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Changing climates

Groupthink perfected: how Australia is isolating itself over action on climate change

AAP/Alan Porritt

The announcement last week that no Australian government ministers would be attending the UN summit on climate change in Poland tomorrow is as embarrassing as it is serious.

In a previous post I had suggested that Australia was in danger of turning into a neolithic backwater in the stance the Abbott government is taking on climate change.

But then, on the other hand, the position Australia is taking is quite understandable. Currently, Australia has no effective policy on tackling climate change, and the Abbott government has instead been systematically dismantling all paths to mitigation, right at the point at which extreme weather - not just in Australia, but around the world - has become serialised.

What most explains the position of the Abbott government on climate is the extraordinary closure that can be witnessed amongst the power elite who have been working away at a hegemonic position on climate for years now.

It is not just that climate change has been politicised. Rather, it has become a topic of proactive ideological dogmatism, which has galvanised a media-political-industrial constellation of far-Right denialism.

But, as any ethnographer would tell us, it is best to describe groups in language they are comfortable with. So let’s leave denialism to one side and move to what The Australian newspaper has long editorialised as “groupthink”: a term that the ABC, independent journalists and climate scientists alike have been sullied with on many occasions.

In defining groupthink, we would be forgiven for consulting Wikipedia, just as members of the group we are seeking to understand seemingly would.

Groupthink is apparently:

…a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome…without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

One handy illustration will suffice here. It is the astounding tale of how a former PM, a mining magnate and several journalists have all stage-managed an argument hosted exclusively by The Australian, that can be traced to the extreme-Right apologist for global warming, Bjorn Lomborg.

It begins in earnest last week by showcasing views of mining magnate Hugh Morgan in an article by Andrew Burrell, that:

…the world’s climate scientists will be remembered in a similar vein to the “Chicken Little” theorists who published the apocalyptic tome The Limits to Growth more than 40 years ago.

According to the article, Hugh Morgan, described as a “long-time climate change skeptic”, has independently arrived at the assessment of a book by the Club of Rome - that the lesson to the IPCC was that:

The book illustrates the dangers of academics talking about things they know nothing about.

The following day, John Howard gave his “One Religion is Enough” speech to the pro-fracking, anti-wind turbine Global Warming Policy Foundation in London. He argued that climate change is as much as alarmist call to action as the Club or Rome’s forecast 40 years ago that there were limits to the growth of capitalism that may lead to food shortages.

They were experts; they predicted that the world would run out of resources to sustain itself. They were wrong.

Nevermind that the time-horizon of the Limits to Growth is actually 100 years, this obscure argument - not based on any newsworthy events of the last week - has culminated in one of the most reactionary editorials seen in The Australian for some time. Again, it is a betrayal of so much of the fine journalism that the paper is capable of.

The editorial might well be called “Groupthink perfected” as it even goes so far as to credit the paper itself with the powers of an abstract personality. It declares that, for the first time, it now defers to the science.

Because we have read the science and studied the economics, The Australian has accepted for almost two decades that burning fossil fuels is contributing to global warming.

But then, the same editorial goes on to cast further doubt on the fact of warming, the rate of warming, and climate change science.

The editors at The Australian have in common with Howard an overtly agnostic position - a form of personal heresy insurance - while rhetorically casting doubt on the validity of climate change at every turn without “critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences”.

Howard declared he read Lord Lawson’s denialist book An Appeal to Reason twice before giving last week’s speech, and has not read any other book on climate change.

In the same way, it seems the only author The Australian reads is one of the world’s leading firebrands for inaction on climate change: its own occasional columnist Bjorn Lomborg.

And here it can be revealed that the groupthink being directed at a so-not-in-the–news 40 year treatise on capitalism - that is being hosted by The Australian - all comes down to Lomborg, who wrote an equally obscure article in Foreign Affairs last year entitled:

Environmental alarmism, then and now: the Club of Rome’s problem - and ours.

It outlines the foundation argument being unattributably used by those in the groupthink tank: that The Limits of Growth hasn’t come true; and that the authors erred in assuming that they “overlooked human ingenuity”, which for Lomborg would ensure that we will never “bump into the planet’s physical limits”.

To compare the predictions of four authors - drawing on the uncharted techniques of computer-modelling - about the future of global capitalism with the science of climate change is completely irresponsible, and an affront to the tens of thousands of scientists who have provided the certainty we need to take action on climate change.

Nevertheless, Howard, Morgan and the editors at The Australian are all taking their cue from Lomborg to the point where independent thinking has all but vanished. There is a very strong echo chamber going on here that must be deafening for those inside it.

Unfortunately, they have spent so long in this chamber - which they feel bound to do because it is also a status group for them - that they cannot hear what is going on outside. They were afraid to do interviews when the NSW bushfires were on and are now afraid to go to Poland for the UN climate summit. These realities would be straying too far from the echo chamber.

So it is not just a matter of politicisation that is directed toward a voting audience (such as we saw with “stop the boats” for example), but a question of extreme ideological closure. Such closure is not simply about following a political line, but the echo chamber becomes a protective organ. In fact, the more extreme the weather that is raging outside the chamber - and the more IPCC reports that are handed down - the more such a status group really needs this chamber.

But of course, the riposte will be that the IPCC scientists are also in an echo chamber together with climate change activists. The problem the climate deniers have in arguing this is that with the IPCC, thousands of scientists have been working away for years on quite specialised areas of the science.

When all this science is brought together - which is what the IPCC’s purpose is - we find that all those scientists working in relative isolation have found evidence that all points to the same conclusion: we are heading for an unsustainably warm planet that no amount of “human ingenuity” will be able to resolve.

But as none of the groupthinkers seem to have the first clue about the reality of climate inertia, they believe that blind faith in individualism, entrepreneurship and “ingenuity” will one day save us. One religion indeed.

Standing at the entrance to the chamber are the climate bouncers, many wearing a greenwash grin. Environment minister Greg Hunt is suited perfectly to mediate between the chamber and the “real world” of policy outside, and should be at the summit. But politicians like Hunt have such a difficult job. They are going to have to be so vigilant in reproducing the ideological closure that exists between The Australian, Coalition politicians and the mining lobby.

This is because they not only risk isolating Australia from the rest of the world, but more importantly their own party from the electorate every time there is an extreme weather event.

The Australian is in also in peril - not from its subsidised annual loss-making - but because it is being slowly surrounded by media outlets that are suddenly accepting the science. The arrival of the media-climate equinox is even showing itself in News Corp outlets in unprecedented ways, which may soon leave The Australian looking like the last post, now needing to cover itself with heresy insurance.

Even Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and online News Corp outlet are producing articles that look like climate change activism, moreso than the usual feeble attempts at pseudo-“balanced” reporting.

The question is: will such gratuitously closed ideological positions be one day held accountable?

Here, I disagree with some of the more extreme positions from climate activists and bloggers — that one day, climate deniers and climate action obstructionists will need to be paraded before something akin to a crimes against humanity tribunal.

Certainly, the heresy of “groupthink” politicians and thinktank trolls in denying climate change may one day come back to haunt them. But perhaps it will not be in a “Climate Crimes Tribunal”. More than likely, it will just be on election days and in historical records.

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