Opinion

Nick Feik
Climate and the Coalition’s new denialism

In recent months the federal government’s position on climate change has shifted. Not in policy terms: the change has been restricted to its rhetoric. It has a new strategy to avoid responsibility.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has become adept at evading questions on climate change and its links to bushfires, and judging by his satisfied expression as he fronted up for ABC’s 7.30 recently, he remains confident he has a form of words that, like armour, journalists will be unable to penetrate. To date, he has been largely proved right.

“It is, and always has been, the policy of our government to understand the need to take action on climate change and the impact that has on the world’s broader weather systems and climate systems,” Morrison told presenter Michael Rowland.

Always has been? This is debatable, even if you set aside that his party removed Malcolm Turnbull twice on the eve of emissions deals – the carbon pollution reduction scheme and the national energy guarantee – to prevent them; killed the emissions trading scheme and the climate change portfolio; tried to kill the renewable energy target and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation; defunded the Climate Council; supports Adani’s massive proposed coalmine; has no significant emissions-reduction or energy policy; and is populated with climate deniers.

As recently as September, David Littleproud, the minister responsible for drought, natural disasters and emergency management, told Guardian Australia that he didn’t “know if climate change is manmade”. The same month, Resources Minister Matt Canavan made one of his regular statements about the “uncertainty” of climate change impacts, and Morrison chided activist Greta Thunberg for subjecting Australian children to “needless anxiety” over the impact of climate change.

On November 9, Morrison was asked about the link between climate change and bushfires, and refused to answer, saying: “My only thoughts today are those who have lost their lives and their families.” Two days later, the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, told the ABC that the only people linking catastrophic bushfires and climate change were “woke capital-city greenies” and that we’d had fires in Australia “since time began”. Then the fires really took hold.

In late November, Morrison finally conceded, in an interview with the ABC’s Sabra Lane, that “the contribution of these issues [bushfires] to global weather conditions and to conditions here in Australia are known and acknowledged”.

Once upon a time such an acknowledgement, begrudging though it was, would have been welcomed as proof the Coalition leadership had finally seen reason. And it does reflect changing political winds: one can no longer simply deny that climate change has real impacts. But to the extent that it reflects a shift in their actions, it meant nothing. Coalition MPs have continued to cast doubt on the links between bushfires and climate change. Indeed, in his following remarks during the same interview with Lane, Morrison settled on what would come to be his staple defence, which was to reject the notion that “the individual actions of Australia are impacting directly on specific fire events” and to assert that there was no direct link between Australia’s emissions and the severity of fires raging across the continent.

This was essentially an excuse to do nothing: the equivalent of stating that there’s no way of linking a single cigarette to cancer; or a man in a firing squad arguing there’s no empirical proof his particular bullet was responsible for the fatality. Morrison was arguing not only that our contribution in terms of world-leading exports of coal and gas be ignored, but also that some (hypothetical) critics are contending that climate problems should be solved by a single policy from a single country.

The new denialism mounted in recent weeks has been a rearguard action, designed to fend off uncomfortable questions about why the government is yet to take action on climate change. It’s parroted by conservative news outlets – even The Australian is now claiming to have long accepted the science – and it has a handful of key characteristics. The existence of climate change is either qualified until it’s meaningless (“the climate is always changing”) or lumped in with “many factors” that are affecting the environment, or causing bushfires. The economic costs of any responses are highlighted – but not the costs of inaction – along with warnings against “alarmism”. As of its latest incarnation, proponents may also present climate change as a fait accompli that we, especially in Australia, have little power to influence, as a way to skip over talk of mitigation or responsibility. It is underpinned by Morrison and colleagues purporting to “meet and beat” minimal obligations while consistently undermining substantive climate action.

Much has already been written about Morrison’s failure of leadership over the bushfires, and that when he did finally act, it was only due to immense public pressure. Even then, he was reactive and slippery. For example, announcing an Australian Defence Force deployment and a $2 billion recovery fund at the start of January, he chose to rebroadcast the disinformation that the fires were a result of the “many factors” originally cited by News Corp and online conspiracists. And like these bad actors, Morrison focused on everything but climate change and his government’s inaction: “In the wake of the devastating bushfires raging across the nation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has flagged a major rewrite to rules covering hazard reduction, land clearing and where homes can be built,” The Daily Telegraph reported on January 2. Morrison said the issue of “fuel loads” was also “very clear”, and that this “has been a constant source of feedback by those on the ground”.

On January 7, when Morrison gave a press conference from Kangaroo Island, another core message was captured by Seven News in the following soundbite: “I’m as disappointed by the disgusting behaviour of seeing arsonists active in a season like this as any other Australian.”

To borrow a phrase from Laura Tingle, it sounded as though he was looking for an alibi.

There was never any evidence that arson was a significant factor in the spread of fires nationally. Fire services estimate that only 1 per cent of fires in New South Wales were caused by arson, and the figure in Victoria was even lower. And fire chiefs have strenuously objected to the wacky theory that “greenies” had made the fires worse by preventing proper hazard reduction burning throughout the year. There was no basis for the idea; hazard reduction burning had simply become more difficult due to the smaller window in which to do it.

Asked about the link between climate change and bushfires on ABC’s 7.30 later that week, Morrison told Michael Rowland, “It is the policy of the government to acknowledge the link between these events at a global level” – as if the government’s PR strategy itself were a policy.

“Of course, global changes in the environment and the climate have a broader impact on the world’s weather systems,” Morrison said. To focus on global changes is another strategy: to distract attention from Australia’s own predicament and frame the issue as above and beyond Australia’s capacity to respond.

By January 12, when Morrison spoke to David Speers of ABC’s Insiders, the pivot to the new denialism was complete. The prime minister admitted we face longer, drier, hotter summers, and any future emergency responses would need to acknowledge the “climate we now live in”, which was “a very different climate”. Resilience and adaptation were now the key, and were “as much a climate change response” as emissions reduction. He spoke about the government’s “evolving” climate policy, which garnered the required headlines, but what did it all amount to? A new way to distract attention. Within hours, he had ruled out any immediate changes to emissions policy.

The focus on resilience and adaptation is also at odds with the Coalition’s own actions in recent years. The CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship was closed down in 2014 due to Coalition funding cuts. The National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy 2015 has essentially been ignored. Funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility was cut in 2017, and the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework commissioned by the government has been gathering dust since its completion in 2018.

Why, if it has “always” accepted the climate science, was the government so ill-prepared for the bushfires, when increasing severity has so often been forecast? Did the Coalition’s denialism prevent it from making adequate preparations?

The rhetorical slipperiness of Morrison and other Coalition spokespeople has to date escaped real scrutiny in the media. Journalists have seemed unprepared for very common mistruths and obfuscations, when it isn’t difficult to counter them: when government spokespeople say that local emissions are falling, that greater emissions reduction will wreck the economy, that we are “doing our bit”, that the government “has a plan” or that exporting thermal coal can be done responsibly, basic fact-checking would confirm that they are being deceptive. Yet these assertions are regularly broadcast without challenge.

Coalition leaders describe climate change as an international problem that requires international solutions, while simultaneously undermining global agreements by attempting to use accounting tricks and carryover credits to reach even the insufficient obligations of the Paris agreement. Only three months ago, the prime minister characterised international emissions mitigation efforts at the United Nations as “negative globalism”.

On January 14, it was reported in an “exclusive” drop to a credulous Australian that the Coalition now believes in renewables as the solution to the emissions problem. If this is the case, it is yet to justify why it cut $500 million from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency budget in 2016; or why Energy Minister Angus Taylor was arguing three months ago that programs supporting renewable energy needed to be “scaled down and phased out”, that Australia had built too much renewable energy generation, and that energy sector investment must focus on securing greater reliability of supply through coal and gas.

The original denialists, those who literally didn’t believe or trust the science (if we are to believe them), were guilty of either intellectual dishonesty or prideful ignorance. The new denialists, if we are to take them at their word, are worse. Because for a nation’s leaders to truly understand the science of climate change and its implications, yet do so little in response, is sociopathic recklessness.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 25, 2020 as "The new denialism". Subscribe here.

Nick Feik
is the editor of The Monthly.

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