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How climate denial gained a foothold in the Liberal Party, and why it still won’t go away

Senator Ian Macdonald, pictured here speaking against the carbon tax in 2014, has since described human-induced climate change as “farcical and fanciful”. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

How climate denial gained a foothold in the Liberal Party, and why it still won’t go away

It seems the Liberal Party is still having trouble letting go of climate denial, judging by the New South Wales branch’s demand that the Turnbull government arrange a series of public debates on climate science.

Leaving aside the fact that this kind of town hall debate would only entrench opposing viewpoints rather than making scientific headway (a task best left to peer-reviewed journals), it is not the only recent example of Liberal Party members seeking to stoke doubts over the reality of climate change.

Last September, Liberal National Party senator Ian Macdonald told the federal parliament that Australia’s children have been “brainwashed” about human-induced climate change, which he described as “a fad or a farce or a hoax” and “farcical and fanciful”.

Two months earlier, Macdonald’s fellow LNP MP George Christensen attended the Heartland Institute’s climate sceptic conference. There he described climate concerns as “hysteria” and the stuff of science fiction.

And a month before that, rural Liberals called for a parliamentary inquiry into climate science, while urging Australia not to sign any binding agreement at December’s Paris climate talks.

This pervasive climate scepticism might make it look like this is a longstanding position within the Liberal Party. But history tells rather a different story.

The forgotten history of Liberal climate positions

Journalist Paul Kelly’s 1992 book The End of Certainty documents how the then opposition leader, John Howard, called for a firmer pro-environment stance after his party’s 1987 election defeat.

The following year, with climate change making headlines around the world in the wake of NASA scientist James Hansen’s US congressional testimony, Howard’s shadow environment minister Chris Puplick undertook what Kelly describes as an “exhaustive consultation” on the issue. The result was a 1989 policy paper, which paved the way for a 1990 Liberal federal election platform that called for deeper emissions cuts than Labor’s.

In his excellent 2007 book High and Dry, the author and former Liberal speechwriter Guy Pearse reports how in the mid-1990s he offered to work with the Australian Conservation Foundation to canvass Coalition MPs to “find the most promising areas of common ground – initiatives we could work on together when the party finally came to federal office”.

Pearse wrote that the ACF was “enthusiastic, if a little bemused at the novelty of a Liberal wanting to work with them”. Most Liberal MPs – including future environment minister Robert Hill and future prime minister Tony Abbott – were “strongly supportive” of the idea. However, other Liberals (Pearse names Eric Abetz and Peter McGauran) were “paranoid that some kind of trap was being laid”.

In late 1997, just before the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, a delegation of Liberals urged Howard, who by now was prime minister, to accept emissions targets and a global agreement. This group was led by John Carrick, a respected party figure who had in the early 1980s invoked climate change as an argument for nuclear power. Howard was not swayed.

His 11 years in office were characterised by repeated retreats from climate policies such as emissions trading, despite the efforts of cabinet members such as Hill. Howard resisted a cabinet call for emissions trading in 2003. He also ignored repeated similar pleas from business groups such as the Australia Climate Group in 2004 and the Australian Business Climate Roundtable in 2006.

It was only in 2007 – amid a perfect storm of damaging drought, the impact of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the UK Stern Review (both released in 2006), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, and the political rise of Kevin Rudd – that the Liberals were forced to accede to an emissions plan of their own.

Conservative instincts

The issue has only grown more controversial for the Liberals in the years since. In 2014, the distinguished journalist Michael Gawenda wrote:

Five years ago [in 2009], close to a majority of the parliamentary Liberal Party, including Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and the current Environment Minister Greg Hunt, were emphatic supporters of an [emissions trading scheme] – Liberals who accepted the scientific consensus on climate change.

Contrast that with the party’s 2013 federal election campaign, which largely hinged on Tony Abbott’s pledge to repeal the carbon price.

Climate change has been a major problem for conservative parties around the world. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, an early proponent of action on ozone and climate change, later recanted. Her final book, Statecraft, published in 2003, includes a passage headed “Hot air and global warming”.

Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s alleged “climate bromance” of inaction with Abbott has been well documented. British Prime Minister David Cameron, despite previously urging voters to “vote blue, go green”, reportedly told ministers in 2013 to “cut the green crap” from energy bills.

But previous generations of conservative leaders have been much more eager to actually conserve things. It was a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who established US national parks, and Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency. In Australia, Liberal prime minister John Gorton created the Commonwealth Office of the Environment, and Malcolm Fraser (albeit under pressure) established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Too wicked a problem?

Lest anyone assume that this is an issue only for the Liberals, it should be noted that the Australian Labor Party’s climate policies have hardly been consistent, veering from indifference under Paul Keating, to grave moral challenge under Rudd, and finally the “art of the possible” under Julia Gillard. Meanwhile, the arcane accounting rules around the Kyoto Protocol have allowed both Labor and Liberal governments to draw a veil over the true progress.

As economist Ross Garnaut warned in 2008, it may be that the problem is simply too wicked for our democratic system to cope.

But with the Paris climate agreement signed, we need action not words. As for the value of holding official debates about the veracity of climate science – well that’s debatable at best.

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