by Maria Taylor
When the Attorney General George Brandis calls opponents of big mining proposals “vigilantes” and Prime Minister Tony Abbott calls them “saboteurs” or Industry Minister Ian McFarlane says the environmentalists want to destroy our economy, (as these politicians did in federal parliament in past weeks), it’s not just “ a pathetic thought bubble” as Labor’s Mark Butler called it.
In fact there is method to the crude name-calling (will it be terrorists next?). It’s part of a familiar strategy to divide ‘us and them’ that has been operating since the 1990s: part of a fairly successful propaganda campaign aimed at keeping Australians quiet and confused on climate change action.
The objective is to demonise and marginalise opponents of the fundamentalist free market economic narrative in Australia (neo-liberal theories we call economic rationalism).
From the early 1990s under the Keating federal government and coming to full flower under Howard after 1996 and continuing, the economy versus the environment narrative has included a solid wall of opposition to restructuring Australia’s domestic energy systems away from fossil fuels at any level, while defending a fossil fuel export economy dominated by coal interests. However, even some market economists have noted the economic opportunities in acting now to set up more benign energy alternatives and the mounting downstream costs of delay.
In the neo-liberal worldview that guides modern capitalism and its political and media amplifiers, fossil fuels are dominant players in ‘the market’. We’re told ‘the market’ is perfect and self-regulating and resists ‘intervention’ (read regulation and change in the public interest). The ideology has proven an ideal partner for the self-interest of multi-national fossil fuel conglomerates.
The ‘need to stick with fossil fuels in the national interest’ narrative overran a now largely forgotten history in this country of an early will to act differently. In tandem with other countries, and accepting the clear science messages of the risks posed to everyone in society by accumulating greenhouse gases, Australian states and territories were drafting action plans as early as 1989 and Australia had a draft emission reduction target of 20% below 1988 levels by 2005.
A well-credentialed 1989 book even claimed that Australia was arguably the best informed nation on the planet about the risk of global warming and climate change. Then the story changed for the public.
“Familiar messages of cost, can’t afford to think about risk”
The ideas behind the disinformation campaign and the attacks on those who would discuss global warming and climate change have been refined by culture warriors in think tanks like the Institute of Public Affairs, by public relations gurus advising coal companies and politicians, by a bevy of radio opinion jocks, and by voices in News Limited publications in every capital city and nationally. In a constricted media landscape economic rhetoric overran science and cost totally replaced risk in this narrative.
Action on climate change costs too much, it will hurt the economy, multi-nationals will leave, every family will suffer through job losses and higher taxes. Anyway the science is uncertain and is pushed by self-serving scientists seeking grants and greenies trying to destroy Australian lifestyles. There are limitless resources and the world needs them. Don’t worry technology will save us once we have dug everything up.
These messages aimed at the Australian heartland were supported by a tried and true (since the tobacco wars) strategy of ‘wheel in a sceptic scientist’. In Australia this was not resisted even by non-News Limited media. So the country was subjected to a phony national debate about whether global warming and climate change are real and involve burning fossil fuel s. In tandem there grew the demonization of those who championed the environment or scientists who spoke of consequences.
“Public relations tips to keep public uncertain”
‘Us and them’ propaganda methods were perfected by public relations consultants like US pollster Frank Luntz who developed whole manuals for politicians in the early naughties on how to combat calls for action on climate change. He advised that a winning strategy was stoking the fires of uncertainty and to have professional sceptic scientists do the stoking. He advised his clients that as long as the public believed there was no scientific consensus there would be no call for action.
He said the narrative had to be about us and them, differentiating the mainstream from environmental activists and by implication pitting our family, our nation against ‘them’. Other themes were: “the right decision, not a quick decision”; “voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation”; “fairness” – why should we take action and not those other countries?
And so it has come to pass.
Dr Maria Taylor is the author of Global warming and climate change: what Australia knew and buried…then framed a new reality for the public, published by ANU Press and available as a free download or as a paperback.