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A climate catastrophe or a carbon agenda?

By Ian Read - posted Thursday, 1 April 2010

As the Australian federal government has reintroduced its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) bill into parliament for the third time, and the first 2010 round of formal United Nations climate change negotiations is due to take place from April 9 in Bonn, Germany, it is perhaps time to reconsider the role that the media has played in influencing public opinion about CO2-based anthropogenic global warming (AGW) or climate change. Is the potential for AGW to be simply of the political spin that is commonplace for the function of hiding other agendas, for instance with regard to this assumption being used as a driver to implement a globally-applied carbon-based emission tradings scheme (ETS), or carbon tax?

Close inspection of the media reveals that between the scientific study of “global warming/climate change” and the politically-charged implementation of an ETS, as the CPRS seeks to do, there is a dichotomy between the processes of science and the beliefs of those people who seek to change the way we impact on the environment, and use oil and coal as a source of energy - this latter group, in the main, get their views from the media.

Over the past few years many political, scientific and environmental leaders have continually warned the public, in the most dire of terms, that virtually every heat wave, unseasonally hot day, tropical cyclone or hurricane, drought, glacial ice sheet calving, ice sheet fracture, el Niño event, and so on, is the result of AGW, or indicative of runaway or catastrophic climate change. The term “climate change” used to mean long term natural changes in climate; today it also includes these observed short-term extremes in the weather elements, and their impacts on the environment, at least in the media.


It has not helped our understanding of anthropogenic environmental impacts by framing our environmental problems with AGW or climate change so that scepticism of the AGW hypothesis implies ambivalence about these problems. By ignoring the serious and proven problems caused by humans, like deforestation and its impact on near-surface air temperatures and the water cycle, means that the AGW debate inevitably becomes a smokescreen that covers these serious issues of environmental degradation.

We need to be very careful that AGW, or the fears of runaway or catastrophic climate change, have not become the tools of propaganda proclaiming an advocacy position that uses an as yet unproven scientific hypothesis to drive an agenda of policy change - but is it too late?

In 2004, the United Kingdom’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, located (primarily) at the University of East Anglia, home of the leaked Climategate (Climate Research unit or CRU) emails, suggested in a paper by Dennis Bray and Simon Shackley titled, The Social Simulation of the Public Perception of Weather Events and their Effect upon the Development of Belief in Anthropogenic Climate Change, the following media “talking” points:

  • To endorse policy change people must “believe” that global warming will become a reality some time in the future.
  • Only the experience of positive temperature anomalies will be registered as indication of change if the issue is framed as global warming.
  • Both positive and negative temperature anomalies will be registered in experience as indication of change if the issue is framed as climate change.

Bray and Shackley summarised their findings thus: “We propose that in those countries where climate change has become the predominant popular term for the phenomenon, unseasonably cold temperatures, for example, are also interpreted to reflect climate change/global warming, and is indeed often reported as such by science through the general media. In those countries where global warming has become the predominant popular term for the phenomenon of climate change/global warming, unseasonably cold weather is seen as a refutation of the phenomenon and indeed will lessen the belief temperature.” [Author’s italics]

This idea of a furtherance of an agenda is reinforced by Michael Hulme, the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and a co-ordinating lead author for the chapter on “Climate Scenario Development” (3rd IPCC Report), in his book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, in which he states, “The idea of climate change should be seen as an intellectual resource around which our collective and personal identities and projects can form and take shape. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us.”


He adds, “Because the idea of climate change is so plastic, it can be deployed across many of our human projects and can serve many of our psychological, ethical, and spiritual needs”, summarising this intention with, “We will continue to create and tell new stories about climate change and mobilize them in support of our projects”.

Superficially, Hulme’s statements (and book) appear to be not about climate change per se but rather using climate change as a basis to institute a change in human values and beliefs. But wasn’t the argument that there was a consensus of climate scientists, through the auspices of the IPCC, proclaiming that by the exhaustion of anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide the world would possibly experience catastrophic climate change and all that entails (for instance, ice sheet melting, rapidly rising sea levels, ocean acidification)? And that we had to mitigate our carbon dioxide output as soon as possible, by putting a price on carbon, with the climate change catchcry continually being stated that, “it is happening quicker than we thought”?

In 2008 Australian Professor of Public Ethics, Clive Hamilton, of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, said, “Well, quite frankly, if you’re not terrified, you’re not listening to what the climate scientists are saying”. He finished off by adding, “I think we’re beyond feeling hopeful, and the only way to get people to take the necessary action is to scare the pants off them”.

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About the Author

Ian Read is a researcher, author and geographer with a special interest in climatology and vegetation. He has written over twelve books including The Bush: A Guide to the Vegetated Landscapes of Australia, Australia: The Continent of Extremes - Our Geographical Records, and is currently researching material for a book on climatology and anthropogenic climate variability.

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