Posts Tagged ‘Denialism’

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The illusion of the reasonable centre

4 February 2013

Republican strategist Karl Rove in 2002 notoriously disparaged “the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. He continued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That quote has become a symbol for the Republican Party’s detachment from empirical reality, like Mitt Romney’s recent declaration “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. I’m a proud member of the “reality-based community”, in that I try to base my views as much as possible on observed facts rather than instinct or ideology. Yet Rove understood something his political opponents don’t: “political reality” is an illusion.

Campaigners who pride themselves on being “political realists”, and voters who pride themselves on being “centrists”, make the fundamental mistake of assuming the political centre is a real thing fixed in one position. Although political scholars talk about an objective centre halfway between the most extreme possible ideological orientations, it has no influence on political debate. In practice, the political centre is a perception that can be manipulated by various political forces. Thus it is possible to shift the political centre, or “political reality”, without deluding as the Republicans do – you only need to change the perception of where the centre is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The “Overton window” is the range of political positions considered to be the scope of reasonable debate. The perceived political centre is in the middle of the Overton window. Positions toward the edges of the Overton window are considered radical, and positions beyond the edges are considered unthinkable.

A third way of conceptualizing this is “Hallin’s spheres”, three nested ideological spheres illustrating the implicit bias of ostensibly objective media coverage. In the centre is the “sphere of consensus”, consisting of propositions considered by the journalist (or other observer) to be self-evident to all reasonable people. The intermediate shell is the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, matters considered suitable to be debated among reasonable people; journalists generally strive for balanced coverage of the views in this shell. The outer shell is the “sphere of deviance”, positions considered to be outside the range of mainstream debate. In this metaphor it is journalists who (consciously or otherwise) decide which ideas belong in which sphere, and they tend to make those decisions based on the thinking of the political establishment. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Liberals Part 2: Their “Direct Action” is neither

13 January 2013

This is the second part of a series examining the Liberal Party of Australia. Part 1 covers the party’s climate change denial and intention to abolish various existing climate policies. This part examines the climate policies they promise to introduce.

The first question to ask about the Liberal Party’s climate policy is “what is it?” This question is a lot more difficult to answer than you might think. One of the reasons why I have not focused on the Liberals is because although they are aggressive on process, their policies are vague if not contradictory. If they weren’t favored by nearly half of Australian voters, I would say the Liberals are the parliamentary clowns. Nevertheless, I will examine the few details they have provided.

The Liberals propose a set of measures they spin as a “Direct Action Plan”, a frame that has been uncritically adopted by many journalists. While the phrase “direct action” brings to mind images of protestors chained to bulldozers, the content of the Direct Action Plan is rather less exciting, neither particularly direct nor very active.

The plan is mainly articulated in a policy document released before the last election (all quotes below are taken from this document unless otherwise attributed). It is unclear how current this document is: it is nearly three years old so the timeline will obviously need to be condensed to meet the 2020 deadline, and the Liberals have since mentioned various revisions and reinterpretations, some of which I may have missed. Presumably a full updated policy will be released before the next election; in the meantime I have assumed the old document is accurate except where I am aware of later changes.

The plan is supposed to directly cut CO2 emissions 5% below 1990 by 2020, very similar to Labor’s meaningless target (with the positive difference that the Liberals would not use international offsets, a point I will come back to in Part 3). The Liberals also ostensibly support Labor’s conditional target range of 5-25%, though they have not mentioned it for a long time. Indeed, they rubbish their own 5% target. Liberal leader Tony Abbott has described it as “crazy” in the context of China’s increasing emissions. On other occasions Abbott has gone even further (which a leaked list of talking points shows was scripted), claiming the target will not reduce global temperature for 1000 years (missing that the point of climate action is to limit the rise of global temperature). The Liberals can’t have it both ways: is a 5% target insignificant or Liberal policy? Read the rest of this entry ?

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Liberals Part 1: Climate denial and deregulation

11 January 2013

Almost all of my posts to date have focused on criticizing Australia’s incumbent Labor government. I have written very little about the alternate Liberal/National Coalition government. But as we enter an election year, it is time to examine the Liberals’ policies.

Can the Liberals be trusted?

To begin with, it is worth noting that the Liberals have given us every reason to distrust them on climate change.

According to a 2010 survey, only 38% of Coalition politicians accept that humans are warming the planet (compared to 98% of Greens, in line with the scientific consensus, and 89% of Labor politicians). Liberal and National politicians regularly spout denialist talking points, up to and including their leader Tony Abbott. Most notoriously, Abbott reportedly said in 2009 that the science of climate change is “complete crap” but “the politics of this are tough for us”. In 2010 Abbott met with Christopher Monckton, a man who claims climate scientists are conspiring to fake their results in a plot to create a socialist world government. In a speech to the Mining Council of Australia in 2011, Abbott said “the authors of the carbon tax do not see coal, oil and gas as the most important parts of our economy” but “as a threat to the very survival of our planet”, the obvious implication being that his party disagrees. In 2011 former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard launched a book instructing schoolchildren to raise denialist arguments in the classroom. Queensland’s Liberal National government wants to remove climate from the school curriculum, and its Premier and Environment Minister openly deny human-caused global warming.

I could list many more examples. Indeed, it would probably be quicker to list Coalition politicians who have never publically made denialist claims.

Almost all of the Liberals’ actions mark them as an anti-climate party. The Liberals did not take any significant climate action during the eleven years of the Howard government. They consistently prioritize short-term economic considerations like mining industry competitiveness and electricity prices ahead of climate change. Today they are putting way more effort into opposing Labor’s climate policy than in designing and promoting their own (the former is the subject of this post; the latter will be covered in Part 2). Thus it is questionable whether they would even implement their climate policy, let alone whether it would work. Read the rest of this entry ?

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2012: The year the world snoozed

31 December 2012

The Guardian described 2006 as “The year the world woke up” to climate change. If that’s the case then I guess 2007 was the year we rolled over and went back to sleep. Our alarm clock has continued to ring ever more loudly and clearly, but we just keep on hitting the snooze button – if we even hear the alarm at all. The events of 2012 have continued the pattern, both in Australia and around the world.

January

A diverse group of organizations warned there is a “carbon bubble” in global financial markets. Yawn… oh look, Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open!

February

Mining magnate and climate change denier Gina Rinehart tried to take over an Australian newspaper chain. Business news is so dreary… wow, congratulations to Queen Elizabeth II for reaching her Diamond Jubilee!

Australian ex-PM Kevin Rudd attempted to regain the top job and lock in a meaningless greenhouse gas emissions target. Hey, someone leaked a video of him saying the F-word!

March

Greenpeace exposed Australia’s plans to multiply its already-world-beating coal exports on a scale dwarfing its emissions at home, to which the government responded by passionately defending the industry. Soporific stuff… look, Clive Palmer is fighting with his soccer team!

Australia introduced a tax on coal mining profits that failed to raise any revenue. How dull… whoa, Sachin Tendulkar scored his 100th international century in cricket! Read the rest of this entry ?

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Doha climate talks: Island states stand up for ambition

5 December 2012

“We have not seen concrete progress on the issues that are important to ensuring the survival of all our members. How many conferences do we have to endure where we go back to our countries and say, ‘next year we will increase ambition to reduce emissions, next year we will see finance, next year we will save the climate’? No more next years.”

Sai Navoti, lead negotiator for Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)

The elephant in the room at the Doha climate talks (COP18) is the cavernous “ambition gap” between the pathetically weak pledges on the table and the rapid emissions cuts urgently required to keep global warming below the 2°C limit agreed by the world’s governments, let alone a truly safe global target.

Last year’s conference in Durban established a process to close the ambition gap, Durban Platform workstream 2, yet in Doha it is being sidelined in favor of competing negotiating streams. The state of those other streams has reached a new low: the Kyoto Protocol is set to lock in meaningless targets for its few remaining participants diluted by endless loopholes, Long-term Cooperative Action has devolved into a system of inadequate voluntary pledges, and Durban Platform workstream 1 will not be implemented until 2020 when it will be far too late. An informal note from the Durban Platform chair suggests Doha’s outcome on ambition could consist entirely of planning future negotiations. Indeed the talks may even be going backwards on ambition, with Russia backing away from its pledge to cut emissions 25% by 2020.

Only the Earth’s most vulnerable countries, the small island states, are exposing the emperor’s lack of clothes. “The science is absolutely clear,” AOSIS said in a recent statement. “If emissions are not lowered immediately, the opportunity to avert the worst impacts of climate change may be irrevocably lost.” AOSIS is calling for Kyoto 2 to end in five, not eight years; for there to be no legal gap between commitment periods; for surplus permits to be severely limited; for access to Kyoto offsets to be restricted to those bound by Kyoto targets; and for more ambitious targets from all parties, especially rich countries. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Obama’s reelection won’t change anything

8 November 2012

What does the reelection of Barack Obama mean for climate change? On the one hand, it is a tremendous relief that Mitt Romney lost; but on the other, Obama’s victory is not particularly promising.

Firstly, it is unlikely that Obama will be able to accomplish much even if he wants to. The Republicans will continue to control the House of Representatives, as well as continuing to effectively control the Senate, which means they can continue to block everything as they’ve been doing for the past three years. Why do they effectively control the Senate, you may ask? As explained here, an idiosyncratic rule called the filibuster allows any Senator to prevent a bill being passed (or even being introduced) by debating the motion indefinitely (or secretly threatening to do so). To overrule a filibuster requires 60 out of 100 votes, which the Democrats have not had since 2009 and still don’t have after this election. The Republicans now filibuster pretty much anything and everything, making it almost impossible for the Obama administration to pass legislation. Even if the Democrats had 60 seats, many Democratic Senators representing coal states are unlikely to vote in favor of legislation to address climate change.

It is far from clear that Obama would take the necessary level of action on climate change even if he could get it through Congress. Obama’s first term will be remembered for the failure to act on climate change. The policies he has tried to implement so far have been utterly inadequate. In UN climate talks, Obama has secured a too-high 2°C target and promoted a system of voluntary pledges utterly inadequate to meet it with no intention of ramping them up until at least 2020, when it will be too late (although I say “Obama”, the president himself no longer bothers to show up to climate conferences in person). To his credit, he has invested heavily in renewable energy deployment, but his “all of the above” energy policy also continues to promote and even subsidize fossil fuels. His failed climate legislation, negotiated between Congress and industry lobbyists, was plagued by similar problems to Australia’s policy – weak targets, offsets, free permits for polluters, etcetera – so even if it had passed it was unlikely to be very effective. He delayed that legislation in favor of healthcare reform and financial regulation, after which the Democrats lost the required Senate supermajority. And since March 2009, he has followed a deliberate strategy of not even talking about climate change, instead trying (and failing) to sell climate policies on side-benefits like “green jobs”. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Is Tony Abbott a liar, or just plain stupid?

25 August 2012

It’s taken them two-and-a-half years, but it looks like the Australian media is finally beginning to cotton on to the blatant dishonesty of Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal Party and Opposition. His latest mistruths are debunked here. What better time than to recall some highlights from his ever-growing litany of false, misleading, and contradictory statements?

“Liar” is an inflammatory term which I used to get your attention. Of course, I have no way of knowing the motivations of Abbott or his party; they may believe themselves to be sincere. But if “liar” means “one who makes false statements”, then Abbott is a habitual liar. In fact, I can logically prove to you that Abbott is a liar. This is possible because if a politician promises one thing to one audience and a contradictory thing to another audience, it logically follows that one of those promises must be untrue.

Abbott claimed in July 2011 he had been consistent: “I once used some colorful language describing the so-called settled science of climate change but look, climate change is real, humanity does make a contribution to it and we’ve got to take effective action against it. I mean, that’s my position and that’s always been my position but I’ve never been in favor of a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.” But in October 2009, he had said: “We don’t want to play games with the planet so we are taking this issue seriously and we would like to see an ETS.” And he is on video advocating a form of carbon tax immediately after denying climate change:

Read the rest of this entry ?