This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.
The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics, and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.
Michael Mann is well known for his classic “hockey stick” work on global warming, for the attacks he has long endured from climate denialists, and for the good fight of communicating the environmental and political realities of climate change.
Mann’s work, including his recent book The Madhouse Effect, has helped me, as a dual US-Australian citizen, think about the similarities and differences between the US and Australia as we respond to what has been called the climate change denial machine.
In both countries, the denialists and distortionists have undermined public knowledge, public policy, new economic development opportunities, and the very value of the environment. Climate policy is being built upon alternative facts, fake news, outright lies, PR spin and industry-written talking points.
From the carbon industry capture of the two major parties, to the Abbott-Turnbull government parroting industry talking points, to coal industry lobbyists as government energy advisers, to the outright idiotic conspiracy pronouncements of senators funded and advised by the US-based denial machine, the Madhouse Effect is in full force in Australia.
How we can expose and counter this denialist machine? To partly lay out the task, I will discuss three points of contrast between the US and Australia.
There is a key difference between the two countries’ political cultures. As much as the denialists have determined Australian energy and climate policy, they have not been as successful, yet, at undermining deep-seeded respect in Australian culture for the common good, for science, for expertise and knowledge.
I left the US at the start of 2011. Living in Arizona, I had experienced the full weight of the racism, the white nationalism, the anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-fact atmosphere that has since spread all the way to the White House.
I used to tell people I left because Arizona had simply become anti-enlightenment. Folks really didn’t get it, until now, when it is the attitude that rules the country.
Shortly after I arrived in Australia, the then-prime minister, Tony Abbott, led an attack on the work of economist Ross Garnaut. Abbott slammed Garnaut’s 2011 report as anti-democratic. The report had simply pointed out the cost of climate inaction and the viability of putting a price on carbon.
Later, Abbott doubled down and dismissed the quality of Australian economists as a whole. Other denialists went further – Garnaut was called a fascist and was subject to the kind of attacks Mann is well familiar with.
Surprisingly to me, a good part of the public seemed appalled by Abbott’s trashing of an academic. This was seen an attack not just on a carbon price, or a policy recommendation, but on science and knowledge as a whole.
And there was the chief scientist on TV, defending the academy – and that’s when I learned Australia actually had a chief scientist, to whom the media paid attention. This is not something we had in Arizona.
Abbott wound up backing down from the worst of the criticism. The whole series of events illustrated to me, a new Australian, that there is a strong cultural norm here that supports science, that respects expertise and that understands that real knowledge should be used to inform good policy in the public interest.
It wasn’t a one-time event. Last year, when the government fired climate scientists at CSIRO, there was another huge public backlash. The government had to step back a bit, both on the actual science to be done and the radical agenda change away from science for the public good.
And again, when the government wanted to support the dubious work of Bjorn Lomborg, that caused an outcry from both the university sector and the public. Even though the government wound up paying more than A$600,000 on what The Australian called his “vanity book project”, they couldn’t import him and plant him at any Australian university.
As Mann says, the main issue in implementing good, sound climate policy is no longer simply the science. The main issue is the cultural understanding of, and respect for the role of science in informing political decisions.
That’s not to say there are no attacks on science – clearly, these continue (such as the recent challenges to normal Bureau of Meteorology practices). But, overall, climate denialists and their enablers are outnumbered outliers in Australia, rather the norm.
My second point of comparison is not quite as positive.
The problem in Australia is less a culture turning against the Enlightenment, and more the direct political power and influence of the carbon industry. This is most evident not just in our poor emissions and climate policies, but also in the fact the Australian government is hell-bent on sabotaging an entire industrial sector.
I honestly do not understand how the sabotage of the renewables industry in Australia – an all-out attack on a clearly promising and innovative sector – is not treated as a form of industrial treason.
We have had a set of politicians, under the influence of a dying industry, undermining one of the most promising areas of our own economy. They do so for the sole benefit of carbon diggers, at the expense of the rest of Australia, of the next generation and of the planet.
And the justification for this is all based on falsehoods and lies, straight from the PR team of the carbon industry. We hear arguments for energy security, energy poverty and clean coal; we hear that renewables undermine the reliability of the grid. It’s all absolute bullshit.
Further reading: On the origins of environmental bullshit
But, again, even here I think there is some hope. We have seen, over the last few years, an incredible coalition grow – one focused on the end of carbon mining, on protecting communities, on creating real jobs, and on supporting renewables.
Once-unthinkable coalitions of farmers and Aboriginal communities are fighting new mines, new attacks on sacred and fertile land and water.
We have intensive household investment in rooftop solar – and as the feed-in tariffs are undermined, those folks will increasingly invest in battery storage. And we’re finally seeing states move in this direction, with increasing development of utility-scale renewable and storage projects. As hard as the federal government and its allies resist, renewables are growing and the public supports this – even conservative voters.
This industry will be the innovator, the job creator, the future of this country’s energy system. That is a movement – a transformation – that now seems inevitable even in the face of the carbon industry, its political allies and their outright attacks on innovation.
There is one other important point to make in comparing the US and Australia – and maybe it is the most dire.
All of this talk, about the science, about the power of the denialist machine, about post-truth and the sabotage of renewables, is all about one side of the climate issue: emissions.
The other side, which is crucial to us here in Australia, is how we adapt to the climate change the denialist machine has baked into our future. This nice stable period of the last 10,000 years, the Holocene, in which humanity has evolved, built our cities, our infrastructure, our supply chains, the expectations of our everyday lives – is over.
Climate change means change, and Australia is already facing it in more severe ways than the US.
So adaptation is the next battle, and it must be just. We know who benefits from denialism and the sabotage of renewables. And it is pretty straightforward who will be harmed most if we don’t plan for coming change. We know who dies in heatwaves, for example – the poor, the elderly, those who live alone, those without resources.
This is happening right here. The Rockefeller-funded Resilient Sydney project found that the number one chronic stress is increasing health services demand, which is crucial to resilience in Western Sydney during heatwaves. If we don’t attend to that, vulnerable people will continue to die every time it heats up.
Further reading: How people can best make the transition to cool future cities
Australia needs to face up to adaptation planning on a large scale – rather than cut funds to the good work already being done. We need to focus on giving those most vulnerable to climate change a fair go by looking after their needs first.
One promising step is that the Sydney Environment Institute, with colleagues in Planetary Health and Public Health at the University of Sydney, are establishing a new research hub for NSW OEH on the Health and Social Impacts of Climate Change.
We have also partnered with Resilient Sydney to examine the actual experience of communities in shock events – the impacts on people and how policy responses can be improved. This work is all about adapting to the complex impacts of climate change in fair and just ways.
Overall, then, yes, Australia has industry-led denialists creating a madhouse effect, just as Mann writes about in the US.
But my hope is that we can use our broad political culture of respect for science and for the fair go to resist denialism and the coal profiteers, to implement a post-carbon energy transformation, and adapt fairly and justly to the inevitable changes the denial industry has locked in here.
Michael Mann is taking part in a panel discussion, The Madhouse Effect: What is Stopping Action on Climate Change?, from 6.30-8pm on Wednesday, August 16, as part of the Sydney Science Festival. This article is an edited and revised version of comments given in response to Mann’s February 8 talk on The Madhouse Effect, organised by the University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute.
You can read other pieces in the post-truth series here.
The Democracy Futures series is a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.
Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.
This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.
Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.
Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.
Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.
Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.
In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.
After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.
Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.
Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).
The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).
Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.
The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.
Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.
Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.
The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.
While it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.
Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Professor, Director of Big data and smart analytics lab, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University