Why is there still a climate change debate?

In 1941, when Milutin Milankovich proposed that changes in the Earth’s climate were related to greenhouse gases, he met with some disagreement from the scientific community. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1998, the political right rose up as opposition and created the climate change denial movement. There has always been opposition to science and environmental predictions. But now we are living in a world where the climate science is undisputed. According to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, 97-98% of climate scientists believe climate change is happening because of human activity. Several other surveys have been conducted showing similar results. So why is there still a debate about the science of climate change?

The idea that climate science is not concrete was prevelant  in the campaign against the carbon price. Let’s not forget Steve Fielding and Nick Minchin’s emphatic opposition to Kevin Rudd’s first proposal for the carbon pollution reduction scheme. While the carbon tax was eventually pushed through earlier this year, it has been watered down from Rudd’s original. The leadership change and election played an important role in delaying the process, but public debate is also to blame.

A phrase I hear a lot is “I’m still making my mind up about climate change”. It particularly irritates me to hear this when the climate science has already been settled. I’m sorry to break it to you, but climate change is not subjective and it certainly is not going to cease if you do not believe the science. But perhaps these attitudes are merely a reflection of the lack of clarity in the politics, encouraged by sensationalist media and those who have the money and power to negatively influence public debate.

In the August edition of The Monthly, Robert Mann shows how the vested interests of rich, Republican-supporting companies have manipulated public opinion into believing that there is indeed a climate change debate, with science supporting and denying human induced climate change. For example, second rate climate scientists, Robert Balling and Patrick Michaels were paid by coal and oil companies to publicly promote anti-climate change views.. In another example, negligible faults in original climate science were highlighted and published in major science journals, unfairly questioning the credibility of climate scientists, even though 99% of the other predictions were correct. When these publications came to light and the deniers found it more difficult to be published, they criticised the whole peer-review process.

These underhanded actions are not a product of the past. Only a few years ago, climate scientists were subjected to death threats and other abuse. Large-scale environmental policy is still met with criticism from the public and from large corporations. The public debate that still exists around climate science and the ideas perpetuated from the deniers delay the progress that needs to be made for the climate. It is depressing to think vested interests continue to pervade what should be a public debate on climate change solutions.

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of listening to Robert Manne at a conference on the future of humanity. He suggested vested interests and the Australian as well as the international political system would prevent real action on climate change, and that the future was bleak. But as much as I admire Manne’s commentary, I am more optimistic about our prospects for change, even if Gina Rinhart can influence the public debate by buying shares in Fairfax and inscribing “Our [supposed] Future” on a large iron ore boulder. Sure, vested interests exist and some may be still unsure about the science of climate change, but public attitudes are changing.

In the last few weeks, over 100 young people and the residents of Port Augusta walked from Port Augusta to Melbourne, talking to farmers and townspeople about Australia’s first solar thermal plant. They were met with positive responses, showing that Australians want to change from fossil fuels to renewable sources which do not damage the environment. This morning, members of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition gathered at Parliament House to present 21,000 votes from young people across Australia urging the government to raise its mandatory renewable energy target. Moreover, changes to the political system and media policies, which perpetuate unfair debate, are possible having seen media scrutiny in light of Alan Jones’ remarks, and the changes in question time as a result of the last election. While I may smirk at those unsure of the climate science, I have hope that these opinions will change. Public debate is shifting. The climate change deniers have not won.