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Australia was ready to act on climate 25 years ago, so what happened next?

The Guardian, 6 August 2015

 There’s something about climate change that almost everyone in Australia has either forgotten or never knew in the first place.  In 1990 Bob Hawke announced his government wanted the country to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the year 2005.

For a fleeting moment, it seemed the Australian public, politicians and the media were in agreement with the science. But a new book investigates how the industries that stood to lose the most worked to undermine the science and entirely reshape the story being told to the public. “We have been propagandised,” says the author, Maria Taylor.
 “We have been propagandised,” says the author, Maria Taylor.

Hawke was ready

 In 1989 Hawke described a “growing consensus amongst scientists” showing there was a strong chance that major climate change was on its way, that this change was linked to human activity, and this could have “major ramifications for human survival” if nothing was done.

 Public statements by scientists in Australia and around the world, backed by government reports and research, had established unambiguously that humans were causing climate change. Bold steps needed to be taken if the major risks of catastrophic climate change were to be mediated. The UN’s intergovernmental plan on climate change delivered its first blockbuster assessment of the climate science in 1990.

Taylor’s book recalls how Australia was working its way towards a detailed plan to deliver Hawke’s proposal. State governments had response strategies in place. Politicians were largely on board. So was the fourth estate. The public understood the science and the huge risks of not acting.

Now, a quarter of a century later, climate change has been turned into a toxic political football. Scientists have their integrity attacked on a daily basis. 

Almost no one that I spoke to remembered the 1990 emissions reduction target. Even people like [former energy minister] John Kerin, who co-signed it! 

In the book Taylor explains how from the late 1980s industry groups, free market advocates and climate contrarians got to work to reframe the issue from the science to the economics.

By 1996 much of the damage was done. The advent of John Howard’s government ensured there would be no more genuine progress.

Taylor charts how opponents helped reposition environment groups as being anti-jobs and against the national interest. The book documents how climate science deniers were promoted by “free market” thinktanks to push uncertainty instead of risk.

She explains the shift to policies driven by “economic rationalism” meant that imposing regulations on polluting industries became close to impossible.

Commenting on the policy announced this week by the US president, Barack Obama, to regulate greenhouse gases from the energy sector, Taylor says: 

In this country, regulation has become a dirty word. This book gives us a sense of why there are now barriers to us going the same way [as President Obama]. 

 Insiders she spoke with told her Keating “really was not that interested in this issue” and his government started to promote a false dichotomy that you couldn’t protect the environment and support the economy at the same time. 

One of the many ways the book shows how industry managed to impose its interests on policy was in the Howard government’s reliance on modelling from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics on the costs of particular climate policies. 

The Howard government used these numbers to prosecute its cautious climate policy positions and to justify it through media articles.

That modelling was supported financially by the likes of the Australian Coal Association, the oil giant Exxon Mobil and the mining majors BHP and Rio Tinto.

Media echo

Taylor also leans on the findings of two 2001 books that revealed the influence of industry and free-market ideology on Australia’s greenhouse gas policy – Clive Hamilton’s Scorcher and Guy Pearce’s High and Dry

Taylor says: 

What really changed was the story that was told to the citizens. By both politicians and the media – working in tandem to set the agenda on what we should understand and believe.

Reviewing news articles and government documents from the late 80s and early 90s, Taylor found “human responsibility for the ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’ was accepted” on practically every occasion.