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Author: G. Readfern
Date: 6th August 2015

There’s something about climate change that almost everyone in Australia has either forgotten or never knew in the first place. In 1990 Bob Hawke announced his government wanted the country to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the year 2005. For a fleeting moment, it seemed the Australian public, politicians and the media were in agreement with the science. But a new book investigates how the industries that stood to lose the most worked to undermine the science and entirely reshape the story being told to the public.

“We have been propagandised,” says the author, Maria Taylor.

Hawke was ready

In 1989 Hawke described a “growing consensus amongst scientists” showing there was a strong chance that major climate change was on its way, that this change was linked to human activity, and this could have “major ramifications for human survival” if nothing was done.

Public statements by scientists in Australia and around the world, backed by government reports and research, had established unambiguously that humans were causing climate change. Bold steps needed to be taken if the major risks of catastrophic climate change were to be mediated.

The UN’s intergovernmental plan on climate change delivered its first blockbuster assessment of the climate science in 1990.

Taylor’s book recalls how Australia was working its way towards a detailed plan to deliver Hawke’s proposal. State governments had response strategies in place. Politicians were largely on board. So was the fourth estate. The public understood the science and the huge risks of not acting.

Now, a quarter of a century later, climate change has been turned into a toxic political football. Scientists have their integrity attacked on a daily basis. Climate science denial is a feature of the conservative media and many members of the public are either confused about the science, ambivalent about the issue or entirely uninterested.

So how has Australia has managed to find itself behind where it was a quarter of a century ago?

The book

Around 2007, Taylor was asking herself that question. How did the corporate interest replace the public interest? How did climate science become “controversial” in the eyes of the public? 

Taylor, who is a journalist and newspaper publisher, wanted to know how Australians were “persuaded to doubt what they knew”. She reviewed hundreds of newspaper articles and government reports for a PhD thesis and now a book, called Global Warming and Climate Change: What Australia Knew and Buried … Then Framed a New Reality for the Public” (you can download a copy free from publisher ANU Press).

Taylor also interviewed about a dozen key insiders, including scientists, advisers, politicians and journalists. She says the fact that Australia was ready and willing to act 25 years ago has itself been a forgotten story. In the book Taylor explains how from the late 1980s industry groups, free market advocates and climate contrarians got to work to reframe the issue from the science to the economics.

By 1996 much of the damage was done. The advent of John Howard’s government ensured there would be no more genuine progress. Taylor charts how opponents helped reposition environment groups as being anti-jobs and against the national interest. The book documents how climate science deniers were promoted by “free market” think tanks to push uncertainty instead of risk.

She explains the shift to policies driven by “economic rationalism” meant that imposing regulations on polluting industries became close to impossible. Commenting on the policy announced this week by the US president, Barack Obama, to regulate greenhouse gases from the energy sector, Taylor says:

Vested interests

Among the documents reviewed by Taylor were some of the public relations messaging being developed and communicated in the late 80s by the fossil fuel industry and free-market groups. Taylor highlights two reports released in 1989 and 1992 by mining company CRA (a division of what became Rio Tinto) that “established the contrarian themes that came to dominate the decade”.

It went like this. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions would be expensive. Australia’s efforts to cut emissions would be tiny in a global context. The country’s economy would be damaged by action on emissions. Action would only hurt Australia’s export industries. Working to lower demand for energy would negatively impact people’s lifestyles.

Taylor writes that a 1992 CRA report questioned the integrity of scientists, asked if humans were causing global warming, pushed free market ideology as the only true choice, and suggested the media were being manipulated by totalitarians and conservation was the enemy of development.

Those arguments are easily recognisable as the same talking points being pushed today. The book shows how the momentum for action began to stall after Paul Keating successfully challenged Hawke for the Labor leadership and the top job in late 1991.

Insiders she spoke with told her Keating “really was not that interested in this issue” and his government started to promote a false dichotomy that you couldn’t protect the environment and support the economy at the same time.

One of the many ways the book shows how industry managed to impose its interests on policy was in the Howard government’s reliance on modelling from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics on the costs of particular climate policies.

The Howard government used these numbers to prosecute its cautious climate policy positions and to justify it through media articles.

That modelling was supported financially by the likes of the Australian Coal Association, the oil giant Exxon Mobil and the mining majors BHP and Rio Tinto.

Media echo

Taylor also leans on the findings of two 2001 books that revealed the influence of industry and free-market ideology on Australia’s greenhouse gas policy – Clive Hamilton’s Scorcher and Guy Pearce’s High and Dry.

Taylor says: 

“What really changed was the story that was told to the citizens. By both politicians and the media – working in tandem to set the agenda on what we should understand and believe.”

Reviewing news articles and government documents from the late 80s and early 90s, Taylor found “human responsibility for the ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’ was accepted” on practically every occasion. Taylor is critical of how, by 1997, many political and economic reporters were “dutifully scribing the story established by the business and political elite”.

“A point to make is the role of the media in Australia, which is so dominated by the Murdoch press. That played a key role, in a sense that as the 90s rolled on it was so much easier to get out a consistent narrative if you don’t have a really diverse press. From what I saw – and what the documentary evidence showed – the ABC did have a leadership role for a long time in informing the public about climate change, but it really drew back in the late 90s. There was no other story being told.”

Free-market neoliberal think-tanks, including the Institute of Public Affairs, promoted climate science denialist views and industry talking points that were picked up by the media. Groups supported by fossil fuel companies provided the “ingredients for cooking up confusion”, Taylor writes.

She says she wants Australians to be reminded of this forgotten history and how they were spun a story that rejected science and risk management in return for protecting the interests of the polluting industries.

“If as a society and as citizens we understand where we have been then we can more easily move on … and we can understand why there is such confusion and such a toxic debate that’s developed over a fairly simple story of risk management for the whole of society. If we know that, once, we thought differently and could do things differently, then we know we could do it again.”

For me, Taylor’s book shows how Australia could have acted on climate change a quarter of a century ago, but how corporate interests and economic ideologies not only stopped the clock on action, but wound it back.

Read the article at The Guardian