Why old-school climate denial has had its day

Why old-school climate denial has had its day
New South Wales, which was 100% drought-declared in August 2018, is already suffering climate impacts. Credit: Michael Cleary

The Coalition has been re-elected to government, and after six years in office it has not created any effective policies for reducing greenhouse emissions. Does that mean the Australian climate change debate is stuck in 2013? Not exactly.

While Australia still lacks effective policies, the debate has definitely shifted. It's particularly noticeable to scientists, like myself, who were very active participants in the Australian climate debate just a few years ago.

The debate has moved away from the basic science, and on to the economic and political ramifications. And if advocates for reducing don't fully recognise this, they risk shooting themselves in the foot.

The old denials

Old-school climate change denial, be it denial that warming is taking place or that humans are responsible for that warming, featured prominently in Australian politics a decade ago. In 2009 Tony Abbott, then a Liberal frontbencher jockeying for the party leadership, told ABC's 7.30 Report:

"I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change."

The theory and base for human-induced climate change is vast and growing. In contrast, the counterarguments were so sloppy that there were many targets for scientists to shoot at.

Climate "sceptics" have always been very keen on cherrypicking data. They would make a big fuss about some unusually cold days, or alleged discrepancies at a handful of weather stations, while ignoring broader trends. They made claims of data manipulation that, if true, would entail a global conspiracy, despite the availability of code and data.

Incorrect predictions of imminent global cooling were made on the basis of rudimentary analyses rather than sophisticated models. Cycles were invoked, in a manner reminiscent of epicycles and stock market "chartism—but doodling with spreadsheets cannot defeat carbon dioxide.

That was the state of climate "scepticism" a decade ago, and frankly that's where it remains in 2019. It's old, tired, and increasingly irrelevant as the impact of climate change becomes clearer.

Australians just cannot ignore the extended bushfire season, drought, and bleached coral reefs.

Why old-school climate denial has had its day
Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions are not falling. Credit: Department of Environment and Energy


Climate "scepticism" was always underpinned by politics rather than science, and that's clearer now than it was a decade ago.

Several Australian climate contrarians describe themselves as libertarians—falling to the right of mainstream Australian politics. David Archibald is a climate sceptic, but is now better known as candidate for the Australian Liberty Alliance, One Nation and (finally) Fraser Anning's Conservative National Party. The climate change denying Galileo Movement's claim to be to be non-partisan was always suspect—and now doubly so with its former project leader, Malcolm Roberts, representing One Nation in the Senate.

Given this, it isn't surprising that relatively few Australians reject the science of climate change. Just 11% of Australians believe recent global warming is natural, and only 4% believe "there's no such thing as climate change."

Old-school climate change denial isn't just unfounded, it's also unpopular. Before last month's federal election, Abbott bet a cafe patron in his electorate A$100 that "the climate will not change in ten years". It reminded me of similar bets made and lost over the past decade. We don't know whether Abbott will end up paying out on the bet—but we do know he lost his seat.

The shift

So what has changed in the years since Abbott was able to gain traction, rather than opprobrium, by disdaining ? The Australian still runs Ian Plimer and Maurice Newman on its opinion pages, and Sky News "after dark" often features climate cranks. But prominent politicians rarely repeat their nonsense any more. When the government spins Australia's rising emissions, it does it by claiming that investing in natural gas helps cut emissions elsewhere, rather than by pretending CO₂ is merely "plant food."

As a scientist, I rarely feel the need to debunk the claims of old-school climate cranks. OK, I did recently discuss the weather predictions of a "corporate astrologer" with Media Watch, but that was just bizarre rather than urgent.

Back in the real world, the debate has shifted to costs and jobs.

Modelling by the economist Brian Fisher, who concluded that climate policies would be very expensive, featured prominently in the election campaign. Federal energy minister Angus Taylor, now also responsible for reducing emissions, used the figures to attack the Labor Party, despite expert warnings that the modelling used "absurd cost assumptions."

Many people still assume the costs of climate change are in the future, despite us increasingly seeing the impacts now. While scientists work to quantify the environmental damage, arguments about the costs and benefits of climate policy are the domain of economists.

Jobs associated with coal mining were a prominent theme of the election campaign, and may have been decisive in Queensland's huge anti-Labor swing. It is obvious that burning more coal makes more CO₂, but that fact doesn't stop people wanting jobs. The new green economy is uncharted territory for many workers with skills and experience in mining.

That said, there are economic arguments against new coalmines and new mines may not deliver the number of jobs promised. Australian power companies, unlike government backbenchers and Clive Palmer, have little enthusiasm for new coal-fired power stations. But the fact remains that these economic issues are largely outside the domain of scientists.

Debates about climate policy remain heated, despite the scientific basics being widely accepted. Concerns about economic costs and jobs must be addressed, even if those concerns are built on flawed assumptions and promises that may be not kept. We also cannot forget that climate change is already here, impacting agriculture in particular.

Science should inform and underpin arguments, but economics and politics are now the principal battlegrounds in the Australian debate.

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User comments

Jun 13, 2019
So convincing... except its not actually getting warmer.

Jun 13, 2019
Climate alarmist recycles same tired rant, using same tired buzzwords, the same tired ad hominem attacks, the same wornout claims about imminent catastrophic warming and extreme weather, the same old rhetorical trick of accusing the other side of disingenuousness while using the same tired arguments (e.g., "cherrypicking the data" or intentionally conflating weather and climate).

Wasn't the ice cap supposed to be gone by now? Wasn't it the original climate alarmists Ehrlich and Hansen who predicted catastrophic cooling by the '80s that would result in global war and famine? The author claims "denial" has always been based on politics, not science: LOL, the IPCC is a creature of the most politicized organization on Earth, the UN.

For that matter, is "climate science" actually a science? Theory can only be validated by experiment, not statistics. It's really a research project masquerading as "settled science."

Jun 13, 2019
does nitrogen get warm ?

Jun 13, 2019
And, the AGW Cult believes, regurgitating the same deceitful bullshit, makes it fresh.

Jun 13, 2019
Another example of psychological terrorism from the Chicken Little brigade.

Jun 13, 2019
And, the AGW Cult believes, regurgitating the same deceitful bullshit, makes it fresh.

Nope, it just has to be repeated over and over until the hoax is finally shown up for what it is. Because the hoaxsters are well-funded and relentless in dissemination of the Lie that humanity is killing the planet. Which you no doubt believe. But it's the same old error which Malthus made in the 19th century and which persists to this day. Ignore statistical legerdemain, and the incessant doomsaying. All the real evidence screams that the future is so bright, you will need very dark shades indeed. Catastrophe is not imminent, and AGW will prove to be helpful if/when the next down cycle gets started in earnest.

Reading the comments till now, it is clear that the shrinking minority of those still not seeing and understanding what is going on around them in nature begins to realise how disconnected they are.

Jun 16, 2019
I believe in global warming from CO2, but this article is rambling.

Jun 16, 2019
Meanwhile, back on Earth:


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