great Global Warming Swindle, broadcast by the ABC in 2007. Swindle got the endorsement of most of Australia’s conservative commentariat, including the normally sensible Michael Duffy. However, Tony Jones’ questioning showed clearly that it was Durkin who was pulling a swindle, with dodgy graphs, and interviewees complaining of misrepresentation.

While most media outlets give at least some space to these conspiracy theorists, the central role has been played by The Australian. Not only its opinion columnists (with a handful of honorable exceptions) and its editorials, but even its news reporting is dominated by the idea that mainstream science is on the verge of being overturned by the efforts of a group of dedicated amateurs, publishing their findings not in the peer-reviewed literature but through blogs, thinktanks and vanity presses.

More broadly, the climate conspiracy theory has the support of the major rightwing thinktanks, such as the Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies, and of a large segment of the Liberal and National parties. The most extreme is Western Australian MP Dennis Jensen, who compares mainstream scientists to the hirelings of Adolf Hitler, seeking to suppress Einstein-like dissidents such as himself. But supposed hardheads like Nick Minchin take much the same line, if in less colourful language.

Such extreme claims have little appeal except to those already committed to ‘do little and delay’ for reasons of ideology, interest or tribal loyalty. If mainstream science is correct, it will be necessary for governments to take substantial actions to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, including actions that have long been advocated by environmentalists. For those who are ideologically committed to resist all kinds of government intervention, or stand to lose from this particular policy, or who are simply hostile to environmentalists as a group, the only acceptable inference is that the scientists must be wrong.

The dominance of climate conspiracy theories on the conservative side of politics poses a range of serious problems. It is impossible to have a meaningful policy debate if advocates of claims like these are taken seriously. But their influence within the Opposition is such that ignoring them is like disregarding a large elephant in the living room. This contradiction is reflected in the vacillation and prevarication on the climate issue displayed successively by John Howard, Brendan Nelson and now Malcolm Turnbull.

Moreover, the maintenance of this viewpoint requires a high degree of insulation from reality. To provide this insulation, the conservative movement has developed a network of thinktanks, experts and news sources that amount to a complete alternate reality in which inconvenient truths like climate change can be ignored.

Once constructed, an alternative reality like this is hard to dismantle and can’t be confined to particular issues like climate change. Instead politics becomes a matter of wishful thinking, where reality is made to conform to the dictates of ideology, and factual evidence is replaced by talking points.

This tendency was very much in evidence in relation to Iraq and has shown up more recently in responses to the global financial crisis.

Until conservatives adopt a reality-based approach to climate change, as they have done in Europe and the UK, they cannot be taken seriously as an alternative government.

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

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

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