How ignorance and inertia are working against us

Political opposition to climate science picks and chooses its target, rejecting the scientific tool that last week gave us a medical breakthrough on the cold virus. [24 July 2012 | Peter Boyer]

The cold rhinovirus as envisioned by computer modelling by researchers from Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research and the pharmaceutical company Biota Holdings Ltd. The study simulated the virus’s structure and behaviour. IMAGE COURTESY 3D4MEDICAL

David Walsh, bless him, has transformed Tasmania in ways no-one could have imagined a few short years ago.

Our visual arts credentials have long been one of our strong points, but Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has taken them to a new level. Its latest show, “Theatre of the World”, mixes once-hidden items from our state museum with exotica from Walsh’s and other collections to create a feast for eye and mind.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been enjoying another MONA treat: screenings of a filmed New York production of Richard Wagner’s mighty “Ring” cycle. Before MONA, who’d have thought of popping out to Berriedale for a shot of Wagner?

This cycle of four operas has been called the greatest work of art ever made. Music from “The Ring” has found its way into every corner of modern life, notably countless film adventures with a remotely Nordic theme. I’d just say it’s a musical and dramatic experience like no other.

In Israel, this sublime experience is off-limits. It’s not illegal to perform Wagner’s music there, but any attempt to do so would be met by angry media campaigns and street protests. To many Jews, Wagner is persona non grata.

During Wagner’s lifetime Jews were prominent among his friends and followers. Two of them were pallbearers at his funeral. But besides being self-centred and self-opinionated — not unknown among men of genius — Wagner had some pretty unsavoury views about Jewish people and culture.

Worse than that. Adolf Hitler, born five years after Wagner died, took a liking to Wagner’s music, which the Nazis expropriated for their propaganda. Who could blame any Jew for wanting to have nothing to do with this man or his art?

There’s no simple solution to the paradox of Wagner’s racism and his creative achievements. I can only say that my experience of the “Ring” transcends all such anomalies, and that we should not judge an artist’s work on the basis of objectionable personal views.

The celebrated Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim believes that Jews should accept the paradox and open themselves up to Wagner’s music. For many years he’s tried to persuade Israelis to do so, but to no avail. Anti-Wagnerism seems set in concrete.

This is a delicate business. No-one wants to be seen to be insensitive to the suffering of Holocaust survivors and their families, so we don’t talk about it.

Raising climate and energy issues in public faces similar constraints. Like the association of Wagner with the Nazis, some political leaders have linked the science around climate and energy with doom and gloom, a sure-fire conversation stopper.

This is how, family by family, town by town across Australia, we’re managing to avoid the meaty public discourse that’s essential for large-scale substantive action, turning away from the troubling scientific evidence. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is the current climate mantra.

Some have decided that ignoring the problem isn’t enough — it has to be killed. At this year’s Queensland Liberal-National Party conference, Richard Pearson of the party’s Noosa branch attacked “false prophets who would poison the minds of our children in our schools”.

Pearson moved that Queensland education minister Paul Langbroek “require Queensland government schools to remove environmental propaganda material, in particular post normal science about climate change”. (He defined “post normal science” as “beyond traditional understanding of science”.) The motion passed with little dissent.

What the LNP conference was saying to Langbroek and anyone else who’d listen is that researchers who publish findings that humans have influenced climate aren’t true scientists at all, but propagandists brainwashing our kids, and their “science” is really a belief system.

The conference resolution targets many decades of work by thousands of scientists around the world, whose peer-reviewed research papers span all disciplines. If this is a fraud, then what trust can we have in any science of any kind?

The science points to unwelcome future scenarios if we don’t curb our emissions, very soon. These scenarios use computer modelling, the best tool we have to get a handle on global climate processes, and the same tool used in seeking answers to countless other research questions.

Questions like “what does the common cold virus look like, and how does it behave?” Last week a Melbourne research team announced that computer modelling had effectively resolved this question, with huge implications for treating not just colds but also many other human ailments.

No-one questioned the veracity of the team’s work; God knows we all want a cure for the cold. The Queensland LNP doesn’t admit this, but the real reason it’s questioning the science of man-made climate change isn’t the quality of the findings but their implications for our use of fossil fuels.

I think most Australians would disagree with the resolution, but because they see no political unity on the subject they’ll let it pass. Key leaders are failing in their duty to quell the rabble-rousing, enunciate the climate-energy emergency to electors, and enlist their support in dealing with it.

We’ve known for two decades that our carbon emissions are a problem yet they continue to rise. Faced with this fact, these “leaders” deliberately ignore it while allowing underlings to attack the science behind it as fraudulent. In my book such reckless behaviour is getting close to criminal negligence.

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