“In June 2011, a reporter for the New York Times attended the annual conference in Washington at what was then the most important denialist organisation in the United States, he Heartland Institute. It had about it, she said, “the air of a victory lap”. The jubilation was warranted….” – Robert Manne
Firstly, Robert Manne should be congratulated on his outstanding contribution to our understanding of the history of climate denial, its effectiveness and its achievements.
Manne writes with all the erudition, mastery of facts and passion one has come to expect of him as a writer and intellectual.
Titled “A dark victory: how vested interests defeated climate science“, the essay provides a condensed history of the denial movement, its key achievements and the shape of its “victory” – the defeat of global agreements on carbon dioxide reduction and the turning of public opinion against science and scientists.
For those of us familiar with the details of the debate, the players and their tactics there is nothing we don’t know: Manne cites the work of Oreskes & Conway (Merchants of Doubt), Gelbspan (The Heat is on), Hoggan (Climate cover up), Schneider (Science as a contact sport) and Mann (The hockey stick and the climate wars).
This is by no means a criticism, as the majority of Australians are either indifferent to the debate or ignorant to the players and their way in which they have sought to manipulate public opinion. Manne’s essay provides an extremely useful summary of the literature on climate change denial. It serves as a useful primer for anyone hoping to understand how we arrived at such a lamentable state.
As Manne notes:
“So far nations and the international community have failed conspicuously to rise to the challenge posed by the dangers. Since the Rio Earth Conference of 1992, which initiated the search for an international agreement, carbon dioxide emissions have risen by 40% of more…”
As many have stated – and I also emphatically state – this is a failure not just of the political process but of a civilisation.
Manne has repurposed the title of David Marr’s book Dark Victory, which describes that other shameful episodes in Australian politics the Tampa incident, to alert us to the “victory condition” the deniers have achieved.
Of course it is a victory only King Pyrrhus would appreciate, a similar appreciation that we are only now beginning to grasp.
Indeed, the Tampa affair and the prevalence of climate change denial book-end each other as they are the product of not just the same forces, but the same individuals.
While Manne does not explicitly state this, I think we can accept the fact that the coarsening of public debate and confusion on climate change can be attributed to News Limited and its cadre of conservative columnists, “shock jocks” such as Allen Jones and the Liberal-National Party.
It is not a co-incidence that the same actors that helped create the Tampa “crisis” – cynically exploiting the public’s fears in the post 9/11 environment – are the same ones who have distorted the “climate debate”.
We should not forget the obstructionist role the Government of John Howard played in refusing to sign the Kyoto protocol. To our great national shame we followed the path of the second Bush presidency in not merely stalling global agreements, but actively undermining negotiations and aligning with think tanks, fossil fuel interests and the tiny, but highly motivated, “community” of climate change deniers.
Two individuals in particular should be remembered for their roles in contributing to this public policy disaster at a global level: News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt and former Prime Minister John Howard.
Without Howard (and by extension the LNP) and News Ltd’s unqualified willingness to inject the conspiracy claims and dubious scientific “arguments” of the self-proclaimed climate sceptics into the public debate we would not be in the mess we find ourselves.
On any other scientific issue, the likes of David Evans, Ian Plimer, Jo Nova, Bob Carter and the sad “Galileo Movement” would be laughed from the court of public opinion. However, because climate change denial is attuned to the world view and values of conservative elites, it has received political patronage.
The swarm of think tanks, “citizen scientists” and sceptic bloggers are merely the courtiers of a decaying and moribund ancien regime. They are like the mesmerists, alchemists and psychics that gravitate towards the powerful hoping to suck at the teat of wealth and privilege in exchange for flattering their eccentric and self-absorbed patrons.
Normally the farce of eccentric billionaires funding an army of panderers would be of no consequence: but when the powerful employ think tanks, PR consultants, tame scientists and segments of the media to help them deny reality – and then project that falsity back into the public domain – it is a recipe for disaster on a civilisational scale.
It not only gives me cause to weep in rage, but wonder if Homo sapiens posses an innate self-destructive urge that defies not merely reason, but explanation.
To paraphrase Tacitus: the victory of the deniers will make a desert which they declare a kind of peace.
We can see just what this “peace” looks like as corn crops shrivel across the continental United States under record drought conditions.
After such knowledge
Manne does what nearly every member of the progressive “side’ of politics does so very well: diagnose the problem.
The detail is there, the cause and effect is masterly described. There is a vast literature on the politics of climate change, the psychology of denial and if you really want it lists that name the “guilty parties”.
But we still lack an appreciation of the “corrective”. What is to be done? What can we do?
Still, however much we wish to heap blame on the deniers and their powerful patrons we have not fully explored our failure to appreciate the ferocity, tenacity and willingness to win-at-all-costs of the forces arrayed against the science.
Foolishly it was thought presenting the evidence of environmental collapse and the possibility of suffering on a global scale would sufficiently motivate the political, business and scientific elites to work cooperatively to “solve the problem”. We placed our trust in civilisations “best and brightest”.
After Copenhagen we should disabuse ourselves of such romantic assumptions.
The failure of the global community to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to safe levels (1) rivals the failure to reduce the diplomatic tensions between the Great Powers in the first decade of the 20th century.
Those failures lead to a global conflagration, two world wars, revolution and the Holocaust:
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.”
To this I ask you; every person reading this post, every activist, scientist , every politician and citizen.
After such knowledge what is to be done?
(1) Insert your idea of safe concentrations of CO2 here; 600ppm 400ppm, 350ppm?