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The Propaganda Machine

In recent weeks there has been much commentary about the formation of Bjorn Lomborg’s “Consensus Centre” within the halls of the University of Western Australia. We have been aggrieved at the profligate use of taxpayer funds during a “budget crisis”. We are offended, but hardly surprised, at the disbanding of the independent Climate Council, saving $1.5m at the cost of losing internationally-recognised expert climate change opinion, followed by a $4m grant to the Consensus Centre, whose methodology and outcomes are universally panned. We have been repeatedly shamed by our government in its statements and actions on the world stage in relation to climate change, and this latest move is simply the most recent in a long list.

However, the issue goes deeper than this. Beyond our anger at the heedless use of money and the slap in the face to reputable Australian scientists whose contributions are valued far more cheaply than an imported demagogue; beyond our shame at being led by people who not only deny the recognised scientific truth but who paint Australia (and the rest of the world) as misled fools; and beyond our bemusement that our government could lend support to, and expect support from, an internationally derided charlatan who is good at manufacturing numbers. Beyond these things is the undeniable fact that our government is spending our money in an attempt to lie to us more effectively.

The Consensus Centre is a propaganda machine. Nothing more, nothing less.

I have written before about the cruel bind in which the Coalition finds itself. It is in the unusual, perhaps unique, position of having been voted into power to rule over a people who disagree with its central beliefs. The outcomes of such a conflict are seen in the 2014 budget – a budget true to the Coalition’s ideology, but absolutely rejected by the vast majority of the Australian people. We see the conflict in a hundred big and little ways, from the attempts to squeeze pensioner entitlements to the risible knighthood for Prince Philip. We have seen it in the government’s attitude to climate change: a conflict which will only grow as the outcomes of climate change become progressively more undeniable, as the rest of the world leaves Australia in the dust on climate change action, and as Australia’s coal assets become progressively more undesirable.

Our government, in toto, does not believe in climate change. We are led by a Prime Minister who, recent avowals that climate change is real notwithstanding, still truly believes that “The climate change argument is absolute crap”. Tony Abbott presides over a government whose overriding principle is to promote and support the continued use of coal for energy, both as an ideological position and an economic imperative. Australia’s current economy relies absolutely on coal, and everything the Coalition has done since coming to power has simply increased that dependence.

For the Coalition, the imperative is clear. Put simply, there are only two possible ways to make sense of the government’s avowed acceptance that climate change is happening and humans are responsible, and its actions upon coming to government.

  1. The first possibility is that the government does believe in climate change and sees future climate action as inevitable. However, Australia stands to lose, and lose big, if it accepts this publicly and is forced into action. Reforging the Australian economy as a 21st century society is seen as far too hard, a preferable approach being to deliberately sabotage and delay consensus in any way possible. In this way it can support its own temporary position, granting two or more terms of government, notwithstanding Australia’s increasing reliance on fossil fuels. In this analysis, the short term benefit which accrues to Australia and to the current cadre of politicians will eventually and inevitably lead to dire outcomes for Australia and likely disrepute for members of the current government. The current government’s actions to date do not appear to indicate that they particularly fear disrepute.

  2. The second probability is that the government really doesn’t believe in climate change. It has chosen to accept the (well under) three percent of scientists who profess any doubts at all. It prefers to listen to economists and accountants and fossil fuel lobby groups, to Heartland Institutes and Peers of the Realm, instead of the vast weight of scientific consensus in Australia and abroad. If you don’t believe in climate change, the only position with integrity is to frustrate the creation of any kind of global, binding emissions standards. To long-time watchers, it is quite clear that this government does not believe in climate change. The Emissions Reduction Fund that Greg Hunt is so proud of was always going to be a success because, in the government’s eyes, it is not expected to address any real problems, only political ones.

Thus we see Australia’s obstructive approach to global standards and agreements. We see Tony Abbott dismantling and disbanding and defunding every climate change body over which he has the least power. It’s a rearguard battle, one that will be lost, and soon, but the Coalition can’t afford to recognise that or they will see that a large portion of their policy platform is bankrupt.

At the same time, they recognise that the real fight is not against science. The unstated position of the Coalition is that the science is wrong, that the world is wrong. The Coalition does not intend to fight on that battlefield; the science is not the main game. The main game, for any political party at any time, is the beliefs of the people and the fight for re-election.

Thus the Consensus Centre. The Centre is the Coalition’s next piece of artillery in the war for the minds of the people.

The climate change war of ideas in Australia has not yet been won.

A large proportion of Australians accept the truth of AGW, at least intellectually, but there remains a reluctance to accept the ramifications. Tony Abbott knows this. The anti-renewable lobby knows this and is relying on it.

“The politics of this are tough for us. Eighty per cent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger.” That was Tony Abbott’s unguarded commentary at the same event where he made the infamous “total crap” comment. In the government’s eyes, the problem is not climate change, desertification, the loss of arable land, or global action to decarbonise the world’s energy and bankrupt Australia’s coal economy. In the government’s eyes, the problem is the people, and their stupid belief in “the global warming religion” (as Tony Abbott’s chief business advisor, Maurice Newman, calls it).

The real purpose of Consensus Centre is not science. It is propaganda.

Lomborg is being paid to manage the “tough politics”, not to actually influence the science of climate change. The saying goes “Lies, damn lies and statistics…”, and this might be doubly true for an institution such as Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre, the body on which UWA’s Consensus Centre will be modelled. “[Lomborg] is famous for using economic modelling as a mercenary gun for hire, saleable to governments and jurisdictions requiring climate inaction, climate distraction, or just straight-out climate crisis denial.

On the surface, Lomborg’s Consensus methodology seems reasonable, perhaps even visionary. On the basis that we cannot fix all the problems in the world, Lomborg attempts to prioritise the various issues across the globe in terms of best return on money invested. The Consensus Centre methodology is primarily an economic one, and it judges climate change to be a low priority. It does this on the basis that addressing climate change will be very expensive for comparatively little gain. If this were true, there would be some validity to Lomborg’s approach. Unfortunately, this result can only be arrived at through underestimating the impacts of climate change, underestimating the amount of benefit global action could bring to the problem, and overestimating the cost of these efforts. Lomborg uses the “locked-in” climate change that is currently unavoidable to argue that our efforts to address climate change will be largely in vain, deliberately ignoring the exponential increase in climate damage that will come about if we don’t address global warming. He also claims that the required cost of decarbonising the world economy is too expensive, and our efforts would be better spent addressing more modest issues.

The consensus methodology is specifically intended to apply economic modelling to produce a predetermined outcome. This is the antithesis of science. Science operates on the basis of disproving hypotheses, measuring real-world data in order to be sure that it matches the theory. In science, there is no room to adjust the parameters of reality to make the answers say what you want.

In statistics, on the other hand, if the result comes out counter to what you hoped, you have the ability to change the inputs, say by valuing people in different places with different economic worths.

Lomborg’s Consensus Centre methodology has no academic credibility. “Within the research community, particularly within the economics community, the Bjorn Lomborg enterprise has no academic credibility. It is seen as an outreach activity that is driven by specific set of objectives in terms of bringing particular messages into the public debate and in some cases making relatively extreme positions seem more acceptable in the public debate.”

Fighting back without fighting

The Abbott’s government propaganda efforts are seeming more and more like George Orwell’s 1984. We are being led by a government that actively works to silence dissent; that seeks to criminalise protest; that has access to secret police and legislation that can effectively make its citizens disappear without trace, announcement or recourse; a government whose defining characteristic from well before it was elected was that it lied to the people it sought to govern. Now that same government is using taxpayer money to help set up a body with the primary purpose of lying to its electors more effectively.

When your government actively engages in deliberate propaganda, what can a concerned citizen do?

Some have proposed campaigns of civil disobedience. However, the March in March rallies, union actions, or currently the thousands-strong marches in protest of the closure of indigenous communities appear to have little effect on the extraordinary thick-skinned government. Following each rally, government ministers and conservative columnists pop up to say things like “Twenty thousand people marched, but that means four million people did not” and “These are union troublemakers, not ordinary people” and “We will not be swayed from what’s right [in our opinion]”. Does that mean that we should not march?

Obviously not. It may be too much to expect that the government would pay attention to the desires of its people when they go directly against Coalition ideology. But the one thing that currently separates this government from facism is our system of free elections. It is only at the ballot box that we can expect to address the wants of this government. So we must fight – not to change government policy, but to keep its failings in clear view. We must keep up the protests at the lies.

We must also be informed. We cannot rely on this government to give us the information we require to make effective decisions at the next election; in fact, this government relies on its people not receiving, or not paying attention to, real information on climate change, on the economy, on the budget and on asylum seekers. We must keep reading (and writing in) independent media vehicles such as the AIMN. We should bear in mind that most of what we hear from politicians and establishment media is liable to be designed to keep the populace misinformed and compliant. And we should keep our sources of primary information close to hand.

On climate change, to counter the “modelling” of the new Consensus Centre, there are a variety of primary sources. Skeptical Science is a vital resource. For those interested in understanding not just the truth of climate change, but the reasons behind ongoing climate change denial, this author can recommend the free online course Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, offered by the University of Queensland via ed-X. The course largely consists of a range of short online videos and interested participants can put as much, or as little, time into it as they prefer.

Whatever your preferred approach, however, just bear this in mind: your government is lying to you.

It’s the environment, stupid

climate-change-economy-aurich-lawson-ars-technica

In the aftermath of the 2013 Australian election, I spoke to a variety of my friends and colleagues about the core issues that motivated my voting intention. Chief amongst these was the issue of climate change, and the various parties’ approach to Labor’s ETS or another alternative. I voted below the line and took into account several important areas of policy, to the extent it was known, but the primary consideration for me was climate change.

In many cases during my discussions, I was disheartened to hear that climate change just wasn’t top of mind for these people I valued. For them, other issues took priority: Australia’s budget, its productivity, its two-tiered economy. There were others for whom provision of healthcare, education, housing and social benefits were of higher import. And there were some for whom the key issue was the two parties’ policies on refugees and boat arrivals.

What people perhaps fail to fully understand is that climate change will fundamentally alter every aspect of life and governance in this country and around the world. It is already having adverse effects on health, on productivity, on national economies and on food production. And all the scientists tell us that we are on the cusp of a downward slope, that things will get far worse from here.

Already we can see some of the effects of climate change on the front pages of our daily news. In early 2013, a report was published indicating that the 2012-2013 Sydney summer was the hottest on record. That was before the current summer of bushfires began. When every summer becomes the “hottest ever”, we have to start wondering about where the trend will lead. 2013 has seen climatic extremes across the globe: from  floods to blizzards, from droughts to heat waves, from tornadoes to wildfires, all of the linked events are record breaking or without precedent. But climate disasters, even when they directly affect people, are remote in comparison to daily pressures of life. They’re too big to easily comprehend as an immediate and pressing concern.

What seems needed is a connection between the oncoming threat of climate change and the pressing policy areas that do concern people. When the protest is made that money spent on carbon abatement could be better spent on hospitals, real information on the healthcare impacts of climate change is needed. When western Sydney voters are concerned about the tide of boat-borne refugees, a cold-eyed view of the millions of people who will be displaced from our asian neighbours (due more to loss of habitable land and food yields than to rising sea levels, although both are important) might help put the numbers in perspective.

There is one specific objection to prioritising climate change mitigation efforts and carbon abatement policy, and it’s a doozy. Under both Labor and the incoming Coalition government, Australia’s prosperity relies upon a continued efficiency in extracting mineral and fossil fuel wealth from our abundant reserves and selling them overseas. Under the newly elected Coalition, it is likely that this reliance on resource mining will increase, rather than decrease, as the government dismantles Labor’s perfunctory efforts at wealth transfer from the resources sector to high-tech industries and manufacturing. The Coalition’s rabid determination to vilify and destroy the “carbon tax” (more accurately described as an emissions trading scheme) is underpinned by this unspoken need to prop up Australia’s cash cow. Nothing can be allowed to interrupt the gravy train of that lovely, lovely brown coal. If they were to give an inch, to allow the ETS to continue, it wouldn’t be long until greenies were making cogent arguments about Australia’s net carbon export via its sale of coal to China and India. Failing a rational answer to such arguments, and unwilling to be the government under which Australia’s GNP collapsed, the best solution for the Coalition is to keep the fight focused on domestic use of energy.

On the wrong side of history

But the Coalition, as well as Labor and the whole of the nation, are caught up in the march of history. Cutting back on climate change priorities is a false economy. It will hurt us in the long run – not just environmentally, but financially.

Wind-generated power is currently cheaper than coal, and solar is not far behind. A little extra investment and solar power could take care of all Australia’s energy needs. Australia has, or had, some world-leading researchers and companies in the field of renewable energy, and it has wide-open spaces with very few people and plenty of sun and wind. Australia is a prime potential for development of economically viable renewable energy, removing our own need for fossil fuels, but also giving us high-tech energy generation to sell to other countries. Doing so would be costly. But the cost would be borne almost entirely by those energy companies already heavily invested in fossil fuels. Make no mistake: the average Australian would not suffer greatly from an immediate moratorium on coal mining. It is big companies, who hold long-term leases on prime coal-bearing land and whose net company worth is supported almost entirely on the coal still in the ground, which would be most affected. See Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math – I’ve linked to this article before but it deserves it.

Just because Australia has access to all this lovely, lovely coal doesn’t mean the rest of the world is standing still. As other nations implement carbon trading schemes, as new energy generation methods become available and economical, and as shale gas and other fossil fuels become increasingly exploited, the demand for coal and oil will decrease. Australia faces a growing risk of becoming the kid in the corner hawking his trading cards when the rest of the school has moved on to He-Man figures.

The long-term argument against coal goes along the following lines: the rapid emergence of shale gas, falling renewable energy costs, air pollution regulations, governance issues, action on climate change, changing social norms and worsening water constraints are putting pressure on coal’s competitiveness.  – King Coal running out of luck

This may be partly why the Coalition is desperate to clear regulatory blockages to large-scale shale gas (fracking) projects in this country. The writing is on the wall for coal, and Australia will quickly lose its competitive advantage. Then we really will be the poor white trash of Asia.

What would it take?

For every objection to the prioritisation of climate policy (beyond the frankly unworthy “it’s not happening, not listening, nyah nyah nyah”), it is possible to make a case that climate change will have a dramatic deleterious impact.

Regardless, there remain those for whom climate change is not an immediate priority. The question must be asked, what would make it an immediate priority? Will it require the displacement of millions and a logarithmic increase in climate refugees reaching Australia? At what point does the loss of much of Australia’s food production capacity trigger our concern? We’re already facing annual floods/fires/heatwaves/climate events – how far does it have to go before we see the signs? Will the recognition of a “new normal” of climate events and weather spur us to action, or will it simply move us past action to despair? When the tides are swamping our cities and sucking at our toes, will we perhaps think that climate change may be worth our investment?

By the time these things come about, it will be far too late to change them. It may already be too late. Immediate, desperate, strong action may yet provide us a chance to partially mitigate the damage. But we need to make climate change a priority.

Unfortunately those who don’t want to spend money and opportunity now to combat a remote threat from the future are the same kinds of people who don’t want to invest now to build capacity for the future. They’re the economic rationalists, and they’re in charge of the funhouse.

Co-published on Random Pariah

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