The Dirty Politics of Climate Change


Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change is the kind of  book that changes the terms of the conversation. It reveals a shadowy world of lobbyists and skeptics, spin and hidden agendas. It tells the story of how and why the Howard Government has been so slow to acknowledge climate change and why they’re still reluctant to take real action even now.

Its author, Clive Hamilton, is the Executive Director of the Australian Institute, an independent, Left-leaning public policy research centre. He has published a number of books concerned with the analysis of Australian social and ethical development.

New Matilda ‘s Sallie Don spoke with Hamilton earlier this week.

New Matilda : Your book is a very good case study of how the Howard Government controls and manipulates social agendas.

It is a good case study. It’s quite possible that teachers of politics courses in Australian universities might use it not only as a study of climate change politics, but also as an insight into how Canberra works. It really does give you the full story on how issues are controlled and lets you see the politicking that goes on behind closed doors. It’s a pretty scary story.

The book also shows how easily the Government and corporations have changed scientific evidence to suit their needs.

Yes, I think that even now even after the climate-change debate has turned so sharply we still see influential people trying to play down the science and essentially sending the message that there’s not all that much to worry about.

It’s quite striking, the indefatigable nature of the climate change deniers and skeptics. I think it’s because they get a lot of power and support not just from industry, but from government too. We know that there are people within the most senior ranks of the Howard Government who simply don’t accept the science of climate change. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Finance Minister Nick Minchin, of course and I think the Prime Minister himself still doesn’t accept it. I think Howard’s now been forced to acknowledge it for political reasons, but I think that in his heart he still doesn’t believe that climate change is real.

The Government’s action on climate change indicates no real forward thinking for a sustainable future. Surely the examples of drought and natural disaster are obvious indicators even without the scientific evidence that there is a very real problem here and that something needs to be done about it.

What we’ve seen from the Prime Minister and Government generally, are attempts to deal with some of the impacts of climate change by talking about adaptation instead of tackling the problem at the source. We have $10 billion and an appeal to pray from the Prime Minister, yet no action on cutting our greenhouse emissions. It’s absolutely bizarre. It’s a bit like someone getting a serious life threatening illness and the Prime Minister saying that all we need to do is mop his brow and pray for good health, rather than giving him a life saving injection.

You argue that the Howard Government has been forced to acknowledge the issue of climate change for political reasons and that, coming up to the next Federal election, anything they do now is relatively hollow.

They’ve spun the issue and dissembled and misled the public for 11 years and now they realise that they’re in political trouble. Climate change could cost them the election.

They have to manage the issue in a different way. They can’t just fob off concerns and come out with some hastily put together programs that fool no one. They have to appear to be taking it very seriously. Even the business community has now markedly turned. A whole swag of corporations that didn’t take notice of climate change before now recognise it as an important issue that the Government must do something about.

So, what the Government is attempting to do, and will do, is manage the issue just enough to give the impression to the public and the business community the non-fossil business sector that they’re doing something about it, without really pushing the issue hard and making serious inroads into the real problem.

What do you make of the business community getting behind climate change. Take ‘Earth Hour‘ we saw business and media backing the event, but it seemed fairly tokenistic. Is this kind of thing really showing a step forward?

This is a bit tricky. The fact that the media has suddenly realised that this is a huge issue has been enormously gratifying for people like me, who’ve been raising the alarm for a decade or more. Finally, the editors seem to have gotten it that it’s a crucially important issue and that Australians agree and are therefore willing to consume media which deals with the climate change issue.

There is going to be an enormous number of symbolic acts. People want to do something and they feel a need to demonstrate that. My view is that we shouldn’t be fooled any longer with the argument that, if we all do our own individual bit, we can tackle this problem. This approach of ‘Green consumerism’ and voluntary programs with business is a fraud it will only have a marginal impact on our greenhouse emissions. It’s a way for the Federal Government to shift responsibility from itself onto the shoulders of individuals.

So really, the only actions that is going to work is political action that’s going to compel the political Parties, and particularly the Government, to introduce really serious, long-term measures to cut our carbon emissions. It’s very important that individuals take action in their own lives, but it’s more important for people to act politically and insist that our Government does what’s needed.

You talk a lot about climate change skeptics creating studies or twisting evidence to divert from the overriding scientific consensus that greenhouse emissions will impact on our future. You say that their basic argument is that the greenhouse debate and working towards a sustainable future is ‘anti-capitalist.’

I think that this has been the biggest obstacle. Certain conservative forces in government, business and within the media, particularly the Murdoch press, have taken the view that environmentalism is the political successor to socialism. Of course, some of the more radical environmentalists do claim that environmentalism is intrinsically hostile to capitalism.

Many years ago, these conservative forces took the view that environmentalism was the new enemy. Because they took such an ideological stance they decided that the science must be wrong, debunked and attacked at every possible turn. This is an enormous thing to do, given the weight of scientific evidence. In the end the skeptics and deniers have lost because the science became overwhelming persuasive.

And they’ve been very effective at delaying action. From the outset, their whole strategy has been, quite explicitly, ‘We must sow doubt in the minds of the public about this problem,’ in much the same way as the tobacco companies did with the links between smoking and cancer.

Are you at all concerned about reaction to this book? It’s a fairly stark review of the behaviour of some of the members of the Howard Government and some corporations.

Well yes, it really makes a strong moral case against those in Government and business who have held back action on climate change for a decade. I think they need to be held to account. I think what they’ve done has been despicable. Given what we know about the science and the human impacts of climate change, millions of people are going to d
ie. And yet these people have in full knowledge of the science delayed action and talked it down and actually set out to stop the world tackling this problem.

It’s contemptible politics and it’s hard to be dispassionate when the stakes are so high. I hope that this book will help establish an historical record. I think that come the middle of this century, when people look back and wonder why world leaders didn’t act to prevent this or at least mitigate the impacts of climate change, the public will want to know why it wasn’t done and who was responsible. That’s why it was important in this book to name the names and point out exactly what they’ve done.

To listen to a brief lecture from Clive Hamilton on this topic, please click here

Clive Hamilton will be giving a series of lectures on climate change:

Melbourne: 6:30pm Thursday, 26 April
University of Melbourne, Royal Parade, Parkville
Tickets: $5/$10, available at all Readings shops. Phone: 03 9347 6633.

Brisbane: 6:30pm Tuesday, 1 May
with Professor Ian Lowe, President of the Australian Conservation Fund,
The Queensland Irish Club,171 Elizabeth St, Brisbane
Tickets: $16/$14. Phone: 07 3229 4677

Perth: 7:30pm Wednesday, 2 May
University of Western Australia, Social Sciences Lecture Theatre,
Tickets: $24. Phone: 08 6488 2433 or

Canberra: 6:30pm Tuesday, 8 May
ANU, Lecture Theatre 1, Manning Clarke Centre, Union Court, This lecture is free and open to the public. Phone: 02 6125 4144 or

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