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Democracy is failing the planet

The planet is struggling to survive democracy, but the only alternative is to improve it.

The carbon tax bills passed by the Australian House of Representatives on October 12 were a small vindication of climate science. But we should be concerned about the corpses of science, reason and expertise that democracy is leaving in its wake.

In April this year the following proposition was put to the US House of Representatives: “Congress accepts the scientific findings … that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.”

The House, dominated by the Tea Party, voted by 240-184 to reject the basic propositions of climate science, as if American law-makers had a mandate to vote down the laws of physics.

Since the founding of modern science, matters of fact have been established through the common assent of those qualified to judge using the rules of science laid down in the 17th century by the Royal Society. The break from the past lay in the fact that the “potency of knowledge came from nature, not from privileged persons”. This is the foundation of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason.

However, the practices of democracy at times do not sit comfortably with the best advice of those most qualified and knowledgeable.

Over the last decade or so, politically driven climate deniers have adroitly used the instruments of democratic practice to erode the authority of professional expertise. They have attempted, with considerable success, to undermine the authority of climate science by skilful exploitation of a free media, appeal to freedom of information laws, the mobilisation of a group of vociferous citizens, and the promotion of their own to public office.

In this way, democracy has defeated science.

And not just in the United States. In Australia, those who reject the established rules of science now occupy positions of great influence. The chairman of the ABC, the head of the Catholic Church, the editor-in-chief of the national daily newspaper, our most famous poet, our loudest squawking shock jock, and the alternative Prime Minister are deniers one and all.

These are men who reject the rules of science laid down in the Enlightenment, who believe every scientific academy in the world is engaged in a giant conspiracy to deceive us, and who use the instruments of democracy to try to prevent us from protecting ourselves, our children and future generations from an unpleasant future in a hothouse world.

John Keane is a world expert on democracy. In his great tome on The Life and Death of Democracy he tells us that democracy must be “freed from the pride and prejudice of moguls and magnates”. Is our democracy free from the pride and prejudice of Twiggy Forrest, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer?

Professor Keane writes that democracy “thrives on humility”. But is it not the pinnacle of hubris for scientifically unqualified politicians like Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin to believe that they know better than every science academy in the world?

If democracy is a “codeword for humility” then we must live in a dictatorship. It is this dictatorship of ignorance that is failing the planet.

Our opponents will tell you not to worry, that democracy will soon catch up with science and everything will turn out well. Sadly, science says otherwise.

Science says carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for a thousand years, and that by the time democracy catches up with scientific truth the horse will have bolted.

In an interview last month, Australia’s alternative Prime Minister was asked why he shares platforms with people who accuse CSIRO scientists of being crooks and frauds, of engaging in a conspiracy. He replied: “the CSIRO obviously has a position”.

What a revealing slip. For him science is just another form of politics, and scientific bodies are just political actors, like the Australian Coal Association and Greenpeace.

So in Mr Abbott’s world the Garvan Institute “has a position” on the link between smoking and lung cancer, the Geological Society of Australia “has a position” on the age of the Earth, and the Australian Institute of Physics “has a position” on the general theory of relativity.

We thought he was a conservative, but Mr Abbott is the ultimate post-modernist, one who believes that all science is socially constructed, that the accumulation of evidence is governed by ideology, that science and belief cannot be distinguished.

A free press is essential to democracy. There can be no real democracy without a well-informed citizenry. But a free press can also subvert the democratic process, and there is no better illustration of this danger than the relentless campaign by Rupert Murdoch’s broadsheet the Australian to subvert climate science. This campaign was described in devastating detail by Robert Manne in his recent Quarterly Essay.

Here is a newspaper that loves to ridicule our most distinguished scientists and devotes acres of space to the ravings of climate deniers like the loopy Lord Monckton.

Murdoch’s News Ltd accounts for 70% of newspaper circulation in Australia. They are dominated by climate denying zealots, like Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Christopher Pearson and Piers Ackerman.

These are ideological warriors bent on defeating environmentalism. They remind me of the US major in the Vietnam War who famously said that it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it from communism. Murdoch’s climate deniers now find it necessary to destroy the world in order to save it from environmentalism.

The democratic right of the Australian to tell lies about climate science has set back action on climate change in this country by a decade. We would be well-served if the Australian went the way of that other pillar of the Murdoch empire, the News of the World. Hacking the phone of a dead schoolgirl is unforgivable, yet when the News of the World is but a distant memory we will be living every day with the consequences of the Australian’s war on science.

I confess I have been a casualty of that war. I once acknowledged that some people have become so alarmed at our failure to respond to the scientific warnings that they have talked about suspending democracy. I have always rejected the idea as impractical and, well, anti-democratic, declaring over and over that the failure of democracy calls for the reinvigoration of democracy. But that has not stopped the Australian repeatedly claiming that I have called for the suspension of democracy. It is too good a lie not to repeat.

It is because too many lies are being told that democracy is failing the planet. Yet we have no alternative but to use democracy to save democracy from failing the planet.

This article is taken from Clive’s contribution to an IQ2 debate, City Recital Hall, Sydney, 11 October 2011.

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