Why old-school climate denial has had its day



New South Wales, which was 100% drought-declared in August 2018, is already suffering climate impacts.
Michael Cleary

Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University

The Coalition has been re-elected to government, and after six years in office it has not created any effective policies for reducing greenhouse emissions. Does that mean the Australian climate change debate is stuck in 2013? Not exactly.

While Australia still lacks effective climate change policies, the debate has definitely shifted. It’s particularly noticeable to scientists, like myself, who were very active participants in the Australian climate debate just a few years ago.

The debate has moved away from the basic science, and on to the economic and political ramifications. And if advocates for reducing greenhouse emissions don’t fully recognise this, they risk shooting themselves in the foot.

Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions are not falling.
Department of Environment and Energy

The old denials

Old-school climate change denial, be it denial that warming is taking place or that humans are responsible for that warming, featured prominently in Australian politics a decade ago. In 2009 Tony Abbott, then a Liberal frontbencher jockeying for the party leadership, told ABC’s 7.30 Report:

I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.

The theory and evidence base for human-induced climate change is vast and growing. In contrast, the counterarguments were so sloppy that there were many targets for scientists to shoot at.

Climate “sceptics” have always been very keen on cherrypicking data. They would make a big fuss about some unusually cold days, or alleged discrepancies at a handful of weather stations, while ignoring broader trends. They made claims of data manipulation that, if true, would entail a global conspiracy, despite the availability of code and data.

Incorrect predictions of imminent global cooling were made on the basis of rudimentary analyses rather than sophisticated models. Cycles were invoked, in a manner reminiscent of epicycles and stock market “chartism” – but doodling with spreadsheets cannot defeat carbon dioxide.

That was the state of climate “scepticism” a decade ago, and frankly that’s where it remains in 2019. It’s old, tired, and increasingly irrelevant as the impact of climate change becomes clearer.

Australians just cannot ignore the extended bushfire season, drought, and bleached coral reefs.

Partisans

Climate “scepticism” was always underpinned by politics rather than science, and that’s clearer now than it was a decade ago.

Several Australian climate contrarians describe themselves as libertarians – falling to the right of mainstream Australian politics. David Archibald is a climate sceptic, but is now better known as candidate for the Australian Liberty Alliance, One Nation and (finally) Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party. The climate change denying Galileo Movement’s claim to be to be non-partisan was always suspect – and now doubly so with its former project leader, Malcolm Roberts, representing One Nation in the Senate.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that relatively few Australians reject the science of climate change. Just 11% of Australians believe recent global warming is natural, and only 4% believe “there’s no such thing as climate change”.

Old-school climate change denial isn’t just unfounded, it’s also unpopular. Before last month’s federal election, Abbott bet a cafe patron in his electorate A$100 that “the climate will not change in ten years”. It reminded me of similar bets made and lost over the past decade. We don’t know whether Abbott will end up paying out on the bet – but we do know he lost his seat.

The shift

So what has changed in the years since Abbott was able to gain traction, rather than opprobrium, by disdaining climate science? The Australian still runs Ian Plimer and Maurice Newman on its opinion pages, and Sky News “after dark” often features climate cranks. But prominent politicians rarely repeat their nonsense any more. When the government spins Australia’s rising emissions, it does it by claiming that investing in natural gas helps cut emissions elsewhere, rather than by pretending CO₂ is merely “plant food”.

As a scientist, I rarely feel the need to debunk the claims of old-school climate cranks. OK, I did recently discuss the weather predictions of a “corporate astrologer” with Media Watch, but that was just bizarre rather than urgent.

Back in the real world, the debate has shifted to costs and jobs.

Modelling by the economist Brian Fisher, who concluded that climate policies would be very expensive, featured prominently in the election campaign. Federal energy minister Angus Taylor, now also responsible for reducing emissions, used the figures to attack the Labor Party, despite expert warnings that the modelling used “absurd cost assumptions”.

Many people still assume the costs of climate change are in the future, despite us increasingly seeing the impacts now. While scientists work to quantify the environmental damage, arguments about the costs and benefits of climate policy are the domain of economists.

Jobs associated with coal mining were a prominent theme of the election campaign, and may have been decisive in Queensland’s huge anti-Labor swing. It is obvious that burning more coal makes more CO₂, but that fact doesn’t stop people wanting jobs. The new green economy is uncharted territory for many workers with skills and experience in mining.

That said, there are economic arguments against new coalmines and new mines may not deliver the number of jobs promised. Australian power companies, unlike government backbenchers and Clive Palmer, have little enthusiasm for new coal-fired power stations. But the fact remains that these economic issues are largely outside the domain of scientists.

Debates about climate policy remain heated, despite the scientific basics being widely accepted. Concerns about economic costs and jobs must be addressed, even if those concerns are built on flawed assumptions and promises that may be not kept. We also cannot forget that climate change is already here, impacting agriculture in particular.

Science should inform and underpin arguments, but economics and politics are now the principal battlegrounds in the Australian climate debate.The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown, Associate professor in astronomy, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The Morrison government’s biggest economic problem? Climate change denial



File 20181018 41147 1p39r8y.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
The government’s stubborn commitment to coal is alienating it from its natural supporters in the business community.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Last week Peter Costello accused Malcolm Turnbull of failing to develop an economic narrative to unite the Coalition. Turnbull promised this when he challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but, said Costello, it never came, and the result is a government struggling to manage deep differences over social issues. There was “jobs and growth”, but this is really just a goal without much of a story about how to get there, except for the company tax cuts.

The big question, though, is why the government does not have a coherent economic narrative.

One possible answer is that it has been too preoccupied with social issues such as religious freedom and before that, same-sex marriage, to give the economy sufficient attention. There is something in that.

But this does not get to the heart of the problem, which is the inability of the Coalition to face the reality of climate change and its stubborn determination to live in a parallel universe of business as usual. It is climate change denial that is preventing the government from developing a coherent economic narrative.




Read more:
The pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’ may do little but blacken the name of a revered Australian


To be sure, those who doubt the seriousness of climate change are now more likely to describe themselves as sceptics rather than outright deniers, but the effects are the same. Doubting the risks of climate change, opposing serious counter measures and believing in coal’s long-term future is an identity issue for many Coalition politicians.

Then-treasurer Scott Morrison brings a lump of coal to question time in February 2017. Climate change denial is holding back the government from a clear economic strategy.
AAP/Mick Tsiakis

As an identity issue, it is largely impervious to evidence, as we saw in government ministers’ hasty dismissal of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report – before they had even read it, one suspects. Identity issues are also resistant to the normal processes of bargaining and compromise with which many political conflicts are resolved. The National Energy Guarantee was the last of the government’s energy policies to founder on the suspicion that a market mechanism might damage coal. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target met the same fate.

So now, some members of the party of private enterprise and the free market, which argued for and oversaw the privatisation of most of Australia’s power utilities, are seriously advocating that the government develop a coal-fired power station. Barnaby Joyce has been at it again in recent weeks.

When AGL announced the planned closure of its ageing Liddell coal-fired power station last year, the government strenuously tried to dissuade it, keep it running for longer or to sell it to rival power company Alinta. The pressure was very public on AGL to “do the right thing”, but also private, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ringing AGL Chairman Graeme Hunt. It was to no avail, and AGL persisted with its commercially based decision to close the plant and invest instead in the generation of renewable energy, as it had every right to do.




Read more:
The true cost of keeping the Liddell power plant open


To state the obvious, the stubborn commitment to coal is pulling the government’s economic policy towards the sort of state socialism it is supposed to abhor. No wonder it is having difficulty developing a coherent economic narrative.

Further, it is alienating the government, and the Liberal Party in particular, from its natural supporters in the business community. With the collapse of the NEG, the government has no energy policy to provide certainty to business and investors. The focus of the new minister for energy, Angus Taylor, has contracted to reducing power prices for consumers. Climate policy has been shifted back into the portfolio of the Minister for the Environment, separating energy from emissions and further demonstrating the identity denialism that distorts the government’s economic narrative. Faced with doubts about Australia’s capacity to meet its agreed to Paris targets, the government blithely says we are “on track”.




Read more:
Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)


But most big business outside the fossil fuel industries is not in denial about the real risks of climate change, nor the imperatives of international action. Since Turnbull walked away from the NEG in a vain attempt to appease his critics and save his leadership, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia have both been discussing ways to “go it alone” on emissions reduction.

Australian Financial Review journalist Phil Coorey last week quoted a member of the Business Council of Australia’s Energy and Climate Change Committee:

Someone has got to do something. This has to be industry-led unless government wants to take over the markets.

Industry needs certainty to invest, and to maintain and create the jobs that are central to the government’s focus on “jobs and growth”. That certainty needs to last beyond the tenure of one government or even two, and have bipartisan support.




Read more:
Big firms voice lack of faith in ‘cumbersome’ and ‘impractical’ Emissions Reduction Fund


Yet the government is unwilling to provide that certainty. As Angus Taylor told an AFR National Energy Summit last week:

There is no room for bipartisanship when we have a 26% [reduction target] and the other side has 45%.

But because climate policy has become an identity issue for some members of the Coalition, and they fight on it tooth and nail, is has been removed from the normal processes of policy formation.

No wonder the government can’t develop a coherent economic narrative.The Conversation

Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Farmers’ climate denial begins to wane as reality bites


Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide and Céline Nauges, Inra

Australia has been described as the “front line of the battle for climate change adaptation”, and our farmers are the ones who have to lead the charge. Farmers will have to cope, among other pressures, with longer droughts, more erratic rainfall, higher temperatures, and changes to the timing of seasons.

Yet, puzzlingly enough to many commentators, climate denial has been widespread among farmers and in the ranks of the National Party, which purports to represent their interests.




Read more:
The Nationals have changed their leader but kept the same climate story


Back in 2008, only one-third of farmers accepted the science of climate change. Our 2010-11 survey of 946 irrigators in the southern Murray-Darling Basin (published in 2013) found similar results: 32% accepted that climate change posed a risk to their region; half disagreed; and 18% did not know.

These numbers have consistently trailed behind the wider public, a clear majority of whom have consistently accepted the science. More Australians in 2018 accepted the reality of climate change than at almost any time, with 76% accepting climate change is occurring, 11% not believing in it and 13% being unsure.

Yet there are signs we may be on the brink of a wholesale shift in farmers’ attitudes towards climate change. For example, we have seen the creation of Young Carbon Farmers, Farmers for Climate Action, the first ever rally on climate change by farmers in Canberra, and national adverts by farmers on the need for climate action. Since 2016 the National Farmers Federation has strengthened its calls for action to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Our latest preliminary research results have also revealed evidence of this change. We surveyed 1,000 irrigators in 2015-16 in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, and found attitudes have shifted significantly since the 2010 survey.

Now, 43% of farmers accept climate change poses a risk to their region, compared with just 32% five years earlier. Those not accepting correspondingly fell to 36%, while the percentage who did not know slightly increased to 21%.

Why would farmers deny the science?

There are many factors that influence a person’s denial of climate change, with gender, race, education and age all playing a part. While this partly explains the attitudes that persist among farmers (who tend to be predominantly male, older, Caucasian, and have less formal education), it is not the full story.

The very fact that farmers are on the front line of climate change also drives their climate change denial. For a farmer, accepting the science means facing up to the prospect of a harsher, more uncertain future.

Yet as these changes move from future prospect to current reality, they can also have a galvanising effect. Our survey results suggest farmers who have seen their farm’s productivity decrease over time are more likely to accept the science of climate change.

Many farmers who have turned to regenerative, organic or biodynamic agriculture talk about the change of mindset they went through as they realised they could no longer manage a drying landscape without major changes to their farming practices.




Read more:
Farmers experiencing drought-related stress need targeted support


In addition, we have found another characteristic that is associated with climate change denial is whether farmers have identified a successor for their farm. Many farmers desire to turn their farm over to the next generation, hopefully in a better state than how they received the farm. This is where the psychological aspect of increased future uncertainty plays an important role – farmers don’t want to believe their children will face a worse future on the farm.

We all want our children to have better lives than our own, and for farmers in particular, accepting climate change makes that very challenging. But it can also prompt stronger advocacy for doing something about it before it’s too late.

What can we do?

Whether farmers do or do not accept climate change, they all have to deal with the uncertainty of weather – and indeed they have been doing so for a very long time. The question is, can we help them to do it better? Given the term “climate change” can be polarising, explicit climate information campaigns will not necessarily deliver the desired results.




Read more:
To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad


What farmers need are policies to help them manage risk and improve their decision-making. This can be done by focusing on how adaptation to weather variability can increase profitability and strengthen the farm’s long-term viability.

Farming policy should be more strategic and forward-thinking; subsidies should be removed for unsustainable practices; and farmers should be rewarded for good land management – both before and during droughts. The quest remains to minimise the pain suffered by all in times of drought.The Conversation

Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide and Céline Nauges, Research Director, Inra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Research suggests Tony Abbott’s climate views are welcome in the Hunter Valley



File 20171012 9821 lmo0kz.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

AAP

Vanessa Bowden, University of Newcastle

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week drew renewed attention to himself with a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate sceptic group, in which he voiced a range of doubts about climate science and policy, and claimed that climate change is “probably doing good”.

The comments might come as no surprise to those familiar with his views. But what’s arguably more surprising is the prevalence of similar opinions among some Australian business leaders.

My research, published this week in the journal Environmental Sociology, features interviews with business leaders in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales – a major coal-producing hub.

It reveals that Abbott’s doubts about the veracity of climate science and its forecast impacts, and his scathing dismissal of those concerned about climate change, have a long history of support among the Hunter Valley’s business leaders.


Read more: A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial

Carried out in the lead-up to the implementation of the Gillard Labor government’s price on carbon in 2011, my research sought to understand business leaders’ attitudes to government policies and to climate change more broadly.

I approached 50 chief executives of organisations operating in the Hunter Region, of whom 31 agreed to participate (or had a senior staff member take up the opportunity).

They were asked questions about their views on climate change, how and whether their organisation was responding to the issue, and what they thought about the various political parties’ policies in response to it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, participants’ overwhelming concern was that the economy might decline as a result of climate policies such as pricing carbon.

While some were concerned about climate change, there was almost unanimous opposition to carbon pricing. Given the politics of the time, this too is unremarkable, particularly in light of the success Abbott enjoyed at the 2013 election after pledging to scrap the policy.

What was surprising, however, was the pervasive scepticism among participants about the science of climate change. This is especially the case given that many people now view the debate over whether climate change is happening – and whether it is caused by human activity – as being over.

Moreover, many participants believed that climate scientists were motivated by financial rewards in arguing that climate change is a serious concern.

These beliefs were voiced not only by those in industries like coal, aluminium, and shipping – but echoed by participants from other industries, revealing a deep scepticism of both the discipline and the science of climate change itself.

It is noteworthy that the research was focused on the Hunter Valley and Newcastle, home to the world’s biggest coal port.

Participants also held intensely antagonistic views in relation to the environment movement and the Australian Greens, believing their views were quasi-religious and that they too were self-interested and unrealistic in wanting to tackle climate change.

Striking views

In some ways the extremity of these comments was striking. Although prominent in writings by conservative columnists at the time, the broader debate was much more focused on jobs and the economy.

A small minority of participants did support some type of mechanism to limit greenhouse emissions, and were concerned about the environment.

But more broadly, my research showed that the Hunter Region’s business leaders – whether or not they were directly involved in coal – had taken on board many of the arguments promulgated by the industry in its ultimately successful campaign against carbon pricing in Australia.


Read more: Hashtags v bashtags: a brief history of mining advertisements and their backlashes


These dynamics may have changed a little in recent times, with companies such as AGL and BHP shifting away from coal.

The overall dynamics of the climate politics, however – as revealed in the current stalemate over responding to the Finkel Review – remains out of step with what the climate science is telling us. As, of course, do Abbott’s comments.

The ConversationAbbott’s London speech was interpreted as incendiary, and earned him a sharp rebuke from government colleagues. But when we look at the places where his message might be received more favourably, it becomes apparent there are still pockets of the country where he might expect to find a plentiful and powerful audience.

Vanessa Bowden, Associate Lecture in Social Enquiry, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How I came to know that I am a closet climate denier



File 20170828 17154 1asx2tb
So large are the nation’s daily greenhouse gas emissions that if yours is a typical Australian lifestyle you’re contributing disproportionately to climate change.
Carbon Visuals/flickr, CC BY

Joy Murray, University of Sydney

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.


What we believe and how we act don’t always stack up. Recently, in considering what it means to live in a post-truth world, I had cause to examine my understanding of how the world works and my actions on sustainability.

I realised I was, in effect, almost as much a climate denier as those who profess to be. Here’s how.

1.1 A way of understanding how the world works

I take a cybernetic view of the world. For me this means a holistic systems perspective based on circularity and feedback with a biological/evolutionary slant.

As I understand it, we learn and change as we bump up against the milieu we inhabit, which changes as we bump into it.

Our ontogeny – our life history since conception – determines what we contribute to that milieu, and the life histories of others determine what they take from it.

1.2 Sustainability

Now to the messages that we – the Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA) group at the University of Sydney – strive to communicate to the world.

Using input-output analysis, we put numbers to trends in emissions. We communicate on environmental and social sustainability through books, journals and conferences, showing how complex supply chains snake around the world.

We suggest that once producers, consumers and global corporations know the damage that is being done they will take action to stop it. Meanwhile, we discuss the motivations of climate deniers and wonder what we can do to change things.

1.3 The big collision

This is where I bump into my understanding of the world. What messages do people take from what we contribute to the milieu? Are they changed by the sustainability messages we try to communicate?

Dan Kahan and colleagues from the Yale Law School suggest that perception of risk from climate change depends on our cultural worldview: we dismiss risk if accepting it would mean social upheaval. Survival within the group, they say, trumps lifestyle change.

This fits with my understanding of how our ontogeny determines our survival needs and how our perception of survival within the group influences our actions. It also fits with my view about how people learn – we pick up from the surrounding milieu what fits with our views and ignore the rest.

I nodded along with Kahan, aligning myself with those trying to tell others of the risk. Until I realised there were two problems in such a position.

Problem one

The first problem is that my behaviour is little different from that of Kahan’s subjects. I live in Australia, which has the fifth-highest gross national income per capita. We also have the highest per-capita emissions in the OECD.

While I minimise waste and do my recycling, it would take a lifestyle upheaval to drop my household emissions to the sustainable share suggested by people like Peter Singer. So, I behave as though the call to act on climate change in an equitable way does not apply to me.

I am not alone in understanding the issues, being concerned about the consequences, and yet failing to act. It’s known as the “knowledge, concern, action paradox”.

Julien Vincent, writing about investors who ostensibly support the Paris Agreement yet fail to act, refers to this as a “much subtler, but no less damaging, form of denial”. He cites a case of Santos investors, aware of the consequences, professing concern, yet choosing to vote against a resolution that would have committed the company to conduct a 2°C scenario analysis.

It would seem that knowing the truth and professing concern about climate change are the easy parts. They cost nothing and allow us to claim the kudos that accrues to taking up such a position.

However, knowing the truth and professing concern without taking action is somewhat disingenuous. At worst it is living a lie, akin to being a closet climate denier.

So, even when recognising this truth/action/denial dilemma, why don’t we act? George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It, provides an insight. He discusses our evolutionary origins, our perception of threats, including climate change, and our instincts to protect family and tribe.

This resonates with my take on cybernetics, which suggests I live the way I do because I need to survive in my physical, economic, social and cultural environment; and because in a different era it would have given my offspring the best chance of survival.

It doesn’t let me off the hook – I still need to take action to lower my emissions – but it reminds me I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. I’m as much a part of the system as anyone else.

Meanwhile, my cybernetic take on life says that whatever we put into the milieu matters. So even though very few of us living in high-income countries can reduce our emissions to an equitable share, whatever actions we take to reduce them contribute to the world of tomorrow, next week, next year. They change the milieu, which changes the possibilities for change.

Problem two

Putting myself outside the system leads to the second problem, which is contingent on the first and means that if I can’t change my own actions I can’t expect to change those of others.

For while I shout about climate change, hoping others will hear what I say and act on it, in so many ways I communicate that I’m not acting on it myself.

A recent online survey showed that a researcher’s perceived carbon footprint affected her/his credibility and influenced the participants’ intentions to change their energy consumption.

If I know the figures, accept the science and yet continue to lead my rich nation lifestyle, I’m fair game as an excuse, conscious or not, for the deniers to continue their climate-indifferent lifestyles.

This doesn’t mean sharing our research is a waste of time. It provides valuable information about the social, economic and environmental effects of doing business; again, it changes the milieu. But it’s highly unlikely that people will read it and change what they do, which is a far more complex process.

Changing attitudes and action

Much research has been devoted to the question of how, and how not, to influence people’s responses to the threats posed by climate change.

Michael Mann is wary of scare campaigns as a motivating force. Bob Costanza and colleagues suggest that scare campaigns from scientists and activists alike are not the answer to weaning us off our addiction to an unsustainable lifestyle.

There’s research to suggest that enlisting the help of a trusted community member might be an effective alternative. Having an advocate present benefits of a low-carbon lifestyle, framed around community issues like energy security rather than climate change, has had some success.

Such an approach could help provide a way to take action for people who know about the science but whose political affiliations and values position them at the climate denial end of the spectrum, regardless of their knowledge.

However, it may not help those of us whose political affiliations and values are aligned with acting on climate change, yet still find it hard to act.

Probably more pertinent to our case is research showing that our actions on climate change are circumscribed not only by the political and cultural contexts that we inhabit but also by the infrastructure provided by them. That’s because this infrastructure forms the milieu that enfolds our lives.

So, where to from here?

If this is the case, then resolution to my first problem might require a significant change to the web of edifices that support my lifestyle. It would take a climate-friendly government with a narrative that normalises action on climate change to make it easy for me to survive in the group and live a low-carbon lifestyle.

Sweden provides an example of what this could look like. For many countries, though, a shift in the national narrative might seem impossible.

In Sweden, a rare example of a rich nation with low emissions, Hammarby in Stockholm is a model of environmentally friendly city development.
Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

There are examples of dramatic change to a seemingly inviolable narrative, but they come with a “be careful what you wish for” label.

Recently, we’ve seen Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump make spectacular changes to the political landscape. They illustrate the power of engaging at the community level, discussing local issues (albeit sometimes with the help of big data), portraying empathy and swearing commitment to local solutions.

These leaders have changed the discourse. A cybernetic take on the process might say that their acts of communication triggered a lifetime of connotations in their hearers. The hearers interpreted the message through the prism of their ontogeny, feeding back into the mix their personal understandings, amplifying the message and influencing others by their own communications.

This is a process that works for good or ill, depending where you stand. So a world leader with climate credentials and sufficient clout to make the low-carbon lifestyle message sound mainstream could change the world’s trajectory.

However, ranged against the wisdom of waiting for such a one is the ominous presence of big data companies with the capacity to help manipulate individuals as well as whole communities; uber-wealthy individuals and groups with the ability to influence leaders and world politics; and the top 10% of global income earners who are responsible for almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as the rest of us together.

All are acting out of their own survival instincts and are unlikely to succumb to any amount of persuasive argument from a climate-conscious leader.

So how else to change the milieu to support more of us in achieving a more sustainable lifestyle? Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom’s view is that the planet’s salvation lies with communities everywhere bypassing governments and taking action themselves. In 2012 she wrote:

… evolutionary policymaking is already happening organically. In the absence of effective national and international legislation to curb greenhouse gases, a growing number of city leaders are acting to protect their citizens and economies.

Those mayors defying Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement come to mind as examples.

Ostrom suggests that supporting distributed leadership is the answer. And, to bring us back to cybernetics, management cybernetics guru Stafford Beer did exactly that.

Beer took Ashby’s law of requisite variety and revolutionised the way business management operated. Ashby’s law tells us that only variety (or complexity) can control variety. That leaves 90% of the global population to bring together the system variety required to influence – Ashby says “control” – the very wealthy high-emissions minority.

So, I’m backing distributed leadership to overcome my own inability to cut my emissions further. Investing in the work of organisations that can act will be my proxy.

This may look like a slow haul to change the milieu so that action on climate change becomes normal life, but I’m counting on the snowballing power of amplification to make it happen sooner rather than later.

The complexity of the 90% will eventually trump that of the 10%, by which time my second problem should be irrelevant.


You can read other pieces in the post-truth series here.

The ConversationThe 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.

Joy Murray, Senior Research Fellow in Integrated Sustainability Analysis, School of Physics, Faculty of Science, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Madhouse Effect: this is how climate denial in Australia and the US compares


David Schlosberg, University of Sydney

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.


Further reading: New coal plants wouldn’t be clean, and would cost billions in taxpayer subsidies


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.

Political culture

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.


Further reading: The Australian Consensus Centre: what are the costs and benefits to UWA?


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.

The power of the carbon industry

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.

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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.


Further reading: The solar panel and battery revolution: how will your state measure up?


Impacts and adaptation

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.

Michael Mann’s talk about The Madhouse Effect, and the response by David Schlosberg.

You can read other pieces in the post-truth series here.

The ConversationThe 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.

David Schlosberg, Professor of Environmental Politics and Co-Director Sydney Environment Institute, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.