Australia Burns

by Clive Hamilton, Alex Doherty

Clive Hamilton, one of Australia's leading public intellectuals, discusses the recent heatwave.

First published: 15 January, 2013 | Category: Environment

As Australia suffered a record breaking heatwave, David Jones of the Australian Bureau of Meterology remarked that ‘‘Clearly, the climate system is responding to the background warming trend. Everything that happens in the climate system now is taking place on a planet which is a degree hotter than it used to be.’’ As Australia continued to burn NLP's Alex Doherty spoke with Australian philosopher and climate change activist Clive Hamilton.

What is the state of the climate change debate in Australia at present? Does Julia Gillard's public linking of the bush fires to climate change indicate a shift in that debate? What about Australian media - do you detect any shift in climate change coverage and the way in which related events are reported?

The Prime Minister's linking of the bushfires to climate change was a significant event, because it makes it much harder to backtrack politically. Astonishingly, the Australian (the Murdoch broadsheet) continues its campaign of climate science denial in the midst of our worst heatwave with a major piece on the weekend built around the claim that the British Met Office had "quietly" downgraded its forecast warming. It was a dishonest and disgraceful beat-up. Nevertheless, the deniers are having a harder time of it. Importantly, the ABC seems to have made a decision to give climate change its proper weight, with a series of programs scheduled to consider the science behind the extreme events we have experienced. For years the ABC pandered to denialism, reflecting the appointment of conservatives to a number of senior positions by the Howard Government. The previous chair of the board was an out-and-out denier and pressured editors and journalists to provide "balance". When Chistopher Monckton visited a couple of years ago his demented views received massive exposure across the ABC mostly without challenge, even on the serious current affairs programs. The Loopy Lord has since been back at the behest of Gina Rinehart, the right-wing mining magnate slated to become the world's wealthiest person. Rinehart has been trying to wrest control of the Fairfax press (publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age in Melbourne), the only print competition to Murdoch. She has said she wants to influence their editorial line, including promoting climate denial. Monckton is due back in Australia soon and will be feted by deniers around the country. In Canberra he will be the special guest at the launch of a new political party, Rise Up Australia, formed by a Christian fanatic known as Pastor Danny Nalliah of Catch the Fire Ministry. Nalliah is notorious for attributing the Victorian bushfires, which killed 173 people, to God's wrath, vengeance for the abortions carried out in that state. Nalliah believes witches have cursed the Australian parliament and took 100 supporters to Canberra to drive out the Devil. Monckton's endorsement of this lunacy cannot help the denial movement in Australia.

What is your opinion of the carbon pricing system introduced by the government last year? How would you characterize the government's climate and energy policies in general?

The carbon price has now been in effect for seven months and will shift to an emissions trading system in 2015. It was part of a package of Clean Energy legislation the Labor Government negotiated with the Greens, who hold the balance of power in the Senate. Other elements of the package include the Renewable Energy Target, which requires that at least 20 per cent of the country's electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2020, and a $10 billion finance facility to promote low and zero-emission energy. No-one who understands the science believes that the present policies are adequate to the enormous task of transforming the energy economy with the alacrity necessary to limit warming to a tolerable level (assuming the rest of the world were to respond in a similar way). But, for all of their inadequacies, the carbon and complementary policies are a start in a difficult political environment, one in which rising electricity prices (due mainly to over-investment in poles and wires) are the source of public angst. The conservative opposition, led by Tony Abbott, a climate denier, mounted an inflammatory and untruthful campaign against the "carbon tax". It seems more likely than not that the conservatives will win government later this year and immediately unwind many of the measures now in place to cut or limit the growth of Australia's emissions. I should say that as part of its Clean Energy package the parliament established the Climate Change Authority. Modeled closely on the UK's Committee on Climate Change, it is the principal advisory body to the federal government on climate change policy. I was appointed a member of the Authority.

What is your view of the Australian climate change movement at present? Could you outline the strategies and tactics you think the movement ought to adopt given the increasing threat.

For some years parts of the environment movement in Australia have been seeking campaigning methods that would allow it to "cut through" and reach a public that has been resistant to absorbing the message of climate science. Others have stuck to parliamentary politics in the hope that politicians will go where the public will not. Most environmentalists now recognize that climate change jeopardizes all of the victories won in the past. It has become something of a sport, played by those that might be called free-market environmentalists, to blame the environment movement for the lack of action on climate change (Mark Lynas in the UK and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in the US come to mind), and even to hold them responsible for climate change itself. This is grossly unfair, but music to the ears of the fossil fuel lobby. In an interesting development, an anti-coal activist caused a sensation here last week with an innovative tactic. He sent out a media release purporting to come form a major bank announcing it was withdrawing a loan to a company planning a major new coal mine. The company's share price fell sharply and trading was halted until the hoax was exposed. The reaction from the Big End of Town, the investment community, the press and some politicians verged on the hysterical, although the Greens leader, Christine Milne, courageously back him. Enormous pressure is being applied to the regulator to make an example of the activist, a young man named Jonathan Moylan. The penalties for making false statements designed to influence the stock market are severe, up to $495,000 and 10 years in jail. A number of grass-roots groups have sprung up in recent years, in part due to dissatisfaction with the established environment organizations, some of which have become institutionalized. The anti-coal campaign is dispersed but its members seem young, determined and not afraid to engage in some well-targeted civil disobedience. Australia's spy agency, ASIO, is monitoring the activists closely, probably tapping their phones and infiltrating their organizations. State governments have been introducing draconian laws to "protect" polluting energy infrastructure. An unlikely alliance has emerged in some regions, especially in New South Wales and Queensland, between environmentalists and traditionally hostile farmers to oppose the rapid spread of huge new coal mines on rich agricultural land and coal seam gas reserves being accessed by fracking.

Clive Hamilton is Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics, based at the Australian National University. He is the author of 'Requiem For A Species' – an extract from the book can be read here. His new book on geoengineering, 'Earthmasters', will be published next month.

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