Can Turnbull Paint The Coalition Green?


Remember the fuss over Malcolm Turnbull’s 2007 Cabinet push to ratify the Kyoto Protocol? Just a week in to 2007’s disastrous re-election campaign, someone — assumed by many to be Turnbull himself — leaked a story to the Australian Financial Review that the then Environment Minister wanted to ratify the global climate change treaty.

"It’s not for me to express a personal opinion," he said at the time in this article by Michelle Grattan. "I’m a member of the Government. I express my personal opinions in the cabinet room. It is not a question of having a personal view. It is a question of what the Government’s position is."

The rumour mill had it that Turnbull told Cabinet that the refusal to sign up to Kyoto was hurting the Coalition, and that Australia had a good chance of meeting its 2012 Kyoto targets anyway. But the story quickly turned to Turnbull himself, with the future Opposition Leader forced to deny that he or his staff had orchestrated the leak to help his re-election chances in Wentworth. He was, you might recall, under a sustained attack from businessman Geoffrey Cousins over the controversial Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania.

The "I wanted to ratify Kyoto" story certainly did Turnbull’s green credentials no harm, helping to paint him as a reluctant captive of John Howard’s hard line on climate change. Brendan Nelson’s hopelessly confused position on emissions trading also served the highlight the differences between Turnbull’s relatively green-friendly policy stance and the hard-headed denialist wing of the party led by Nick Minchin.

But the issue of climate change, always controversial in conservative ranks, is not going away. As the summer holiday’s "eco-nazis" blow-up by Barnaby Joyce revealed, the existence of anthropogenic global warming has yet to be embraced by many in the Coalition’s ranks.

All this helps set the scene for Turnbull’s latest speech on carbon trading. In the speech "A Green Carbon Initiative", delivered on Saturday to the Young Liberals, Turnbull pleads with his party to follow conservative examples such as Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron in taking climate change seriously. Turnbull throws out a few well-meaning targets, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 150 million tonnes annually, and a few Hail Mary technologies, like the much ballyhooed "biochar". It’s a measure of how lukewarm Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong have become on climate change that green groups were more impressed than they should have been: the Climate Institute’s John Connor commented that it was "good to see Malcolm Turnbull looking for ways to top up the Government’s inadequate pollution reduction targets".

The Opposition Leader’s latest staff appointment suggests, however, that the climate change tightrope is no less precarious for Turnbull than it is for Kevin Rudd. Taking up the position as his new Chief of Staff is none other than former Alexander Downer staffer and Adelaide Advertiser journo Chris Kenny. Kenny, a hard-nosed operator who performed well in the tough job of keeping Downer out of the firing line in the AWB scandal, can be seen giving some hagiographic interviews on his former boss in this Australian Story episode.

But the real interest for followers of the Opposition’s civil war on climate change policy is Kenny’s staunch climate change scepticism.

Turnbull’s new Chief of Staff is a climate change denialist of the old school. In radio spots on 5AA and in a series of pieces for the ‘Tiser, Kenny has repeatedly demonstrated a less-than-perspicacious grasp of the science of global warming, recycling many of the same embarrassments made infamous by Andrew Bolt.

Take this little gem from his 31 December piece in the Adelaide Advertiser:

"Inconveniently for global-warming alarmists, global average temperatures have, for 10 years running, fallen short of those recorded in 1998.

Still, there has been plenty of action. The Federal Government has outlined its planned carbon tax scheme, the US has elected a President promising to tackle carbon emissions and diplomats have agonised unsuccessfully over a truly international scheme.

All this action suggests the remedy is running ahead of the detailed diagnosis. The raw temperature figures allow room for significant scientific interpretation.

The consensus view is that the past decade has still been historically warm and the trend is up, so it’s just a matter of time before the 1998 records are topped. Dissenters say we are seeing the end of a warming phase and we may be entering a cooler period.

We all know the climate changes constantly. The critical question is whether carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are significantly affecting climate patterns."

Oh dear. Malcolm Turnbull’s new arm-twister is wrong, wrong and wrong. Global average temperatures falling since 1998? No — as research undertaken by the Hadley Centre, the Goddard Institute, our own Bureau of Metereology  and the US Government’s National Climactic Data Centre — among many distinguished climate research centres internationally — has shown.

What about his suggestion that the raw temperatures allow plenty of room for significant scientific interpretation? Wrong. The earth is really, actually, currently warming. That’s not interpretation: that’s fact.

And how about Kenny’s claim that "the critical question" is whether carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are significantly affecting climate patterns?" It’s been answered: greenhouse gas emissions are unmistakably the cause of the currently observed global warming since the industrial revolution, as Jim Hansen’s gold standard 1996 paper clearly shows.

Now I know the comments page of this article will be filled up by a bunch of crazies all trumpeting their superior understanding and qualifications in climatology, meteorology, oceanography and earth science. So, especially for you guys, I’m linking here to a page at the Brave New Climate blog, which does a very thorough job of demolishing all the absurd speculations by the man who is now the Opposition Leader’s most senior advisor.

The bigger question is what a man who seems willfully blind to scientific reality is doing advising our alternative Prime Minister. Granted, the role of Chief of Staff is mainly about keeping the troops in line and ensuring a disciplined and effective team. We don’t expect our political advisors to be rocket scientists, or even economists, PhDs or MBAs. But we should at least hope that our nation’s alternative government is advised by people with a commitment to — how should we say it — reality. And it would be nice if such advisors weren’t paid up footsoldiers in the right’s war on science.

Sadly, as John Quiggin points out, this last epithet describes many in Australia’s parliamentary conservative parties — so many that Malcolm Turnbull himself is still not quite prepared to acknowledge the reality that the world is warming fast. He says instead that "this issue is simply one of risk management".

It’s a nice dodge, isn’t it? "Risk management." How prudent! Perhaps Turnbull is mindful of Steven Colbert’s memorable quip that "reality has a left-wing bias". No wonder Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong take every opportunity they can to mention the "denialists" in the Coalition ranks.

It’s hard not to feel pity for the Australian conservative movement at times like this. Just as moderates like Turnbull and Christopher Pyne are trying to pull the Liberal Party kicking and screaming into the 21st century, hard-liners like Tom Switzer want to hitch the Australian conservative parties to the wagon of humanity’s ecological self-destruction. And that can’t be good politics, despite the cynics like Possum Comitatus who think Rudd is being smart by triangulating on climate change.

As Joseph Romm points out at, many in the western media still haven’t twigged to the all encompassing danger of climate change. Obama has, and looks like he will run hard on the issue. When the electorate realises just how much trouble we’re really in — maybe next term, maybe the term after that — then being on the wrong side of the climate change debate is going to be a lot more problematic than being "soft" on drugs, crime or terror. It’s going to be electoral poison more potent than WorkChoices — another policy many Liberals still believe in.

Luckily for the Coalition, at this stage of the electoral cycle no-one much is listening to what they’re saying. That’s the privilege of wandering in the wilderness: no-one really cares what you think.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.