Our government’s dodgy climate politics

Many members of the Abbott government, including the leader, have shown a reckless disregard of scientific advice.  [4 February 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Senator Ian Macdonald in his parliamentary office with a specimen of Patagonian toothfish, a subantarctic species which he worked to protect while in charge of the Australian Antarctic Division. PHOTO FAIRFAX MEDIA

Senator Ian Macdonald came on to my radar back in the late 1990s, when as parliamentary secretary to the minister for the environment he took charge of Australia’s Antarctic program.

At the time I managed public information services at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). I found myself admiring Macdonald for a good grasp of detail, an open, friendly manner and a rare ability to connect with the wide array of people that you get in Antarctic expeditions.

The AAD, which was in Macdonald’s charge for about two years, is a major scientific organisation. It is especially strong in the physical, biological and environmental sciences, and for decades has contributed substantially to science’s understanding of global warming and its impacts.

So a year or so ago I was surprised to come across a speech of Macdonald’s in the Senate in which he argued that the world wasn’t warming and that any rise in sea levels was of little consequence.

There are plenty of these sorts of claims on climate sceptic websites, but I’ve never heard them from the Australian scientists I’ve dealt with working in relevant disciplines, and there’s no support for them in the scientific literature.

It was a puzzle to me how someone who had earlier engaged so successfully with climate scientists could have come up with such contrary views. Then last week a bit of the puzzle fell into place.

In a conversation with ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly, Macdonald complained that ABC producers and journalists pushed their own line on climate change, allowing “barely a whimper from the majority who understand that the climate does change”.

When Kelly suggested that the statements he objected to represented scientists’ views, Macdonald said it was only “some scientists” who thought that way.  “You report the news that this is every scientist in the whole world who has this view whereas clearly the facts are not that. But you rarely hear from people like Bob Carter or others who have a different view,” he said.

The penny dropped. Bob Carter is a geologist who for many years has argued that humans do not significantly affect climate. He was based until recently at James Cook University, Townsville, close to Macdonald’s home town of Ayr. The two would seem to know each other.

Carter’s line is that current climate change is essentially natural and that the consequences are of little concern. He is a principal author of a September 2013 publication which claims that Earth hasn’t warmed since 1997 and that sea level changes are not significant.

The publication came from the US-based “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change” (NIPCC). Its name gives away its purpose, to counter the position held by the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that humans are causing the climate to change.

While branding the IPCC as an elitist left-wing body pushing a socialist agenda under United Nations auspices, the NIPCC presents itself as an ad-hoc group of concerned scientists. But it was created and is funded by conservative quasi-scientific political bodies including the Heartland Institute.

Among the authors of the 2013 publication are 35 professional or retired scientists (two of whom, hydrologist Stewart Franks and physicist Garth Paltridge, live in Tasmania). Yet readers have to take their word on trust, since the text provides no numbered citations for its claims.

In contrast, the IPCC is an open book. Over 600 scientists wrote its latest physical science report, released in final form two days ago. It used over 1000 expert reviewers from 55 countries, and cites over 9200 scientific publications. It has also released all earlier drafts and reviewer comments.

It’s disappointing that Macdonald repeats unsubstantiated propaganda while discounting the IPCC consensus that humans affect climate. This is probably because the indefatigable Bob Carter has had his ear, maybe on a long plane trip to Townsville. Perhaps we should sympathise with him.

Ian Macdonald is no big wheel in the Abbott government, having missed out on a ministry last September. We might overlook his views if it wasn’t for the fact that when they’re expressed so many in the government are nodding in agreement, right up to the man at the top.

Tony Abbott has never been committed to serious action on climate change. He mouths the words when talking up Coalition climate policy alongside his environment minister, the smooth-talking but ineffectual Greg Hunt, but his insincerity is all too clear. It’s just not important to him.

The prevailing Coalition view on climate policy has been shaped by the Bob Carters of this world, a small coterie of largely-retired scientists and lobbyists, exclusively from developed countries, who draw on the largesse of fossil fuel interests to campaign against effective emissions abatement.

Faced with the climate question, Abbott and his fellow-sceptics have taken the easy path offered by a tiny band of ideologues, rejecting the conclusions of over 95 per cent of practising scientists, virtually every university and science agency, and every national science academy.

Unlike expert advice for things like more police on the beat or subsidising manufacturing, the advice of climate experts offers no wriggle room. Emissions must be cut swiftly and decisively because our burning of fossil fuels is dangerously destablising the climate. End of story.

Australia is a significant democracy with an advanced economy and a world-class scientific culture. By rejecting unanimous scientific advice on climate, senior members of our government are doing their best to trash this hard-earned reputation.

Their attitude is absurd, but it’s nothing to laugh about. The consequences are too serious.

AN acknowledged world authority on climate change, Professor David Karoly, is guest panellist in a public forum on climate and Australia’s future, next Tuesday, 11 February (6pm at the Stanley Burbury Theatre, University of Tasmania, Sandy Bay).

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2 Responses to Our government’s dodgy climate politics

  1. David Cripps says:

    As a non-scientific type of fellow I enjoyed your article a great deal, and in my humble way I wanted to congratulate you for taking the fight up to these climate deniers.
    A number of things concern me right now, principally the damage that can be done by people like Andrew Bolt, especially now he is emboldened by the culture of the Federal Liberals.
    If we accept that Tony Abbott’s paranoia about the left wing bias in the ABC won’t rest until he has made some crippling funding
    cuts and appointed his own team at senior levels, what chance will you have then of actually getting the IPCC message out.

    The way I see it we need people like you now more than ever before to respond in forceful terms to people like Ian Macdonald.

  2. Rob Sinclair says:

    Extremely bad news for Tasmania’s native forest, with Australia filing for decrease in protection through UNESCO. The signature’s of the Abbott govt are both arrogance and ignorance. The environmental vandalism by this govt will be both widespread and permanent with prejudice against anything scientific, breathtaking!

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