Shouting against thunder

How climate change science messages got lost in the last 25 years.

Maria Taylor

Environment & energy, Government and governance, Science and technology | Australia

28 March 2015

Policymakers have been discussing the threat of climate change since the late 1980s. So why has it been such a struggle to put effective policy in place to tackle it?

Hurricane Pam flattened Vanuatu in March 2015 and was likened to the apocalypse. In 2013 a typhoon packing 315 km/h winds ravaged the Philippines with thousands dead and widespread subsequent hardship. There are super floods and storms on every continent, as well as annual massive bushfires in California, Australia and elsewhere.

What part of this on-ground evidence of the impact of global warming/climate change don’t we get?

Specialist scientists have warned of such effects for the past 25 years; the cause is greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere, largely from burning fossil fuels. Why has this message not translated into effective policy in Australia and other western English-speaking countries?

In Australia, we can find many answers looking back at our own history. Amazingly, we find that understanding the causes and effects of global warming and climate change has not been a one-way path from scarce to better public knowledge and policy responses – in fact the exact opposite is true.

Governments, most media and the public agreed on the threat of climate change as early as 1988, and this understanding and consensus continued into the early 1990s.

In 1990, acting on internationally-known science and possible response policies, the Australian government (under Bob Hawke) committed to drafting a target to lower emissions to 20 per cent below 1988 levels by 2005.

More amazingly, looking back from today’s adversarial and ineffective policy perspective, state and territory governments, Labor and Liberal, were developing formal response plans to lower emissions.

Mainstream media reported on ‘the greenhouse effect’, quoting scientists and government policymakers – without a phony balance of professional sceptics – and every response we know of today (and a few we now consider too hard, like fuel- efficient planning) was being drafted.

State and territory governments initiated consumer demand management schemes at then publicly-owned energy utilities, and promoted renewable energy projects linked with new jobs as well as native vegetation retention.

The Federal Government committed to the One Million Trees initiative, and Landcare, and attempted to set energy-efficient appliance standards.  And yes, a carbon price was mooted in the 1990s, to the same industry opposition we see today.

State government plans were destined to die on the altar of deregulation, national competition policy and market fundamentalism. Economic rationalist ideology gripped politicians and corporations, peaking under Prime Minister John Howard after 1996, and we have hardly looked back since.

One cannot underestimate the power of ideology when asking what happened to the good early understanding of global warming and climate change.

John Maynard Keynes, father of regulated capitalism, wrote in 1936 that the world is ruled by little else than the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong.

He wrote that the power of vested interests has been greatly exaggerated compared to the power of ideas. It wasn’t a ‘conspiracy’ that brought climate change understanding to its knees, it was more like a hegemony of ideas, where values trumped the scientific message.

Hegemony is a useful sociological description for the situation in industrial societies where an elite class can dominate everyday thinking and practice.  It is done through communication and narrative-framing from governing institutions, with mass media, public relations and education all framing ideas the same way. Eventually the new script is the new normal.

The narrative of real risk to present and future generations, common at the end of the 1980s, changed to a narrative of cost and (export) opportunity that gathered strength during the 1990s.

This story supported no change from the industrial status quo and relegated the environment, a mainstream policy factor in 1990, to the role of a ‘special interest’ that was costing Australian families and their jobs.

Neo-colonial values re-emerged strongly, with ideas about limitless natural resources, led by fossil fuels, for domestic growth and flourishing global markets. This trumped the science and any caution about environmental consequences.

Regulation became a dirty word. ‘Freedom’ and endless consumer ‘choice’ supplanted ideas of community interest and, if in doubt, technological miracles since World War II made it easy to believe there is always a techno fix around the corner. Underlying Christian beliefs about human exceptionalism – that somehow we are immune from the laws of nature that affect other species – also helped denial.

From this history we know a few things when contemplating another hottest year on record, another intense cyclone, another devastating flood, and likely impacts on habitation, food production, businesses and health.

The science is telling us that reversing the threat of ever-more catastrophic weather events becomes harder every year as a result of our recent history of inaction.

But we also know that our history shows a roadmap to what our society once heard from the science and decided to do. Therefore if we resolve to, we can do it again.

Dr Maria Taylor’s research at The Australian National University on Australia’s forgotten history surrounding climate change, the events and influences, is the subject of a new book published by ANU Press: Global Warming and Climate Change: what Australia knew and buried…then framed a new reality for the public.

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