by Nick Goldie, for the Cooma Monaro Express
Maria Taylor is a journalist and documentary film maker of wide experience, and her book What Australia Knew and Buried reflects her intelligent and tireless investigative skills. The book is nominally about climate science, but in fact the main theme is how we have changed, as a society, in the past three decades.
Is it a plot, or is it just an accidental shifting of priorities? The answer is probably somewhere between: the movers and shakers taking advantage of a societal change to advance their own programs.
A visitor from Mars, reading todays newspapers or blogs, would assume that there was a brisk and meaningful debate about the science of climate change. The visitor would be wrong. As Taylor points out, the debate has become almost meaningless in the past quarter century, as economic and ideological themes swamp the science.
In 1980, the magazine Playboy (of all places!) published a long and thoughtful article about climate change. February this year is the 50th anniversary of a speech to the US Congress by Lyndon B Johnson, warning about the dangers of climate change. And in 1989 Margaret Thatcher made an extraordinarily well-informed speech to the United Nations on the same subject.
The evidence is there, said Mrs Thatcher. The damage is being done. What do we, the international community, do about it?
The answer is, not very much. Its arguable that environmental and climate policies of the Hawke/Richardson era were driven by self-interest, but the policies did exist. However, under Keating and then Howard, the debate was ambushed by the economic rationalists, with their mantra that the market knows best.
Taylor cites the example of Victoria, which in the early 1990s was leading the nation with a raft of policies devoted to energy conservation and renewable energy development. Then all this was to come to a dramatic halt with Project Victoria, which brought a Liberal government led by Jeff Kennett to power in 1992 with the help of a blueprint for a deregulated state and a market economic approach to administration.
A sad element in the story is what happened, and is happening, to Australian science. From being a world leader, not just in climate science, we have reached a point where ideology determines what science is done, and who does it. Our once-great scientific institutions such as CSIRO are systematically restructured, muzzled, and stripped of funding.
Maria Taylors book looks not just at the melancholy history, but also tries to give an answer to the how and why questions. And, she says, that same history is also a roadmap of what people once heard and thought. Effective action on climate change will start when society decides things can be handled differently, as once they were.