Why Climate Change Denial Has Nothing to Do With Science and Everything to Do With Politics
It was Australia’s second climate change election. Climate change deposed the former leaders of both main parties: Kevin Rudd (Labor) because his position was too weak, Malcolm Turnbull (Liberals) because his position was too strong. When Julia Gillard, the new Labor leader, also flunked the issue, many of her supporters defected to the Greens.
Labor’s collapse began when the senate rejected Rudd’s emissions trading scheme. Faced with a choice between dissolving parliament and calling an election or dropping the scheme, he chickened out and lost the confidence of the party. Julia Gillard’s support began to slide when she proposed to defer climate change policy to a citizen’s assembly(1). Nearly 70% of the votes she lost went to the Greens(2).
Turnbull, like Rudd, was ousted over the emissions trading scheme, but six months earlier. His support for the scheme split the Liberal party. Just before the first senate vote on the issue, in December last year, he was overthrown by Tony Abbott, who had told his supporters that climate change “is absolute crap”(3). If Abbott manages to form a government, he will reverse the outcome of the 2007 election, in which the Liberal Party was defeated partly because it wouldn’t act on climate change.
It’s not difficult to see why this is a hot issue in Australia. The country has been hammered by drought and bushfires. It also has the highest carbon dioxide emissions per person of any major economy outside the Arabian peninsula. Australians pollute more than Americans, twice as much as people in the UK and four times more than the Chinese(4). Most Australians want to change this, but the coal industry keeps their politicians on a short leash. Like New Labour over here, Rudd and Gillard’s administration was a government of flinchers. It has been punished for appeasing industrial lobbyists and the rightwing press.
Australian politics provides yet more evidence that climate science divides people along political lines. Abbott is no longer an outright denier, though he still insists, in the teeth of the facts, that the world has cooled since 1997(5). Some members of his party go further: Senator Nick Minchin, for example, maintains that “the whole climate change issue is a left-wing conspiracy to deindustrialise the western world”(6). (He has also insisted that cigarettes are not addictive and the link between passive smoking and illness cannot be demonstrated(7)). A recent poll suggests that 38% of politicians in Abbott’s coalition believe that man-made global warming is taking place, by comparison to 89% of Labor’s people(8).
It’s the same story everywhere. At a senatorial hustings in New Hampshire last week, all six Republican candidates denied that man-made climate change is taking place(9). Judging by its recent antics in the Senate and by primary campaigns all over the country, the Republican party appears to be heading towards a unanimous rejection of the science. The ultra-neoliberal Czech president Vaclav Klaus asserts that “global warming is a false myth and every serious person and scientist says so.”(10) The hard-right UK Independence Party may soon be led by Lord Monckton(11), the craziest man in British politics, who claims that action on climate change is a conspiracy to create a communist world government(12). The further to the right you travel, the more likely you are to insist that man-made climate change isn’t happening. Denial has nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics.
In the Telegraph recently, the Conservative Daniel Hannan tried to explain this association. “When presented with a new discovery, we automatically try to press it into our existing belief-system; if it doesn’t fit, we question the discovery before the belief-system.”(13) He’s right. We all do this, and it is also true that in some respects an antagonism to climate science is consistent with right-wing – and especially neoliberal – politics. The philosophy of the new right is summarised by this chilling statement from Vaclav Klaus. “Human wants are unlimited and should stay so.”(14)
But right-wing denial also leads to perverse outcomes. In a desperate attempt to appease the deniers in his party, Malcolm Turnbull proposed handing £70bn to industry to soften the impacts of acting on climate change(15). Rudd’s trading scheme, by contrast, was more or less self-financing. Tony Abbott intends to lavish subsidies on polluting companies without demanding any corresponding obligations(16). State handouts? Rights without responsibilities? When did these become conservative policies?
Since way back. In the US the Republicans also favour green incentives for industry, without caps or regulation. Worldwide, subsidies for fossil fuels are twelve times greater than subsidies for renewable energy(17). Many of the most generous hand-outs are awarded by right-wing governments (think of the money lavished on the oil industry under George W Bush(18)).
Yes, man-made climate change denial is about politics, but it’s more pragmatic than ideological. The politics have been shaped around the demands of industrial lobby groups, which happen, in many cases, to fund those who articulate them. Right-wingers are making monkeys of themselves over climate change not just because their beliefs take precedence over the evidence, but also because their interests take precedence over their beliefs.