Sustainability and ‘big government’

A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change

By David Salt

Why do people deny climate change? Are they ignorant? Are they stupid?

I’m a science writer. I place great store in the scientific process and accept what the overwhelming majority of scientists say about climate change – that it is real and endangers all that I hold dear (including the wellbeing of my children).

But I’m also aware that many powerful people don’t accept the scientific evidence on climate change, and these people go out of their way to block meaningful engagement and action relating to it.

A case study in denialism

As one example, Tony Abbott, a former Prime Minister of Australia (our most powerful elected office), recently told an international forum: “Certainly, no big change has accompanied the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past century from roughly 300 to roughly 400 parts per million or from 0.03 to 0.04 per cent. Contrary to the breathless assertions that climate change is behind every weather event, in Australia, the floods are not bigger, the bushfires are not worse, the droughts are not deeper or longer, and the cyclones are not more severe than they were in the 1800s. Sometimes, they do more damage but that’s because there’s more to destroy, not because their intensity has increased. More than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”

Now Abbott is dead wrong about the two central points in this quote. Weather events are becoming more severe because of climate change, and sea levels are rising. There are vast quantities of empirical evidence from multiple studies demonstrating this. What’s more, there is a strong scientific consensus that the impacts of climate change will increase significantly as carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise.

And yet Abbott is far from alone in his beliefs, and many powerful people from the Conservative side of politics peddle the same set of falsehoods that prop up climate-change denialism.

Are they ignorant? As Prime Minister of Australia, Abbott had ready access to the world’s finest scientists; indeed many have gone out to their way to explain the science to him. He had at his fingertips the best knowledge around but has either chosen to ignore it or not engage with it.

Is he stupid? He was a Rhodes Scholar and made it to the top office in the land. He’s not stupid.

In any case, ignorance and stupidity are just two ‘excuses’ that might be invoked in an effort to explain the irrational situation of powerful people denying a demonstrable truth. Greed, vested interest and corruption might be other explanations, as might the ideas of sunk investments and system inertia. While each of these ‘justifications’ might apply in some situations, for me they simply don’t explain the entrenched visceral opposition to the idea that we need deep and concerted action to address climate change.

A core belief

As a younger man I believed in ‘rationality’ and common sense, and that a fact was a fact. The challenge of climate change (and sustainability) was simply a problem of information deficit. In other words, more information would eventually solve the problem.

As I matured, the evidence supporting climate change increased. The case for doing something became ever more compelling. But, rather than act on that evidence, political forces gathered to neutralize our capacity to deal with it. Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, as one example, have been rising in recent years when our international commitment was to reduce them.

Better science and science communication is not working. Stupidity, ignorance and all the other possible reasons mentioned above play a role but for me they don’t explain the underlying force behind denialism.

And then I heard a talk by Naomi Oreske, a prominent science historian from the University of California (and co-author of the widely acclaimed book Merchants of Doubt) discuss the strategies of denialism. Whether it’s tobacco or ozone depletion or acid rain or pesticide regulation, the claims being made by deniers (she said) is always the same: extra regulation means an expansion of government and a constriction of freedoms – and this is an assault on Neoliberalism Conservative ideology which holds that big government is bad, markets are good and individuals should be free to maximize their wealth as they see fit.

As I reflected on this, it became crystal clear: the ‘idea’ of climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change).

And the longer I thought about it the more I was convinced that here is ‘good’ reason underpinning climate change denialism. That’s ‘good’ as in strong, deep and powerful, not as in virtuous or right.


Our world view is the well spring of our identity, the thing that gives substance to our meaning and to what we hold as important. And our world view is the frame through which we interpret everything around us, and the information presented to us. If that information does not conform to our world view, we often ignore it or distort it so that it does. Indeed, psychology has often demonstrated that attacks on our core identities often make them stronger.

In any case, the argument that a Libertarian ideology lies at the core of climate denialism makes a lot of sense to me. It’s also my response to Peter’s reflection on sustainability being a Conservative idea.

Maybe Peter is right; maybe I am too. Our arguments are not mutually exclusive.

If we are right, however, it’s reasonable to suggest that effective policy for sustainability will necessarily involve an engagement with Conservative and neoliberal ideology on several fronts. At the very least it will involve presenting ideas on sustainability and global change that are framed in a manner that Conservatives will engage with.

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