Alan Pears – full review

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by Alan Pears, environmental consultant and RMIT lecturer

Why the climate change message changed in Australia

This book is an essential read for anyone with a serious interest in the history of Australian climate policy and the lessons that emerge from it. It’s based on a PhD thesis by a journalist Maria Taylor, which included analysis of many media articles on climate, as well as interviews with many of the players.

Australia’s well-informed and progressive approach to climate issues from the 1980s to the early 1990s is carefully documented. As Taylor points out, it is a shock for many involved in this battle since the mid-1990s to see how Australians once stood out as informed and responsible, and how competently the issue was treated by leaders and media.

Taylor then explores how, why and when the message changed. It is a bleak story, but an important one. It highlights the enormous power of a web of industry groups, conservative think tanks, neo-classical economic policy makers and media owners. Both major political parties contributed to the reframing.

The book also analyses the role of the media in detail. The shift in media coverage was partly due to the deep change driven by the emergence of the internet, declining profitability and centralisation of traditional media. Experienced and ethical journalists left, so articles that provided context and perspective were replaced by ‘he says, she says’ articles focused on artificially framed debate, conflict that reinforced uncertainty and a ‘culture war’ model based on ‘environment versus economy’. Powerful media owners imposed their agendas. And publicly owned media were intimidated into providing ‘balanced’ reporting that reinforced anti-scientific views.

The author provides many insights I found valuable. And she filled in a few holes in my understanding of the story. I found it hard to put down this book until I finished it, even though I found some of its content, on the tactics used to subvert effective action on climate, confronting.