Propaganda often works through fabrications so audacious that opponents are left shell-shocked and unable to respond. This technique has been adopted by Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his frequent claim that Australia is ‘leading the world’ in the response to the climate crisis.
To counter the widespread view at home and abroad that Australia is a pariah nation in global efforts to tackle global warming, the Federal Government has relentlessly campaigned to persuade voters that the opposite is the case. To succeed, it must somehow undo the hold of the facts, and for every fact it has developed a counter-position.
The first fact that had to be countered was that Australia did extraordinarily well out of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1997. After playing diplomatic hardball, Australia was conceded a very generous deal at the Kyoto Conference. Environment Minister Robert Hill, who led our delegation, was feted by his colleagues; indeed, he received a standing ovation at the first Cabinet meeting after his return.
Yet the Howard Government soon began to transform an agreement that it hailed as a great victory into a bad deal that would wreck the Australian economy. This repudiation of a gift from the rest of the world created widespread resentment, and a deep unease among an Australian public proud of its progressive international reputation.
The desire to counter the lingering smell left by its repudiation of Kyoto led to the formation in 2005 of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, known as AP6.
Although pushed by the USA and Australia as an alternative to Kyoto, AP6 was soon seen as a smokescreen to obscure our withdrawal from global citizenship. The deception was exposed from the outset by US Republican Senator John McCain, tipped by many to be the next Republican Presidential candidate, who described it as ‘nothing more than a nice little public relations ploy.’
The Government’s various voluntary greenhouse programs with industry also fit the criteria of publicity stunts with no real effect. When, early in its term, the Government commissioned a review of its flagship Greenhouse Challenge Program, the results showed that only a sixth of the emission cuts claimed for the program were real. Now the Government refuses to allow any independent scrutiny of its programs.
Yet it has continued to proclaim that it has ‘world-leading’ greenhouse programs. The only policy that has had a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, which led to an investment boom in wind power has been scrapped, with a senior Minister privately describing it as ‘too successful.’
The comprehensive failure of the Howard Government to take effective measures to cut Australia’s emissions is well-understood by experts and policy makers abroad. When a team of German researchers asked hundreds of experts around the world to score industrialised countries according to their commitment to tackle climate change, Australia ranked third last, with only the USA and Canada doing worse.
But we need not rely on expert testimony to disprove the level of Howard Government fabrication. There is a simple and incontrovertible test of whether Australia is a world leader or a world laggard: are we reducing, or at least slowing the growth, of our greenhouse gas emissions?
Since the Howard Government came to power, Australia’s emissions have increased by 19 per cent, a growth rate more than double the average of all other industrialised countries. And the Government itself expects them to grow by another 25 per cent by 2020. This is at a time when the world’s climate scientists say we must reduce our emissions to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
Among industrialised countries we have the 10th highest level of emissions higher than the total emissions of Italy and France, each of which have three times the population of Australia. Nor can we avoid the fact that we have the highest levels of greenhouse pollution per person in the industrialised world.
In the propaganda technique of the big lie there are rules that are inevitably followed: be audacious; never admit fault or wrong; never accept the possibility of alternatives; and, repeat the fabrication so often that people end up accepting it as truth.
This is how the Australian Government has approached climate change over the last decade, an approach now articulated with renewed vigour by Malcolm Turnbull.
The Government’s strategy to avoid responsibility has two prongs displace and defer. It has repeatedly displaced responsibility from itself, first by fingering developing countries as being ‘exempted’ from the Kyoto Protocol (itself a lie as almost all developing counties have ratified the treaty). ‘We won’t act until they do,’ the Government has insisted. More recently it has shifted the blame specifically onto China there is no point us acting if China ‘pollutes the environment to its heart’s content,’ in the words of Alexander Downer.
The Europeans have also been blamed; they are just pretending to cut their emissions to impose a cost on Australia, goes the argument. Most recently, the bizarre policy of allocating $200 million to reduce logging in the Third World is another attempt to shift responsibility from the need to reduce fossil emissions at home. At the 2005 Montreal climate negotiations, the Australian delegation actually helped close down discussion of limiting deforestation, saying that it was premature to address incentives for reduced deforestation.
The second prong of the strategy is to defer action. While imposing no effective measures to cut our emissions now, the Government has put its faith in the development of ‘clean coal’ technologies and nuclear power, the most important features of which are that neither would have a significant effect on our greenhouse emissions for at least 15-20 years.
While the urgency of the problem demands that Australia begins to cut its emissions now, the Government’s response is to shift responsibility to other countries or to future generations.
With no basis in fact, Turnbull’s claim that Australia is a world leader should be seen as an epic lie of the kind that becomes possible only for those who hold a fervent belief in a greater cause that justifies a falsehood of this magnitude. In this case, the belief is that Australia’s future is tied inescapably to exploiting our coal reserves, an objective that has been set out in a number of official papers.
The burning question is whether Turnbull can succeed in his grand deception; whether, by repeating it often enough, people will begin to believe it.
Expert liars, whether con-men, psychopaths or unscrupulous politicians, know that in the public mind facts are often a weak defence in the face of persistent and passionate fabrications by figures of authority, particularly when they know that the lies they are telling are ones that the listener wants to hear.
It is worth remembering that in the 1930s the leaders of Europe, still traumatised by the Great War, wanted to believe that the rise of fascism did not mean war, that it was possible to appease an expansionist dictator and live in peace. Winston Churchill was one of the few with a clear-eyed understanding of Nazi aggression, yet his warnings were ignored.
For much of his two-decade campa
ign, Al Gore has been presenting the scientific facts on global warming while most have wanted to cling to more comforting beliefs. But the accumulation of evidence has finally penetrated the public’s preference to look the other way and has even overwhelmed the climate sceptics.
The story of Winston Churchill shows that the truth frequently gains a momentum of its own. The question then is how much damage will be done before it prevails. In the case of climate change the answer is ‘a great deal.’ The 10 years lost by the Howard Government’s inaction will translate into enormous additional human misery later this century. If Turnbull perseveres with the lies, the misery will only accumulate.
Since coming to power, so many lies have been told by the Howard Government about climate change that the rational stance now is to assume that everything it says is untrue. The Government’s systematic falsehoods on climate change have recently ceased to seduce the public. Why? Perhaps it is because the stakes are now seen to be too high. Perhaps it is because the consequences of continuing to accept them are too awful.
In the end, there is a limit to the gullibility of the public. Over climate change the limit has now been reached.
This is an edited version of a piece that appeared in The Canberra Times on 5 May.
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