After such knowledge: response to Manne – the diagnosis is outstanding, it is the corrective that is needed

“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?

9 thoughts on “After such knowledge: response to Manne – the diagnosis is outstanding, it is the corrective that is needed

  1. uknowispeaksense says:

    350ppm or less obviously but Mike, the only way to defeat the lunacy is to make the politicians take note. The way to do that is to convince the middle to working class, the majority voters that there is a problem. I showed my students today, the PIOMAS projections for sea ice. Not one of these students had any idea the outlook was so bad. They all say they accept AGW but its almost as if its someone else’s problem to deal with. How we convince people that the problem is theirs and that it is now is beyond me, but that is the key I think. It has to be demonstrated that it will affect them and that it will affect them soon. At the same time, the idiot broadcasters, the perpetrators of mistruths need to be pulled into line. The key is to target the advertisers that pay them. Money talks.

    • A tragedy is unfolding slowly, but surely and yet barely perceptable… for now.

    • Tony Duncan says:

      I think it important to get as many people countering the denialists as possible. but it HAS to be done with accurate info from a position of strength, confidence and honesty. having Hansen say the sea level rise could be 5 meters Or McKibben saying that a specific drought is caused by climate change re-inforces the beliefs of deniers. I see your blog and some other recent ones like this that I was unaware of being essential for a major offensive against the pseudo science and constant repetition of disproven conjectures form the denialsphere.
      people like Curry and Pielke Jr. should be shown to be encouraging anti science even if they are taking a position of being “honest brokers”.
      And I think people need to be up front and open about uncertainty. I am seeing more people saying yes there is much we don’t understand but that means the potential risk could be much worse than we can know.
      Mostly I think it is boots on the ground and direct contradiction of mistruths constantly posted as comments on mainstream sites that deal with climate change>
      Crucial to point out inconsistencies and changed positions of those of influence in the denialsphere.
      I have been posting about ACC on fab with 900 friends with almost no interest from anyoen for the last 3 years, but once the issue DOES become socially important again, those people will know I have been honest and urgent without expressing anger.

  2. Christine says:

    If you haven’t read “Don’t Think Of An Elephant: Know Your Values & Frame The Debate” by George Lakoff, I would highly recommend it. Lakoff analyzes why the Republicans have been able to do so well, considering that the majority of Americans hold progressive values. He also shows how progressives can reclaim the public debate that has been so brilliantly (and malevolently) manipulated.
    The worst thing we can do right now is to lose hope. Naomi Klein said recently “So many lives are on the line right now. The system is crashing. It is crashing economically and it’s crashing ecologically. The stakes are too high for us not to make the absolute most of this moment.”

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Thank you for references, I’ll chase up.

    • Tony Duncan says:

      I don’t agree with all of Lakoff’s analysis, but he is very insightful and uninhibited in his explanation. good to see someone recommending him.

  3. […] describe what is possibly one of the ugliest and sadest facets of human nature. Well done Mike. The whole article is one of your […]

  4. WTF - Indeed...... says:

    One person funding the climate change denier movement here in Oz is Gina Rinehart. She lives over there in Perth and apparently funded that Monkton tour. She has even put one of the deniers on the board of one of her companies. Not David Archibald, to her credit, some other denier of global warmimg.

    Speaking of Heartland, several years ago, they had David Archibald as one of their speakers. I think even they have distanced themselves from him in favour of Nova and Evans.

    When history is written, it’ll show that Gina made a big mistake in paying the bills of these deniers.

  5. Joe R. says:

    I have read “Merchants of Doubt” and I have accustomed myself with the technicalities of Climate Change that come easy to me as I have to have some understanding, even some insight, into thermal properties, as a matter of the kind of work I do. Such as a near 1/3rd of CO2 being absorbed by the Ocean’s mass (and producing Carbonic Acid to boot) and acting as a delayed flywheel that can be understood as “thermal mass.”

    When on YouTube the “Galileo Movement” posted a video using a rather odd Sydney Harbour Bridge argument (I am sure you can find it) that shows the amount of CO2 relative to the size and length of the bridge – when in fact it could be just as powerfully argued what would happen if that part was missing and if cars could now cross, or the stresses it would have on the rest of the structure, maybe to the point where an engineer might diagnose it as terminal.

    So the video invited comments on this ‘scientific’ debate. And so I foolishly did. Before long I was banned from making comments that were reasoned and not heated. When I created a new ID I asked WHY I got banned? I was told because I was using “technical jargon” and promptly got banned again. Repeating the process and again pointing out that I had been entirely cordial, at which point I was accused of ‘scamming’ – and booted off again.

    None of my postings was allowed, they were ALL deleted. It is as if I was never there and never made a comment and this episode never happened.

    So what does that prove of the moral integrity of the Galileo Movement and its backers, let alone any real intent of tackling a reasonable debate on a scientific note?
    It is clear that the science is the last thing they want discussed – they want the scientific equivalent of what Robert McNamara called “The Fog of War.”

    One third of the Northern hemisphere is covered by a Permafrost that has sealed up aeons of CO2 and Methane, which is lately been observed pouring out of the ground as the Permafrost’s seal is broken, in places like Alaska.

    So the CO2 now unlocks the CO2 and other heavy gasses that were ‘locked up’ and mixes with the gasses we are releasing causing further… and before we know it we have a spiral and a “Tipping Point” where the thermal mass of the Oceans suddenly give way like a mighty flywheel.

    Maybe it will not be too late to hope there is a God who will save us from ourselves. Start practising praying… and no, I am not joking!

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