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Issue #1561      22 August 2012

Madlands and Merchants of Doubt Book Tour

In a church hall in Perth’s conservative western suburb of Floreat, on a Saturday afternoon on the penultimate day of the London Olympic Games, a less spectacular though far more poignant presentation attended by 60 people concerning the destiny of humankind was taking place.

Stephan Lewandowsky, Anna Rose, and Naomi Oreskes (left to right).

The main organiser of this community forum on climate change and book tour was Anna Rose, author of Madlands, who came to prominence most recently as the spokesperson for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition when she went around the world with former Howard government Finance Minister, Nick Minchin, an acknowledged climate sceptic, and then was part of a Q&A panel on the ABC on April 26 this year on climate change.

The second author was Naomi Oreskes, a science historian and writer based at the University of Southern California who has written a book, Merchants of Doubt about her experiences with the lobbyists of industry in the USA who make it their business to deny climate change, pump out misinformation and call for equal time or “balanced” debates on climate change.

The third person on the panel as part of the climate change forum was Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at University of Western Australia who specialises in how people remember with an emphasis on the role of scepticism in the updating of memories and the acquisition of knowledge.

Anna Rose commenced her talk with an overview of the origins of man-made climate change which included the observation that the theory of the greenhouse effect was raised in the early 1800s. The temperature of the earth’s atmosphere has continued to rise sharply since the Industrial Revolution in the mid to late 19th Century with consequences which we are now feeling at an increasing and alarming rate. This has begun to affect people all over the world and especially large numbers of people living in low lying coastal areas who often do not have access to resources to militate against the effects of climate change.

Agricultural land is being lost not only by rising sea levels, but also by increased evaporation of moisture from soils and floods which wash away irreplaceable top soil. This loss of moisture is also causing crop yields to decline by up to 10 percent.

However, Rose also pointed out that a developed nation such as Australia has also begun to feel the effects of climate change through more frequent and longer droughts, bushfires and floods.

Climate change has also affected the PH and temperature of the world’s oceans causing them to become more acidic which in turn causes coral bleaching. The bleaching eventually kills the coral and has a negative effect on the plant and aquatic animal life which depend on it. The human being is one of these animals and it has diminished a significant food source for them. At the northern extreme of our earth, increased global warming has caused the Arctic sea ice to lose 40 percent of its mass in 40-50 years and also started to thaw the permafrost which has begun to release large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas that itself contributes to global warming.

However, continued Anna, as urgent as the risks to life on our planet are there is a concerted effort by a group of nuclear physicists and politicians to stymie debate of action to slow and avert climate change claiming, to do so, would impinge on civil liberties and freedom. To people who deny climate change she makes the simple analogy of doing something to halt climate change is akin to taking out insurance for a house, car or business; it is about managing the risk. These risks Anna advised were most important for three areas; food security, preparing infrastructure for the effects of climate change and the effects on the health of the most vulnerable in our society; the elderly, sick and the young.

Recently she attended the Rio summit on sustainability and there learnt that, “We have all the solutions now, what we lack is the political and social will to act on these solutions.”

Enter the next speaker Naomi Oreskes, an academic with a background in oceanography and the history of science who has written a book with an atmospheric scientist Eric Conway on their experiences with those lobbyists which also included a handful of scientists – who make it their job to cast doubt – deny and sow misinformation about climate change. These purveyors of doubt act in and for the interests of capital in the belief that the free market is the best way to organise a society as it gives people freedom of choice (that is often aided with liberal dollops of advertising to convince you of this so called freedom). However, for Oreskes and others, “because a response to climate change requires a change away from this world view, it is seen as threatening by the current world order.”

Oreskes says that those who oppose the rule of the free market are seen as extremists and even labelled Communists which is probably the “worst” label one can have politically in the US. Individualism said Oreskes was also a deeply held belief in the US that was fostered by capital as it increased consumption and therefore profits whereas its opposite number, community, unity and working as a collective, was seen as something that worked against the profit motive. Oreskes added that it is now too late in the piece to leave the development of a solution to climate change to individualism and free markets and that the longer we wait from here on, the more a government or centrally planned intervention will be necessary. (See also You Tube video clip, “Naomi Oreskes deconstructs Nick Minchin’s climate denial.”)

The presentation by the three speakers on climate change was followed by a lively Q & A which included many creative solutions to publicising climate action including the powerful antics of Anna Rose’s now global Youth Climate Coalition groups and the Naomi Oreskes’ targeting of influential sectors of society to take the message to the board rooms of corporate America. In particular, the ski industry has in recent years felt the effects of low snowfall as a consequence of global warming. This has caused ski resorts and the 20 million skiers and snow boarders in the US to come on board. They are influential as they are well off, educated and vote.

Another solution was for proponents of climate change action to tell people that we have already started solving the problem and they can then see it is doable and come on board, such as solar panels for power generation, rainwater tanks at home, recycling and reusing goods and using public transport.

However, there is still much work to be done which Oreskes illustrated by the efforts which business, governments and even some scientists will go to, to coerce and marginalise opponents of shale gas and other forms of unconventional gas and oil in North America, such as tar sands in the north of Canada. “In the US many scientists are being pushed to accept coal seam and shale gas as a climate change solution.” This is “despite fugitive emissions being grossly underestimated, in fact so much so that as much methane gas escapes than is actually captured at the wellhead.”

“By developing shale gas and bitumen sands and other forms of non-renewable energy we (in the US and also in Australia) have stopped developing renewable energy, this and an oversupply of gas have now put downward pressure on the price.” Oreskes concluded by saying that the problems caused by these forms of unconventional carbon illustrated that the bridge to a clean energy future argument was false.

The forum was a success as it demonstrated that once people have complete and true information about climate change then they will feel empowered and compelled to act in their own lives and to share this information with others. Most importantly, it was shown that the major reason for resistance to change came from the belief that freedom and individualism will be lost through the actions required to address climate change. However, as argued by Oreskes in her deconstruction of Nick Minchin’s arguments against action on climate change – the longer you wait the worse the problem will become and the more inevitable will come the need for drastic action to do something.  

Next article – Culture & Life – “The worst is on the way”

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