By Jonathan Howcroft

“In any moment of decision making the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” (Theodore Roosevelt)

FAVOURITES – 3 February 2010 – Being right is a tricky business. First of all, you have to be right. Sometimes, like answering the first three questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, being right is easy. More often however, perception blurs the neat boundaries of rightness such that being right doesn’t necessarily mean being correct but being the most persuasive, aggressive or belligerent until the viewpoint reaches orthodoxy. Take religion. In most societies throughout the world religions have shaped common understanding of what is right. Even now, contemptuous of logic, mainstream religions continue to assert that our planet is a fraction of its likely age whose inhabitants materialised by virtue of divine intervention.

The recent climate change debate in Australia typifies the difficulties being right sometimes poses. Despite a small number of vocal politicians and assorted sceptics suggesting otherwise, there is a consensus amongst professionals in the field of climate science that human activity is a significant contributing factor to global climate change.

Just one recent example: a 2009 paper published by researchers at the University of Illinois, highlights the level of agreement within the climate science community. The researchers surveyed over 3000 earth scientists with 82 per cent supporting the premise that “human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures.” (1)

Within this sample, of those that listed climate science as their specific area of expertise and who also published more than 50 per cent of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change (in other words, the experts of the experts) the response rose to 97 per cent support.

As the report’s authors conclude:

“It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes. The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policy makers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists.”

This aligns with the positions adopted by all major international climate change bodies, most notably the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which, since 2001 has defended its statement that: “An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system… There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” (2)

In other words, if you believe in human influenced climate change, you are right. Right? Well, possibly not in Australia. Take a look at this quote from Tony Abbot’s powerbroker Senator Nick Minchin from a recent ABC documentary:

“If the question is, do people believe or not believe that human beings are the main cause of the planet warming, then I’d say a majority don’t accept that position.” (3)

It’s as if Senator Minchin was deliberately goading the Illinois researchers – but why? The convenient answer would be that, as a fiscal conservative Minchin values the immediate prosperity of Australian business interests (and their votes) above the potential impact of human influenced climate change.

However, a more revealing answer emerges in the same Four Corners investigation:

“For 10 years the left internationally have been very successful in exploiting peoples’ innate fears about global warming and climate change to achieve their political ends… For the extreme left it provides the opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the left, and really they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.”

So Minchin not only disagrees with 97 per cent of peer-reviewed published climate scientists but he believes the entire climate change agenda is part of a global left-wing conspiracy to occupy a socialist vacuum.

This paranoia has destroyed the opposition coalition, prevented the progression of the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and vaulted Minchin’s protégé, Tony Abbott, into the political limelight. But then should this come as a surprise from an individual already publicly prepared to use politics to undermine scientific understanding? In 1995, so concerned with the conspiracy against the tobacco industry, Senator Minchin asked for a Senate document to be amended to read:

“Senator Minchin wishes to record his dissent from the committee’s statements that it believes cigarettes are addictive and that passive smoking causes a number of adverse health effects for non-smokers.” (4)

Unfortunately Senator Minchin is not alone in his willingness to wager Australia’s environmental wellbeing on a conspiratorial hunch. Family First Senator Steve Fielding has gone so far as attempting to disprove the majority of the international scientific community.

Formerly in agreement with the mainstream, Senator Fielding began to alter his perception when he realised the political capital that could be gained from dissention. This coincided with a visit to the conservative Heartland Institute in the USA, a right-wing lobby group with a well-established agenda to challenge the orthodoxy of climate science (an agenda that may or may not be related to the institute receiving funds from major polluters, including over $800,000 from Exxon Mobil alone). (5)

He has subsequently produced a report, authored by four of Australia’s most active climate change sceptics, that goes so far as to suggest that the popular approach is “dangerous, as a basis for the development of public climate policy.” (6)

It would be nice to write-off the Minchins and Fieldings as the kind of flat-earth conspiracy theorists that add colour to a bland political terrain. Unfortunately, Australian politics being such a fragmented lottery, this is not the case.

Senator Minchin recently pulled off a dramatic coup in the opposition coalition, instigating the replacement of ETS supporter Malcolm Turnbull with sceptical ally Tony Abbott. Senator Fielding meanwhile is one of a handful of senators who, despite receiving just 0.08 per cent of first preference votes for his seat hold the balance of power between a hamstrung government and an increasingly obdurate and petty Opposition.

The immediate outcome (beyond the destruction of Malcolm Turnbull’s political career) has been the obstruction of the government’s proposed solution to climate change, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, commonly known as the Emissions Trading Scheme.

The ETS is a complex attempt to reduce Australia’s overall carbon emissions by financially rewarding those who pollute less, and allowing heavy polluters to pay a levy for their profligacy.

The major challenge of any such scheme is to avoid introducing punitive measures to the lasting detriment of local business interests. This can only be guaranteed by binding global agreements (such as the Kyoto Protocol) that ensure the fiscal cost of reducing carbon emissions is shared equitably throughout the world’s economies.

As the collapse of meaningful negotiations at the recent Copenhagen summit augur, this important position remains some way off.

The ETS is an unwieldy and flawed proposition, bloated with the horse-traded amendments of regional and factional interests accommodated to pass the legislation at all costs. Unpopular amongst business interests worried at increased government charges during a global recession and rejected by the Greens for its impotence, the ETS is at the very least a start. It provides the basis for negotiations and represents national and international leadership on an issue which could prove to be the century’s most challenging.

Human influenced climate change IS happening. Debate now has to be about how best to address this. The longer the debate remains about questioning the science the longer it will take for anything to be done to address the concerns.

For argument’s sake, even if the international scientific community is not right or is being perverted by a menacing left-wing conspiracy, action must still be taken to address what is widely acknowledged as right at this moment in time.

It is not overstating the importance of this issue to suggest that the future of Australia depends upon it. Australia cannot be held to ransom by party politics at a time when it needs to display courage and leadership that will impact on generations.

The 2010 federal election is likely to be dominated by this single issue. If that is the case, the evidence is clear for voters to make their choices. Sometimes being right isn’t easy but as Roosevelt’s aphorism attests, even if right turns out to be wrong, it’s still better than doing nothing at all.

References:

(1) Kendall Zimmerman, M. (2008), The consensus on the consensus: An opinion survey of Earth scientists on global climate change, 250 pp., Univ. of Ill. at Chicago. Cited in EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union, Volume 90 Number 3 20 January 2009. https://tigger.uic.edu/~pdoran/012009_Doran_final.pdf

(2) See all IPCC Assessment Reports at www.ipcc.ch

(3) ABC, Four Corners, Sarah Ferguson, “Malcolm and the Malcontents”, first broadcast 9 November 2009. Full transcript: www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/s2737676.htm

(4) The tobacco industry and the costs of tobacco-related illness / report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, December 1995

(5) Greenpeace USA, ExxonMobil’s Continued Funding of Global Warming Denial Industry, May 2007 www.greenpeace.org/usa/campaigns/global-warming-and-energy/exxon-secrets

(6) Minister Wong’s Reply to Senator Fielding’s Three Questions on Climate Change – Due Diligence available at www.stevefielding.com.au/climate_change/


Jonathan Howcroft is a Melbourne writer.Contact: jonathanhowcroft@hotmail.com