John Kerin – launch speech

Posted on Posted in Book reviews

 Speech by the Hon John Kerin at the launch of Dr Maria Taylor’s book  


… then framed a new reality for the public.”


11 February, Australian Law Lecture Theatre, 5.30 p.m. ANU

This is a crucially important book. It is exceptionally well researched and thoughtfully written. I am privileged to launch it.

Global Warming/Climate Change is more than an ‘inconvenient truth’. It is an ultimate issue. It is an existential issue. It is one of a handful of existential issues for the planet. Mankind is now engaged in an experiment to see if exponential growth can go on forever on a finite planet. We are to find out if there is no limit to how much of the world’s bio-mass we can turn into humans-at the expense of ourselves and other species-all living things are being diminished?

We are also crucially engaged in an exercise to prove whether or not the planet’s natural systems are irreparably affected by the activities of man, essentially in the burning of fossil fuels. To quote from Maria, “The dice has been loaded”. But, how many more throws do we have left?

The null hypothesis is do nothing and trust in God. The neo-liberal cum neo-conservative hypothesis, that we, the developed world is largely governed by, is that market ideologies should continue to underpin a belief in limitless resources and a self adjusting natural world and that free markets will solve all problems.

As Rupert Murdoch recently, so succinctly put it, “Society needs to be no more than a collection of individuals engaged to markets”- so now you know!

Scientific rationality has been replaced by economic rationality and both major political parties in Australia are not going to change the current dominant economic/business paradigm or that “coal is good is good for humanity”!

Maria recognises that for Australia, Climate Change is a wicked problem, (as it is for the power needing, developing world), but what this book shows is how the issue has been treated so wickedly. It is about how Australians were persuaded to doubt what they once knew, believed and endorsed.

We live with uncertainty and risk. Jobs are always an issue. The long term cost of doing nothing is rarely emphasised. Ironically, the development of alternative energy and new technologies is or will be the source of new jobs- or perhaps we can all become baristas?

This crucially important book should be essential reading for everyone if we are to understand the ongoing debate on CC in Australia. Just as, if not more, importantly, about understanding ourselves and the nature of our society. This is because it also sheds light on all vexing environmental issues, where the science is comprehensive and the level of research and evidence, while still unfolding, is exceptionally sound. While the challenges are real, the debate is surreal. It rings so true with much of my life and political experience.

In Australia, we had a clear political consensus on CC between the major political parties, at least until 1989-90. The current governing coalition has now rejected a market based approach, replacing it by paying polluters not to pollute.

Maria’s analytical book is about how this consensus was debauched both subtly and deliberately, due to the nature of our society and the forces and beliefs within and beyond it. The time frame of the book is 1987 to 2001 and the parallels with the US are neatly drawn out in the way the public’s mind was turned from consensual concern and the need for action, to doubt and then to confusion in both countries.

Maria’s book is about how the debate was reframed in Australia, mainly by conservative think tanks, politicians, the business community and the media, mainly by exploiting the beliefs, fears and values held by our society. With respect to conservative think tanks, on 30 January this year, John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs said that, “Climate change has after all become a matter of faith, not evidence”. Politics is always a contest of ideas, or should be, but it is easier to change a society’s perceptions if it is disinterested in politics.

The book makes me very angry, as it should everyone. But then again, I have been around the traps for so long I am not surprised. Back in the ‘Dreamtime’ when I was part of a government which had developed policies in Opposition, with Ministers employing expert staff, and which, as a corporate group, did not belittle the APS nor the scientific community, the communications at the highest level were a lot freer than they are today.

One of the fundamental lessons in politics is that Man will believe and do anything to his fellow Man and nature on the basis of ignorance, ideology, religion, calculation or manipulated self-interest. So much of my fourth working life and involvement in research and natural resource management has reinforced this view.

This book paints a vivid analysis of our conservative political classes and their damning, scientific illiteracy, opportunism, consensus and timidity and the institutional bastardry that has occurred under pressure from government. Professor Tom Griffiths of the ANU defines Climate Change denialism as “a strategic and knowing political act in the face of established facts. It is consciously fraudulent, motivated by malice aforethought, driven by cynical opportunism and greed, frequently funded by the carbon-polluting industries”. Maria puts the flesh on these words as well as systematically analysing the nature of the scientific disciplines, the dogmas and changed theories of economics and the dominance of “the market” as the only raison d’etre for human existence.

She also analyses conflicts based on the silos of specialist professional beliefs, fundamental religious beliefs, a belief in a technological fix for every problem (geo-engineering?), the short term imperatives of business and its paradigms and, finally, the laziness and irresponsibility of the media. In other words, the why and the how the 1990 consensus on Global Warming was changed to the one we live with today. And which is being prosecuted with incomprehensible zeal and ideological fervour by the current, pre-Enlightenment, Commonwealth Government-even to the extent of eliminating industries working on alternative, renewable energy sources, costing Australia billions of dollars in committed investment, as well as cutting essential research expenditure, slicing into Landcare etc.

The previous policy consensus has now been replaced by ideological fervour and band-aid responses to the issue. There will be nothing in the laughable, “Direct Action” for Australia’s landholders- who have stewardship of at least 65% of the continent.

Segments of our largely, politically disinterested population have been propagandised and manipulated into the confused beliefs that people in our contemporary society now seem to hold on CC. Sowing seeds of doubt and fear is a classic strategy in the psychology of denial-the tobacco industry taught us that a long time ago. We experienced the same debate on the ozone hole in the 1970s and the same kinds of beliefs are alive and well today with respect to, e.g. vaccination. The way we hear what opinion makers and manipulators depends on our complicity in being persuaded or otherwise. “The fault lies not in the stars but in our selves”- who first said that?

If Maria is angry, it doesn’t show as she dispassionately, logically, methodically and objectively marshals the evidence of how we got from an emphatic all political party, community consensus on Global Warming in, say, 1990 and the situation by the early 2000s. In 1990 we were ready to act and each State and Territory drew up detailed response plans. The 1990 IPCC report was definitive, straight forward and its four reports since have not budged from the central proposition about the fundamental science and processes under way. Maria is not impartial (i.e., she doesn’t resort to ‘on the one hand this and on the other hand that’). She is objective and inclined to explain what has gone on and why.

I always thought that research, reason, evidence and analysis should determine the direction of policy. There is something going for an intellectual approach to issues rather than an approach based on bias, the prejudiced ranting of shock jocks, ignorance and appeasing corporate and individual self interest. Our medical profession, still learning, still advancing, still researching, is a good example and it has a consensus view on, e.g., vaccination. If you think polio and whooping cough vaccinations are to be avoided for some religious or perverted reason, so be it. But most people are not of that view in Australia because of proven knowledge and empirical evidence.

However people are always capable of being brain-washed in greater or lesser degree-all demagogues know that and the powerful in our society know exactly what they are doing in greater or lesser degree, often subtly with closely honed public relations skills to the fore. Every politician knows appealing to greed beats need and that inciting fear beats hope and that racism and nationalism are there to be let loose. We also know that people do not vote on the basis of fact and reason but on the basis of perception and sentiment- what is needed is leadership when the issue is stark. The fault is in our selves.

What Maria draws out is that if we humans were a rational race, by now in our history, in the post Enlightenment age, it may have been accepted that once the science was accepted, even on the balance of probabilities, (normal risk aversion), we would be seized with such an existential issue. Forget the need for absolute scientific certainty and the doubts cast by doubters, think of logic. If 97 out of 100 doctors told you to stop drinking red wine or you will die a slow and lingering death, you would most likely stop-even I would!

If you think we can have oil, phosphates, all our needed minerals, can clear more and more land and that water will be in abundance forever, and if you think we can nearly double food production by 2050 and then continue to produce enough food for double our current population, then there is no need to worry. However, even, if you do or do not believe this, logically, what possible harm is there in exploring and developing alternative energy sources, conserving land, managing our forests, husbanding our water resources, halting the extinction rate of bird and animal species and saving our wild fisheries? We need new industries and alternative energy is an obvious one. Without recalling the “Uncertainty Principle”, what is wrong with addressing what many believe is a clear and present danger? Why is it that we are happy enough to go to wars based on lies but not act on what scientists and relevant researchers and wise women tell us.

There is a logical reason to believe the consensus views of our most highly educated and learned people. Our industries, including our mining, energy and agricultural industries depend on research, science, physics, chemistry and engineering- discoveries are adapted and adopted- it is how we progress. Yet at organised industry level it does not suit some of those to move from the status quo if short term financial interests are threatened.

Allow me to now quickly preface Maria’s work. She commences by detailing what we knew in the late 1980s and how the media was basically on side. This was at a time when ‘environmentalism’ in Australia was strong and to my mind the media was on the bandwagon and uncritically accepting whatever Green spokespeople said. Science is at the basis of all environmental concerns-it should not be traduced for the sake of undergraduate stunts any more than it should be by the Alan Jones and Rupert Murdochs of this world- or even the shameless Abbott. The Hawke Government accepted the science, the Opposition not so willingly, but also agreed, once upon a time.

To my mind, chapters 6, 7 and 8 are the ‘guts’ of the book. They are about the catalogue of influences on the changed story to produce a ‘new normal’, then influences on the changed story and the ‘new normal’, and then the lock in by the media. The depth of analysis by Maria on these influences is profound and should be of concern to any reforming government and people concerned by the path we are taking on the planet and the effects on our environment, including the current species extinction. She explores our dominant values as a society and how they are formed, which so limits the view of human capability versus the natural world. An example of this is the millions spent on “clean coal technology”. Other myths she itemises are the progress myth and human exceptionalism, which trumps science- God will provide?

I congratulate Maria on the persistence and intelligence she has shown in writing this book. Not for a moment do I under-rate the power of this book, on the issue. However, to me, what is also tremendously powerful is her analysis of our society and the state of political decision making in Australia today. The fault is not in the stars but in our selves. Please buy the book- you will be glad, you will be angry, you will be a whole lot better informed, and I hereby declare it launched.

Thank you.