In 1989, Prime Minister Bob 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.
The next year, Hawke announced his government wanted the country to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the year 2005.
State governments had response strategies in place. Politicians were largely on board. So was the media. The public understood the science and the huge risks of not acting.
So what happened?
When Paul Keating became leader in 1991, momentum stalled. He wasn’t really interested in the risks of global warming, suggesting that you couldn’t protect the environment and support the economy at the same time.
Gradually, corporate interest replaced public interest. Industry groups, free market advocates and climate contrarians got to work to reframe the issue from the science to the economics.
Opponents helped reposition environment groups as being anti-jobs and against the national interest. Climate science deniers were promoted by “free market” thinktanks to push uncertainty instead of risk. Groups supported by fossil fuel companies provided the “ingredients for cooking up confusion”.
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. Scientists are exaggerating the risk just to get funding. Human activity isn’t causing global warming. The climate has always changed.
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. Somehow, we were persuaded by vested interests to doubt what we already knew.
Thirty years later, instead of heeding the warning given us by the experts, we are listening to Tony Abbott, Craig Kelly and Malcolm Roberts about climate change. We are listening to Ray Hadley and Andrew Bolt. We are listening to the Minerals Council and the IPA. We are listening to the fossil fuel industry as they try to squeeze the last cent of profit that they can from a ravaged planet. We are listening to Donald Trump for pity’s sake.
We are told that it is too expensive to take action even as Moody’s Analytics tells us that the combined economic hit from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria could end up being $200bn or more. Even as we spend $400 billion on weapons of war.
In fact, as extreme weather events increase in ferocity around the world, the phrases global warming and climate change are rarely mentioned in media coverage.
We have wasted so much time. If we are to fend off the worst possible outcomes of climate change, if we are to bequeath our children a liveable planet, we need to shift as quickly as possible to a cleaner energy system.
We could expect more Australians to get on board with that solution if they more fully understood the problem – and that’s where the critical role of the media comes in. We need our journalists to step up to the plate, to highlight the increasing damage being caused to a warming planet, to press the urgency of taking action, and to remind us of what we once knew.