This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.
The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics, and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.
Michael Mann is well known for his classic “hockey stick” work on global warming, for the attacks he has long endured from climate denialists, and for the good fight of communicating the environmental and political realities of climate change.
Mann’s work, including his recent book The Madhouse Effect, has helped me, as a dual US-Australian citizen, think about the similarities and differences between the US and Australia as we respond to what has been called the climate change denial machine.
In both countries, the denialists and distortionists have undermined public knowledge, public policy, new economic development opportunities, and the very value of the environment. Climate policy is being built upon alternative facts, fake news, outright lies, PR spin and industry-written talking points.
From the carbon industry capture of the two major parties, to the Abbott-Turnbull government parroting industry talking points, to coal industry lobbyists as government energy advisers, to the outright idiotic conspiracy pronouncements of senators funded and advised by the US-based denial machine, the Madhouse Effect is in full force in Australia.
How we can expose and counter this denialist machine? To partly lay out the task, I will discuss three points of contrast between the US and Australia.
There is a key difference between the two countries’ political cultures. As much as the denialists have determined Australian energy and climate policy, they have not been as successful, yet, at undermining deep-seeded respect in Australian culture for the common good, for science, for expertise and knowledge.
I left the US at the start of 2011. Living in Arizona, I had experienced the full weight of the racism, the white nationalism, the anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-fact atmosphere that has since spread all the way to the White House.
I used to tell people I left because Arizona had simply become anti-enlightenment. Folks really didn’t get it, until now, when it is the attitude that rules the country.
Shortly after I arrived in Australia, the then-prime minister, Tony Abbott, led an attack on the work of economist Ross Garnaut. Abbott slammed Garnaut’s 2011 report as anti-democratic. The report had simply pointed out the cost of climate inaction and the viability of putting a price on carbon.
Later, Abbott doubled down and dismissed the quality of Australian economists as a whole. Other denialists went further – Garnaut was called a fascist and was subject to the kind of attacks Mann is well familiar with.
Surprisingly to me, a good part of the public seemed appalled by Abbott’s trashing of an academic. This was seen an attack not just on a carbon price, or a policy recommendation, but on science and knowledge as a whole.
And there was the chief scientist on TV, defending the academy – and that’s when I learned Australia actually had a chief scientist, to whom the media paid attention. This is not something we had in Arizona.
Abbott wound up backing down from the worst of the criticism. The whole series of events illustrated to me, a new Australian, that there is a strong cultural norm here that supports science, that respects expertise and that understands that real knowledge should be used to inform good policy in the public interest.
It wasn’t a one-time event. Last year, when the government fired climate scientists at CSIRO, there was another huge public backlash. The government had to step back a bit, both on the actual science to be done and the radical agenda change away from science for the public good.
And again, when the government wanted to support the dubious work of Bjorn Lomborg, that caused an outcry from both the university sector and the public. Even though the government wound up paying more than A$600,000 on what The Australian called his “vanity book project”, they couldn’t import him and plant him at any Australian university.
As Mann says, the main issue in implementing good, sound climate policy is no longer simply the science. The main issue is the cultural understanding of, and respect for the role of science in informing political decisions.
That’s not to say there are no attacks on science – clearly, these continue (such as the recent challenges to normal Bureau of Meteorology practices). But, overall, climate denialists and their enablers are outnumbered outliers in Australia, rather the norm.
The power of the carbon industry
My second point of comparison is not quite as positive.
The problem in Australia is less a culture turning against the Enlightenment, and more the direct political power and influence of the carbon industry. This is most evident not just in our poor emissions and climate policies, but also in the fact the Australian government is hell-bent on sabotaging an entire industrial sector.
I honestly do not understand how the sabotage of the renewables industry in Australia – an all-out attack on a clearly promising and innovative sector – is not treated as a form of industrial treason.
We have had a set of politicians, under the influence of a dying industry, undermining one of the most promising areas of our own economy. They do so for the sole benefit of carbon diggers, at the expense of the rest of Australia, of the next generation and of the planet.
And the justification for this is all based on falsehoods and lies, straight from the PR team of the carbon industry. We hear arguments for energy security, energy poverty and clean coal; we hear that renewables undermine the reliability of the grid. It’s all absolute bullshit.
Further reading: On the origins of environmental bullshit
But, again, even here I think there is some hope. We have seen, over the last few years, an incredible coalition grow – one focused on the end of carbon mining, on protecting communities, on creating real jobs, and on supporting renewables.
Once-unthinkable coalitions of farmers and Aboriginal communities are fighting new mines, new attacks on sacred and fertile land and water.
We have intensive household investment in rooftop solar – and as the feed-in tariffs are undermined, those folks will increasingly invest in battery storage. And we’re finally seeing states move in this direction, with increasing development of utility-scale renewable and storage projects. As hard as the federal government and its allies resist, renewables are growing and the public supports this – even conservative voters.
This industry will be the innovator, the job creator, the future of this country’s energy system. That is a movement – a transformation – that now seems inevitable even in the face of the carbon industry, its political allies and their outright attacks on innovation.
Impacts and adaptation
There is one other important point to make in comparing the US and Australia – and maybe it is the most dire.
All of this talk, about the science, about the power of the denialist machine, about post-truth and the sabotage of renewables, is all about one side of the climate issue: emissions.
The other side, which is crucial to us here in Australia, is how we adapt to the climate change the denialist machine has baked into our future. This nice stable period of the last 10,000 years, the Holocene, in which humanity has evolved, built our cities, our infrastructure, our supply chains, the expectations of our everyday lives – is over.
Climate change means change, and Australia is already facing it in more severe ways than the US.
So adaptation is the next battle, and it must be just. We know who benefits from denialism and the sabotage of renewables. And it is pretty straightforward who will be harmed most if we don’t plan for coming change. We know who dies in heatwaves, for example – the poor, the elderly, those who live alone, those without resources.
This is happening right here. The Rockefeller-funded Resilient Sydney project found that the number one chronic stress is increasing health services demand, which is crucial to resilience in Western Sydney during heatwaves. If we don’t attend to that, vulnerable people will continue to die every time it heats up.
Further reading: How people can best make the transition to cool future cities
Australia needs to face up to adaptation planning on a large scale – rather than cut funds to the good work already being done. We need to focus on giving those most vulnerable to climate change a fair go by looking after their needs first.
One promising step is that the Sydney Environment Institute, with colleagues in Planetary Health and Public Health at the University of Sydney, are establishing a new research hub for NSW OEH on the Health and Social Impacts of Climate Change.
We have also partnered with Resilient Sydney to examine the actual experience of communities in shock events – the impacts on people and how policy responses can be improved. This work is all about adapting to the complex impacts of climate change in fair and just ways.
Overall, then, yes, Australia has industry-led denialists creating a madhouse effect, just as Mann writes about in the US.
But my hope is that we can use our broad political culture of respect for science and for the fair go to resist denialism and the coal profiteers, to implement a post-carbon energy transformation, and adapt fairly and justly to the inevitable changes the denial industry has locked in here.
Michael Mann is taking part in a panel discussion, The Madhouse Effect: What is Stopping Action on Climate Change?, from 6.30-8pm on Wednesday, August 16, as part of the Sydney Science Festival. This article is an edited and revised version of comments given in response to Mann’s February 8 talk on The Madhouse Effect, organised by the University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute.
You can read other pieces in the post-truth series here.
The Democracy Futures series is a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.