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Is climate change denialism the new Hansonism?

Like everybody else in Australia I’ve spent the last couple of weeks mesmerised by the spectacle of the Liberal Party coming unravelled over the question of their position on the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and climate change more generally. Watching open warfare break out between what the media politely describe as the conservatives (I suspect reactionaries is probably closer to the truth, but perhaps a little inflammatory for the broadsheets to use on a daily basis) and the moderates I’m reminded of an interview I heard with The Sydney Morning Herald’s Political Editor, Peter Hartcher at the time of Turnbull’s elevation to the leadership, in which he was asked whether he thought Turnbull was ready to lead the Liberal Party. To his credit Hartcher just laughed. ‘I think the real question is whether the Liberal Party is ready for Malcolm Turnbull’.

Aside from the fact somebody’s usually done something totally insane by lunchtime (and yes, Tony Abbott, I’m looking at you) one of the really fascinating things about the whole schemozzle is the way it’s highlighted just how entrenched climate change denialism is in the ranks of the Liberal Party.

Now I’d be the last to claim the views of our elected representatives are particularly representative of the views of the community at large. On a range of issues, from religion to abortion and euthanasia, they are, for the most part, markedly more conservative than most Australians. And if the polling is to be believed, they’re similarly out of step on climate change, as polls such as this one in today’s Sydney Morning Herald showing two thirds of Australians support the ETS, demonstrate.

But on the question of climate change I suspect they’re providing a useful reminder that despite the increasing acceptance in the community at large that climate change is happening, and fast, there is a small and entrenched minority who reject the science.

What’s interesting to me is the distribution of these beliefs across the community. A few weeks ago Roy Morgan released some polling data about the question, which Crikey’s Possum has offered some useful commentary on. Several things stand out in the Morgan data. First, belief in climate change and the need for action divides pretty cleanly across party, gender and demographic lines. Labor and Green voters are much more concerned than Liberal voters, women are more concerned than men, and people in the capital cities are more concerned than those in regional and rural areas. Second, and more worryingly, these positions are hardening and polarising: there has been a small increase in the number of people who disapprove of the CPRS in the last few months, and these new initiates into the ranks of the climate change denialists are mostly Liberal-voting men from outside the capital cities (I appreciate disapproval of the CPRS and climate change denialism are not precisely the same thing, but I think we can assume the two are closely connected in this context).

These are, of course, precisely the same people who were the backbone of One Nation a decade ago. Older white men from outside the capital cities.

One of the things I remember most keenly about the rise of Pauline Hanson was the way it blindsided conventional public opinion. For middle-class elites it seemed to come out of nowhere, a furious, incoherent cry of unreason which deliberately rejected the foundations of their world view in favour of views which seemed to inhabit a netherworld somewhere between the laughable and the poisonous.

I suspect the rising tide of climate change denialism is catching middle-class elites off-guard in exactly the same way. That Andrew Bolt’s blog is a haven for denialist maddies is no secret, but I’d suggest anyone who thinks there’s broad-based support for action on climate change spend some time trawling the comment strings on The Daily Telegraph or The Punch, or maybe tune into 2GB for an hour or two.

Of course I’m well aware that an awful lot of what passes for commentary on news sites is the work of formal and semi-formal political operatives. But the sheer ferocity of the comments about Turnbull and Rudd, and the persistent suggestion that the science of climate change is a lunatic conspiracy, and the CPRS some kind of plot to destroy (white) Australia is pretty striking. More broadly, climate change denialism exhibits many of the same characteristics that made Hansonism so potent: the rejection of evidence-based policy, suspicion of expert opinion, dislike of what was seen as the preaching of the self-appointed guardians of public morality. And, judging by the polls on different news sites, it’s catching elite opinion off-guard in exactly the same way Hansonism did: earlier today I compared two polls about the Liberal leadership: The Sydney Morning Herald was registering close to 70% support for Malcolm Turnbull, while support for Turnbull over at The Daily Telegraph was running at about 31%.

All of which suggests there is something fundamental happening out on the fringes of public debate. It may not have a name yet, or a figurehead, but it’s not too much of a stretch to see the beginnings of a larger political movement, grounded in climate change denialism and resonating with older anxieties about immigration, refugees and Aborigines (for what it’s worth I don’t think it’s a coincidence we’ve seen an uptick in anti-immigration sentiment in recent months, or that portions of the Liberal Party are running so hard on refugees again).

There are some important differences between Hansonism and the new movement, not least the fact that whatever else it was, Hansonism was, in a very real sense, a grass roots movement, while climate change denialism has been assiduously fostered by powerful interests with a lot at stake (if you’re interested in tracing the role of big business in stalling action on climate change and discrediting the science I thoroughly recommend you check out the relevant chapter in George Monbiot’s Heat). And unlike Hansonism, the ranks of the climate change denialists are swollen by a solid cohort of wealthy older men. But I suspect that in some deep sense climate change denialism is drawing on the same discontent that Hansonism drew upon, and that despite the now-overwhelming scientific evidence, in the months and years to come it may well begin to gain ground in much the way Hansonism did a decade ago.

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  1. Thanks for drawing an interesting demographic parallel James.

    Who knows what havoc Hansonism could have wreaked with the covert financial backing of multinationals, such as energy giants.

    I always find the conspiracy theory especially amusing – the cry “these scientists are making stuff up to secure government funding” is rather illogical when those funding levels are compared with what the vested interests could offer them for a distracting counter-argument.
    Nonetheless, if climate denialism is growing due to discontent across a broad spectrum of issues, logic will play little part and we can expect it to swell further before it withers, particularly if a charismatic figurehead rises from the ranks.

    November 30, 2009
  2. Actually James, it’s not the new Hansonism, it’s the old Howardism.

    A year out from the next federal poll, Australia’s feral right-wing Liberal-National Party coalition still can’t believe it is not the Government.

    After more than a decade of mendacity, scaremongering, bear-baiting, duck-shoving, arse-sniffing, god-bothering and pork-barrelling, these conservative, increasingly extremist “born-to-rule” ratbags were given the boot in the 2007 elections with their Supreme Leader, John W. Howard Horror losing not only his Prime Ministership but also his electoral seat in a historic defeat that saw the job pass to an obscure little pencil necked former diplomat named Kevin Rudd.

    The LibNats immediately turned on one another like starved sharks in a feeding frenzy the like of which has not been seen in this country since the great Labor split of 1955.

    Now, the LibNats have decided the best way to return to office is to shove skyrockets up their arses, rub mustard into their eyeballs, set themselves on fire and run screaming off a cliff.

    Rudd’s “Labor” Government can’t believe its luck.

    A Liberal Party that is anything but liberal. A National Party that has no base outside a few rural bog-holes. This is the coalition-of-the-wanking that held Australia prisoner between 1996 and 2007. Neither party could survive on its own.

    And now we are witnessing truly mindless self-destruction, not only the last gasp of a scrofulous mixed marriage, but also the possible demise of one of Australia’s two major parties as the Liberals implode, all but guaranteeing a decade of federal Labor rule under a Labor Party that has forgotten its blue-collar roots and now panders to Big Business at the expense of the underprivileged, the marginalised and the working men and women of Australia.

    Sure, we didn’t vote Rudd in, we voted Howard out, but the tragic truth for Australia is that the Mendacious Midget spent a decade leading the Liberals further and further to the extreme right, leaving Labor to occupy the vacated right-of-centre. And they moved right on in.

    I mean, really, who needs a Liberal Party with Labor acting the part so well?

    Folks, there IS no Australian Labor Party.

    We got rid of John Howard’s neo-conservative plutocracy but we also lost Labor’s socially responsible heart. So where the bloody hell is it?

    Somewhere in the scorched earth that remained after the conservative coup of 1975, Labor’s charred heart lay faintly beating, neglected by one Labor leader after another, until, at last, we found ourselves with an unrecognisable Labor Party, a party more akin to the Liberals of a bygone era, more in tune with corporate lobby groups than community groups, too timid to fly the southern cross of the Eureka flag that is Australia’s true national emblem, too eager to gain office by sacrificing core principals.

    And what has finally brought the neo-con Libs to ruin? Hot air!

    Rudd’s response to the threat of global warming is a so-called Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), a policy so weak that it will have no impact on reducing climate change but will, like the response here and in the USA to Wall Street’s Global Financial Clusterfuck, provide more corporate welfare designed to ensure business-as-usual.

    The status quo has nothing to fear, despite the wailing, gnashing of teeth and outright threats of sabotage by the dinosaurs in charge of the lucrative fossil fuel industry.

    In fact, the scheme is even weaker than the one the Lying Rodent was dragged kicking and screaming into supporting prior to the last election. It’s a scheme the LibNats had vowed to support, before outrageously somersaulting and demanding an even more watered-down policy, with more, bigger “compensation” pay-outs to the nation’s biggest polluters. And then, as negotiations were under way, the buggers threatened not to support the legislation even if all their demands were met.

    And now…

    Now, folks, the Liberal Party is fracturing along a fault line that was always there between the so-called conservative “moderates” and those whom we here at Xenox News like to call raving fucking nut-jobs.

    And folks, there’s quite a sackful of rattlesnakes and dumbbells being kicked around out there as shadow ministers and senior suck holes quit the Coalition Cabinet to attack their own leader.

    The Mad Monk, Mangy Minchin, Creepy Jesus, Sophie Murderbella, Joe Airhead… the rancid flotsam and jetsam of the Howard Era/Error.

    Jesus on a stick! Even the Lying Rodent poked his gnarly old snout from his blue-blooded Sydney rat hole to provide “advice” to the traitors in the party he all but single-handedly destroyed with his raging ego, narrow vision and boiling extremism.

    At least the former Lib Treasurer, Petulant Pete Costello, having napped on the backbench and cock-teased the media and his constituency for almost two years, finally decided to quit Parliament, slink away and lick his tiny shrivelled testicles in the comfort of his tax-payer funded retirement.

    Ah, Pete, we would have loved to see you draw your pistol, if only to confirm you’re armed with blanks.

    And there, regally demanding the passing of the ETS bill and standing astride the smouldering wreckage of the party of privilege and god-given power, current Liberal “leader” Malcolm Turnbullshit confronts the traitorous orcs that are his colleagues.

    Gandalf in Gucci?

    I won’t twist the crude analogy by casting jovial Joe Hockey as the Balrog, but you get the idea.

    As one of his own foul rank and file neatly described Turnbull’s turn at the Lib leadership: he came, he saw, he went.

    The blood is on the floor, the walls and the ceiling. It’s like a scene from a Tarantino movie, complete with expletives retained. And by god the last man standing will find it slippery as hell underfoot.

    Did Rudd expect this gob smacking bonus? Did he envisage the stampede of flat-Earthers in the Opposition ranks and plan the brutal demise of the LibNat coalition all along? Did the power-starved LibNats simply take the bait, hook, line and sinker that the Labor Government cunningly tossed them?

    Cunning? Or Chaos Theory?

    Anyway, the current fracas in the media spotlight featuring right-wing Liberals and extreme right-wing Liberals foaming at the mouth, shooting themselves in the foot and head-butting one another is a god-send for Labor, struggling as it is to live up to the expectations of an bruised electorate sick to death of spin, sloganeering and political opportunism trumping genuine democratic progress.

    As I write, a leadership spill is on the cards for tomorrow – December 1 2009 – and the mug punters of Australia are pointing to another execution in the conservative camp as jovial Joe Hockey, the current Shadow Treasurer, shirt-fronts Mal the North Shore Knob, the current Lib leader, for the glorious prize of He Who Will Lead the Liberals to Slaughter at the Next Federal Election.

    One thing is certain, no matter who emerges victorious from the coming Liberal Circus Maximus, the only real winner will be… Kevin Rudd PM.

    November 30, 2009
  3. Great post James,
    It seems to me that Rudd has been playing very clever politics over the last few months, hardly ever speaking about climate change in any forum, leaving it to the Liberals to destroy themselves over the issue.
    The problem is that while the politics are very clever and clearly effective, by abandoning the issue Rudd has left the country in a sort of policy vacuum. Nobody has been out there explaining why we need an ETS. The man we elected to deal with the issue has reneged on his responsibility and, as you so concisely point out, created an opportunity for the loony right to take up the charge.
    Tony Abbott is, to me, a very frightening figure. He is undoubtedly smart and articulate, but there is something, also, slightly messianic about the man. By appearing calm and reasonable and at the same time appealing to the baser instincts of the disenfranchised and ill informed on the subjects of immigration and climate change, he could be the force that pulls the whole country into the abyss.
    I don’t mean to be a doom-sayer amid the delight of watching the liberals disintegrate, but there are reasons not to be cheerful in Abbott’s election as opposition leader.

    December 3, 2009
  4. The other matter which was not given due attention during all this was the inappropriateness of Joe Hockey taking on the position of leader of the opposition in his present circumstances.
    Mr Hockey has just become a father for the third time, which gives him three children under the age of six, the youngest but four weeks old or thereabouts.
    His wife also holds down a high-powered job (Duetshe Bank). It seems to me strange that anyone, particularly the party concerned for the rights of the family, would be proposing that he abjure on his responsibilities as a parent. I throw that in about the party of the family for effect but really it’s a personal issue for me as a man. Too many men neglect their responsibilities as parents and it is their loss as well as their childrens, it breeds generations of hurt.

    December 3, 2009
  5. Hello James, I think the parallel between climate change skepticism and Hansonism is interesting but not precise. Pauline Hanson articulted some fears of people who felt they were being overlooked but the situation with climate change is rather different.

    The science of the situation is not nearly as settled as most people seem to think, there has been a growing number of reputable scientists expressing skepticism, though you would not know that from the ALP or the ABC or the Age of the Sydney Morning Herald. And that was before Climategate.

    It is not necessary to admire Abbott or be a Liberal voter to see this delay as a good opportunity to take a fresh look at the science and the policy options.

    December 4, 2009
  6. You’re right, Rafe, it’s not a precise map, but I suspect the Abbott/Joyce strategy in the coming months will demonstrate it’s a pretty close correlation: they’re already chasing the One Nation demographic and that’s only going to accelerate.

    As to the science of climate change, I’m afraid we have to agree to disagree. In a strict sense, of course, science is never settled, it’s an evolving picture that proceeds by trial and error. But saying that isn’t the same as saying we can’t place considerable faith in it. The science of evolution isn’t settled in many respects, yet we accept evolution because it’s a coherent picture that there’s considerable (indeed overwhelming) evidence in support of, and because there’s no persuasive alternative.

    While I don’t think there’s much to be gained by two non-scientists arguing about this on a blog, I think you can say something similar about the science of climate change. There’s overwhelming evidence the climate is changing: rapid melting of the Arctic ice caps, rising ocean temperatures, changing migratory patterns, movement in ocean currents, etc etc. There’s some bumpiness and noise in the data (a fact borne out by the current “scandal” about the hacked emails) but the big picture is pretty clear (as, to be honest, is the evidence of our own senses).

    What’s also clear is that there’s a close connection between warming and levels of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere, and that humans are emitting these gases on a massive scale. The evidence that these are connected is similarly overwhelming.

    As I say, I don’t think there’s a lot of point arguing about the science, which is incredibly complex. Instead I’d suggest that what it really comes down to is what faith you place in the scientific process. As a reasonably scientifically literate non-scientist, I have considerable faith in scientists and scientific process. Despite understanding that science is a social process, and that it is never settled in any simple sense, I accept that science gives us our best picture of the universe, and that the processes we’ve evolved to refine that picture are mostly pretty effective at pushing us towards a more and more accurate picture. That’s not to say I don’t think science and scientists can’t be wrong: they can. And it’s not to say I don’t think the science of climate change couldn’t be wrong: it could, just as evolution could turn out to be wrong. But saying that’s not the same as saying there’s a significant chance it’s wrong.

    Having said I’m prepared to put my faith in scientific process, I’m then faced with a choice. Do I accept the verdict of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, or do I accept the claims of a small group of sceptics, few of whom are actually expert in the field, and whose work seems, for the most part, to be a farrago of half-truths and distortions unable to withstand scrutiny by the processes we use to regulate the scientific process?

    To my mind the answer is simple. As a rational person who accepts the value of science I am bound to accept the verdict of the experts. Saying that isn’t the same as “blind faith”, or “quasi-religiousness” as the columnists at places like The Australian tend to describe it, it’s part of a broader world view that emphasises rationality and process. Nor is it closing myself off to the possibility the science might be wrong. But it is about refusing to cherry-pick answers I like and reject ones I don’t: if you claim to be a rational person you’re pretty much duty-bound to go with the scientific picture as it stands.

    What’s most ironic to my mind, is the fact that many of the people asserting climate change is a vast, global conspiracy, and rejecting the science in favour of their ideological certainty it must be wrong, are exactly the same people who only a few years ago were claiming Western thought, and Enlightenment values were a bulwark against the irrationality and mysticism of the “medieval” Muslim mind. And that these same people are the ones claiming to be Galileo confronting the Vatican, when in fact it’s quite clearly the other way round.

    In the end though, I’m not sure it’s even necessary to argue about the science. If the results of climate change are likely to be as drastic as the models suggest, and there’s even a good chance humans are at least partially to blame, we’re duty-bound to act. After all, how certain are you that the science is wrong? Do you think it’s line-ball? 70/30? 80/20? Given the scale of the risk, I think we’d want to be a lot more certain than that.

    December 5, 2009
  7. Rafe #

    Thanks James, we will have to agree to disagree for the moment, this is certainly not the place to pursue the issue.

    But the point about the science is that there are far more reputable scientists who are sceptical than we have been told by our local media.

    Be prepared for a signficant shift in the perception of the science over the next few months.

    December 6, 2009
  8. Thanks for that, Rafe. I sincerely hope you’re right: this is one argument I’d be very happy to lose.

    December 7, 2009

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