The ABC Revisits Denialism


Next week, the ABC will broadcast The Great Climate Change Swindle,   a television documentary originally produced for Channel 4 in Britain.

The ABC has said it will provide ample opportunity to debate the documentary. The issues it raises are indeed well worth debating.

The Science Show‘s Robyn Williams and others have made allegations about the declining quality of science documentaries as a genre and Swindle‘s director and writer, Martin Durkin, is no stranger to scientific controversy, having previously produced a program claiming that silicon breast implants reduce the risk of breast cancer.

The Great Climate Change Swindle‘s central claim is that we have been deceived by the climate scientists. According to Durkin, climate scientists are a bunch of self-serving careerists whose arguments have been filtered by self-interested bureaucrats and governments with agendas hostile to the developing world.

Such arguments fall into the category of ‘climate change denialism.’ Revisiting this kind of case may seem odd when the latest spin from John Howard and George W Bush suggests they have seen the error of their former denialism. Not even the Australian coal export lobby is openly denialist these days. However, what these foot-draggers still have in common is a failure to support effective international abatement measures. To this extent, they must be considered a ‘de facto denialists.’

On 31 May, Howard received a technical report  on emissions trading chaired by the head of his own Department, Peter Shergold. This report advanced the debate but had at least one serious omission: it did not consider, much less make recommendations, on the matter of short or longer term emission limits for either Australia or internationally.

On receipt of the Shergold Report, Howard committed to a national emissions target by 2012. This seemed like an important back-flip, with his admission that neither emission pricing nor such limits can make sense in isolation. But Howard has resolutely refused to indicate the level of that 2012 target until after the next Federal election, pending further economic modeling.

This is a ‘clever’ tactic, calculated to generate over-responses from his greener critics. Such responses all too easily enable Howard to cast himself in his favoured role of ‘responsible’ economic rationalist and guardian of the national interest.

The irony is that this move is not, in fact, economically responsible. Nicholas Stern and others have argued that the costs of meeting stringent long term targets are miniscule compared with normal economic growth projected to 2050. But this conclusion has an important premise: that the policies used to abate emissions are chosen to be both cost-effective (that is, to attain these targets at least-cost) and consistent with macro-economic stability.

Costly deviations from cost-effective mitigation can occur in different ways. One is by Governments trying to ‘pick winners’ amongst technologies in the absence of rigorous assessment of their cost-effectiveness.

Other types of deviation can arise due to timing. It is important to balance the necessary urgency of taking action (beginning with the most obviously cost-effective measures), not cutting emissions too radically too soon, and not seeking sufficiently radical cuts in the medium term. As shown by Stern, if the abatement effort is left too late, the cost of reaching a sufficiently stringent target by 2050 will be greatly magnified.

In other words, immediate and urgent action is required if the long-term targets are to be met. But action must be carefully graduated over time, mindful of the best evolving scientific analysis of the relationship between atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases and climatic effects.

With no long-term emissions commitment as an anchor, Howard has left himself free to set short-term targets that are non-binding and cosmetic only: not necessarily reducing greenhouse gas emissions at all.

Howard must be held to account prior to the Federal election. He must be required to indicate the guidelines he will give his economic modelers. These guidelines must refer to precisely stated and long-term targets meaningful in terms of climate science.

As to what that long-term target should be, Howard has taken good care to smear the Stern Review and the ALP’s long-term target of 60 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

But precisely this latter target has been adopted in the bipartisan Bill sponsored by conservative Senator McCain and neo-conservative Senator Lieberman in the US Congress. The rival Bill of Senator Sanders et al. has a target of 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. The Sanders Bill is also notable for not including additional generous subsidies to nuclear power.

Internationally, Howard is still the climate saboteur, effectively sabotaging international cooperation on averting ‘dangerous’ climate change. Putting the sectional interest of the export steaming coal industry ahead of such a critical global interest is an indefensible case of disproportionality.

Actions speak louder than words and, for Howard and Bush, ‘de facto denialism’ is not yet dead.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.