I’m glad that Guy Pearse raised the question: “What turned the Liberal Party off Climate Change?” but it wouldn’t be quite fair if readers or voters gained the impression that the Liberal Party had any kind of monopoly on this topic in 1990.

On the contrary, it was the Hawke Labor government that, in October 1990, set Australia a mandatory target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2005. (Instead, we have had an average, annual, 3.2% increase in fossil fuel emissions during the 1990s and 1.92% a year since then, according to unpublished CSIRO data) 

Yes, we once embraced that outrageous notion (the one that is “against our national interest” etc), of mandatory targets to stop loading the atmosphere with more and more greenhouse gases. And it was a bipartisan embrace with every state and territory as well as the federal government and as we see, the federal Liberal Party, adopting an action plan.

Amazingly, no-one was questioning whether humans were responsible. Everyone knew they were. By 1991, the Australian and New Zealand state and federal environment ministers reviewed the action plans. They wrote a report that was equally remarkable given this last decade’s political mantra of ‘can’t do’.

They concluded that “the proposed reduction target was achievable through energy efficiency and renewable energy options and fuel substitution” (read natural gas). We knew this and nobody was laughing.

We thought it was ethical and prudent to take action. The documentary evidence – dozens of government documents, scores of newspaper articles – all tell the same story. We also knew about the nuclear option and the need for cleaner coal technology. 

The basic science on the cause and impacts of climate change hasn’t changed since the first IPCC report in 1990. In fact the language was clear and direct, compared with some of the later efforts.

The Liberal Party brochure that Pearse dug up was a very effective example of just how far we could have come by now, but for a real lesson in nostalgia, have a look at this article from a 1980 edition of Australian Playb*y to see that climate change is not a new revelation:

Overseas and Australian scientists, like Graeme Pearman, have been talking about the risks for 20 years and longer — and in the late 1980s policy-makers appeared to be really listening. 

And here’s the clincher as we wind down to the next federal election: we knew in 1990 the cost of ‘business as usual’: the first IPCC science review told governments that doing nothing to stop emissions between 1990 and 2010 would lead to an additional 0.7 degrees of warming this century.

What happened? Well, many things — corporate fight-back, sceptics, atmospheric scientists using more guarded language in the public arena.

But mainly it came down to three things: political leadership, ideology and the successful way the public was fed a new narrative.

Maria Taylor is researching communications of climate change over the past 20 years in Australia at the ANU Centre for Public Awareness of Science.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.