When the Russian scientific vessel MV Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in ice earlier this week while hosting a mission to retrace the steps of Sir Douglas Mawson and to conduct research on climate science, the blogosphere and talk-back radio were quick to gloat. What would the scientists say now, the deniers demanded to know, as if the presence of sea ice was enough to disprove the entire theory of climate change.
When expedition leader Chris Turney was informed of the comments in an ABC radio interview on Tuesday morning, he was dumbstruck and mildly amused. There were all sorts of explanations for the proliferation of ice at this location, such as the calving of the large B09B iceberg and its spectacular collision with the extended tongue of the Mertz Glacier. But none that would ever satisfy such people, Turney suggested.
Disconcertingly, these claims are no longer the province of bloggers, right wing media and talk-back radio. They now have currency in the highest corridors of power in Australia. Indeed, they are forming the basis of critical decisions being made on economic and infrastructure development in this country.
Earlier this week Maurice Newman, the head of Tony Abbott’s hand-picked business advisory council, declared the science of anthropogenic climate change to be the world’s greatest ever popular delusion, and accused the UN climate body of fudging data. Australia, he wrote in a column published in The Australian, had “become hostage to climate change madness.”
He didn’t stop there. He railed against “Himalyagate” and “Amazongate”, accused state governments of a “cover up” over Australia’s renewable energy policies, and even complained about a $60,000 grant given to help community groups pursue renewable energy installations. Many of his comments were repeated and given more prominence in a separate interview with the paper’s environment editor.
This is not the first time that Newman has courted controversy. In September, he attacked the “myth of climate change” in an opinion piece for the Australian Financial Review. In November, he used a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) to attack climate change, renewable energy and labour costs.
What was interesting about that speech was the reaction from the business community. Chanticleer, the venerable (and conservative) back-page column of the AFR, noted that business people were taken aback by the tone, the aggression and the lack of subtlety of the speech. Even Peter Switzer, a conservative small business columnist who appears on Murdoch’s Sky News and in The Australian, wondered if Newman was disconnected from reality.
Some have downplayed Newman’s influence, suggesting that the business council would meet only a few times a year. But Chanticleer said Newman is no outlier – he is meeting Abbott at least once a week, and the CEDA speech was drafted in close consultation with the PM and his office: “It would seem the best way to view Newman’s speech is as an exposition of what Abbott might have said had he been freed of the political constraints that go with being in government.”
In other words, this is Abbott by proxy. He still thinks climate change is crap, he’s just using a ventriloquist.
Like Abbott’s dismissal of carbon trading schemes as the “non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one”, a lot of Newman’s complaints about Himalayagate and Amazongate, his railing against the UNFCCC and the IPCC, and his fear of “serfdom” to green technologies are sourced from the most extreme right wing and anti-science blogs.
Most of his assertions are demonstrably wrong – such as his claims on the impact of renewables on electricity prices for German industry, which has benefited from a dramatic fall in wholesale electricity prices caused by the rapid expansion of renewable energy. Germany’s new grand coalition has actually strengthened its commitment to the energy transition by creating new “corridors” that will see it with up to 60% renewable energy by 2035.
But this is not just dog-whistling to climate skeptics, this is part of policy formulation. Abbott is already dismantling climate change policies and institutions and seeking to replace it with Direct Action, a program that is dismissed in both the scientific and investment worlds.
More recently, Abbott has been echoing the scare campaigns of the two Newman (Maurice and Queensland premier Campbell) about the impact of renewables. “We’ve got to accept … that in the changed circumstances of today, the renewable energy target is causing pretty significant price pressures in the system,” the Guardian quoted Abbott as saying last month.