Left Out In The Cold
By Sarah-Jane CollinsApril 30, 2012
Climate change was once a scientific issue prompting relatively universal concerns. How did it get labelled left-wing?
Climate change, the battleground of modern Australian partisan politics, was once more of a scientific subject supported by a broad if tenuous political consensus.
Not so anymore. Although the scientific community is as close to consensus on the issue as you can get, there are vocal dissenters, who argue climate change is either not real or real but not caused by humans (and therefore not something we should try to control). The dissenters are having an impact: fewer people than three years ago believe that climate change is a problem.
Former Prime Minister John Howard is one. In office, after many years of equivocating, Howard said he believed climate change was happening and government must act. He has since stepped back from that position. These days Howard describes himself as a climate change agnostic.
"In a sense the climate change debate has fulfilled the ideological hunger for one side of politics to have a cause, and I don't think they will lightly abandon it. This is the new religion of the global left. It has become a cause célèbre for the early part of the 21st century," he said when he launched a book by climate sceptic Ian Plimer in Sydney in December 2011.
The issue has become one less of science, policy and evidence than of ideology, politics and faith.
It frustrates the Australian National University's Will Steffen, who told The Global Mail:
"It's interesting that this noisy debate out in the blogosphere, out in the media, is not at all reflected in the scientific literature. In fact if anything the evidence is getting stronger with time, not weaker. So it's a phony debate. It's a political debate, it's not a scientific debate. It's cloaked in scientific terms but the fact is, it is not scientific."
Steffen believes the science of climate change is at a disadvantage because it is not reflected in most of what's being reported and debated in the media. The media, he says, have allowed "false balance" to infect coverage, distorting the science and boosting the influence of people who are not specialists in the field.
"It is good to balance political views and opinions, that's fine, but science doesn't work that way," he says.
On April 26, 2012, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired a documentary — I Can Change Your Mind About Climate — which follows climate change action advocate Anna Rose and former Liberal minister and climate change sceptic Nick Minchin as they travel the world, trying to persuade each of the other's position.
Both are actively engaged in the kind of debate that has blurred the lines between science and politics.
In Rose's book about the experience, Madlands, released to coincide with the documentary, there are some very revealing discussions about the way advocates on both sides view their positioning.
"The first step is to acknowledge the loss that accepting climate science brings with it for those who hold a strong free-market ideology and oppose corporate regulation," Rose writes.
Minchin told ABC Radio he agreed to take part in the documentary because he wanted to enable ABC viewers to see that "from my point of view there are two sides to the debate."
"It is wrong to cast this as a moral issue, and it tends to colour the debate in a way that means that people who don't necessarily agree with the orthodoxy, as I call it, are cast as immoral somehow," he said.
In Rose's book, there is significant discussion about how politics shapes both her own and Minchin's positions — with very different outcomes.
As she records Minchin saying: "Yes, I'm someone who is wary of government intervention in the economy because it normally stuffs it up. So I am wary of, you know, grand governmental solutions to something like climate, or the proposition that the governments of the world can unite and stop the climate changing. To me as a philosophically conservative person, that's just nonsense."
On a Q&A program broadcast after I Can Change Your Mind, billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer — now a likely LNP candidate for the Treasurer's seat of Lilley in Queensland — said the push to contain carbon emissions through regulation was "crazy".
"If we have a carbon tax here all we're going to do is lose our industry, lose our jobs… that's what's crazy [and] that's what this is all about, exporting our jobs overseas and destroying industrial production in this country," he said.
Steffen, executive director of ANU's Climate Change Institute, says pitting activists and politicians against each other (not to mention those whose business interests might be affected) has distorted the science and allowed the facts of climate change to be distorted.
"Neither [side] are competent scientists in climate science. What they do is grab the bits of information from science that support their case. That's what advocacy groups do, and that's fine. But that's not what science does.
"Science weighs up all the evidence and we debate it in the scientific literature, not in blogs, not in the media. And we try and come up with the best explanation based on the observations and based on the understanding of the climate system of what's going on, regardless of political implications."
If public opinion is on the side of the evidence then governments find it much harder to ignore. But Howard is right. In Australia, climate change these days is viewed as a left-wing cause. That wasn't always the case.
"There was a time when there was a perfect storm in favour of climate alarmists in Australia and I place it as the end of 2006," Howard told the audience at Plimer's book launch. And he said his government's emissions trading proposal was a response to the times.
It was a time when the political cost of not acting on climate change was high, and ultimately, was one of many factors that led to the downfall of the Howard government.
After coming to power in November 2007, Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol — which Howard had refused to do — which set binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five percent against 1990 levels over a five-year period to 2012. It was a symbol — that climate change was a political priority for the new Prime Minister.
Rudd was largely undone in the eyes of the public by his inability, even with a compliant opposition, to deliver on a climate change package. With the elevation of Tony Abbott to the Liberal leadership in late 2009, Australia's consensus position on climate change fell apart.
In many ways the debate here in Australia has mirrored what's been going on in the United States, where it is politically dangerous for Republican candidates to say they believe in global warming or something should be done to arrest it.
Failed candidate Jon Huntsman was reported to confess exasperation about it at a recent lecture in New York, saying that he was appalled to be expected to disown science to win the Republican nomination: "I had to say I believe in science — and people on stage look at you quizzically, as though you're an oddball."
But a series of incidents in the past few years have nurtured doubts about the science and the motives of the scientists.
Foremost was "Climategate", where more than a thousand emails between climate scientists, some purportedly showing data had been manipulated or fabricated, were leaked in late 2009, ahead of the United Nations Climate Change summit in Copenhagen in early 2010.
Conservative Melbourne-based climate sceptic Andrew Bolt jumped in with both feet, saying the emails — obtained through a breach of the University of East Anglia's server — suggested "conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more".
A probe into the work of the scientists was launched after the emails were published; the scientists' findings were upheld.
Still, two years later, in the lead-up to the Durban round of United Nations climate change talks in December 2011 — taking up where Copenhagen left off — more emails were released. "Climategate Two", the incident was dubbed.
The University of East Anglia held that the second release was timed to impact on the global talks: "This appears to be a carefully timed attempt to reignite controversy over the science behind climate change when that science has been vindicated by three separate independent inquiries and a number of studies — including, most recently, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group," the university's statement said.
Then, in January 2012, the Wall Street Journalpublished an op-ed co-authored by 16 scientists refuting the existence of human-induced global warming. The response, swift and brutal, was an open letter from 38 climate scientists who likened the op-ed to "the climate science equivalent of dentists practicing cardiology".
The key point: many of the small number of scientists around the world who refute the importance of the human contribution to global warming, and the existence of warming at all, are simply not equipped to judge the science.
"While accomplished in their own fields, most of these authors have no expertise in climate science. The few authors who have such expertise are known to have extreme views that are out of step with nearly every other climate expert," the open letter said.
In February 2012, United States climate scientist Peter Gleick inserted himself into the debate, spectacularly but less than scientifically. He published documents he had obtained from a conservative anti-global warming organisation, the Heartland Institute. To obtain some of the documents, however, Gleick posed as a member of the board of Heartland. One document is now widely accepted as a fake.
Gleick blogged about his reasons: "My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organisations involved."
It was career-jeopardising behaviour that begs the question: If the scientists start playing political games, what hope is there for the rest of us to understand what is really happening?
Some governments have simply set aside the noisy ideological bickering.
In New Zealand and the United Kingdom, governments led by the political bedfellows of the Australian Liberal Party embrace the science of climate change and have implemented, or are planning to implement, schemes to reduce emissions.
Then we have Canada and Australia and the US.
Here the loudest voices have changed the debate, whipping up a frenzy of protestat government attempts to legislate solutions to human-induced climate change.
In Canada, the right-wing government has begun to step back from action and in late 2011 withdrew from the Kyoto protocol.
Tim Andrews is the head of the newly established Australian Taxpayers Alliance and an editor of the online conservative opinion site Menzies House. Andrews, who worked in Washington for the past few years, is well placed to observe the similarities between the Australian and US debates.
"There was a Yale University studylast year which demonstrated — to the shock of the authors — that the more persons were educated and aware of the issues surrounding climate change, then the more likely they were to hold that climate change did not pose a serious threat," Andrews says.
"This translates rather directly in politics. In the US and Australia, polls demonstrated that there was overwhelming support for action to address climate change when there was bipartisan support for them.
"When this changed — and there was a political message educating people with the opposing viewpoint, and people were able to weigh up both sides — then support for action plummeted," he says.
Some 1,000 people were questioned in the Yale study, and of these, only 14 per cent had ever heard of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body established by the United Nations in 1988 to deliver comprehensive assessments of scientific, technological and socio-economic information worldwide on the effects of climate change and the contribution of humans to it.
It seems in the US, where the political debate is being won by the sceptics, it's the climate scientists whose voice is least known.
"In the UK and Europe, people have not been exposed to this level of debate, and as such, being generally unaware of the facts surrounding it, accept the alarmist narrative," Andrews says.
As Jill Duggan, a European Commission specialist on carbon trading schemes, told ABC radio in March 2011, in the United Kingdom there was political consensus on the need to take action on climate change. They considered it important and urgent.
"Emissions trading was put forward by industry as their preferred solution. They pushed the UK Government for an early emissions trading system in the UK before there was a European emissions trading system. So it was a question of industry was saying — we need certainty on this, this is a risk that we're going to have to deal with… and let's be part of the solution."
Will Steffen says that approach has been key to building successful climate change policies.
"Both sides of politics have gotten together and agreed on an approach so if the government changes, the policy and approach to climate change doesn't change. So there's absolute certainty out in the private sector about what's going to happen. So I think that's one thing you can see clearly when you look around the world," he says.
In Australia it is the use of those regulatory mechanisms that is causing friction; Andrews contends that a regulatory approach is inherently left-wing.
"The traditional right/left dichotomy has always been that the left prefers greater government control, whereas the right prefers to leave matters to the individual. As such, the acceptance of the climate change alarmist thesis necessitates government action, and would naturally be far more compatible with the left's ideological framework," he says.
Andrews pushes it further, seeing a broader agenda in the policy discussion.
"Even if climate change was not an issue at all, the left would still be demanding the same regulatory responses, which to me suggests strongly that climate change activism is primarily driven by ideology."
And Andrews' argument that climate change is essentially a left-wing proposition is not an isolated opinion.
Last year American right-wing radio commentator and blogger D.R. Tucker wrote a long explanation of his shift from denial to embracing the science of climate change. In an interview following the post, he told journalist Brian Merchant that conservative and libertarian ideologies are just incompatible with the mechanisms that need to be employed to arrest global warming.
"Once you accept the scientific findings, the best mechanism and the only mechanism to reduce pollution is through government, and that's anathema to a conservative ideology, so you almost have to be a [small l] liberal or a moderate," Tucker said.
Pat Michaels, a climatologist and a senior fellow in environmental studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in the United States is a vocal opponent of the push for regulation of emissions. Frequently attacked as a climate change sceptic, Michaels says even if the earth is warming, action through regulation is ineffective and "political poison".
"President [Barack] Obama's approval rating went negative the day after [cap-and-trade] legislation passed [Congress] and it hasn't been positive one day since. The issue is poison. Not just in Australia, it was poison in the United States," he says.
But, Michaels contends that climate change is a financial issue rather than a left-wing issue.
Fixing the problem through regulation is unpopular, because it will hit the hip pocket. "[Emissions trading] is not going to do anything. Unless you want China to stop buying your coal, which I don't think would be real popular in Australia… It's meaningless," he says.
As time has passed without a demonstrated, climate-related calamity, people's initial concerns about climate change have waned, he argues.
"Several things have changed between the early part of the Noughties and now, because [Earth's] surface temperature hasn't really changed that much in 15 years and it's harder to scare people," Michaels says.
NASA data on surface temperature says that 2011 was the ninth-warmest since 1880, and that the ten warmest years have all been in the 21st century.
Still, Michaels says as more time passes without calamitous outcomes, more developed nations will question the rhetoric that calls for regulation, because the financial burden of the regulatory system will prove too great.
"It certainly wasn't a left-only issue, but once the regulatory framework starts to take hold and a carbon tax is passed, or in the US the cap-and-trade passes one of the houses, then that's going to make it political — and the right wing is much less disposed to taxation than the left wing, and so I think we might argue that the political process made it a left-wing issue. But it wasn't initially."
And that is where it all begins to unravel.
Sarah-Jane Collins, in 2004, edited Honi Soit, the University of Sydney newspaper, with Anna Rose and was on the national executive of the National Union of Students in 2005, when Rose was NUS environment officer.