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Think tank a false climate prophet

By: Elaine McKewon*
20 June, 2013

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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Ken Goldsmith | Monday, June 24, 2013, 1:23 PM
"has become a false debate between climate change scientists and ideologically driven climate change "sceptics"." Nah, it is the AGW scaremongers who are ideologically driven. Agenda21 is the end that justifies the means. "empirically-based reality that Earth has been warming since the mid-20th century,". Except for the last 17 years, when A-CO2 has accelerated. "practically no experts in the field of climate science ". What, like macropod (kangaroo) expert Tim Flim-Flam Flannery, never done a tertiary course on climatology? "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." I wish that were true, the only things I believe he has committed to are abolishing the carbon TAX, and rolling the plethora of climate departments into the environment (I think) dept. There is no commitment to scrapping other wasteful subsidies to the "renewable energy" sector. "Elaine McKewon is a PhD candidate in journalism at UTS." Guess where she is "coming from". And she thinks the IPA is the cause of the world-wide realisation that CO2/AGW is a scam! Nah, Elaine, they are a help in Australia, but JuLiar is a bigger help, and worldwide it was the failure of the AGW computer models to track reality that brought most of us out of our torpor.
Ken | Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 10:25 AM
It must be hard for people who are convinced that climate change is not happening & believe in the rhetoric that the likes of Tony Abbott like to push (he really hasn't gotten over the last election yet). I'm not sure about Ken Goldsmith's degrading of Tim Flannery 7 if it's supposed to swing people who are certain that global warming is happening, in part by our burning of fossil fuel, but I just think it shows how weak his case is. I would like to think that we could leave this earth in good shape for our children & not be so caught up in our political parties dogma. Is it wrong for people, such as scientists, engineers or whoever, to try to come up with more responsible ways to live our lives on this planet? I don't expect to change Ken's mind but if it makes just one person to stop & think, but we really do need to listen to what these deep thinking & intelligent fellow human beings are saying. I'm a believer (apologies to the Monkees).
Ken Goldsmith | Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 5:38 PM
Wrong, wrong, wrong, Ken. "convinced that climate change is not happening ". I believe climate is changing, it always has, it always will. Nothing to do with CO2, is all I am saying. "rhetoric that the likes of Tony Abbott ". Abbott believes CO2 causes "climate change", I don't. IMHO he will not be much improvement on JuLiar or KRUDD in that regard. "degrading of Tim Flannery" He did it all, himself. Remember, "dams will never be full again", etc.? I am not against people selling their time outside their formal expertise area, but a primary school student could regurgitate the IPCC's ideological clap trap as well as he does, at less expense to the taxpayer. BTW: "he really hasn't gotten over the last election yet". He won the election, in that he won more seats than Labor. Unlike JuLiar, he was not willing to bargain away promises made to the electorate.
Peter Crown | Friday, June 28, 2013, 12:25 PM
Ken, it is truly sad to read your rants. Tim Flannery hasn't done a tertiary course in Climate Science? Correct. But you have? And Phoney A-butt (see I can make childish name changes too), and Barnaby Joyce has? Tim Flannery actual scientist, names Australian of the Year by John Howard. What are the creds of the 'experts' of the Opposition? And "he won the election". Yep that's correct. Sigghhhhhhhh.