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Climate change denial

By Clive Hamilton - posted Thursday, 3 May 2007

The Prime Minister has told us over and over that he will not introduce measures to cut our greenhouse emissions if there are any economic costs. Ignoring the opportunities available now for quick and large cuts in our emissions from a shift to energy saving and natural gas, not to mention established renewable energy technologies such as wind power, the Government is gambling on two big new technologies.

It is hoping that the coal industry can be saved through the development of carbon capture and storage, and it is promoting the establishment of a nuclear industry based on a new type of reactor.

The foremost problem with each of these is that, even if they prove feasible, they will have no significant impact on our burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions for at least 15-20 years.


Every major report from climate scientists, as well as last year’s Stern Review, insists that we cannot wait that long. We must act to reduce our emissions within a decade if we’re to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

We have already lost a decade or more due to the Howard Government’s foot-dragging. The greenhouse debate in Australia has fallen victim to short-term thinking. The electoral cycle, the immediate cost of structural adjustment and the impact on prices have dominated public discussion and government thinking.

While the cynical view may be that governments never plan beyond the next election, this has not always been the case. In recent decades federal governments have shown themselves willing to embark on far-reaching reforms that result in major structural adjustment of the economy. Trade liberalisation, the floating of the exchange rate and the introduction of competition policy are the best examples.

In each case, governments were willing to override the objections of vocal sectional interests in order to pursue what they believed was in the long-term interest of the nation.

The story told in Scorcher is one of greedy corporations and craven politicians; but it is also one of public disengagement. For a decade the anti-greenhouse forces have been able to delay effective action to cut emissions because of their ability to persuade citizens that they need not worry - the science is uncertain, the problem is exaggerated, someone else is to blame, we can do little ourselves and (at the same time) we have the problem under control.

Until recently, although always uneasy, the public has been willing to go along with these arguments even in the face of mounting evidence from climate scientists about the disasters that could befall us if we fail to act.


In order to act, people need to be shocked into a state of heightened awareness. There is an old German adage that helps explain why so many Jews stayed in that country in the 1930s: “Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.” The consequences of failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions, as forecast by the climate scientists, are scarcely imaginable.

While the Australian public has indicated in surveys that it wants governments to take action, the Howard Government has found endless excuses for inaction and, until a few months ago when the mood shifted dramatically, the public was lulled into a belief that somehow things would be all right. We engaged in denial.

According to one analysis, when our grandchildren ask us why we did nothing about climate change even though we understood what would happen, we will either deny knowledge (“I didn’t know”), deny our agency (“I didn’t do it”), deny our personal power (“I couldn’t do anything”) or blame others (“The corporations and George W. Bush did it”).

These are the same excuses the fossil-fuel lobbyists and the government ministers will use when history and their grandchildren ask them why they refused to act.

It is now clear that most Australians are no longer in a state of denial, that they are facing up to the truth about global warming and what it means for life in this country and around the world. In these circumstances it will become more and more difficult for the government and the fossil-fuel lobby to repeat their lies, distortions and spin with impunity.

A decade has been lost, and we will pay dearly for it; but the next decade will see the beginning of the transformation of the world into one resolved to protect the Earth for future generations.

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Clive Hamilton is the executive director of the Australia Institute and the author of Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change (RRP $29.95, Black Inc. Agenda) published April 2007.

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About the Author

Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

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