Listening to him speak was comforting. Like hearing your father’s voice after a long time apart. John Howard’s idiosyncrasies have grown more pronounced as his 70s have progressed, the pauses and dysfluencies longer, the rhetoric less incisive. It all serves to enhance the vaguely adorable Elmer Fuddiness. In aesthetic terms, it was oddly pleasurable.
The auditorium at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers was packed to the oak-lined gunnels to receive the annual lecture of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). As a retired warhorse Howard has rarely weighed into public discourse, but preaching to a choir of “climate realists”, Howard seemed at ease.
He made several tired arguments about climate change. There was the old line about science, by nature, never being resolved. He claimed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been infiltrated by a fifth column of climate ideologues, while saying his own position on climate change is informed by instinct. He dipped into GWPF founder Nigel Lawson’s book, An Appeal to Reason, and pulled out the notion that our grandchildren are waging intergenerational tyranny upon us from the future.
“The present generation should not carry too heavy a burden so that future generations are only 8.4 times better off rather than 9.4 times wealthier,” he said.
As Lenore Taylor pointed out in the Guardian on Wednesday, Howard completely missed the point about the causal link between climate change and bushfires. His speech, called “One Religion is Enough”, berated the intolerance of climate “zealots”. Although which single religion he thinks is enough he declined to say.
The audience looked like it had been pressganged from the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall. They all had a chuckle when Howard said there had been a “magnificent change of government” in Australia and how wonderful it was to have centre-right chums ruling the Commons at the same time. He really played to the 11 women in the 200-strong crowd when he said, “The history of mankind has told me of his infinite capacity to adapt to the changing circumstances of the environment in which he lives.”
It all seemed rather innocuous; an anachronism, harmless old blokes wagging their chins to the tune of dead ideas. It might have even been a bit embarrassing for Tony Abbott to have his mentor making statements like:
“The high tide of public support for over-zealous action on global warming has passed. My suspicion is that most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the issue. Of course the climate is changing. It always has. There are mixed views not only about how sustained that warming is, seemingly it has not warmed for the last 15 years, and also the relative contributions of mankind and natural causes.”
But against the temptation to write him off (and gleefully bash Abbott by association) rubs a hard truth: John Howard represents the way the world acts on climate change.
Serious politicians now recognise that climate change rhetoric is in vogue — it won’t do to meet IPCC findings with anything but solemnity and hand wringing. But there exists a vast gap between how the world speaks and how it behaves. Howard said his long-standing opposition to the Kyoto Protocol had been vindicated by its manifest failure to deliver a global framework to tackle carbon emissions.
“It is highly unlikely that a compact of that kind will ever be achieved," Howard said. "Notwithstanding President Obama’s strong commitment to cap and trade in his state-of-the-union address in February of this year, there remains a bipartisan reluctance in the United States to embrace agreements of this kind.”
Vox Europa says cap-and-trade has become the whipping boy of a poisonous debate in the US Congress, tarnishing it beyond any hope of implementation.
In Australia, Abbott says he is concerned about climate change and that he has the most powerful plan to approach its mitigation. The Direct Action Plan has the added benefit of avoiding confrontation with Australia’s powerful mining sector. But scientists and economists say it won’t work. Just this week, Howard’s own Treasury secretary Ken Henry called the policy “bizarre”.
China, India, Brazil and the rest of the world shrug their shoulders and keep on building their middle class any way they can. Europe forges on bloody-mindedly with carbon reduction, but can’t bring the rest of the world with it. And Russia? Let’s not even go there.
Even if every country meets it current carbon reduction pledges, the UN Environment Program predicts the world will still warm beyond the 2 degrees celsius safe target.
Howard also made recommendations on how to mitigate the effects of the warming he is so “agnostic” about. Invest in renewables (if you can afford it) and go nuclear. Which is essentially what the world is doing.
He wrapped up by giving a rousing testimonial to “the shale revolution” which he said was “a real game changer”. He listed as its major benefits its ability to wean the west off middle-eastern oil and reduce the carbon emissions he had just spent an hour saying might not be so bad.
Again, it sounded a little bit like an old fossil going into bat for his namesake fuels. But of course, Howard is right on the money again. It is estimated that thanks to fracking, US natural gas production will increase by 3.4 billion cubic feet per day during 2014 to reach 69.1 Bcf/d by year's end.
As Howard ended his speech, the GWPF’s Benny Peiser rose to warn guests that there was a large protest outside. Howard looked bemused. Not for years had one of his speaking appearances been met by a rowdy mob. But of course, it was a coincidence. Masked austerity protesters were remembering the fifth by marching on Guy Fawkes’ old target at nearby Westminster. The announcement plunged the hall into disorder. Most of the blue bloods rushed towards the front exit, keen to rubberneck the protest. Some insisted on using the back in case the riff-raff were dangerous.
Howard stood momentarily still as bodies rushed one way or the other. For a brief second he struck the figure of a confused, elderly man, wondering what all the fuss was about. Then the moment passed, the old shark smile was back. He disappeared through the back door, vigorously pressing flesh with the men who have long stood with him on the brake.
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