High & Dry: John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future; book review

by Guy Pearse

This book, published by Penguin Viking, is a must read for anyone interested in the future of the world, climate change, the mal-functioning of democracy, corporate responsibility, human nature and political chicanery.

Guy Pearse, a former speech writer to Robert Hill, was moving towards Liberal party candidature when, on the advice of Rod Kemp, he went to the US for post-graduate education, under the aegis of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. Soon he discovered that this Foundation was far to the right of the Liberal party in Australia and he moved to the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where the teaching and the book, Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, influenced him greatly. He then moved to an internship with Al Gore at the White House. The book High & Dry describes the findings in his thesis on climate change.

Pearse analyses in detail all the individuals and institutions involved in what he implies is a closely woven network to deny climate change and delay any government responses to it. The network involves many coalition politicians, members of cabinet, conservative think tanks linked financially and ideologically to their counterparts in the US, The Lavoisier Group and many organizations it has spawned, senior people in the polluting industries (self-styled ‘the greenhouse mafia’), their many lobbyists who have easy access to government and the PM, ABARE , DEFAT and APEC Studies Centre. Assistance and modeling for the government has been provided by companies such as ACIL which is described by Pearse as a neo-liberal ‘do-tank’ without open tender and with money provided by polluters. ABARE also receives polluter monies (described as producing ‘self-serving crapola’ by a former Minister of the Environment). Scientists in the CSIRO have been silenced and CRC research in renewable energy has been terminated and that on clean coal has been initiated with money from polluting industries. The evidence is substantiated with hundreds of references and for the purpose of the thesis, with interviews with many politicians and some members of the above groups. It’s not that the existence of these happenings surprises one, it is the extent, commitment, fervor and success of the enterprise that is surprising. It is the immediate access of fossil fuel representatives to the PM, their apparent control of some cabinet submissions and their financial commitment, in years when the PM’s office has been closed to all environmental representation and most scientific representation as well.

On reading this litany of action in a liberal democracy the reader, like the reviewer, will begin to hope its not all true. Unfortunately it is most likely true for it mirrors the takeover of liberal democracy that with my co-author, I have analysed in a book to be published this month, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. liberal democracy bequeaths a freedom to destroy the life support systems of the world but it does not provide an equal freedom to save them.

In High & Dry, the role of perhaps a hundred individuals in the enterprise is detailed. The following is a typical biography. “The Chair of the Coalition Backbench Environmental Policy Committee, Victorian Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, whose electorate of McMillan is one of the country’s most reliant on brown coal production. Broadbent has been one of the most vocal opponents of wind power. In early 2006 he launched a document at Parliament House disputing all the main scientific bases for action to reduce greenhouse emissions. The document, called Nine Lies about Global Warming, said that environmentalism is a ‘form of religious belief’, and its adherents routinely breached the ninth Commandment by ‘placing no importance on telling the truth.’ Global warming was ‘the mother of environmental scares.’ The polemic endorsed by Broadbent rejected the notion that carbon dioxide is a pollutant. Misinterpreting ‘consensus’ as ‘unanimity’, it said there was no scientific consensus on the seriousness of global warming, dismissing any link between human-made emissions and rising temperatures, melting ice caps, sea level rise, severe weather intensity or frequency. Global warming was a ‘scam’, a ‘web of deceit’ masterminded by bureaucrats and environmentalists worldwide to sustain ‘the best gravy train they could imagine.’ If the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were a company, ‘its directors would now be facing criminal charges and the prospect of going to jail.’ If Australia cut its emissions, it would result in the demise of almost all of our export industries, and emissions trading would lead to the defeat of any federal government, said the document launched by Broadbent”

The strength of High & Dry resides in the economic argument that denial is harming the economy. The statements of government are carefully analysed to demonstrate a flawed policy. Pearse states “The myth that Australia cannot afford deep cuts in emissions is based on cunning and deceptive spin by John Howard. For example, on 16 August 2006, John Howard told parliament: ‘According to ABARE, a 50 per cent cut in Australian emissions by 2050 would lead to a 10 per cent fall in GDP, a 20 per cent fall in real wages, a carbon price equivalent to a doubling of petrol prices, and a staggering 600 per cent rise in electricity and gas prices. They are the calculations of the Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.’ It was arguably the biggest lie in Howard’s thirty-three year political career and not one journalist picked it up. To give the impression that deep cuts in emissions would mean an economy in 2050 10 per cent smaller than today with 20 per cent lower wages than today, Howard’s numbers cunningly excluded the words, “compared with business as usual”.

What are the lessons for DEA? We need to reinforce education on climate change and health to our representatives. If there is a change of government, damaging political expediency will continue, such as the clear-felling of Tasmanian forests, a significant cause of greenhouse emissions, and we will need to continue to question whether jobs always come before intergenerational equity. The weight of the fossil fuel lobby and its infiltrated supporters will be brought to bear on Mr Rudd. Our agenda has to be to widen the debate to ask how we can bring about quicker action.

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of DEA

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