Falling off the tightrope
Having gained office on the basis of three-word slogans, the Abbott government has the problem that it now needs to answer questions in complete sentences. As a result, Abbott has immediately faced some tricky tests, and failed most of them. “Stop the Boats”, for example, ran into the problem that it assumed the Indonesians could be strong-armed into doing our government’s bidding. Unsurprisingly, that proved false, though the inevitable backdown was managed reasonably smoothly.
The trickiest balancing act, though, is on climate change. The government needs to balance its base, the vocal elements of which are almost uniformly denialist, with the risks of adverse consequences to Australia if we repudiate our commitments on the issue, and the risks to its own credibility of being openly anti-science.
After only seven weeks in office, both PM Tony Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt, have fallen off the tightrope, rejecting the clearly established (and intuitively obvious) IPCC findings on bushfire risk in Australia [AR4 (2007) , WGII , Chapter 11, Executive Summary]
“The climate of the 21st century is virtually certain to be warmer, with changes in extreme events. Heatwaves and fires are virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency (high confidence).”
These findings were reinforced in an interview with the head of the UN’s climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres (listen to the audio,as the report may mislead)
Abbott’s response was to accuse Figueres of “talking through her hat”, while Hunt went to Wikipedia to discover that “bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year”.
This was really an unforced error by both Abbott and Hunt. They could have ducked the issue by resorting to the standard formula that climate predictions are about frequencies, not about individual events. Abbott could even have cited Figueres who was careful to say that “the World Meteorological Organisation has not yet established a direct link between the these fires and climate change.” (emphasis very clear in audio). Hunt scrambled back to the script at the end of his interview, but after the Wikipedia reference, it was far too late.
Given Abbott’s earlier “total crap” statement, it’s going to be hard for him to walk back a second time. He now faces two problems. On the one hand, now that he’s outed himself as one of them, the denialist base will be encouraged to demand the scrapping of his Direct Action policy. On the other hand, locking the LNP into denialism is a recipe for long-term disaster, especially with Malcolm Turnbull waiting in the wings.
It’s highly likely that 2013 will turn out to be the hottest calendar year on record for Australia. The frequent occurrence of record highs like this is a predictable consequence of climate change. Abbott had better get his spin doctors working on a form of words to handle the inevitable questions.
fn1. I’ve decided to abandon “delusionist”, my own coinage, in favor of the more standard term “denialist”. I’ll write more on this later.
fn2. In fairness, this statement was presented as a view his audience might hold, rather than as Abbott’s own. But since he’s held every possible view on this topic, and some that seem impossible, fairness can only go so far.