In Australia, a coalition government has resumed after the elections, but after six years in office, the coalition has not created an effective policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Does it mean that the debate on climate change in Australia at the political level has stalled since 2013? Not quite.
Although Australia still lacks effective policies on climate change, the tone of the debate has definitely changed. It is something particularly remarkable for those scientists who, like me, have been participating in a very active way in the Australian debates on climate change for a few years.
The debate has moved away from the most elementary science and has shifted to economic and political implications. If those who advocate reducing greenhouse gas emissions do not admit that the debate has turned into this, they risk throwing rocks on your own roof.
Those who deny climate change
Politicians who denied climate change, either denying that warming is taking place or that humans are responsible for it, were heavily represented in Australian politics a decade ago. In 2009, Tony Abbott, the then leader of the Liberals with options to lead the party, said on the Australian television program ABC’s 7.30 Report:
As you know, I am not convinced by the inflexible stance of science on climate change.
We have more and more evidence and more than enough that climate change has been caused by humans. On the contrary, the allegations against have so little foundation that scientists have had it easy to refute them.
The “skeptics” of climate change have always been very good at choosing some data and hiding others. Sometimes they mounted a drama because some days were unusually cold or because there were supposed discrepancies in a handful of weather stations, while ignoring trends at a general level. They also claimed that there was a manipulation of the data, something that, if true, would be a global conspiracy, even though the code and data are available to anyone.
False predictions that a global cooling was imminent were made on the basis of rudimentary analyzes instead of sophisticated models. Cycles were used as examples, in a way reminiscent of epicycles and “graphs” of stock markets, but playing with spreadsheets will not end up with carbon dioxide.
This was the “skepticism” about climate change a decade ago and frankly there it has remained: they are old, tiresome arguments and increasingly less relevant as the impact of climate change becomes more evident.
Australians simply can not ignore that the seasons of fires are getting longer, that there are droughts and that coral reefs are losing their color.
Skepticism about the reality of climate change was always more supported by politics than by science, something we have now more clearly than a decade ago.
Several of those who oppose the reality of climate change in Australia describe themselves as libertarians, which places them on the right side of Australian politics. David Archibald is a skeptic of climate change, but he is now best known for being a candidate for up to three different parties: the Australian Liberty Alliance, One Nation and the Conservative National Party of Fraser Anning. The Galileo Movement, an initiative to defend the idea that climate change does not exist and with the pretense of being non-partisan, has always been suspicious, but now it is much more thanks to the fact that its former leader, Malcolm Roberts, has moved on to represent the Australian far-right party One Nation in the Senate.
That’s why it’s not surprising that relatively few Australians are against what science says about climate change. Only 11% of Australians believe that recent global warming is natural and only 4% believe that “there is no such thing as climate change”.
This kind of denial of old school climate change is not only unfounded, but also unpopular. Before the federal elections in Australia took place last month, Abbott bet 100 Australian dollars that “the climate will not change in the next ten years. It reminds me of the bets that you have made and have lost in the last decade. We do not know if Abbott will end up paying the bet, but what we do know is that he lost his seat in the elections.
What has changed since Abbott was able to gain ground by repudiating the ideas of science about climate change? The Australian is still talking about Ian Plimer and Maurice Newman in their opinion columns and the Sky News television show “After Dark” often includes curmudgeonly denying climate change. But prominent politicians seldom repeat their nonsense and when the government modifies data on increasing emissions in Australia, it does so while claiming that investing in natural gas helps reduce emissions elsewhere, rather than pretending that CO₂ it is simply “food for the plants”.
As a scientist, I rarely feel the need to discredit the claims of this kind of curmudgeon. It is true that recently I spoke about the meteorological predictions of a “corporate astrologer” in Media Watch, but that was more anecdotal than something urgent.
Back to the real world, the debate has moved to the cost of climate change and the implications in the world of work.
The economist Brian Fisher came to the conclusion that the policies to fight against climate change would have a very high cost, a subject that was repeated a lot during the electoral campaign. Energy minister Angus Taylor, now also responsible for reducing emissions, used these figures to attack the Labor Party, despite expert warnings that Fisher’s data were “absurd cost assumptions.”
Many people still assume that the cost of climate change will come in the future, even though we can see more and more the impact of climate change. While scientists are working to quantify environmental damage, the arguments about the costs and benefits of policies around climate change go to economists.
The jobs associated with coal mining were a prominent issue during the Australian election campaign and may have been decisive in the huge anti-worker movement in Queensland. It is obvious that burning more coal produces more CO₂, but that fact does not prevent people from wanting to work. The new green economy is an unknown territory for many workers whose skills and experience are based on mining.
That said, there are economic arguments against the new coal mines and it is possible that the new mines do not create as many jobs as promised. Australian power companies are not enthusiastic about new coal-fired power plants, but the truth is that these economic issues are largely outside the domain of scientists.
Discussions on policies related to climate change continue to be heated, despite the fact that the scientific foundations are already widely accepted. It is necessary to address doubts about economic costs and jobs, even if those concerns are based on false assumptions and promises that may not be met. Nor can we forget that climate change is already here, affecting mainly agriculture.
The role of science is to inform and defend arguments, since it is now in the economy and in politics where debates are held on how to deal with climate change.
Author: Michael JI Brown, associate professor of astronomy, Monash University.
This article has been originally published in The Conversation. You can read the original article here.