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Picking apart the motives and identifying the characters in the climate denial industry is a little bit like sorting through the wreckage of a plane crash. Outdated political ideologies are mangled with vested interests in the carcass of a contorted smashed fuselage. Before the crash, paranoid fears of communists and ‘lefties’ tipped the aircraft’s wings one way as global fossil fuel companies tried desperately to keep the plane on a course to ‘business as usual’.
It’s undoubtedly a messy scene, but it’s one with powerful, wealthy and influential backers, a global network of like-minded think tanks and countless unseen lobbyists.
Climate deniers, sceptics, contrarians, or however else you want to label them, are not a uniform and unified group. Some sceptics deny the world has warmed, refute the impacts of greenhouse gases and try to discredit the science of climate change and the scientists who commit their lives to honest research. Others publicly accept that humans are having an impact on the climate, but argue the effect will be so small, or the cost of taking action so high, that we should instead do nothing. The Australian Coal Association – the industry’s main lobby group – is willing to publicly accept the science and claim action should be taken, while at the same time ramping up the extraction of fossil fuels.
The end result of all of these grades of scepticism, however, is much the same. Policies are delayed, watered down or thrown out, public concern is muted and an anti-science lobby is legitimised and mobilised.
In the absence of risk-laden and unproven climate engineering solutions or the terminally ‘just round the corner’ delivery of carbon capture technologies, accepting the risks of human-caused climate change means having to accept the need to decouple economic growth from rising emissions, or even throwing out the rationale of infinite growth entirely.
Here in Australia, there are a number of think tanks consistently working to undermine climate change science and genuine policy responses. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Melbourne, a ‘free market’ think tank with undisclosed funding sources, has openly acknowledged its role in spreading doubt on climate change. The IPA promotes pseudo-experts while its ‘experts’ are called on to comment continually in mainstream media.
A recent addition to the network of climate denial organisations is the Galileo Movement, with Sydney radio shock-jock Alan Jones as its patron, and conservative columnist Andrew Bolt and a number of contrarian scientists on its advisory panel.
In their world, climate scientists are rent seekers, and human-caused climate change is largely a hoax. Taking action on climate change, according to many ‘free market’ think tanks, is an attack on liberty and freedom. Yet failing to address spiralling emissions of greenhouse gases could eventually deliver the kind of ‘big government’ interventions they fear the most, as societies struggle to cope with social unrest.
Sceptics have recently turned their attention to schoolchildren in the U.S and here in Australia. In November, mining company director Professor Ian Plimer, a favourite of climate sceptic mining magnate Gina Rinehart, published his latest book, How To Get Expelled From School, aimed at students and teachers.
Launched by former Prime Minister John Howard, himself a climate change ‘agnostic’, the book attempts to question every aspect of human-caused climate change, using arguments that have been debunked by genuine climate researchers. Plimer claims schoolchildren are being fed “environmental propaganda” but has failed to provide any evidence.
In the U.S., the unauthorised release of several internal documents from The Heartland Institute, another ‘free market’ think tank, revealed a more ambitious schools project. Heartland has been working for many years to undermine climate change science, thanks in part to funding from foundations and corporations with direct interests in the fossil fuel industries.
In one document, Heartland discusses a plan to create an entire school curriculum, from kindergarten to 12th grade, to teach the ‘controversy’ of human-caused climate change.
The document explains how curriculum modules would teach that climate models are controversial, that categorising CO2 as a pollutant is controversial, and how the entire scientific basis for understanding humans’ impact on the climate is still a “major scientific controversy”.
Back in the world of physical science, after the world’s warmest decade on record, the real controversy is not the existence of human-caused climate change at all. This is backed by decades of peer-reviewed research, tirelessly and diligently tested through multiple lines of evidence.
The genuine controversy is around the well-funded and relentless campaign of misinformation, deception and misrepresentation. How history will see those who orchestrated and funded this campaign is less important than the present-day campaign to reveal and challenge it.
Graham Readfearn is a Brisbane-based journalist who writes and blogs regularly about sustainability. His latest bugbear is the power of the climate sceptic.