Australia’s poisoned climate debate

One of the Institute of Public Affair’s greatest successes has been to stitch climate denialism into the very fabric of the conservative political identity.

From anti-vaxxers to climate deniers to a general simmering scepticism of science, denialism in all its forms is everywhere. Crikey is presenting a four-part series on how the seeds of doubt are planted and how they blossom through media and politics. Read the first three parts here.

In the 1980s, long before there was widespread public awareness of the proximity of imminent environmental apocalypse, before climate change became a wedge issue that toppled Australian prime ministers and divided politics, free market think tanks like the Institute of Public Affairs were busy sowing the seeds of doubt.

Today, those seeds have grown into vast tendrils which have a stranglehold on politics. The IPA exists as a conduit between the respectable mainstream right, represented by the Liberal Party, and fringe climate deniers, whose marginal views are largely rejected by the rest of the scientific community. Their greatest success, mirroring that of other free market think tanks in the United States, has been to stitch climate denialism into the very fabric of the conservative political identity.

The Operation

The IPA’s fingerprints can be found across climate denialism in Australia. “Of all the serious sceptics in Australia”, IPA executive director John Roskam told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010, “we have helped and supported just about all of them.”

The modus operandi of the IPA is clear, and ruthlessly effective. It’s most important function is to provide funding and a platform for denialism. Back in 2008, for example, it facilitated a $350,000 donation from long-term member Bryant Macfie, a Perth based doctor and prominent shareholder in a mining company, to the University of Queensland for “environmental research”. As deniers are increasingly pushed out of universities, the IPA continues to give their work a quasi-academic fig-leaf, bestowing titles like “research fellow” and publishing their articles in the “IPA Review”. The institute regularly publishes articles and books, with a recent tome, Climate Change: The Facts, bringing together a who’s who of Australia’s denier fringe (you can read a chapter-by-chapter review on the IPA’s website, if so inclined).

With this platform, the IPA’s warriors are able to pass themselves off as experts, and enter into the political debate, often through the airtime they are given by sympathetic conservative media. During the Rudd-Gillard years, when the institute was heavily involved with the campaign to repeal the carbon tax, its researchers made 363 radio and 261 television appearances to discuss environmental economics. Between 2010 and 2014, its research was cited 209 times in print media.

Finally, the IPA maintains financial, ideological and tactical ties with similar free market think tanks in the US. The Atlas Network, a loose configuration of free-market think tanks brings many of these organisations together, and in 2015, shortlisted the IPA for a prize over its key role in getting Gillard’s carbon tax repealed.

According to Graham Readfearn, a journalist who has spent much of his career tracking the movement against climate change, the IPA has “long embraced their talking points and imported their people”, with representatives from American organisations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute doing the rounds in Australia as far back as the ’80s. More recently, the IPA was involved in attempts to bring prominent climate denier Scott Pruitt, the scandal-ridden former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to Australia.

The Network

The IPA is the most visible face of a labyrinthine network of smaller, more obscure organisations with which it remains indirectly connected. In 2004, it created the Eureka Forum, an attempted grassroots gathering of people from rural communities to fight back against “environmental fundamentalism”. Readfearn says the forum was part of a classic IPA tactic of creating front groups, with banal, euphemistic names.

“In my view it was an attempt to cover the desires of Australia’s high-polluting industries in a gloss of concerned environmentalism,” Readfearn told Crikey.

A year later, The Australian Environment Foundation was founded with IPA backing. Despite its low profile and amateurish website, the AEF has plenty of connections to the political establishment. Its founding chairman was Hawke government minister Barry Cohen. Directors have included Western Australian Liberal leader Mike Nahan (himself an ex-IPA boss), and disgraced former television presenter Don Burke. Most recently, Tony Abbott presented a lecture to the foundation.

The Funding

In 2009, another IPA-AEF spin-off emerged, called the Australian Climate Science Coalition. It was unclear what the now-defunct ACSC actually did. But in 2012, a trove of leaked documents showed that it indirectly received over $100,000 of funding from groups backed by the Heartland Institute, a US free-market think tank.

Long at the forefront of climate denial, Heartland is incredibly well-endowed, receiving funding from influential US conservative donors like the Koch Brothers, who made their fortunes in the oil industry. It is known for hosting lavish conferences bringing together politicians and lobbyists, with attendees including LNP backbencher George Christensen.

The Heartland leak is more evidence of the way interest groups have bankrolled denialism in Australia. While the IPA is notoriously coy about its finances, court documents reveal Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting donated $4.5 million to the organisation in 2016 and 2017, amounting to about half of its income. There is also evidence that Exxon Mobil, Shell, Caltex and Esso have all funded the IPA.

The People

The IPA and the AEF give substantial airtime to the renegade scientists and glorified lobbyists who make up the intellectual core of the Australian denier movement. Jennifer Marohasy, who edited the IPA’s most recent book on climate is among the most prominent voices. Last year, an article by Marohasy and fellow IPA member John Abbot managed featured in a peer-reviewed journal, gaining them considerable traction from right wing outlets like Breitbart, The Spectator and The Drudge Report. The article was panned by experts, with one referring to it as “junk science”.

Much of the AEF’s web content is written by Alan Moran, an IPA fellow once slated to lead the Abbott government’s review into the renewable energy target, before he was dumped in 2014 over an Islamophobic tweet. Peter Ridd, who dismisses the notion that the Great Barrier Reef is dying, and whose controversial sacking from James Cook University made him something of a cause célèbre among the denialism movement, also contributes. Ian Plimer, a geologist who has sat on the board of several mining companies,  and is a favourite of both Tony Abbott and Alan Jones, also writes in many IPA climate publications.

This disparate handful of figures have been largely marginalised by the mainstream scientific community, and almost never publish in peer-reviewed journals. Yet somehow, they have huge influence over Australia’s political debate around climate change, owing in part, to their ability to tell politicians what they want to hear.

The conservative politicians sympathetic to denialism aren’t necessarily anti-science, says Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, but rather, willing to moderate their world view to appease their donors.

“It’s about money. These politicians and their backers aren’t anti-science, they’re anti-losing money and changing their business models,” Lamberts said.

And so, while a majority of Australians now believe climate change is a real threat to their future, and want more investment in renewable energy, the IPA and its allies still has a stranglehold on Australian politics.

It’s unlikely to let go without a fight

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