Think tank a false climate prophet
Much of the climate change scepticism in Australia can be traced back to the free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.
Trust in science is part of life in a technologically advanced society. We accept that we can’t suddenly acquire expertise that takes decades of education, research and experience to develop, so we base many decisions on science produced by qualified experts and reviewed by their peers.
We expect scientific research to be undertaken in the public interest – in our interest.
We’d hope that, should the scientific community identify a threat to all of humanity, we’d pull together and "do what it takes" to avoid disaster.
But that’s not what has happened with climate change. What began as an almost universal acceptance of the science and the need for action has become a false debate between climate change scientists and ideologically driven climate change "sceptics".
On one side, we have 97 per cent of climate scientists who endorse the empirically-based reality that Earth has been warming since the mid-20th century, that human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the main cause, and that deep and rapid reductions in global emissions are necessary to avoid the worst impacts.
Then there’s the alternative reality in which there’s no scientific consensus and the idea that human-induced GHG emissions cause global warming is either a hoax, a religion or a scare tactic cooked up to justify higher taxes and restrictions on personal freedoms.
This is the "reality" in which many Australians, including several of our political and religious leaders, appear to live.
Why has this argument been so persuasive, given that practically no experts in the field of climate science believe a word of it?
Much of the climate change scepticism in Australia can be traced back to the free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a prominent news source and intellectual role model for conservative politicians, industry magnates, religious leaders and opinion makers in the media.
The mining industry is a major IPA sponsor and occupies senior positions on its board of directors. The IPA opposes regulations on GHG emissions and rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. It vilifies climate scientists, environmentalists and the political left.
One reason the IPA’s propaganda has gained traction is the power of storytelling. Stories are about good versus evil, about heroes and villains. The IPA’s stories are no different. My research has identified the IPA’s most common anti-climate-science narratives and broken them into two groups.
In the first, there’s a cabal of villainous scientists who fabricated the climate crisis and are consumed with protecting their power and suppressing dissent. The "sceptics" are the heroes who expose the fraud.
The other group of stories sees Environmental Religion and its co-conspirators (Labor, the Greens, the United Nations) using climate change as a "scare tactic" to consolidate power, increase taxes to redistribute wealth and impose a New World Order that erodes national sovereignty and personal freedoms.
The IPA really started to push these stories into the mainstream media in 2005, the year the Kyoto Protocol was ratified. Scientific consensus was transformed into a "scientific debate", helping to legitimise the Howard government’s refusal to ratify the protocol.
Over the next few years, as the Copenhagen Climate Conference captured attention and the Rudd government vowed to introduce an emissions trading scheme, newspaper items featuring the IPA’s anti-science rhetoric skyrocketed.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has made no secret of his support for the IPA, including its proposal to abolish Australia’s Climate Commission and any carbon price.
The IPA’s tendency to use its rhetorical arsenal to vilify climate scientists and anyone who supports action on climate change has created such a deep, emotionally charged partisan divide that it’s difficult to have a constructive public debate on climate change.
This alternative reality forms the basis of a social movement that has at its core a deep and abiding suspicion of science, with the potential to damage the historically healthy relationship between science and society.
Elaine McKewon is a PhD candidate in journalism at UTS. She is examining newspaper coverage of climate change with the aim of explaining how the scientific consensus on climate change was reconstructed as a "scientific debate" in the media. Elaine has published two peer-reviewed studies and a book chapter based on her research.
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