Tformer prime minister John Howard remains an old man among the Tories, so when asked on prime-time television whether he doubts climate change is happening, his answer is telling.
That moment happened on the ABC on Tuesday evening during an interview with actor David Wenham, who asked: “You’re not refuting the fact that there is climate change?”
Given the decades of scientific research on the subject, the most obvious answer to this question would have been a firm and stated “no.”
But instead, Howard offered this.
“Well…well…I think some aspects of the debate have been greatly exaggerated,” he said. “Whenever there is any kind of disaster, it is always due to climate change. In some cases this is fair and in other cases it is not fair.”
Howard did not say which disasters he was referring to, but fresh on Australians’ minds are the devastating east coast floods and the horrors of the Black Summer bushfires.
Climate scientists prefer to conduct studies to carefully attribute the role of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to natural disasters. It is not a simple task.
Studies of these 2019/2020 wildfires have shown that climate change increased the risk of these fires occurring and their severity (which one estimate had killed or displaced an estimated 3 billion animals).
Professor David Karoly, one of Australia’s leading climate scientists, said the devastating floods earlier this year were an example of how fossil fuel burning had put the climate system “on steroids” and amplified rainfall.
Burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests has loaded the atmosphere with 50% more carbon dioxide than before the Industrial Revolution.
Some climate scientists will point out that by changing the composition of the atmosphere so fundamentally and adding heat to the ocean, the influence of the all-weather climate crisis is now inescapable.
Even without details, Howard’s position tells us a lot about his understanding of the science, his consideration of the risks of global warming, and how he wants to frame the issue.
During the interview, Howard made a philosophical point about the state of political discourse, saying there was “too much obsession with identity politics and individual issues like climate change.”
Expressing skepticism about the causes of climate change, its impacts or the reasons behind calls for action has become part of the political identity of many conservatives, particularly in the US and Australia.
Howard was trying to put the “identity politics” label on progressives.
But continuing to express skepticism about climate change just seconds later shows how critics of “identity politics” like Howard can still engage in it.
The IPCC’s hidden agenda?
Howard’s public stance on climate change has changed over the years.
In late 2006 and under political pressure in the run-up to the election, he said he was not a climate science denier and cited scientific evidence that rising greenhouse gas levels were “significant and harmful”.
But in a London speech to a climate think tank in 2013, he said he had always been “agnostic” about the issue, which, given the overwhelming evidence gathered over many decades, is a bit like saying you’re agnostic about gravity
During that 2013 speech, Howard quoted Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, lead author of a UN climate assessment at the time.
“One must free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy,” Howard Edenhofer quoted. “This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore.”
Revealing his “real agenda”, Howard said Edenhofer had gone on to say: “It needs to be made clear that we de facto redistribute the world’s wealth through climate policy.”
This quote has been used over and over again by opponents of climate science for years as evidence that the UN climate convention represents a hidden socialist agenda to redistribute wealth.
Last week, Maurice Newman, a business adviser to another former Liberal Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, used exactly the same quotation marks to make exactly the same point in an article in The Spectator.
“At least Professor Ottmar Edenhofer of the left-wing institute in Potsdam has the courage to say out loud what is becoming more and more obvious every day,” Newman wrote, noting that the quotes are 12 years old.
The source is an English translation of an interview Edenhofer gave to the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung in 2010.
Edenhofer told Temperature Check that the quotes were taken “completely out of context” and had been floated by opponents of climate action “over and over again”.
“Fortunately, the full version of the interview is still available on the Internet,” he said.
“As usual, context matters: my point was that climate policy is, by its very nature, economic policy. Economic policy includes setting rules in the distributional struggle of scarce resources, and in that distributional struggle always there are winners and losers, which is why it is important to always consider climate and development policy together.
“That climate protection would be just a pretext and that, in fact, it would be redistribution from rich to poor is total nonsense.”
He said pricing greenhouse gas emissions should penalize the use of fossil fuels, and any redistribution of wealth “is just a consequence of the need to stop using fossil fuels to limit warming global and avoid dangerous climate impacts”.
Climate of guilt
In the Netherlands, farmers and their supporters have protested against new rules proposed by the government to radically reduce the use of ammonia, nitrogen oxides and nitrous oxide.
They have been dumping manure on roads and blocking routes, saying government cuts are unrealistic and will see many farms close.
Like many conservative commentators around the world, Sky News host James Morrow has wanted to lay the blame at the door of climate change policies.
“[Farmers] they’re being told they’re going to have to cut production at a time of global food insecurity to basically follow climate mandates,” Morrow said.
Certainly, reducing nitrogen use would have benefits for the climate, but that is not the point. The Dutch government’s efforts to reduce nitrogen are aimed at reducing localized pollution that threatens habitats next to agricultural holdings.
Head of programs at Dutch environmental group Natuur & Milieu, Rob van Tilburg, told Temperature Check: “The reason for the necessary intervention by the Dutch government is the ongoing loss of nature that has occurred as a result of over of nitrogen standards for years. It’s definitely not the weather.”
He said three-quarters of Dutch nature reserves were affected by nitrogen pollution and the country’s intensive farming industry, one that maintains 115 million pigs, cows, chickens and goats in a country with just 17 million inhabitants.
Nitrogen standards applied to all countries in Europe, but the country’s highest court had declared the government’s policies invalid three years ago.
Van Tilburg said: “As a result, it is no longer allowed to issue permits for activities and projects that cause nitrogen emissions. Nitrogen pollution is making the soil acidic and we are losing sensitive plants and animal species nitrogen quickly.”