Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Very Creative Turn Of Rhetoric (while we wait for the end)

Some of you may have been following the intellectual jousting match that is Steve Fielding v Majority World Scientific Opinion. In an effort to be a good representative to his constituents (2% of whom actually voted for him), Australian Senator Fielding thought he ought to do the good thing and explore the science of climate change. As he put it recently on, Lateline "Look, I don't think it's matter of being sceptical or extremist on this issue; it's too important to play politics with... And I think it'd be derelict if I didn't inform myself." Like a good engineer, Fielding sought information from 'both sides of the argument' in the US. These sides were the Obama governmental representatives and conservative think tank marketing group the Heartland Institute. In his crusade to separate climate change from politics, he visits he US government and a thinktank intended "to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems." Lucky he avoided politics there! Returning to Australia, Fielding was now convinced that there were too many doubts scientificially about the links between climate change and human activity.

While Fielding's disproportionate power in the Australian Senate is of interest itself, I am intrigued by the way in which the debate about 'climate change' has shifted. Fielding's own explorations are indicative, I believe, of a fascinating turn of rhetoric in how 'energy conservatives' are dealing with the problem that very few people believe them any more. Pesky phrases like '[w]arming of the climate system is unequivical' and '[m]ost of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations,' taken from the 2007 IPCC Climate Change Summary Report, keep jumping out at them. How can they deal with what seems the massive weight of scientific opinion? Enter the re-branding of climate skeptics as 'climate mavericks' (my term).

Consider Fielding's comments, again from Lateline: "up until now, I, like most Australians, have just believed one side of the story totally. I've never - we've never really considered as Australia, there's been never a real debate about looking at the other side of it. And I think we've all just believed that it's definitely global warming is a real issue and global warming is driven by carbon emissions." Like his understanding of global warming trends, it seems that Fielding's memory of Australian socio-political history is extremely shortsighted. For those of you unfamiliar with Australian politics, the previous government, who were in power from 1996 - 2007, were open skeptics about climate change. Only late into their failed 2007 election campaign did the sitting Government openly acknowledge some possibility of human influence on global climate. Second to this, the massive coal industry - Australia is the largest exporter of coal worldwide, approx 1/3 of the world's coal comes from Australia. Finally,we are heavily reliant upon cars (i.e. petrol) as the major form of personal transport. Basically, the status quo in Australia was, and still is skewed heavily towards carbon intensive industries and carbon intensive lifestyles.
Yet somehow, folks like Fielding paint a view that they are a maverick, standing up against the conservative green-minded folks who accept climate change without thinking. Check conservative mouth-piece Miranda Devine's casting of Fielding as warrior for freedom:

He has been derided by people without any training in mathematics or scientific disciplines, who regard science, probably, as they do their computers - as a little black box to be understood only by an elite council of infallible gurus who are incapable of impure motives. Who is the gullible one?...Fielding has been smeared as a religious nutter, even though the real religious nutters are the green zealots who are hell-bent on destroying farming and mining for the sake of, at best, a minuscule environmental benefit.

As the weight scientific opinion has shifted more and more to the links between human activity, climate change, and the damage it will probably cause, the skeptics lost their position of authority. How to deal with this? It seems that there is a shift in how climate skeptics deal with the issue of public opinion. Rather than the rhetoric of 'fringe dwelling wierdoes' of the '80s, or 'not enough scientific evidence' of the '90s, it is now 'mavericks wanting the public to know both sides of the story.' Big carbon producing industries and their political lackeys are now the underdog, fighting for the rights of the down-trodden middle classes.
Yes, when violent green radicals like Ross Garnaut peddle such socialist ideas that "[t]he weight of scientific evidence tells us that Australians are facing risks of damaging climate change. The risk can be substantially reduced by strong, effective and early action by all major economies," we need someone to stand up and question the green radicals. Enter, Mr. Fielding, truth-crusader, climate maverick. Oh, wait a minute, that's right...People did that for decades, and they have been shown to be wrong, wrong wrong.