Maurice Newman: mad, bad or sad?

AAP/Julian Smith

Having a platform, albeit a modest one, from which to try and catch the world’s attention is a great privilege. The number of competing voices in the blogosphere means that the size of the audience is often far smaller than one might like. In this regard, newspapers are still in the ascendant and writing for them has a good deal more impact. No-one demonstrates this possibility more vividly, perhaps, than Maurice Newman.

One thing Newman is not short of is opinions, and very consistent ones at that. But as I never tire of telling students, having an opinion is one thing; having a decent argument that is actually supported by some relevant evidence is quite another. Clearly there’s a case for speculative and provocative op-eds that don’t necessarily pass the fact-check test, but that doesn’t mean that such facts should be wilfully ignored.

What makes Newman’s views so noteworthy is not just their predictability and consistency, but that they are so dramatically and wilfully at odds with the prevailing scientific consensus in the area about which he claims to speak with authority. This is not the place to rehearse the well-known debates about climate change, but to point out that this is grist to the mill for the conspiracy theorists on the other side of the debate.

The fact is, as Robert Manne among others has pointed out, that the Murdoch press generally and The Australian in particular really do give a lot of space to climate contrarians, sceptics and outright denialists, such as Newman.

I don’t have any problem with a range of opinions being offered on contentious subjects, but it is hard not to conclude that Newman’s highly contentious, regularly repeated views are received sympathetically at The Australian because they are ideologically compatible with that paper’s pro-business, pro-development agenda, and its owner’s own sceptical views.

What gives Newman’s views additional weight and credibility for some is that he is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council – something he never fails to include on his byline. Even if Newman’s views were simply confined to his relentless criticisms of the science of climate change, one might have thought this would have made him a rather embarrassing advisor for Tony Abbott. Now that Newman has embraced some of the more paranoid and/or laughable conspiracy theories about the United Nations, it is surely time for Abbott to disown him.

Newman’s latest in a long line of op-eds for The Australian claimed that Christina Figueres, a senior UN climate change official, is part of an authoritarian conspiracy to shut down the fossil fuel industry:

… the real agenda is concentrated political authority. Global warming is the hook … This is not about facts or logic. It’s about a new world order under the control of the UN. It is opposed to capitalism and freedom and has made environmental catastrophism a household topic to achieve its objective … In her authoritarian world there will be no room for debate or disagreement. Make no mistake, climate change is a must-win battlefield for authoritarians and fellow travelers.

This might be amusing if we read this on one of the many anti-UN, anti-climate change mitigation websites that proliferate and peddle delusional nonsense about powerful figures conspiring to impose a new world order. But when we read this in our only “serious” national newspaper then it rather ironically becomes easier to sympathise with Newman’s conspiracy theories – although not quite as he imagines them.

In Newman’s reading of the new world order it is the environmentalists who are in the ascendancy, of course, ably assisted by “compliant academics and an obedient and gullible mainstream media”. If only. Even the most cursory survey of the contemporary world serves as a reminder of the difficulty of achieving any kind of national, let alone international collective action on climate mitigation and much else besides.

In reality, chaos and disorder, not centralised authoritarian rule, are becoming more common. Sadly, the UN is most noteworthy for its inability to influence anything of importance. Capitalism remains the ascendant, unchallenged economic system, despite very real doubts about its compatibility – as currently configured, at least – with anything like a sustainable environment.

Maurice, your side is winning – more’s the pity.

It begs the question of what motivates Maurice? Does he have children, grandchildren? Just on the off-chance that the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists, the UN, and all of those limp-wristed liberals and greenies aren’t involved in an elaborate conspiracy to shut down capitalism, wouldn’t it be a good idea to at least consider the possibility that there actually might be something in all this climate change stuff?

You may not be around for much longer Maurice, but your offspring will. Being confident about your opinions doesn’t inevitably make them right. It is just possible that people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the climate rather than making money might know a bit more about it than you do.

Given the unprecedentedly difficult nature of understanding much less addressing the problem of a changing environment, a little intellectual humility all round might not be a bad thing.