Sceptics find comfort in cost of change

Sceptics find comfort in cost of change

14 Dec 2009

dennis-altman Professor Dennis Altman
Email: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

Originally published in The Age on 12 December, 2009.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the increasingly messy debate on an emissions trading scheme is the rise of denialism in Australia, which more than most rich countries has experienced the realities of climate change first hand. The experience of heat, fires and changing weather patterns should make us more conscious than most of the reality of climate change.

The Opposition is now deeply confused in its attitudes, summed up in the appointment of a long-standing environmentalist, Greg Hunt, as spokesman for ''climate action''. Hunt, whose ability to do a policy about-turn is of Olympian standards, will have to reconcile his own belief in climate change with the scepticism of some key colleagues, including the shadow minister for finance, Barnaby Joyce, and resources and energy, Nick Minchin.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott is on record with a range of positions on climate change, which taken together suggest he believes it is real, it is due to human behaviour, but nothing should be done to change this behaviour that will cost anything. This, as George Bush snr might have said, is voodoo environmentalism.

But Hunt, Abbott and probably most of their colleagues at least recognise that the great majority of climate scientists accept that the evidence for human causation of rapid deterioration is accurate. This is the position of almost every government in the world, though Joyce and Minchin might take comfort in standing alongside the Saudi government in their doubts.

Within the Liberal-National heartland there is clearly real scepticism about the scientific evidence. From her speech in the Senate it is clear that Judith Adams, a Liberal from Western Australia, and one of the group who helped topple Malcolm Turnbull, spoke for many when she used anecdotes and carefully selected local data - falls in temperature in Bathurst and Deniliquin, for example - to rebut the evidence.

''I will consider very seriously the opinion of my peers,'' said Adams, ''who are so much at one with nature and working with the changing seasons. I will lean towards these opinions before those formed by the much questioned data generated by supercomputers.''

Note the emphasis on opinion, rather than evidence. The views of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are based on the careful aggregation and analysis of global evidence, not opinions gleaned from neighbouring farmers. When one senior columnist in The Australian referred to ''mythological climate change demons'', he was echoing this suspicion of science now common in the Opposition.

On any major issue there will always be dissident scientists, and apparently contradictory evidence. Here there is a closer parallel between climate change sceptics and those dissidents who challenged the hypothesis that HIV causes AIDS.

While almost every significant medical centre and government accepted the centrality of HIV, one major sceptic remained, namely President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. In his anxiety to disprove the evidence, he personally sat up at night searching the web. The consequence was a long delay in South Africa's implementing sensible policies for HIV treatments, leading to tens of thousands of premature deaths. The policy was exposed to international ridicule when his health minister started advocating garlic and beetroot as a better treatment for AIDS than anti-retrovirals.

Those policies have now been reversed by President Jacob Zuma, but the lessons of denialism remain. In Mbeki's case he seemed driven to find an alternative explanation for HIV, one that was consistent with a perfectly understandable suspicion of Western dominance growing out of the anti-apartheid struggle. Thus when the scientific evidence seemed to counter other values, it was easier to dismiss it than to re-evaluate his basic position.

In the same way, to accept the reality of climate change means questioning the very idea of economic growth, and the continuing exploitation of some of Australia's most abundant resources, especially coal. When the costs of response are so high, little wonder that some people prefer to deny the evidence rather than attack the problem.

There is a further variant to this position, namely the one that claims Australia is too insignificant to make any difference, and we should wait for the United States, China and India to act. The problem with this position is that Australians lead the world in our per capita emission of carbon, and whether for moral or pragmatic reasons can hardly expect others to act unless we do so as well.

Minchin, Joyce and their colleagues are intelligent men, and they at least recognise the consequences of climate change will be to impose real costs on many Australians, and to require some fundamental changes in our lifestyle. In one sense the Government, too, is a climate change denialist, for its solutions fail to match the urgency of what Kevin Rudd called the great moral challenge of our time.

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