Date created:7 May 2001
Last modified: 7 May 2001
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

Wishful thinking of Walsh's true believers

Australian Financial Review

11 April 2001

In the days when he was Finance Minister, Peter Walsh used to accuse the Australian Democrats of believing in 'fairies at the bottom of the garden'. Walsh's basic point was that the Democrats tended to be much readier to advocate higher public expenditure than to suggest feasible sources of additional revenue. Having no prospect of holding office, the Democrats could afford the luxury of being nice to everyone, and assuming that the necessary funds would arrive by magic.

The Democrats have cleaned up their act since then, at some electoral and personal cost. Certainly no one could accuse Meg Lees of being indifferent to the need for tax revenue to finance the public programs the Democrats rightly advocate.

Walsh on the other hand, appears to have decided that believing in magic is not so bad after all. Along with a range of right-wing luminaries, he is a leading figure in the grandly-named Lavoisier Group. This body is devoted to the proposition that basic principles of physics, discovered by among others, the famous French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, cease to apply when they come into conflict with the interests of the Australian coal industry.

More precisely, the Lavoisier Group is concerned to promote the views of those who question the scientific consensus on global warming, represented by the International Panel on Climate Change. Some of the sceptics promoted by the group deny that the earth is getting warmer. Others agree that warming is happening but claim that it is a natural phenomenon. Still others, calling themselves Greening Earth, agree that emissions of carbon dioxide are changing the climate, but say the change is for the better. Apart from inconsistency with the available evidence, the only things these sceptics have in common is the implication that nothing should be done about climate change.

Members of the Lavoisier Group point to a variety of public statements and petitions which purport to show that large numbers of atmospheric scientists question the IPCC consensus. On closer examination, it turns out that most signatories of these petitions, leaving aside obviously bogus entries such as one from Ginger Spice, have such advanced scientific qualifications as 'civil engineer' or even 'TV weatherman'.

Among the handful of sceptics with relevant qualifications, most turn out to have links to the fossil fuel industry or to right-wing thinktanks. There is nothing necessarily wrong in this. It is natural that those opposed to any action to mitigate climate change will seek out and promote scientists who dissent from the mainstream view.

Unfortunately, it is also true that, where large amounts of money and rigidly-held ideological positions are at stake, 'experts' can always be found to put forward views convenient to those who finance and reward them. As a result, even sceptics with genuinely independent views are compromised by association with bodies like the Lavoisier Group.

Almost the only sceptic with real credibility is Richard Lindzen of MIT. In the last few years, however, Lindzen has moved slowly towards the consensus position. He recently joined scientists associated with the mainstream view in writing a report which gave qualified support to the IPCC position.

Of course, none of this bothers the Lavoisier Group or ministers like Nick Minchin who are now driving the government's (non)response to the Kyoto protocol. As long as they can find or hire a single scientist to support them, they will continue to argue that, if we all close our eyes and wish really hard, the whole problem will go away.

The environment minister, Senator Hill, appears unhappy with all this, but he must be used, by now, to being white-anted by his own ministerial colleagues. If the Westminister view of the role of Cabinet and its members had any life left in it, Hill would surely be writing his resignation letter by now. But the Howard doctrine, 'never apologise, never resign', holds universal sway nowadays.

The Lavoisier Group serves one useful social purpose. There are always participants in the public debate who will happily put forward any proposition that supports their position, whether or not it has any basis in fact and logic. The arguments of such commentators should be discounted appropriately, but it takes time and effort to identify them on an individual basis.

The Lavoisier Group has collected a number of prominent commentators who indicate, by their membership, that they are prepared to rely on wishful thinking whenever it suits their turn. These true believers in fairies at the bottom of the garden should be accorded the credibility they deserve.

Professor John Quiggin is a Senior Research Fellow of the Australian Research Council, based at the Australian National University and Queensland University of Technology.

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