October 05, 2005 | Graham

High tide of fear

One of the most frequent left critiques of John Howard is that he has created a climate of fear in Australia. What makes this observation interesting is that when we survey vast numbers of people we find that those who vote for Howard are most likely to be optimists, with the pessimists congregated around Beazley, and more to the point of this post, Bob Brown.
The fact is that political rhetoric has always operated on the basis of “If you vote for that person something very bad will happen to you, so vote for me.” It’s actually a form of the “precautionary principle” – voting is a risk minimisation rather than outcome optimising process (how’s that for jargon).
So, it’s not surprising that the environmental lobby would use fear as a political marketing ploy itself, and that it would resonate strongly, because their constituency appears to be more sensitive to risk in the first place.
What made me think of this was interviews this morning on Radio National’s Breakfast program with Ian Lowe, who was spruiking his latest book; and David West who was spruiking an organisation called “Power to Change” which is planning a doorknocking campaign to warn people in Melbourne and Sydney of the dangers of global warming.
Over at Troppo Armadillo, Nicholas Gruen implies he believes the anthropogenic warming hypothesis advocates rather than the skeptics because the adocates tend to be “reputable”, “calm”, “lucid” and “convincing”. (He does give Paul Erhlich a clip on the way through, so I might have got this wrong.)
On the evidence from this morning I’m not sure how you could reach that conclusion, and in fact my recent interest in greenhouse has been sparked by hearing a few “facts” and saying, “Hang-on, that doesn’t compute”.
Lowe’s book is mostly a prescription for hair shirts mandated under what I call the “dictatorship of the scientariat” – a collectivist variation of Plato’s Philosopher King. He certainly doesn’t like economists.
His book is slight on evidence, with not a single footnote, but big on claims of impending doom, as was his interview this morning. And lacking price signals, his solutions are doomed to failure, not that any of them look significant enough to make more than a token reduction in greenhouse gases anyway. A hint of the scientific integrity of his approach can be gleaned from his statement that science predicted in the 50s that petrol would get expensive in the 70s, so we shouldn’t discount scientific predictions. So what scientists made these predictions? Psychologists, political scientists, economists? The reason petrol went up in the 70s was because the producers formed an cartel and hiked the price – not something the physical sciences could have predicted!
West has a much more direct approach. His ecological JWs when they knock on your door in Bondi will point somewhere 90 metres up the escarpment and say that if you don’t repent and sell the four-wheel drive, that is where the sea is going to be. In Maroubra, it will apparently be the line of shops that will be the new sea shore.
When I look at the prescriptions for warding off the end of the world, and the methods of selling them, I can’t help but be struck further by the parallel with John Howard. When Howard tells you that if you vote Labor interest rates will eat your babies, he’s not really all that interested in interest rates. What he’s really interested in is getting re-elected so he can introduce a whole range of issues, none of which have much to do with interest rates, one way or the other.
And when Ian Lowe, or David West, tell you global warming is going to eat your future, it frequently seems that it’s a way of trying to produce a society that’s a lot more like Cuba than it is at the moment. (Lowe trotted out a study this morning that allegedly proved that societies with lower income differentials were less polluting, the corollary being that we’d be better off without so many rich people.)
The pity about all of this is that there are pollution problems worth worrying about, and there are solutions to many of them that will work, they just don’t happen to be the ones that the AGW advocates are promoting. And we’ll probably never get to hear about them until a whale pops out of Sydney Harbour or Port Phillip Bay and swallows the Jonahs. There could be a benefit from increasing sea levels afterall.

Posted by Graham at 9:32 am | Comments (9) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. On the greenhouse front, look no further than the loss of ice off the artic shelf – that’s enough for me.
    On the fear front, of course Howard is creating it, why? Because he’s out of tricks. Economically according to some we’re shot but so was Thatcher and she got re-elected twice by going to War and creating that climate of fear. Elementary!

    Comment by Vee — October 5, 2005 @ 11:53 am

  2. Vee, in the Medieval Warm Period Greenland was so warm that the vikings settled and farmed it. I think there was a lot less ice on the Arctic then too. Climate science is a lot more complex, and unpredictable, than some climate scientists would have you believe, and man a lot less significant.

    Comment by Graham Young — October 5, 2005 @ 12:01 pm

  3. Graham, I accept your point on climate but I also believe there is enough evidence to support it. I can’t cite it for you though then again who can cite all the papers and documentaries, etc they’ve seen in the past 30 years that have assisted in developing an opinion.

    Comment by Vee — October 5, 2005 @ 4:37 pm

  4. Two issues — (1) is it real and (2) how is it being used and abused.
    I think humans are contributing to global warming… but I also have a lot of trouble taking global-warming people seriously for exactly the reasons outlined above.
    I have been likening global warming fear-mongering to terrorist fear-mongering for some time now and I am continually suprised by how well the analogy works. Sure, the globe is warming. Sure, terrorists exist. But the issues and appropriate responses aren’t always that clear and shouting “doom doom” isn’t going to get us anywhere.

    Comment by John Humphreys — October 5, 2005 @ 5:44 pm

  5. And to think that Graham normally writes such sensible posts. Didn’t have you picked as a climate change denier. Want to take a wager ($1000?), say over a 10 year period, that anthropogenic global warming will be an accepted reality of life, beyond doubt to all but the equivalent of the flat earth brigade by then?
    Frankly, I think if you read the respectable literature, and follow the international debate on this issue, that point has already been reached, and that denial is ridiculous – but I accept that point has not been reached here. For example, Ron Bailey, the science writer for Reason (one of the last outposts of sceptics) recently recanted, albeit while playing down the negatives and highlighting the positives.

    Comment by Wayne Sanderson — October 6, 2005 @ 1:25 pm

  6. Graham
    There is actually quite a difference between fear and optimism/pessimism. Many pessimists have actually overcome their fears – their pessimism stemming from a rational interpretation of the presented facts. They believe on the basis of probablilities that things won’t turn out well. It is quite different to hoping for a better future and also quite different to an emotional fear of something disastrous happening.
    Generating a sense of crisis is a standard political ploy for opposition parties. It would be interesting to see if the Howard/Labor optimism/pessimism has changed over the four terms. It could just be a conservative/progressive split (not right/left but not change/change).
    Fear is emotional and a necessary part of life. Fear has many vectors and causes. But it’s not the same as being pessimistic.

    Comment by Luke — October 6, 2005 @ 3:02 pm

  7. Wayne, I’m not denying that CO2 and CH4 etc are greenhouse gases, in some cases put into the atmosphere by man, and that they will have an effect. I don’t know any serious person who denies that. The issue is what the change will be, and what real costs and benefits arise from that.
    The “AGW advocates” is my term for the boosters of the magnitude of the likely change and its costs. At the same time as the IPCC has tended to lower its estimates of future increases in temperature I regularly hear people like Lowe citing upper ranges based on models that don’t even predict the present very well.
    Lowe might be on the right side of the temperature gradient, but that doesn’t make him right. If temperature rises 1 degree, Lowe says it will rise 10 degrees and a “denialist” says it won’t rise, who’s more right? I’d say they’re both wrong.
    So what temperature increase are you going to bet on, over what time period and on the basis of what measure? I’m not sure that it would be wise to take your bet because short-term temperature fluctuations are likely to be a random walk and I might as well buy a raffle ticket, but I’m curious to know. If the odds look good enough it might be worth a flutter.

    Comment by Graham Young — October 6, 2005 @ 5:59 pm

  8. Wayne, you need a bit of a reality check. It isn’t that simple.
    Sure, politicians are basically lying rodents who cannot be trusted but that is not what the Constitution stands for.
    We the people should take a stand and not allow our children to be corrupt with the thieving and cheating by politicians, as this is a terrible example for our children. We the people must demand honesty and refuse to vote for those who have shown they cannot be trusted.
    Regretfully many electors vote for the rubbish promised to them during an election even so they know or likely are aware that they will be worse of after the election.
    Look at the murderous unconstitutional invasion into Iraq. We the people returned the very people who authorized (albeit unconstitutionally) this murderous invasion, and Australians are paying the price in places like Bali!
    When we show the world we can ignore the sovereign rights of another nation and use violence then how can we argue against others using the same brand of terrorism?
    Perhaps you ought to read the Constitution and the background material and you might perhaps then discover that the way the Commonwealth of Australia is dealing with matters is to a great extend contrary to constitutional provisions.
    Vivian solon is a clear example, as the Commonwealth of Australia constitutionally cannot detain/deport any person without a State Court order.
    Likewise, the governor-general is the head of the government, not a Prime minister! Only the governor-general can authorize a war against another nation! And the minister of Defense can only act AFTER the Governor-General first had published a DECLARATION OF WAR in the Gazette!
    And, there is a lot more to it.

    Comment by Mr G. H. Schorel-Hlavka — October 7, 2005 @ 2:11 am

  9. I think Vee is pretty spot on when he says that none of us can cite all the material that has lead us to our personal worldview. All that we can do with sincerity is tell it as we see it whilst remaining open to new information and other view points.
    On the issue of global warming I am a skeptic. I don’t doubt that we humans have an impact on the global environment. However I don’t think it is likely to be the primary cause of current climate change. Just as the climate change that allowed the Vikings to farm in Iceland/Greenland was not due to human influences.
    I think the precautionary principle is complete bunk. This principle could be used to justify the Kyoto protocol and also to oppose it. Being extra cautious is not automatically wise.

    Comment by Terje Petersen — October 7, 2005 @ 6:10 am

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