What Australia knew about #climate change… and buried (Book Review)

When PhD candidates review a book in ‘their field’ they face multiple dilemmas. If the book isn’t helpful to their research, they’ll be tempted (fairly or unfairly) to be dismissive. It’s too helpful, they’ll be resentful because someone else has Gotten To Their Topic first. And regardless, they may feel tempted (or scared) to slag the book off, in order to make a name for themselves by cutting down a tall poppy.

taylorcoverI’m a PhD candidate, and my topic covers “Global Warming and Climate Change: what Australia knew and buried … then framed a new reality for the public”, which is the title of a new book by Maria Taylor, published by Australian National University Press.

And… (pause for comedic effect)….

This is a good book, but not too good, and it deserves a wide readership.

As Taylor points out

Australia is exceptional amongst countries, thanks to policy decisions to focus the national economy on mineral and coal exports, and ‘cheap’ electricity production for the domestic market and to attract energy-intensive multinational industries like aluminium. With this narrative, Australia was reconstructing its social reality in the 1990s.
(page 3)

Taylor covers the period 1987 (when the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation [CSIRO] got together with the “Commission for the Future” and set up the short-lived “Greenhouse Project”, which educated policy-makers and the public about climate change, hosted workshops for insurers and manufacturers and so on) through to 2001, with the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the American exit from the Kyoto Protocol process and the final Australian retreat into recalcitrance, selfishness and stupidity (a stance it has re-adopted, after a brief period of making the ‘right’ noises.).

This fifteen years was an (in)action-packed time, full of high hopes, low cunning and frustration for everyone except the coal exporters and their supporters.  Australian “commitment” probably peaked in October 1990, with the Cabinet decision to aim for a 20% reduction of C02 emissions by 2005 (as long as other advanced industrial states followed suit and the economy wasn’t affected (!)).

What happened in the 1990s? Most dramatically, the fossil fuel and allied industries got into gear. The momentum to support and expand the existing fossil fuel economy was boosted by neo-liberal think tanks and insistent sceptics, in sympathy with free market economic ideology. They mounted a potent and high-level lobbying campaign aimed at federal politicians. Coal, oil, natural gas and other extractive industries, along with other multinational corporations, such as the energy-intensive aluminium smelting industry, got organised and exerted considerable influence on government, particularly after 1995 (Hamilton 2001; Pearse 2007).

Taylor tells the story well, and alongside time in the newspaper archives, has interviewed a bunch of interesting people (journalists, scientists and academics). She seems not to have had access to some of the more interesting ones (Barry Jones, Science Minister until 1990; Mark Diesendorf), or some of the Environment Ministers (Graham Richardson, Ros Kelly, John Faulkner, Robert Hill.)
Nonetheless are some knock-out quotes from her interviewees. Environmental consultant Alan Pears told her that Australia during the 1990s and into the mid-2000s experienced an ‘almost complete policy failure’ in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We know how to make cuts in every sector, some demonstrably successful. But there are powerful economic groups and narrow theorists and nervous politicians believing that environmental action will hurt the economy. It’s been a brilliant PR strategy, and it’s left the community confused and disempowered. These beliefs are based on interpretations of crude economic modelling and reinforced by the preconception that you help either the environment or the economy.”
(page 100)

Another Alan: Alan Tate, ABC environment reporter 1990s tells her that “[I]t was the biggest, most powerful spin campaign in Australian media history—the strategy was to delay action on greenhouse gas emissions until ‘coal was ready’—with geo-sequestration (burying carbon gases) and tax support. (page 103) He tells Taylor that the strategy seems to be

“First sow seeds of doubt about the science — make it a nonsense. Say let’s not be part of the Kyoto Protocol — it’s too little anyway. Then say OK we’ve got a techno fix, geo-sequestration and nuclear. Ignore energy efficiency and renewables, why bother, those are green issues, it’s all marginal. The Oz main game is coal and cheap energy. “ (page 122)

Taylor is good on (the lack of) environmental values generally, but could have made more of the Dunlap and McCright notion of “anti-reflexivity” and how it plays out in the Australian context (she comes close to this on pages 80-84). Reference to “Terror Management Theory” and old white conservative types may have helped too. She’s also good on the silencing of Australian scientists, who mostly seem to have retreated from the fray under organised attack from pro-fossil individuals and groups (and are nowadays getting death threats).

What’s missing
Agnotology – “the creation of ignorance” is a missing concept (and while on the missing concepts –  Chomsky gets a citation, it’s not for the work on “manufacturing consent” that he did with Ed Herman.)
* The American connection – links between American denialists (at, say, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Frontiers of Freedom) and the Australians such as the late lamentable Ray Evans, and his boss Hugh Morgan (an important figure who appear on only two pages of Taylor’s narrative).
* Environmental social movements are largely absent. (Australian Conservation Foundation, The Wilderness Society, the Friends of the Earth Australia etc)  For a detailed account of precisely this period see Joan Staples’ very interesting PhD thesis. For an excellent broader overview, see Hutton and Connors (1999) History of the Australian Environment Movement
* Trades Unions. The ACTU’s 1991-2 “The Greenhouse effect: employment & development issues for Australians” is a fascinating historical document, as is the United Mineworkers Federation’s co-sponsorship – along with the Australian Coal Association, BHP etc – of a report saying that doing anything about climate change would cost gazillions of jobs-  (Garran, R. (1992) Suffocating under greenhouse tax Australian Financial Review 6th February)

* (More) detail and examples of the specific campaigns run by the Minerals lobby (AMIC/MCA) and the ideologues (Institute of Public Affairs). Some of that detail is included in Bob Burton’s masterful “Inside Spin”.
* Hard numbers on public opinion (see McAllister, I. and Studlar, D. (1993) Trends in Public Opinion on the Environment in Australia International Journal of Public Opinion research Vol 5, (4) 353-361; Crook, S. and Pakulski, J. (1995) Shades of Green: Public Opinion on Environmental issues in Australia Australian Journal of Political Science Vol 30, pp. 39-55.)
For example, in November 1997 poll conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald found that
90 per cent of Australians are either “concerned” or “very concerned” about the environmental effects of global warming in Australia.
* 83 per cent believe global warming is a serious threat to humans and the environment.
* 79 per cent feel that Australia should join other developed nations in signing a treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
* 68 per cent say the Government’s concern that a treaty will cause Australia to suffer economically should not stop it signing.  (Hogarth, M. (1997) PM Out Of Step On Greenhouse Sydney Morning Herald 26th November)

Indeed, there seems to be a partial elision in Taylor’s work between public concern and political power, with a lack of the latter being seen as indicative of the former. But given Keating’s decision to tack away from ‘green’ voters back to the ‘heartland’ of Labour support, the silence of the trades unions (other battles to fight – Workplace Relations Act (1996) etc,) the aforementioned weakness/”trees” focus of social movements (something Taylor touches on) it is unsurprising that there is a gap between what the public said they wanted and what they actually got

* Timelines of the ebbs and flows of policy-making, external pressures and internal bun fits.

The biggest “short-coming” of the book (note the quote marks ) is that it doesn’t offer up (“normative”) ideas what to do. Clearly, in the absence of a time machine we can’t change the past. However, we can learn from it, with enough courage and clarity. Taylor begins her book with the observation that

“ If we don’t understand where we have been, how public understanding can be reframed and manipulated and, indeed, how that was the story in Australia and in other Western democracies in the 1990s, it will remain easy to confuse the public and hard to move forward.” (page xiii)

But doesn’t offer up any specific suggestions. While it is true (spoiler alert: closing words of the book) that “Effective action on climate change will start when society decides that things can be handled differently, as they once were” it would have been interesting to hear Taylor’s views on how society might come to decide that, and what things might be handled differently, and how.

Verdict: All Australians who care about how we got “here” (very bad place) after what was a promising start in the late 80s/early 90s, should read this book. And share it with Australians who don’t.  This horrendoma is too big and metastatic to be left to only those who care.


Btw, a selection of resources I find useful (there are other folks too)

Reneweconomy (careful of their fondness for “grid parity” as a panacea though)
The Australia Institute
The Saturday Paper and the Monthly
Anything by Guy Pearse or Mike Seccombe
Guardian Australia – Lenore Taylor has been on this beat for almost 20 years, and knows what she is writing about
Graham Redfearn
Oliver Milman

For perspectives on Australian Climate Policy – Peter Christoff, Hayley Stevenson

Other books people might want to read on this topic
Hamilton, C. (2001) Running from the Storm
Hamilton, C. (2007) Scorcher
Pearse, G. (2007) High and Dry
Chubb, P. (2014) Power Failure


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