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Nov 6, 2013

Why understanding John Howard's climate cognition is important

John Howard’s speech overnight justifying his commitment to emissions trading as a mostly political move should not serve as a moment to disparage the former PM, but to think like him.

In reading about John Howard’s speech delivered yesterday that downplayed the threat of dangerous global warming — entitled “One religion is enough” — one has to despair about the politics surrounding the issue.

As the title of the speech implies, Howard suggests that those advocating decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are akin to religious zealots. He suggests the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change incorporated “nakedly political agendas” in its advice. And the former prime minister states that his decision to proceed with an emissions trading scheme was driven by political imperatives to respond to a perfect storm of public concern about global warming, rather than any genuine belief of his own that it was the right thing to do.

For those concerned that unmitigated global warming poses unacceptable risks to human welfare, it might be tempting to launch a tirade of abuse against Howard. But it will get you nowhere — and will in fact be counter-productive.

Howard is a hero to a large section of Coalition MPs and their supporter base. To make meaningful progress on reducing Australia’s emissions we need policy that can support power generation investments lasting multiple decades. That means policy that will last through changes in government between Labor and Liberal.

So it’s not so much about belittling Howard, as getting into his head and those of his supporters to understand what it is that makes him and them dismissive of the risks of global warming. There were a few things I found interesting from his speech in trying to understand where he’s coming from.

Firstly, he sees addressing global warming as being opposed to economic growth, and that it would hinder the alleviation of poverty in the developing world. Secondly, he said the first book he’d read about global warming was one written by a former Margaret Thatcher government minister with no qualifications in climate science that was dismissive of the threat. It’s reported he said:

“I don’t know whether all of the warnings about global warming are true or not … I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated.”

This seems to suggest to me that his views, like those of most people, are not based on a detailed and dispassionate review of the balance of evidence. Most of us, and particularly a former prime minister, are too busy to thoroughly inform ourselves about the nature of a complex issue such as global warming. Instead, we are partly driven in essence to “instinctively” select sources of information which fit with our pre-existing beliefs. A source of information we tend to agree with on other issues is probably viewed as more credible and trustworthy than someone we’ve disagreed with in the past.

Thirdly, he made the following revealing statement:

“I have never rejected, totally, the multiple expressions of concern from many eminent scientists, but the history of  mankind has told me of his infinite capacity to adapt to the changing circumstances of the environment in which he lives. Most in this room with recall the apocalyptic warnings of the Club of Rome, more than 40 years ago. They were experts; they predicted that the world would run out of resources to sustain itself. They were wrong.”

And he concludes with a point which I find profoundly important to this debate:

“Always bear in mind that technology will continue to surprise us.”

Looking through Howard’s points I am struck by the fact that, while I strongly disagree with Howard on the degree of threat posed by global warming, I am completely in accordance with him on both the importance of relieving poverty in the developing world, and the infinite capacity for human ingenuity to invent technologies that get us not just out of a bind, but overall, leaving us much better off. I, just like Howard, am not particularly worried about peak oil or running out of resources because I think humans can come up with substitutes and means of being much more efficient in our use of resources.

The thing is that I think that Howard actually underestimates the capacity for technological surprise. He has been drawn to believe that only with the use of lots more coal and lots more gas will the masses be dragged out of poverty.

It seems Howard and many of his conservative peers have come to see the debate surrounding global warming through the prism of older battles led by left-leaning hippies for us to retreat from technology. Yet many of the people who are most passionate about addressing global warming are also some of the most enthusiastic about the wonders of technology. These people will revel in different technological features of our energy options and enthusiastically tell you about what scientific advances are in the pipeline.

Yes some of these options cost more, but these technological enthusiasts will point at mobile phones and computers and explain how they used to be expensive too. Through the wonders of economies of scale and ongoing innovation they explain how these products could even be cheaper than the low-tech, high-carbon option dominant today.

I suspect that to shift the current political impasse it is not scientists, environmentalists, or even economists or bankers we need to hear from. Instead, it is optimistic and innovative engineers that could be most persuasive.

*This article was originally published at Climate Spectator

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107 comments

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107 thoughts on “Why understanding John Howard’s climate cognition is important

  1. Peter Bayley

    To sum up the wizened, dessicated little coconut… “She’ll be right, mate”

  2. leon knight

    Getting inside the head of the climate sceptic/LNP supporter (generally one and the same) is difficult, but I agree that is what is needed.

    They have a clear vision of their grandchildren struggling to pay off an awful Labor debt, but no understanding of how those grandchildren might struggle with irreversible climate change….how to convince them to chart a careful course just in case their scepticism proves to be wrong 50 years down the track?

  3. Jimmy

    Howards positions that action of climate change will stifle economic growth and that “technology will continue to surprise us.” seem contradictory. He seems to think technology can overcome the effects of climate change but not sustain economic growth while preventing it.

  4. Jimmy

    Also it is telling that Tony Abbott sees Howard as his mentor – and that for both of them a position on climate change is wholly political.

  5. @chrispydog

    Irrationality is not just a conservative thing.

    Ironically, many on the green left “do a Howard” when the likes of James Hansen et al tell them solar and wind will not provide enough power to replace fossil fuels and nuclear must do the heavy lifting.

    Deniers, deniers everywhere, and none will stop to think.

  6. Dogs breakfast

    The reality, and this has been a much studied phenomena of recent times, that no amount of facts will change a person’s mind, and the heaping of facts upon someone showing their thinking to be backward only entrenches the in their position.

    The deniers are just today’s luddites.

    The belief that technology will save the day is just another intergenerational inequity that the conservatives seem unable to comprehend. The growth for all mantra denies the simple mathematical reality that growth cannot continue forever.

    Mr Knight (2) suggests that they understand that paying off an awful Labor debt shows a clear vision of the inter-generational thing, but I doubt that is at the core of their motive. If the coalition were at all concerned they might have put a few bob away during the boom years rather than pee it up against the wall as they did. No, the ‘good economic managers’ myth has no substance.

    Education won’t work, and Howard was yesterday’s man whenhe was elected. Today he only wishes he was yesterday’s man.

  7. Jimmy

    Chrispydog – many on the Green left are not the Prime Minister of the country!

    Currently we have a situation where many in the conservative govt have views that are at odds with the vast majority of the credible scientific community and those that do agree that climate change is real hold a view on dealing with it that is at odds with the vast majority of the credible economic community.

    This is hardly comparable to the views on the left (that aren’t in a position to make policy) that renewables could not replace fossil fuels (after all Howard himself said “technology will continue to surprise us.”)

  8. David Hand

    It’s refreshing to see a contributor writing in Crikey without the smart-arsed moral superiority I am used to – as illustrated by the comments already posted.

    I would point out however that your observation that “Most of us, … are too busy to thoroughly inform ourselves about the nature of a complex issue such as global warming. Instead, we are partly driven in essence to “instinctively” select sources of information which fit with our pre-existing beliefs.” is a characteristic of humanity, not a symptom of right-of centre views. This is in my view the central failure of the climate lobby and why it can’t shake off the pejorative insult of being a religion.

    The other point I take issue with is that it is not Howard’s belief “that only with the use of lots more coal and lots more gas will the masses be dragged out of poverty”, it is what is actually happening today. Asia, and particularly China and India, are building coal fired power stations at a huge rate. The introduction of electricity to those huge societies is the greatest single contributor to absolute greenhouse emissions today and also to the alleviation of poverty.

    I think Howard sees the potential for much more innovative solutions than a blind commitment to coal.

  9. Jimmy

    Dogs Breakfast- I thkn technolocgy will save the day, we just need to create an environment in which investing in creating greener technology is economically beneficial – a price on carbon does that – direct ation does not.

  10. Jimmy

    DAvid Hand – “The other point I take issue with is that it is not Howard’s belief “that only with the use of lots more coal and lots more gas will the masses be dragged out of poverty”, it is what is actually happening today.” That doesn’t mean that such an event is exclusively related to coal and gas.

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