Words the Hodgman government dares not utter

The Tasmanian government’s climate change narrative is that if climate change is real and man-made, what we do doesn’t matter. But it does.

Michael Ferguson MP, minister for health, emergency management and science. PHOTO Matthew Farrell/Mercury

Michael Ferguson MP, minister for health, emergency management and science. PHOTO Matthew Farrell/Mercury

If you’re in power and want to stay there, all you need to know is this: own the narrative.

Whenever and wherever the story is to be told about your time in charge, you and no-one else must determine what’s true and what’s false, what’s important and what isn’t – a rule that prevails in government here and everywhere.

Donald Trump fostered the persona of the strong man restoring American power, pride and traditional values while campaigning for the US presidency in 2016, a narrative he has kept more or less under control during his tumultuous first term in office.

“In less than two years,” he told assembled world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York last week, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country” – the sort of Trump hubris that usually gets cheers and applause.

This time there was just a murmur, to which he responded, “So true”, at which point laughter erupted. Trump paused in surprise. “I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay”, he said. For just a moment he seemed vulnerable, all-too-human. Then he returned to his narrative.

There’s a story around this that has its origins in India 1000 years ago. You may know Hans Christian Andersen’s 1835 version, in which a couple of swindlers, pretending to weave magic clothes that can be seen and felt by all but the gullible and stupid, offer the “clothes” to a king.

Not wanting to appear a dope, the vain king pretends to see the clothes, accepts the swindler’s “gift” and parades in the street. For the same reason street folk accept the tale. But the bubble bursts when an innocent boy declares the king to be naked and (king excepted) everyone falls about laughing

Foolish pride invites ridicule, says the story. It also points out how we can be sucked into accepting as true a narrative that common sense tells us is false.

One such story permeating the politics of many developed countries says that because climate has always changed in the past, we have nothing to fear from climate change now. Most people doubt this but let it ride. They have enough problems without buying into more.

This falsehood, that climate change today should be of no more concern than change in the past, got an airing in Tasmania’s parliament last week.

During debate on emergency management legislation, Greens MP Rosalie Woodruff argued that the bill’s definition of an emergency clearly included today’s climate change, and this required the government to “wake up” and put measures in place to protect people.

Besides coordinated state and local government action to cut emissions, Woodruff advocated establishing “climate change recovery centres” in all regions and informing communities about protection against “increasingly extreme climate change conditions”.

Emergency management minister Michael Ferguson said he had been advised that consequences of climate change were encompassed by the bill, “but we are not seeking to include climate change as a definable event which triggers emergency.”

“I reject any suggestion the Government will take on any liability for climate change. That is not what is going to happen… and we definitely do not accept that at all,” he said.

When Woodruff continued to press her point, Ferguson responded with this: “I thought I was being nice to you about climate change… and said to you that it is real and it is happening and it probably always has. That is what you get for being nice.”

Ferguson’s breezy commentary raises weighty issues. Science is one of his portfolio tasks, so he should be aware that scientific academies around the world, including our own, conclude that today’s rate of change is many times more rapid than anything ever detected in ancient records.

Second, global climate change is not a mere device for “being nice” to someone, but a matter of fact, caused beyond doubt by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

Finally, the Tasmanian government, like every government, is accountable for what is happening to the climate. The longer it delays action the greater the danger to its people and ultimately the risk to governance itself. And the greater its legal liability, despite Ferguson’s contrary view.

The Hodgman government has controlled the climate narrative by avoiding any mention of it and taking no substantial policy steps to curb emissions. When it can’t avoid the c-word it says it is a world leader, a claim based not on emission cuts but on a low level of forest harvesting.

That narrative has held up because it seems like good news, but will collapse when voters are hit with grim reality. It’s significant that in wildfire-ravaged California few people question the role of climate change. The same is starting to happen in drought-stricken inland Australia.

In cool-temperate Tasmania it may be some time before that bridge is crossed. But when it happens – and it will – nobody will be rolling around laughing, and there will be no fairy-tale ending.

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