COAG: Can democracy weed out climate deniers?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s statement that “Those people who say coal and other fossil fuels have no future are delusional and they fly in the face of all economic forecasts” confirms that four Australian states were right to go it alone, after his government failed to deliver a clean energy target at the COAG meeting.

The prime minister and most economists now accept that the use of fossil fuels have to be rapidly limited if many devastating climate change impacts are to be prevented.

His statement illustrates how far the climate deniers in his government have compromised him in the interests of retaining power.

Turnbull would have been wise to avoid the word delusional, for it reminds us that denial represents more than a right wing view of a party – be it Australian Coalition or US Republican.

It denies scientific evidence to the extent of being delusional. In general, deniers fervently support individual freedom in contrast to collective action; their freedom often extends to the exploitation of the natural world and causes great harm to human health.

The denier’s personal views are threatened by the implications of necessary collective action by all governments to address climate change.

President Trump illustrates the problem at its most florid.

His most effective action to date has been the partial demolition of EPA regulations which Obama designed to control emissions but this desire to thwart action extends to many other areas including ceasing payment to the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations.

Delusion is an irrational belief which remains firm even when overwhelming proof is presented to dispute it. Florid denial behaviour strongly reminds me of the condition “delusional parasitosis”.

Here the sufferer points to a patch of skin and says “Look the insects are emerging”. If one looks and says “Yes that’s awful” the consultation continues.

If one says reassuringly “There is nothing there” the patient will depart and return with supposed evidence, or visit a succession of doctors till one is found who agrees.

The condition is incurable.

The climate denier dismisses the collective scientific evidence and typically returns with the one scientific paper that does not fit the pattern, or like Trump and the G7 they simply walk out or refuse discussion.

The belief of climate change deniers is usually unshakable. Many delude themselves that there is a conspiracy.

Trump used the words “hoax” and “Chinese hoax” adding paranoia to his armory. This is another clinical feature of delusional thought disorder.

US Senator James Inhofe, who was Chair of the Senate Environment Committee and a climate change denier, referred to climate change as the Third Reich’s Big Lie.

He compared the US Environmental Protection Authority to The Gestapo.

The Chair of the Coalitions Environment Committee, perhaps a reincarnation of Inhofe, celebrated the Trump decision and suggested that we too withdraw from Paris!

Both cases illustrate that the fervour of deniers often drives them into influential positions where they can do most damage.

Deniers exist across the community and in every profession including the medial profession much to my chagrin.

Doctors can be deniers despite medical opinion supported by facts that climate change is the greatest health threat this century.

DEA Climate Change Health Fact Sheet

Recently when giving a talk on the health impacts of climate change to trainee doctors, a senior hospital doctor marched into the room, listened to one sentence, recognised the topic and a loud voice said “Communist rubbish” and marched out.

How can Australian governments proceed to address climate change?

States which can deliver collective outcomes like the ACT, SA, Queensland and Victoria must act as indeed their counterparts in the US are doing, for even if the Federal government manages to approve a form of clean energy target, there will be a mission to undermine it as there has been with other climate change policies and government institutions.

Denial comes disguised as fervent coal advocacy, coal is cheap – denying the huge health costs, windmills despoiling the landscape and 3000 deaths from unaffordable power.

Clearly the four States have accepted these realities and will support the findings of the Finkel Report as a step forward, even though some may feel it has some deficiencies.

Solutions for a return to rational thinking by climate deniers are impossible; there is no benefit in arguing or explaining.

Needy decisions are threatened from within democracy in both US and Australia and must be resolved by democracy.

Otherwise our freedoms will be assailed by a chaotic world. The electorate needs to have sufficient electoral recognition of the need to replace deniers.

Readers are invited to analyse the role and position of the most influential denier and former leader in our government who is sufficiently politically expedient to acknowledge climate change yet works insidiously to undermine action.


Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is Hon. Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia and Emeritus Professor of Medicine University of Adelaide

First published in Renew Economy on 19 July 2017

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