A Field Guide To The War On Wind Power
By Mike SeccombeOctober 4, 2012
Wind farm opponents claim victory as a council in Victoria cuts property values before a single turbine goes up. But do their other concerns hold up?
Dr Simon Chapman, professor in public health at Sydney University, has won plaudits around the world for his leadership in the fight against the tobacco industry. Michael Wooldridge knows that, which is what makes his barb so calculatedly nasty.
"It's a great pity an eminent person like Simon Chapman is now using against others some of the tactics that were used against him by the tobacco industry," says the former Health Minister and deputy leader of the federal Liberal Party.
Chapman, Wooldridge tells The Global Mail, is "one of those renewable energy fundamentalists", who "engage in conspiracy theories and attacks on individuals".
Really? And what exactly has caused Wooldridge to direct such an outrageous spray at one of the heroes of public health?
Well, Chapman has been defending established science on the subject of wind farms. He has scoffed at claims advanced by Wooldridge and other opponents of wind power that it is a significant threat to human health.
Apparently oblivious to the fact that his ad hominem attack amounts to exactly what he accuses Chapman of, Wooldridge goes on to voice his own conspiracy theory — that many of the supposedly independent experts on wind energy are in fact representatives of vested interests. (Although he stops short of suggesting this of Chapman.)
It's all a bit rich, really. In fact, there is one side in this debate which is using the sorts of tactics once used by big tobacco — tactics such as dodgy science, misleading PR campaigns, hidden vested interests, deceptive front organisations and sly payments to supposedly independent researchers. And it's the side Wooldridge supports.
It is also the side of Cory Bernardi, chosen to be Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's Parliamentary secretary — until the outcry against his comments linking gay marriage to bestiality forced Abbott to dump him.
It's just the sort of issue you might expect someone like Bernardi to be engaged in; the debate over wind farms is a subset of the debate over climate change as a whole. Climate change denialism has become an article of faith for the hard right of politics over recent years. It fits nicely in there with Bernardi's homophobia, Islamophobia and general American Tea Party-type worldview.
But Michael Wooldridge? When active in politics, he was always aligned with the moderate, rational wing of the Liberal Party. He has never been part of the far right.
Ah, yes, but Wooldridge owns land abutting a wind farm, and so has become something of an activist. On this issue at least, Wooldridge the moderate Liberal doctor and Bernardi the Australian ambassador for the Tea Party are singing from the same song sheet. Wind farms are a health hazard, and scientists such as Chapman who say otherwise are to be rudely dismissed.
As with the broader debate about climate change, the politics of wind power, rather than the science, are the real point of contention.
We'll get to the science another time; first let's go to the politics of the anti-wind movement in Australia. In 2011 the Victorian Government brought in new restrictions on the siting of wind farms, which have effectively stopped new developments. New South Wales is considering similar restrictions, as is Queensland. All states with conservative governments, you'll notice.
The reality of it is that wind farms have become a partisan issue. Labor governments are enthusiastic; Liberal governments are not. To an increasing extent, the Liberal Party is making common cause with the denialists, even if, like Wooldridge, they claim not to be sceptics of global warming.
It's NIMBY-ism meets ideology meets vested interests. And the way in which it has progressed is a little disturbing.
To observe its development, a good place to start might be on World Environment Day, June 5, 2005, in Tenterfield in rural New South Wales.
That was the day of the public launch of a new organisation, the Australian Environment Foundation (AEF), puffed as a "membership-based, environmental organisation having no political affiliation", and which would take an "evidence-based", "practical" approach to green issues.
But the AEF is not an environmental organisation as most people would understand the term. In fact, its purpose is to counter the agendas of other green groups.
Any quick scan of its website will show where the AEF is coming from — for example it opposes new marine parks and opposes the plan to increase environmental water flows in the Murray-Darling Basin; it was supportive of Gunns' pulp mill in Tasmania, and of genetically modified foods.
But its major focus is climate change; it disputes the science and condemns efforts to address the problem through emissions trading and alternative energy. It promotes climate-change deniers like Lord Monckton (who wants to see denialists take over major media companies, and is a favourite of Gina Rinehart), Ian Plimer and various right-wing Australian politicians.
And over the past couple of years in particular, the AEF has targeted wind generation. Its website is replete with media releases on the subject.
So, who is behind the Australian Environment Foundation?
It was formed by groups with gripes against environmentalists — including logging interests, landholder organisations which resented perceived impingement on their property rights, and groups which wanted greater access to public land for exploitation.
Above all, it was formed by the Institute for Public Affairs, the right-wing (they prefer the term "free market"), Melbourne-based lobby group and think tank that is closely linked to the Liberal Party. Very closely linked. Its board has, over the years, been heavily loaded with figures from the economic conservative stream of the party. Its current executive director, John Roskam, was previously executive director of the Menzies Research Centre; he's also ex-Rio Tinto and a former Liberal-Party staffer.
The IPA does not disclose its donors. Or at least not its current ones, although in a burst of frankness to The Sydney Morning Herald back in 2003 Roskam's predecessor, Mike Nahan, acknowledged Rio Tinto, Caltex, Shell and Esso as backers, as well as the tobacco companies Philip Morris and BAT.
In a speech in Parliament about the links between the IPA and denialist groups in February this year, Labor MP John Murphy added Woodside Petroleum, Western Mining, BHP Billiton and News Ltd to that list.
Anyway, senior IPA figures were there at the start of the Australian Environment Foundation.
One of these was Jennifer Marohasy, then an IPA senior fellow (2004-2009), whose many heresies against environmental orthodoxy include her self-described scepticism "of the consensus position on anthropogenic global warming". In other words, she disagrees with the scientific evidence that humans are causing the planet to warm as a result of the release of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide. Marohasy was on the board of the AEF from its inception until 2009.
Mike Nahan, executive director of the IPA from 1995 to 2005, was another AEF director. Nahan stayed on the AEF board for 18 months, and went on to become a Liberal Party MP in Western Australia.
For the first 18 months of its existence, Australian Securities and Investments Commission records show, the new organisation recorded as its principal place of business: "Institute of Public Affairs, Level 2, 410 Collins Street, Melbourne, Vic, 3000."
These days the IPA denies any continuing association with the AEF. Indeed, the two organisations have been protesting their autonomy for years. Back in 2006, the AEF's executive director Max Rheese, countered questions about the IPA/AEF nexus by saying the AEF: "has much stronger links with forestry and farming groups than it has with IPA."
He went on to say that "AEF membership is only open to individuals. There is no ongoing funding of AEF by any group other than individual members."
When The Global Mail approached the IPA with specific questions about the links between it and the AEF, its communications director, James Paterson, would not speak on the record. He asked for emailed questions, to which he replied with one line: "The AEF and the IPA are completely independent and separate organisations."
But the claims of both Rheese and Paterson are disingenuous at best. For while the formal links between the two organisations may have been expediently severed, the informal links remain strong.
At the AEF's 2010 national conference, for example, Dr Alan Moran, director of the Deregulation Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs, gave a presentation on wind power, which concluded not only that wind could not become anything more than "a high cost niche energy source"; but also warned that current energy policy "is creating a risk that prevents commercial firms from investing in carbon-based plant."
Several other IPA-connected speakers also addressed the conference, Jennifer Marohasy among them.
The opening address was given by Senator Cory Bernardi. This is interesting not just because Bernardi was Abbott's offsider at the time, but because among Australian politicians he probably has the strongest connections to far-right-wing organisations in the United States, and he has probably done more than any other to bring Tea Party-style astro-turfing (that is, creating fake "grass roots") into this country.
Another speaker was one Peter Mitchell, AM, a man with a long history in the resources industry — he was founding chairman of Moonie Oil, and has been chairman or director of various mining/energy/investment companies. Mitchell is also an enthusiastic advocate of nuclear power.
Remember the name — Mitchell. We'll hear more from and about him later in this series of stories.
Now, you might say there is nothing sinister or even surprising about this collection of people; you might think that we should expect that fellow travellers of the climate sceptic right would turn up at each other's conferences. There is, after all, a pretty small pool to draw from.
But things get a great deal murkier than that. You may not realise that in 2008 another organisation was spun off from the AEF — the Australian Climate Science Coalition. And the ACSC is much more tightly focused than its parent organisation; that is, its only agenda is climate-change denialism.
It's the operations of the ACSC that really undermine those claims of organisational independence, not to mention the AEF's assertions that it is apolitical, evidence-based, and funded by none other than ordinary members.
Let's take them one by one.
As to the independence of the AEF, ACSC and IPA: the executive director of the ACSC is Max Rheese, head of the AEF. The most notable of the ACSC's eleven-member "scientific advisory panel" is perhaps Australia's most prominent climate sceptic, Bob Carter, who is also listed by the IPA as "Emeritus Fellow, Science Policy Advisor".
As to political independence: following the links from the AEF site takes you to all sorts of bizarre places. To cite just one example: the Galileo Movement (where you can listen to or download a number of interviews between Alan Jones and various right wingers), which dedicates itself to kicking Labor and Independent MPs out of office.
We won't bore you with the intricacies of connection between the membership of the ACSC and other right-wing groups and vested interests. Suffice to say there are multiple links to denialist groups, to mining companies and others with an economic interest in the maintenance of the carbon economy, and to conservative political forces in this country and elsewhere.
As to being evidence-based: well, there is evidence there, but it is evidence of a denialist echo chamber, in which a tiny minority of fringe scientists endlessly cite one another.
And as to funding: it is now clear the ACSC and its parent "environment group" the AEF are not supported, as Max Rheese said, solely by individual members. Instead, in recent years, most of their money has come from the extreme right of American politics.
We know some of this because of a post that went up on the Desmogblog site in America on Valentine's Day this year.
The blog's author, Brendan DeMelle, obtained a large cache of documents from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative/liberatarian organisation which proudly boasts on its website that it is: "The world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism [sic] about man-made climate change."
The Heartland Institute takes in some USD6 million to USD7 million of donations from individuals, foundations and corporations each year and distributes most of that money to various other right-wing groups. Like the IPA, it does not disclose its donors.
(The Heartland Institute also is closely connected, according to Sourcewatch, to something called the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organisation which brings together right-wing politicians and corporate vested interests to draft "model" legislation, which is then introduced — and all too often passed — in various American legislatures.
Anyway, one of the leaked documents in the Desmogblog cache itemised exact amounts flowing to key climate contrarians. One entry read: "Robert Carter ($1,667 per month)".
Yes, that would be the same Carter who is listed as Emeritus Fellow, Science Policy Advisor to the IPA, and who is chief among the scientific advisory panel of the Australian Climate Science Coalition.
Back in March, shortly before he left The Australian newspaper, journalist Mike Steketee wrote an excellent (and brave, considering Carter is a oft-quoted favourite at News Ltd) piece on Carter and some of the other scientific "experts" who were paid by Heartland.
Cory Bernardi, by the way, has spoken a couple of times at Heartland Institute conferences in the US.
But wait, there's more.
One of the climate sceptic groups which received funds from the Heartland Institute was the International Climate Science Coalition. And where do you suppose the Australian Climate Science Coalition gets much of its funding?
Financial statements lodged with ASIC show that in 2009 the ACSC received $60,699 of its total income of $62,910 from its American counterpart. Public donations to the AEF totaled just $138.
As for its parent organisation — the "membership-based" AEF — its $5,400 of membership subscriptions was dwarfed by a single $64,613 gift from an undisclosed source. Another $33,000-plus flowed onto its books from the ACSC, and thus, indirectly from the US climate-change deniers.
It was a similar story in 2010; of the ACSC's $50,920 total income, $46,343 came from America. Public donations were nil. Except that year, the ACSC overspent its budget by $21,000, so there was no money left to give to its parent. Indeed, it added to the AEF's deficit, which totaled more than $23,000 for the two groups.
Then in 2011, when the flow of money from America stopped, the ACSC's income for the year fell to just $126.12, comprising a little bank interest and donations totalling $100, and the AEF recorded another deficit of almost $8,000.
That year's report also revealed how many members the ersatz environment group had — 109.
They were effectively broke. There was no big annual conference that year.
(There will be an AEF conference later this year, so presumably they've found a new source of money.)
And yet the AEF's media profile was large, thanks largely to the Murdoch media and right-wing shock jocks. But they also rated in other normally reliable media, as the ABC-TV program Media Watch pointed out in March this year.
So, to sum up our story so far, what we have on the side of climate-change denial and wind-farm abolitionists is a small number of contrarian scientists, some think tanks with strong links to the carbon economy, conservative politicians eager to exploit the issue of climate change for partisan advantage and a NIMBY constituency. We have fake environment groups. We have international slush funds. We have lots of media releases and op-ed pieces, particularly in the Murdoch press.
What's missing of course is real people, genuine public involvement. Grass roots.
It's one thing to make noise in the echo chamber of climate-change denialists and alternative energy opponents; it's another to mobilise public opinion. If you really want to get a campaign going, you have to get people emotionally involved.
And the way the anti-wind lobby has set about doing that is by drumming up concern about the effect of wind farms on human health.
We'll get to the ground-level battle for the hearts and minds of the people in Part Two of this story tomorrow.