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.