It unfolded in the manner of a Blackadder scene. “Denier,” said Julia Gillard, referring not to hosiery but to Tony Abbott’s stance on climate science. Christopher Pyne rose, almost speechless with indignation, to deny the denial. “It’s unparliamentary and offensive,” Pyne insisted, on the basis that whatever anyone else thought, he made the connection between any use of the word “denier” and the Holocaust. As attracted as he must have been to the prospect of running parliament based on what goes on inside Pyne’s head, Speaker Harry Jenkins was having none of it — he denied Pyne’s “denier” denial.

If only we were in Egypt.

Pyne — such a dogged advocate for a traditional curriculum — alas might need to brush up on his history. The Holocaust is not the only genocide linked to denialism, sadly. Denialism of the Armenian genocide still plagues Turkey’s relations with the West. Indeed, there’s a specific EU law that bans both denial of the Holocaust and of the Armenian atrocity.

In fact many scholars argue denial is the key, final stage of genocide. George Orwell was amongst the earliest to spot this, noting how socialists and fascists were able to ignore Nazi and Soviet mass murder camps:

“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

And the suggestion that “denier” or “denialist” is a word now reserved exclusively for references to genocides presumably comes as a shock to AIDS specialists and activists, who for decades have been battling AIDS denialism, a quite specific and long-standing mindset that rejects, in the face of all evidence, the link between HIV and AIDS, at a potentially terrible cost to human life.

Further, alas, the word has spread to other usages as well. Pyne might want to upbraid his fellow conservative, UK chancellor George Osborne, who last year attacked UK Labour’s “deficit deniers”.

The problem is that those who reject climate science can’t, as much as most of them would protest, be accurately labeled as sceptics. Scepticism connotes a healthy willingness to be convinced if the evidence is sufficient, whereas of course no amount of evidence will ever convince critics of climate science, even as the evidence mounts and the numbers remorselessly add up to a warming planet. They’ll explain them away, make up their own data, reformat their graphs and cherrypick whatever data or explanations they can find — exactly as AIDS denialists and genocide denialists do.

Is Tony Abbott a climate denialist? Well, it’s hard to know, as I noted recently when I had him debate himself over the matter. Worse, Abbott’s constant self-debating hasn’t stopped. In the confines of parliament house, Abbott insists to his colleagues climate change is real and humans contribute to it. But take him outside Canberra, and he starts insisting “the science isn’t settled” and that carbon dioxide may not be the “environmental villain that some people make it out to be”.

That of course goes beyond the last refuge of the denialist — admitting warming is happening but insisting humans aren’t responsible for it — to denying the entire basis of climate science altogether. Then again, as Abbott himself famously admitted, when he’s placed under pressure he starts making things up.

What’s worse: a denialist clinging to a belief in the face of all evidence, or a weathervane on the most important long-term issue facing Australia?

It’s the reason why, as Essential Research’s poll showed this week, nearly two-thirds of voters think Abbott doesn’t want to do anything about climate change, or have no idea what he does want to do.

The reason for being so emphatically not a denialist in the party room is because Abbott correctly wants to keep the focus off the climate science and on things like Great Big New Taxes and Julia Gillard’s very real broken commitment on a carbon tax.

In which case, he might want to have a word with Pyne about spending an extended period in question time drawing attention to it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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