Australian politics, society & culture


Must we choose between climate-change action and freedom of speech?

The science is clear, but the way forward is not

By Judith Brett 
August 2014Medium length read

In April this year, Fiona Stanley told ABC’s Radio National that she was “anxious and angry” because the politicised climate-change agenda had led to the denigration of climate science and scientists. Stanley, one of Australia’s foremost experts in child health and a former Australian of the Year, criticised both the Coalition and Labor for neglecting any serious consideration of the long-term health effects of climate change. “The children and grandchildren of the next generation, they’re the ones who are going to bear the brunt of this.”

The very same day, the online current affairs magazine Spiked published Brendan O’Neill’s interview with Attorney-General George Brandis on the subject of freedom of speech. A self-described “John Stuart Mill man”, Brandis cited two recent examples that had convinced him of the “mortal threat freedom of speech faces in the modern era”. One was the racial vilification case brought against the conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, and the other was the climate-change debate.

While Brandis asserted his belief that something ought to be done about anthropogenic global warming, he said he was “shocked by the sheer authoritarianism of those who would have excluded from the debate the point of view of people who were climate-change deniers”. He described as “deplorable” the way “one side [has] the orthodoxy on its side and delegitimises the views of those who disagree, rather than engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong”. As O’Neill reports:

The great irony to this new “habit of mind”, [Brandis] says, is that the eco-correct think of themselves as enlightened and their critics as “throwbacks”, when actually “they themselves are the throwbacks, because they adopt this almost theological view, this cosmology that eliminates from consideration the possibility of an alternative opinion”. The moral straitjacketing of anyone who raises a critical peep about eco-orthodoxies is part of a growing “new secular public morality”, he says.

For Brandis, concern about climate change becomes just the latest example of the left’s authoritarian political correctness, a medieval retreat into a religious anti-intellectualism.

The Fairfax press contrasted the two interviews, giving the hasty reader the impression that Brandis had directly attacked Stanley, though he had not. Nevertheless, the contrast is instructive. Stanley speaks from her extensive research in child health and her commitment to preventative strategies in public health. She is focused on the risks of climate change for humanity’s health and wellbeing. Brandis speaks from his deep commitment to a liberal political philosophy that has freedom of speech as a core belief. This is an admirable and important commitment, and freedom of speech is indeed a cornerstone of our democratic society. But in the current politics of climate-change action, to advocate this kind of view so strenuously contributes to the weakening of the political will needed to mitigate the risk of climate change. It also gives credibility to those who argue that the science is still open.

Of course, some aspects of “the science” are still open. That is always the case. But Brandis’ argument that we should always consider the possibility of an alternative opinion is epistemologically disingenuous. I doubt that Brandis believes that all alternative points of view are deserving of respectful consideration. I doubt that he believes that the Earth is flat or that carrot juice can cure cancer. I’m sure that when he boards a plane he believes that the science of aerodynamics is sufficiently settled to get him to his destination. In many areas of life, he accepts, as we all do, that the science is, broadly speaking, settled. So to support his position on the virtues of scepticism about climate-change science, and his accusations of religious zealotry against those who believe that the science is settled, he needs to claim that there is something particular about this area of science. He has not done this.

Of course, what is particular about the claims of the climate scientists is the huge implications for the way humans generate and consume energy. These implications pose a challenge to all of us who benefit from the current arrangements, and some benefit a great deal more than others. Books such as Big Coal, by Guy Pearse, David McKnight and Bob Burton, have documented the coal lobby’s efforts in Australia to undermine political commitment to alternative forms of energy. Imbalances of power and the operations of vested interests have always been the blind spots in liberalism’s commitment to the negative freedoms that involve the absence of constraint.

What is the key issue in the politics of climate change? Is it the freedom to debate the science? Is it the question of how to act so that we might mitigate the risks that the science predicts? Of course, the scientists will continue to debate aspects of the science, but science also works by building a broad consensus based on the available evidence. That evidence indicates huge risks to our environment if we continue to burn fossil fuels, and that consensus has existed for 20 years or more.

Stanley speaks for those of us who are increasingly frightened about the risks of not acting for our children and grandchildren. From this perspective, defending the rights of sceptics seems a sideshow. Worse, it seems to be a deliberate strategy of diversion that serves the vested interests that are threatened by global action to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. Brandis claims he is not a climate-change denier and that he believes something ought to be done about anthropogenic global warming. So why is he giving oxygen to the distraction?

In her interview, Stanley, a grandmother, referred to the poem ‘hieroglyphic stairway’ by the American social activist Drew Dellinger. It sums up how many of us feel, that now is the time for urgent action.

it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

Brandis could answer, I defended the right to deny it was happening.

The narrow focus on freedom of speech distorts a complex debate, pulling it into the political class’s familiar boxing ring of left versus right. It leaves us no closer to any plans for action. It is yet another example of the disjunction between the dysfunction in Canberra and people’s hunger for good government and political leadership. The focus should be on problems and solutions rather than winning and losing in the parliament and the polls. Even the Greens think that not giving Abbott a win is more important than restoring indexation of the petrol excise, a measure they have long supported and one that is effectively a carbon tax.

The most recent Lowy Institute annual poll shows that public opinion on climate change is turning around and leaving much of the Abbott government’s go-slow response far behind. Levels of concern have not reached the heights recorded at the end of 2006, but 63% of those surveyed now believe the government “should take a leadership role on reducing emissions” and only 28% think “it should wait for an international consensus before acting”.

The Climate Institute’s recent polling found similar trends. Unlike other Australian surveys that analyse attitudes to climate change in terms of voting intentions, the Climate Institute’s poll also analyses results according to participants’ gender. Like US polls, it reveals a considerable gender gap. Women have greater trust in the climate science, and they are more worried about the risks and costs of not acting. One statistic that will be of no comfort to the Abbott government, which is generally on the nose with women, is that only 26% of women surveyed support the repeal of the carbon tax compared with 42% of men. There was no clear mandate here. Even fewer women, 17%, believe that the Coalition’s Direct Action plan can achieve its emissions reduction goal. Because of the overwhelming maleness of the Abbott government and its advisers on climate change and energy policy, the voices of women who express their fears for the future, voices like Stanley’s, are scarcely heard.

In an attempt to jolt the political class out of its self-absorbed competitive positioning over climate-change action, a group of Melbourne-based women are organising a “Monster Petition” to the House of Representatives. The petition requests the urgent implementation of scientifically based carbon emissions reduction strategies and calls for international leadership.

The right to petition parliament has existed for centuries. Before universal suffrage, it was one of the few means the voteless had of communicating with the government.

At the height of the Chartist movement in 1842, more than 3 million working people signed a petition to Britain’s House of Commons that demanded democratic political rights for all men. In 1891, women presented a “Monster Petition” to the Victorian state parliament, requesting the right to vote. The organisers glued sheets bearing about 30,000 signatures onto a 260-metre-long roll of fabric that they carried into parliament on a cardboard spindle. We now have the vote and regular elections but, as the government’s loose talk of a mandate to dismantle Labor’s climate-change policies shows, these are crude instruments for communicating with a government that doesn’t want to hear. The Monster Climate Petition might just make it start to listen.

The website for the Monster Climate Petition is now live. 

About the author Judith Brett

Judith Brett is writing a biography of Alfred Deakin.