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Greenhouse mafia's scorching approach to climate change

Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change, by Clive Hamilton. Black Inc., Australia, 2007. ISBN 9780977594900. RRP $29.95.

Greenhouse mafia's scorching approach to climate changeOnce I had a discussion about the future with a Minister in the Irish Government. He told me not to worry about it too much. 'Posterity,' he said, 'has never done anything for us.' Climate change is about the future; but a future which creeps up on us every day. It threatens living standards, lifestyles, quality of life, all the aspirational clichés of human existence. It’s not comfortable to think about.

No wonder people hope for arguments which suggest it will go away. The discussion about climate change has become increasingly feverish, polemical and downright dishonest. So, I should state my own position right at the beginning.

I’m a lay person who believes that the overwhelming consensus of international scientists is correct. Climate change is happening, it is substantially contributed to by human activity and particularly the burning of fossil fuels. If we can, we should do something about it. I think we owe something to posterity.

Clive Hamilton, the author of Scorcher, has been pretty consistent on environmental issues over the years and about climate change. In 1999 the Australia Institute, of which he is the Director, published a damning report which alleged that Australia had the highest level of Greenhouse gas emissions per person of any industrialised country in the world.

In Scorcher, he follows up the issues worldwide, from the international negotiations leading to the signing of the Kyoto agreement to the various strategies adopted by countries in response to growing awareness of the implications of global warming.

The big question is why Australia, an apparently enthusiastic signatory of the Kyoto agreement (subject to special conditions) not only failed to ratify Kyoto but actively sought to undermine its influence. In the Australian context, the sub-title of Hamilton’s book The dirty politics of climate change tells us something of the answers to this question.

In fact, this is very much a book about the pollution of Australian democratic processes by a combination of self-interested corporations, an ignorant and apathetic media (with some exceptions) and a spineless government manipulated by a prime minister who failed to comprehend important issues which fell outside the narrow confines of his political imagination.

If Clive Hamilton were only half right , and I believe this well documented book is a lot more than half right, then it is a shameful story.

It is a story of government bureaucrats reacting to the apparent influence of environmentalists and of the formation of a self-styled 'greenhouse mafia' (formed principally from executives of the mining, coal, aluminium and energy sectors), which became enormously influential in government decision making.

Greenhouse mafia's scorching approach to climate changeIn its period of greatest influence this group sometimes had direct access to cabinet papers, held secret meetings with the prime minister and a few of his close colleagues, and on one occasion in 2003 had a cabinet decision (supported by all government agencies other than Finance) reversed after two members of the 'greenhouse mafia' (Rio Tinto and Alcoa) lobbied the Prime Minister.

A lot of things happened because of the cosy relationship between the 'greenhouse mafia' and the prime minister. Australian delegations to international negotiations on climate change were largely comprised of representatives from the major polluting companies. The renewable energy industry (solar, wind power, etc) became the enemy, to be discouraged as a potential alternative to the fossil fuel industry.

The government showed itself willing to accept flawed modelling from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics so long as it agreed with the government’s position. It even used material from this source to try to frighten developing countries about aspects of the Kyoto agreement.

The CSIRO suffered a different fate, with pressure being exerted on scientists not to talk about climate change and one, Dr Graeme Pearman, being effectively sacked. This was all part of government attempts to manipulate public opinion, a task which included the appointment of a tame Chief Scientist who happened to also be Chief Technologist at Rio Tinto.

Hamilton describes the government’s strategy on climate change as 'do nothing at home and work hard to prevent others taking action'. So there was encouragement of apathy here because of a loathing of environmentalism and 'feverish activity abroad' to protect the interests of the coal export industry.

In the Australian context, Hamilton writes, 'the government was ... enamoured of green consumerism'; green energy, hybrid cars, all that sort of stuff, which laudable though it may be 'contributes to the progressive privatisation of responsibility for environmental degradation'. The more individuals are made to feel responsible for the problem the less the onus on the government, which should be providing leadership and policy direction on such a significant issue.

For a long time the public was relatively apathetic about global warming: neither alert nor particularly alarmed. The tide turned during 2006, probably as a result of a long drought, very hot summers and the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. Now, suddenly it’s an election issue, a frantic struggle for credibility. In the meantime, Australia has lost ten years and our political system has been guided into further disrepute. It’s this part of the story which makes me particularly angry: the evidence of a government sinking to new lows in honesty and openness in its administration.

Clive Hamilton tells it well and his book should be widely read by people concerned about Australian democracy.

john button

John Button was a minister and senator in the Hawke and Keating governments. He has written books, a Quarterly Essay, and has also written for, among many publications, the Sydney Morning Herald and Crikey.



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