Transcript

Climate change politics with Clive Hamilton

Clive HamiltonClive Hamilton

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. I'll be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm here today with Professor Clive Hamilton. He's a public intellectual, well-known and respected author and a professor of public ethics at Charles State University. Clive, thank you for joining us today.

Clive Hamilton:

It's a pleasure.

Matt Smith:

Now, you're here today at La Trobe to talk about the politics of climate change scepticism. Climate change has become a well-known problem in present day society, and it's generally acknowledged more or less that we all need to do something about it. How can a phenomenon such as scepticism exist in such a global topic?

Clive Hamilton:

Well, that's a big question.

Matt Smith:

An easy question to get you started?

Clive Hamilton:

Yeah. And a lot of us puzzle over how apparently intelligent people, small minority, repudiate all of the scientific evidence and take an absolutely contrary view. And we're not saying absolutely contrary view. I think that's revealing because they're not real skeptics as others have pointed out because they don't bring a sharp mind to the evidence why it all happened, decide what's true and what's not true. They reject pretty much everything, all climate science. So, they come with a preconceived notion that climate science is wrong.

Matt Smith:

Like they put their fingers in their ears and yell very loudly over the top of everyone else sometimes.

Clive Hamilton:

There's a strong element of that. But here you've got people who sometimes are well educated who develop these often bizarre reasons for repudiating the scientific evidence. And you think, "Why? What do they get out of denying the science?" Frequently, they claim they are denying the science because they're more intelligent and rational than everyone else. And they need an explanation for why the vast majority of scientists and particularly those who study the issue take a very different view. So, they have to come up with bizarre notions about how all of these scientists are in some conspiracy to inflate their incomes or advance their own careers or they just get caught up in herd behavior.

Now, anyone who knows the scientific community knows that any scientist who could come up with a believable, sustainable case which undermined one or more of the main elements of climate change signs would have his or her reputation made. I mean, they'd probably get the Nobel Prize for it. So, there's a strong incentive to find evidence against it, but no one has come up with anything persuasive.

So, it really is a very puzzling phenomenon, but it's a dangerous phenomenon because, of course, those in government and industry who want not to act or to act slowly feed off their arguments even though the arguments have no scientific credibility.

Matt Smith:

How does denial of climate change tie in with conservative politics with America?

Clive Hamilton:

Well, when you go back and look at the roots of climate change denial, you'll realize that it's closely connected with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 because this removed the principle of global threat in the world view of conservatism in the United States. And along with Islamism, environmentalism suddenly became a huge perceived threat to the world view of US conservatives because environmentalism seemed to challenge the basis of their world view, the view that man has a right to dominate Nature and the view that progress is achieved by the pursuit of economic growth and individual liberty. And environmentalism seemed to challenge these. And it does challenge these presuppositions.

And so, the Red Scare was soon replaced by the Green Scare. And that's why overwhelmingly, climate skeptics have conservative or right wing political views.

Matt Smith:

You said something there, the Red Scare was replaced by the Green Scare. The word "scare" is very telling in this thing. Is part of it that we need to be scared as a society, we need to be scared of something in order for us to worry about it? So, we used to be scared of nuclear war. And while that's still a threat, we're not so much scared of that as we were back in the '70s. And now we're scared of climate change. Is that the mentality that's behind it at the moment, you think?

Clive Hamilton:

Well, back in the days, the fear of nuclear annihilation was a genuine and legitimate one. I mean, anyone who wasn't scared didn't get it. And similarly with climate change, if you're not scared, you're not listening to what the scientists are saying. Now, that's not to say there aren't plenty of other things people are scared of or anxious about where the threat is grossly exaggerated. There's no doubt about that.

Matt Smith:

Swine flu, maybe?

Clive Hamilton:

Swine flu, Y2K bug, threats to children and so on, various forms. Parents are naturally anxious about their children's welfare. I think it's a mistake to say because people are unduly scared about some things, therefore all fears are unfounded. I mean, in fact, I think with the case of climate change, people aren't nearly scared enough.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that there is pressure in politics today for politicians to be persuaded one way or another on the climate change dilemma?

Clive Hamilton:

Well, look. The reason why the climate skeptics or so-called have been affected is because whilst not many people reject the science, there are a lot of people who would like to believe that the science is exaggerated. Therefore, they don't need to take action which is as resolute or radical as the science demands.

And so, our political leaders, even though they reject the views of the climate scientists, nevertheless like the fact that the climate scientists are out there sowing doubt because if they weren't, there'll be a much stronger public demand for our political leaders to act. And, of course, that would create difficulties with powerful forces, notably the fossil fuel companies.

Matt Smith:

You're insinuating pressure from corporations?

Clive Hamilton:

Absolutely. The fossil fuel lobby in Australia, they call themselves the Greenhouse Mafia, is an extremely powerful political lobby and I think the most powerful industry lobby that we've ever seen in Australia. And with the election of the Rudd government, some of those corporations that previously funded and promoted climate science denial shifted their strategy when they knew that some policy was going to be introduced to try to water down the policy.

Matt Smith:

The emission trading scheme?

Clive Hamilton:

The emission trading scheme, in particular and to get as much financial compensations or so-called as they could out of it.

Matt Smith:

The emission trading scheme could have been a lot more radical than it looks like it has ended up being or could have been a lot more progressive, at least. But now it's to the point where it's not going to really have a large amount of effect.

Clive Hamilton:

I think the emission trading scheme, if we get the 5% cut that the government has promised, I mean, they promised more and various other things happened, but hurdle they've set is so high that it's almost certain that we will have a 5% cut on 1990 levels by 2020. It's a significant change except for the loopholes in the legislation. It would be a significant change except for the loopholes like the opportunity for polluters to engage in so-called off-shore compliance by buying alleged emission reductions in other countries like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia instead of reducing their emissions in Australia.

But even without that, the 5% cut is nowhere near the level of emission reduction that the climate scientists say that rich countries must engage in if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. So, it's 5% versus the 25% to 40% cuts that the climate scientists say that we need to do. So, we're very a long way from doing what needs to be done.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that being a politician is not the most effective way to get anything done? I've got two examples here. One is Al Gore, who seems to be more effective out of office than he was in office in being able to achieve anything right up to and including the Live Earth concept, which was a worldwide thing that he managed to pull off. And at the other end of the scale, we've got Peter Garrett, the former activist and frontrunner of Midnight Oil, now being what people say he has watered down and lost his ways.

Do you think it's more effective for somebody, if they wanted to get something done, to not be a politician?

Clive Hamilton:

I think it depends on the circumstances. I mean, Al Gore could be as effective as he has been because he was the vice president of the United States. Peter Garrett, of course, has gone into politics arguing that he can do more on the inside than he can on the outside. And certainly, in principle, it's possible for that to happen. But, of course, you need to compromise when you go into politics.

But in order to maintain your integrity, you need to draw a line in the sand and say, "Well, here are my fundamental principles and I can't broach them. And if I an required to broach them in order to maintain my position, then the only thing for me to do is to resign." And in my opinion, Peter Garrett's collaboration in the weak policy of the Rudd government compromises what I understood to be his fundamental beliefs about the environment. And in my view, that line is being crossed and he should resign rather than continue to give a veneer of legitimacy to the Rudd government's weak position on climate change.

Matt Smith:

Is he as a politician being influenced by outside organizations with other agendas, do you think?

Clive Hamilton:

Well, political leaders have an endless strain of lobbyists through their doors. In fact, there's a whole industry in Canberra whose job can be summarized as opening doors into politicians' offices. That's what they do. They use their contacts, they use their connections, and they get paid very well in order to open those doors. And one of those doors is Peter Garrett's. And so, he has inevitably influenced by the sorts of lobbying that he gets day in day out from corporations who want to try to avoid or water down environmental regulations. And many people had expected that with the labor government environment organizations would have a greater influence in Canberra. And they undoubtedly do have some more influence compared to the Howard government. But I think some environment organization leaders have been dismayed with the extent to which they appended to but not really listening to.

Matt Smith:

Is there any government in the world that Australia should be following the example of?

Clive Hamilton:

Well, there are certainly some governments in the world that are taking emission reductions far more seriously than we are. I'm thinking of European countries. Even little ole' New Zealand has much stronger targets and seems to be much more committed to cutting their emissions. I mean, in a place like Denmark, for example, they derive more than 20% of their electricity from wind power. In a couple of northern states of Germany, they get 33%. So, there's vastly more that could be done and could be done economically than the Australian government is willing to do.

Matt Smith:

Professor Clive Hamilton, thank you for your time.

Clive Hamilton:

My pleasure.

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