Well the Heartland Institute is certainly doing its job. The right-wing American think-tank explicitly aims to influence politicians and, while they normally aim at state legislators in the US, doubtless they’d be chuffed that such an influential Australian political figure as Steve Fielding has been giving their climate change scepticism a detailed hearing.

Heartland has extensive links with the tobacco industry and has previously received extensive financial support from Exxon Mobil. The Institute’s sloppy, biased approach to climate change is best summed up by an incident in 2007 when Heartland published on its website “500 Scientists with Documented Doubts of Man-Made Global Warming Scares”.

Dozens of the scientists named on the Heartland list subsequently demanded the removal of their names, saying they had not been contacted by the Institute and had views diametrically opposed to those presented by Heartland.

Heartland refused to remove any names and declared “they have no right — legally or ethically — to demand that their names be removed,” although it did amend the title of the page to “500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares”.

Heartland also typifies the “fallback” approach of climate sceptics — as each aspect of the debate is lost, they fall back to other positions that justify taking no action on climate change.

After decades of rejecting climate altogether — a position still clung to by some local dills — they appear to have reluctantly accepted that some “moderate warming” has occurred but that, variously, either it is nothing to do with human activity — it’s the fault of solar flares (the Fielding argument) or natural climatic variation, or that it is in fact a good thing — a warmer climate will enable people to live longer because old people tend to die in winter, and increase food production in currently hostile northern latitudes.

The fallback argument from that position is, even if humans are responsible for climate change, developed countries should take no action.

In Washington, Fielding attended a conference with the splendidly-named Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner Jr. Sensenbrenner — literally heir to the Kotex fortune — actually agrees that climate change is happening, but isn’t sure how much is caused by humans.

He believes technology will provide the solution (although he thinks regulations for greater fuel efficiency in US vehicles is hurting the American economy) and is in a good position to push that agenda as the lead Republican on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming — although he voted against its establishment.

Sensenbrenner opposes any climate change agreement that doesn’t include China and India and, he told Fielding, the entire issue is about “the Third World using the collective guilt of the First World to have a massive transfer of wealth to help them fund their development.”

Climate scepticism has been enjoying something of a local renaissance, primarily at The Australian, long the house organ of greenhouse denialism, which gave extensive publicity and op-ed support for Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth, although it did run at least one review demolishing Plimer’s sloppy conspiracy theories.

The fallback argument here is the same one that has been trotted out for decades, that there is no scientific consensus on climate change. This “lack of consensus” is best summed up by Tom Baker’s sea-captain in Blackadder, who claimed there was no consensus about how necessary it was for sailing ships to have crews. “All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.”

It was such commitment to balanced coverage that earned Chris Mitchell the fossil fuel lobby’s JN Pierce Award for Media Excellence in coverage of climate change policy.

The refreshing irony of The Australian’s climate scepticism is that it is The Oz which for years has — commendably — railed against the relativism and obscurantism to be found in modern — or should that be post-modern — academia. But when such willingness to debase science, ignore intellectual rigour and elevate all claims to equal status regardless of merit are employed by climate sceptics, they get direct backing on The Oz’s editorial page.

Fortunately Fielding’s solar-flare-powered vote won’t be crucial in the ETS debate. Fielding was never likely to vote with the Government anyway, so his trip to the US looks a lot more like self-promotion than a genuine attempt to enter the debate. He hasn’t explained why he felt it necessary to skip Senate Estimates for the trip, or why he waited until now to apprise himself of the “facts” about climate change.

The ETS will either pass with the support of the Liberals or it will go down with only Labor senators standing up for it.

Peter Fray

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