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Delusionist diehards (Fin version)

August 16th, 2007

Over the fold is my piece in today’s Fin

Denial industry in full cry

AFR 16 Aug 2007

With John Howard’s conversion on the issue of climate change last year, it seemed that policy debate on the issue could finally proceed on the basis of mainstream scientific research, rather than fringe viewpoints and conspiracy theories. Some senior ministers remained unconvinced, but they seemed willing to keep quiet.

The latest report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation throws all this into doubt. Four of the six government members of the committee (Dennis Jensen, Jackie Kelly, Danna Vale and David Tollner) signed a dissenting report denying that human activities are disturbing the climate in dangerous ways, and describing those who accept the mainstream view as “fanatics�. If this is the view of government members of a committee on science, we can only guess the currency of such ideas within the government as a whole.

The dissenting report is the usual sorry stuff, familiar to anyone who has followed this debate, though the nonsense about climate change on Mars, Triton and Pluto will be new to many. It’s the latest of many talking points put forward by the denial industry, none of which have stood up to scientific scrutiny. Its main advantage is that it is too new to have been comprehensively refuted in reports like those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Of course, climate changes as a result of natural processes. A huge amount of scientific effort over the past twenty years has gone into examination of the causes of the observed warming of recent decades. The outcome of this research, documented in four successive IPCC Reports has been a steady increase in confidence that the majority of recent warming is caused by human activity. When the IPCC process began, back in 1988, much of this warming was still in the future. The two decades since have been warmer than any since instrumental records began in the 19th century, closely fitting the predictions of climate modellers like James Hansen of NASA.

There’s little point in debating these issues further. The really interesting question is why such obviously deluded beliefs remain so influential on the political right, at least in Australia and the US. The answer lies in the creation of a complete parallel universe, with an array of think tanks, news sources and experts, and a conspiracy-theoretic view of the world, in which an (admittedly imperfect) organization like the IPCC can be seen as a stalking horse for socialism or world government.

Much of the initial impetus towards the creation of this parallel universe came from corporations whose interests appeared to be threatened by policy responses to global warming. Internationally, the leading actor was ExxonMobil, which funded dozens of groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the George C. Marshall Foundation. In Australia, as has been documented recently by Guy Pearse in High and Dry, a similar role was played by parts of the coal industry, and by sympathetic public servants, collectively referred to as the Greenhouse mafia.

The business sector has, with only a handful of exceptions, abandoned its attempts to discredit climate science. Firms like ExxonMobil are now more concerned with shaping the policy response to global warming than with continuing to promote confusion and doubt.

But now that the disinformation machine has been created, it’s proving impossible to shut it down. Too many commentators have locked themselves into entrenched positions, from which no dignified retreat is possible. The problem has been reinforced by developments in the media, where rightwing talk radio and blogs have formed a closed circle of tribal loyalty, in which hostility to science is taken for granted. Spurious talking points are picked up and amplified by these groups, eventually finding their way into the opinion columns of writers like Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, and then into the opinions of conservatives in general.

All of this is reminiscent of the left in the declining days of Marxism (perhaps unsurprisingly, since so many of the leading participants are converts from one form of Marxism or another). It is symptomatic of a wider preference for dialectical skill over factual reality, evident in the consistent misreading of events that has characterized the Iraq war.

Nothing except a prolonged spell out of power seems likely to cure this kind of thinking. And to the extent that the government’s lack of any real belief in the need to do anything about global warming becomes apparent to voters, such a cure becomes more likely. No doubt John Howard is wishing that his backbenchers would keep their thoughts to themselves.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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  1. August 16th, 2007 at 11:33 | #1

    Nothing except a prolonged spell out of power seems likely to cure this kind of thinking

    After the election Turnbull will run a million miles from Howard’s energy policy, and he’ll purge the party of the denialists. Murdoch will (hopefully)purge the denialists in News Corp as well. Bolt, Akerman, McCrann, Wood et al will be silenced on the topic, and Chris Mitchell will be out of a job.

    The political dynamic will be very different in 2008. It will be more like the UK where the major parties try to out-green each other.

  2. wilful
    August 16th, 2007 at 12:32 | #2

    Turnbull will do a David Cameron?

    Certainly Rupert Murdoch’s principled position is to maintain and expand his influence and power, so there wont be too many impediments to a Newscorp purge.

  3. August 16th, 2007 at 12:47 | #3

    Turnbull will do a David Cameron?

    Yep. In fact, whoever leads the Libs after November (Costello or Turnbull) there will be a big policy reversal on climate change, but IMO Turnbull is the most likely leader and the most enlightened on climate change issues.

    I don’t for a moment think that Turnbull actually believes the nonsense he’s pedalling at the moment. He’s just doing The Rodent’s bidding.

  4. Peter Wood
    August 16th, 2007 at 13:49 | #4

    It wouldn’t suprise me if Turnbull would implement some sensible greenhouse policies if Howard wasn’t running the show. It is quite likely that Turnbull will lose his electorate though. Also it seems to be that the Liberal party is incresingly being controlled my religous and market fundamentalists. These types used to be known as the ‘uglies’ and had Nick Minchin playing a prominent role. Interestingly Nick Minchin is probably the biggest climate change denier in cabinet.

  5. August 16th, 2007 at 16:21 | #5

    It is quite likely that Turnbull will lose his electorate though

    I’m not so sure. The 2.7% margin in Wentworth is misleading because of the Peter King factor in 2004. I reckon the real margin is more like 5-6%.

    IMO, the best result for climate change policy will be a Rudd government, with the Greens/Dems holding the balance of power in the Senate and Turnbull as opposition leader. I don’t want to see the Libs devastated, I want to see a strong opposition putting forward good policy, and our best chance of that happening is if Turnbull holds onto his seat and becomes opposition leader.

    Interestingly Nick Minchin is probably the biggest climate change denier in cabinet

    Minchin is a despicable t**d

    PrQ: You can censor that last bit, but you can’t deny the truth of it!

  6. Jill Rush
    August 16th, 2007 at 17:27 | #6

    The linkage made to the way that powerful people set up groups to fight the idea of global warming, and the life they develop of their own is well made. The other linkageabout the ability that some people have of refusing to listen to views challenging their world view, shows why there are still those who prefer to live in their Pollyanna world.

  7. derrida derider
    August 16th, 2007 at 20:29 | #7

    One of your best opinion pieces ever, John. It oughtta persuade quite a few readers.

    The only quibble I’d make is to note that while the great bulk of the bullsh*t is coming from the right, and of course it’s the best funded and most influential source of the crap, some is coming from the remnants of the old (pre-green, pre-pomo) left too. But then those people are more tribal than even the RWDBs.

  8. observa
    August 16th, 2007 at 21:02 | #8

    So according to you John the jury is unequivocally in on CO2 emissions causing GW with all its ramifications and externalities. What then should those who work in the carbon industries do about the situation they now find themselves in, just like James Hardie employees with asbestos. Resign and desist doing what they are doing now? Are they really any better than al those James Hardie denialists now?

  9. mugwump
    August 16th, 2007 at 22:02 | #9

    I, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years, arraigned personally before this tribunal, and kneeling before you, Most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General against heretical depravity throughout the entire Christian commonwealth, having before my eyes and touching with my hands, the Holy Gospels, swear that I have always believed, do believe, and by God’s help will in the future believe, all that is held, preached, and taught by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. But whereas — after an injunction had been judicially intimated to me by this Holy Office, to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that global warming is not as well understood as widely believed, and that the Earth may not be in such peril as is claimed, and that drastic measures to reduce CO2 are likely to do more harm than good, and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture — I wrote and printed a book in which I discuss this new doctrine already condemned, and adduce arguments of great cogency in its favor, without presenting any solution of these, and for this reason I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy, that is to say, of having held and believed that global warming is not well understood, and that the Earth may not be in such peril as is claimed, and that drastic measures to reduce CO2 are likely to do more harm than good.

    Therefore, desiring to remove from the minds of your Eminences, and of all faithful Christians, this vehement suspicion, justly conceived against me, with sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies, and generally every other error, heresy, and sect whatsoever contrary to the said Holy Church, and I swear that in the future I will never again say or assert, verbally or in writing, anything that might furnish occasion for a similar suspicion regarding me; but that should I know any heretic, or person suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor or Ordinary of the place where I may be. Further, I swear and promise to fulfill and observe in their integrity all penances that have been, or that shall be, imposed upon me by this Holy Office. And, in the event of my contravening, (which God forbid) any of these my promises and oaths, I submit myself to all the pains and penalties imposed and promulgated in the sacred canons and other constitutions, general and particular, against such delinquents. So help me God, and these His Holy Gospels, which I touch with my hands.

    I, the said Galileo Galilei, have abjured, sworn, promised, and bound myself as above; and in witness of the truth thereof I have with my own hand subscribed the present document of my abjuration, and recited it word for word at Rome, in the Convent of Minerva, this twenty-second day of June, 1633.

    I, Galileo Galilei, have abjured as above with my own hand.

  10. jquiggin
    August 16th, 2007 at 22:20 | #10

    Mugwump, that’s perfect! Check Step 3:

    “Don’t forget to challenge orthodoxy and compare yourself to Galileo! He was persecuted by the orthodoxy too! Remember, whenever a majority of scientists believe anything, that means it’s wrong. Cite Kuhn, compare yourself to Galileo.”

  11. mugwump
    August 16th, 2007 at 22:43 | #11

    Step one: Develop a wacky idea.

    It is critical that your wacky idea must be something pretty extraordinary. A good crank shoots for the stars. You don’t defend to the death some simple opinion, like Coke is better than Pepsi. You’ve got to think big! You’ve got to do something like deny HIV causes AIDS, or relativity, or reject an entire field of biology, or deny the earth is older than 6000 years. If you can’t think of anything, try reading the Bible for claims that are now obviously ludicrous – like the possibility of climbing into heaven using a ladder. Insist on its literal truth.”

    So you really believe that “global warming is not as well understood as widely believed, and that the Earth may not be in such peril as is claimed, and that drastic measures to reduce CO2 are likely to do more harm than good” is on a par with “the earth is only 6000 years old”?

  12. Ernestine Gross
    August 16th, 2007 at 23:53 | #12

    “perfect” , a good one.

  13. August 17th, 2007 at 08:32 | #13

    mugwump: The Galileo thing is straight outta the Andrew Bolt playbook. We’ve heard it all before, you’re convincing no-one, and no-one can be bothered convincing you. Go away.

  14. frankis
    August 17th, 2007 at 09:07 | #14

    I’d like to second DD’s compliments on a beautifully written piece, sure to have a few of the less shameless exponents of dialectical cuteness squirming a little.

    The rule is that tribal loyalists are rewarded for usefulness to power and deference to authority not for critical thinking ability or willingness to reflect on their selfnature. They’re buried never recognising any fault within themselves, and it would be sacrilege to question their leaders’ competence or motives.

  15. mugwump
    August 17th, 2007 at 09:19 | #15

    You didn’t think it was funny carbonsink? Sorry about that. If it makes you feel any better, I thoroughly enjoyed posting it.

  16. jquiggin
    August 17th, 2007 at 10:03 | #16

    Shorter mugwump

    “I’m nowhere near as crazy as the creationists, and still teh Establishment orthodoxy persecutes me, just like Galileo.”

  17. August 17th, 2007 at 10:20 | #17

    If you want to get a laugh muwump hang out Bolty’s blog, or worse, Blairs. They’ll cheer your every word. Now go away.

  18. Ken Miles
    August 17th, 2007 at 10:59 | #18

    Comparisons to Galileo earn one 40 points on the crackpot index. There’s probably some more points for Mugwump under 20 points for each use of the phrase “self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy”..

  19. wilful
    August 17th, 2007 at 11:11 | #19

    I don’t often read the Fin. Can someone tell me if there has been a response in the letters? Did it prompt any denialists out of their shells?

  20. mugwump
    August 17th, 2007 at 11:18 | #20

    Blair is a hoot. Bolt is so-so.

    I think this is probably the first time in my life I have been called a crackpot. Remarkable where you find yourself standing when the tide of public opinion turns.

    Anyway, back to watching the other great herd phenomenon unfold: global credit crunch.

  21. Hal9000
    August 18th, 2007 at 13:57 | #21

    “I don’t often read the Fin. Can someone tell me if there has been a response in the letters? Did it prompt any denialists out of their shells?”

    Yep. Des Moore – the only former Treasury official to find John Stone a dangerous lefty. I wonder if Des and mugwump are one and the same?

  22. August 18th, 2007 at 18:14 | #22

    Just thought I’d mention that Arctic sea ice has now surpassed all previous records for the lowest absolute minimum extent a full five weeks before the usual late September minima in ice extent.

    Clearly we have nothing to worry about.

  23. mugwump
    August 18th, 2007 at 20:29 | #23

    Don’t worry carbonsink – just wait a decade or so until they discover that the ice-cover was actually lower in 1934.

  24. wilful
    August 20th, 2007 at 11:39 | #24

    mugwump, that comment only really makes sense if you believe that there is no warming currently underway (whatever the cause). Is that what you think?

  25. Ken
    August 22nd, 2007 at 11:35 | #25

    It’s no surprise that there are members of Howard’s Gov’t that hold these dissenting views, but how did they end up on that particular committee? Were they selected because they think AGW doesn’t exist or did they volunteer? Surely their opinions were known. Is it like when Wilson Tuckey was appointed Minister of Forestry, a pointed appointment that makes clear the Gov’t position regarding conservation and conservationists? The PM may have stated he disagrees with them but his distancing hasn’t moved him far.

  26. frankis
    August 22nd, 2007 at 13:44 | #26

    Ken, Howard’s always thought he was being quite clever with these corrupting appointments and the electorate’s done nothing to dissuade him.

    Warwick Parer the coal industry stooge who was made Minister for Energy and Resources, the present incumbent in Telecommunications who’s ineducable on the subject of her own ministry, Robin Batterham as the government’s Chief Scientist when his real day job was with Rio Tinto and it also just happened that Howard’s nephew was the company’s chief government lobbyist … the list is long and disgraceful, it’s honest Johnny Howard’s way.

  27. Chris O’Neill
    August 22nd, 2007 at 17:01 | #27

    “just wait a decade or so until they discover that the ice-cover was actually lower in 1934”

    Is that contiguous US ice-cover or global ice-cover?

  28. mugwump
    August 23rd, 2007 at 01:50 | #28

    Is that contiguous US ice-cover or global ice-cover?

    Arctic ice-cover, silly.

  29. jquiggin
    August 23rd, 2007 at 06:48 | #29

    Mugwump, your irony detectors are off (or maybe your irony response system is failing). Time to get out of the parallel universe, before you lose any contact with reality.

  30. mugwump
    August 23rd, 2007 at 09:07 | #30

    My irony detectors are working fine; but I think yours might be in need of a recalibration JQ.

    Whence “silly”?

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