It’s been fascinating to watch climate change emerge again as a political issue in the US, with President Barack Obama taking potshots at Republican Tea Party favourite and presidential candidate Rick Perry over his denial of climate science.
“You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change,” Obama said this week, revelling in the opportunity of engaging a debate he might actually win. Perry’s camp said the jibe was outrageous. But such was the impact that most US political commentators agreed on one thing: climate change is now back on the political agenda, and will be a key battleground in the 2012 presidentials.
All three Republicans-most likely — Perry, Michelle Bachmann and Mitt Romney — have expressed doubts about the scientific consensus, but Perry has been the most outspoken, accusing scientists of fixing data to help secure funding and seeking to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating emissions. Salon.com noted the irony that for the first time a wildfire erupted within a major city — in the George Bush Park in Houston, the headquarters of the nation’s fossil-fuel industry.
There has been no such striking symbolism in Australia. Even though Australia rivals the US as a hotbed of climate sceptics, the conservatives here have been trying to bury it as a public issue, and it doesn’t even rate a mention in the 34 pages of talking points produced to guide Liberal and National Party MPs on how to demonise the carbon-pricing legislation. And why would it, considering the Coalition has its own plan to reduce emissions by 5% below 1990 levels by 2020 and officially accepts the science?
Well, the answer to that can be found in Hansard. It’s just too dammed hard to keep good sceptics down, especially when there is such fertile material to be gleaned from your favourite sceptics and denialists websites. And party discipline is just not what it used to be.
In the recent parliamentary debate on the Clean Energy Future package, Barnaby Joyce — a noted sceptic — couldn’t help ridiculing the idea of redesigning the economy on a “colourless odourless gas”, South Australian Senator Sean Edwards said reducing emissions wouldn’t lower temperatures for 1000 years, Queensland MP Bertie van Manen said temperatures had fallen since 1998 while Co2 levels rose, and Queensland Senator Ian Macdonald poked fun at Tim Flannery for having a riverside house on the Hawkesbury while warning of rising sea levels.
And Macdonald went on: “I should remind (Labor) Senator (Mark) Furner that his side does not talk about global warming any more. It is climate change, remember, because the science these days is showing that any increase in temperature is minimal, if it is there. I understand the accepted science now is that the temperature over the last decade really has not increased at all.”
The NSW Senator John (Wacka) Williams, the Nationals Whip in the Senate went further: “I totally believe in climate change. In fact, I believe the climate has been changing for millions of years. Just recently I was fortunate to spend three days at Airlie Beach, in the Whitsunday Islands, only to discover that 18,000 years ago the Whitsunday Islands were actually part of the Australian mainland because the sea levels were so low and that, 10,000 years ago, the globe warmed, the ice melted on the mainland and the seas rose and, hence, we now call them the Whitsunday Islands. The climate changed. What caused that climate change? What caused the globe to warm back then, Mr Acting Deputy President? Was it hoons in V8 Mustangs, putting out carbon dioxide and chucking wheelies? No, they did not exist then. Perhaps it was coal-fired generators.”
And on Tuesday this week, South Australian Liberal Senator Corey Bernardi in a blog hopefully titled “Is scepticism back in fashion?” again was railing against the “futile” policies of “prophets of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” and the “gospel of environmentalism”.
Liberal MP Dennis Jensen is equally hostile — describing climate change science as a “work of fiction” and policies as “worldwide economic sacrifices at the altar of the god of climate change”.
Go back further into Hansard and press clippings and you find Liberal MP Luke Simpkins borrowing Alan Jones’ line about Australian emissions representing 0.0000002% of the atmosphere, Liberal MP Patrick Secker saying more people will die from global cooling, Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield describing proponents of an ETS of having a a theological approach to discussion “more suited to an inquisition”, Nationals Senator Ron Boswell describing the science as fraudulent, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz questioning the science and promoting a bogus petition of 31,000 “climate scientists”, and Liberal frontbencher Andrew Robb telling the AFR that global warming is just a leftist fad. Nationals MP John Cobb, and Liberal MPs Bob Baldwin, John Cobb and Bronwyn Bishop have also questioned whether the mainstream science has got it right.
The NSW Liberal MP Johanna Gash, one of her party’s appointees to the joint committee reviewing the Clean Energy Future package, is a fan of arch denialist Ian Plimer — “It makes for very interesting and illuminating reading” — she said of his book in 2009. Another appointee to the committee, George Christensen, who won the Queensland seat of Dawson for the Nationals in 2010, said in his maiden speech to parliament last year that the “science is not settled”.
And then, of course, there is Tony Abbott, the Coalition leader who once said the science is crap and has never really sounded convincing in claiming he’s changed his mind.
But this is not merely a game of pinning the tail on the donkey. This is a serious issue for Australian business, because the passage of the carbon price legislation by the end of the year will likely encourage domestic and international corporates to finally push the button on billions of dollars of investment — mostly in energy generation but also elsewhere — that has been held up while the fate of the carbon price remained unclear.
The Labor Party is going to great lengths to ensure that the carbon pricing legislation and the permits are “indefeasible” — which makes it extremely hard, and costly, to unwind.
Abbott has committed his party to repealing the legislation should it win government (as the polls currently suggest is likely) in 2013 and trying to estimate the depth and breadth of the Tea Party rump in a Coalition government will be a critical consideration for some investment multibillion-dollar investment decisions.
The quotes included above suggest at least a quarter of the Coalition members fall into that camp. The reality is that it might be closer to 40%. Take that into consideration with the results of the party vote when Abbott took the leadership from Malcolm Turnbull — the pro-Abbott camp, led by the climate denialist Nick Minchin, gained 35 votes, while the rest (49) were split evenly between Turnbulll and Joe Hockey. That first round vote was considered an informal on whether you accepted the science on not — if you didn’t, you voted for Abbott. If you did, you chose Turnbull or Hockey.
Abbott’s decision to send two sceptics out of five appointees to the joint committee looking at the CEF package may be a fair reflection of his party make-up. His ability to repeal the carbon price will depend on how many of his party faithful support his original proposition that the science is crap, because the Direct Action policy is untenable to anyone who thinks otherwise.
*This article first appeared on Climate Spectator