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Why can’t Australia have a mature policy on climate action and fossil fuels?


An extract from Maria Taylor’s 2014 book (Global warming and Climate change: what Australia knew and buried … then framed a new reality for the public) explains the political rejection of what we once understood as a risk to every person and a moral choice … and WHY  (just reinforced by the 2019 Federal Election results).


History is what we make it

For almost 40 years I had the naïve view that if we simply obtain more physical understanding of the issue, we could provide “the” answers and responses would be rational. I now see that there is absolutely no guarantee of this. It is ourselves we do not understand.

— Atmospheric scientist Graeme Pearman, February 17, 2009

ONE OF THE most fascinating and challenging aspects of modern society is the way we construct our own history — the stories we tell ourselves through the mass media and our beliefs of what is true or real can shift in as little as 10 to 20 years, and we come to think things were always that way.

Historians and philosophers know that social reality has shifted over time within our own civilisation and that it can be dramatically different from the world views of earlier civilisations. Psychology explains that knowledge is a social construct. Cognitive linguistics can tell us how information frames and rhetoric are ‘heard’ and constructed.

Why is this relevant to a discussion about what we believe about climate change? There are persuasive arguments that power comes from controlling societal narratives. Social research suggests the narrative frames and agendas that set societies’ constructions of reality are communicated by opinion leaders who, together with the mass media, set the daily narrative agenda (Lakoff, 2005; Rampton & Stauber, 2002; Ward, 2001; Wheelwright & Buckley, 1987). So understanding the deployment of frames and narratives is a key to understanding how information is constructed in the larger society.

global warming climate change by Maria TaylorWith that background, one can start unpacking, as I did, the documentary record of how anthropogenic climate change was communicated over the period 1987–2001 in Australia — and come to a startling discovery. There is considerable evidence that Australia once had a very good level of understanding of global warming and climate change risks and possible responses. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s that knowledge was accepted by leading politicians, media workers and, according to polls, by the general public. Communication of the science domestically and globally — largely by scientists as the primary source for media and government — persuaded state and federal policy-makers and media of the need to take action, (Henderson-Sellers, 1990, Lowe, 1989 and other authors).

This led to an early national emissions reduction target — aiming for 20 percent below 1988 emissions levels by 2005. That early good public understanding, and will to act, starkly highlights the 25 years of action foregone since that time.

I started reviewing the public record in the mid 2000s following disturbing reports of political interference in the communication of climate change science to the public, particularly in the US. What was the situation in Australia I wondered?  Although I had been involved for a while in the early 1990s in communicating some climate change-related energy efficiency strategies to the general public, by 2006 I was as clueless as the next person about what had happened to the whole climate change story. We had collectively lost the plot. I started to look at how and why.

The Australian public record from newspaper reports, government documents and popular science books confirmed that the ‘greenhouse effect’, as climate change was then called, was indeed well-known in the 1980s. Human agency was a given and response measures started with energy efficiency and canvassed every response, including a carbon price, that we are talking about today. But during the 1990s all this changed. Gradually the early good understanding was overtaken by a huge case of uncertainty and doubt, closely linked to a changed daily narrative crafted by political leaders and the mass media. A new normal was being created.

Yet equally remarkable, the science information about causes, effects, and risks remained consistent, hardly changed during that time. This can be seen by studying the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports from 1990 onwards (IPCC, 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007). In fact the earliest IPCC reports made the strongest, most easily understood statements on the issue. The main changes to IPCC assessments over two decades can be summarised as more localised detail and the realisation that the planet is experiencing an unsettling and unexpected rate of rapid climate change.

So the big question became: after 1991, how was the existing public knowledge of the greenhouse effect/climate change destroyed and reconstructed differently? The evidence trail shows that by 1996 and particularly thereafter, with basically the same science story as laid out in the first IPCC report in 1990, risk messages were being reframed into a hazy scientific debate, particularly about human agency, that confused the public and helped those who blocked action.

The narrative that once asked what could be done to slow or the reverse the emission of excess greenhouse gases by human societies, i.e. an early risk management and global ethical argument, evolved into an inward-focused national interest argument for no change from ‘business as usual’.

The science story became a political story and the dominant narrative became a familiar contemporary one: Australia is painted as exceptional amongst countries, thanks to policy decisions to focus the national economy on mineral and coal exports, and ‘cheap’ electricity production for the domestic market and to attract energy-intensive multinational industries like aluminium.

With this narrative, Australia was reconstructing its social reality in the 1990s. The next question was: How was this done? And, what were some of the major influences on the revised narrative direction: the values and beliefs that came to dominate, and the media–political interface in setting the dominant agenda. The role of scientists themselves also proved significant in this changed understanding — best illustrated by the sceptic debates that have overwhelmed the issue, and the way scientists understand uncertainty in a different way to a lay audience, a difference that could be mightily exploited in the popular conversation.

Detail of how it was done also emerged from whistleblowing about political interference in the science communication, extensively documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in the US. In 2007 two further and complementary investigations in the US continued to confirm these findings: there has been broad interference in the communication of climate change scientific results in the United States (“Dirty Tricks”, 2007; Atmosphere of Pressure, 2007).

In Australia, while there was less documentation of direct political interference with communication in the past 20 years, a long-time chronicler of the climate change policy story, physicist and science and society researcher Ian Lowe wrote that

“the stacking and sacking of public boards, reviews and task forces has been driven by ideology and is suppressing new ideas arising from science, to the detriment of innovation and the environment”   (Lowe, 2006, p. 41).

This story is not unique in that science research findings and messages, particularly of a public interest and environmental nature where there may be winners and losers, face many influences and interpretations that have little to do with the scientific facts.

Anthropogenic climate change may be the ultimate science and society story in that context. Unveiling how communication has been manipulated over two decades may be the key to understanding why so many still don’t understand. One cannot underestimate the influence of ideas that gained cultural dominance (hegemony) during the 1990s following a brief attempt to reconcile environmental and economic values up to 1991. The upsurge of economic market fundamentalism, in tandem with a return to a familiar battle pitting the economy against environmental ideas and science, came to dominate policy responses.

Other dominant values and beliefs that drove the argument against climate change action included traditional assumptions about human and Christian exceptionalism, and beliefs in technology and the ‘techno fix’. This suite of values — driving political, business, and some religious elites and amplified by the media — is shared by many in society at large. It’s a consistent world view, allowing those who hold these values to dismiss the risk or misread of the science. Scientists are not immune to these value structures and the public sceptics who helped foster uncertainty since the 1990s might well hold some such beliefs while also holding ideas peculiar to their scientific disciplines, geology being one example.

Sceptics, policy-makers, media and the public were faced in these years with a radically new concept: the notion of anthropogenic climate change — the idea that humans are now a force of nature capable of altering basic earth systems such as the atmosphere. ■

Further chapters

Chapter 2:  Loading the dice: humans as planetary force

Chapter 3:  Framing information to influence what we hear

Chapter 4:  What Australians knew 25 years ago

Chapter 5:  Australians persuaded to doubt what they knew

Chapter 6:  Influences on a changed story and the new normal 1990s: values and beliefs

Chapter 7:  Influences on a changed story and the new normal: media locks in the new narrative

Chapter 8:  Influences on a changed story and the new normal: scientists’ beliefs and public scepticism

Chapter 9:  In search of certainty and applying uncertainty

Chapter 10:  Dicing with climate: how many more throws?


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