Published in the Guardian, 6 November, 2013
John Howard has told an audience of climate sceptics in London that Tony Abbott’s defiance on global warming in the face of left-wing zealotry was the foundation of his electoral victory in September.
In a lecture at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, established by former Thatcher minister and climate sceptic Nigel Lawson, the former Australian prime minister insisted that the high tide of public support for “overzealous action” on global warming has passed.
“I am very sceptical about the possibility of a global agreement ever being reached when you look at what happened in Copenhagen,” he told reporters before the speech, adding there was no real prospect of a deal between the major emitters Europe, the US and north Asia.
In the speech, titled One Religion is Enough, Howard described his own dalliances with an emissions trading scheme (ETS) as purely political and questioned the scientific consensus on climate change.
“Tony Abbott now has the great responsibility and honour of being prime minister of Australia because a little under four years ago he challenged what seemed to be a political consensus on global warming,” Howard said, describing Abbott’s stance as “courageous”.
Howard’s speech described the advocates of climate change mitigation as “alarmists” and “zealots” for whom “the cause has become a substitute religion”. He said “global warming is a quintessential public policy issue” and policymakers should not become subservient to the advice of scientists.
“Scientists are the experts in science, judges experts in interpreting the law and doctors skilled at keeping us healthy, provided we take their advice. But parliaments, composed of elected politicians, are the experts at policymaking and neither expressly or impliedly should they ever surrender that role to others.”
He added that he had grown up being told ulcers were caused by stress but it was later revealed a virus was to blame.
“You can never be absolutely certain that all the science is in.”
Howard said he admired the work of many of the scientists who contributed to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but he said the body itself was fundamentally political, not scientific.
“One has to question whether the IPCC approach represents in its totality pure, disinterested scientific enquiry. Because after all it was spawned by a political process,” he said.
Howard said the science of climate change had been shown to be mercurial and this had lead to a change in public opinion.
“The high tide of public support for over-zealous action on global warming has passed. My suspicion is that most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the issue. Of course the climate is changing. It always has. There are mixed views not only about how sustained that warming is, seemingly it has not warmed for the last 15 years, and also the relative contributions of mankind and natural causes.”
The period between 2007 and 2013 saw a fall in public acceptance of climate change science. In 2013, only 66% of Australians said they were convinced climate change was occurring.
Howard described a recent comment by Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which drew a link between extreme weather, the NSW bushfires and climate change, as an “extraordinary proposition”.
He said that a television programme he had watched, which aired on the ABC during the ensuing spat between the Figueres and the government, featured a painting of the Black Tuesday bushfires of 1851. He said this illustrated that bushfires were tragic but commonplace events that punctuated Australia’s history. Abbott and environment minister Greg Hunt had previously employed similar arguments to discredit Figueres.
When asked by the audience about the Australian media’s portrayal of the climate debate, Howard said there had been a balanced conversation on the issue on most parts, except within the ABC.
“It would be wrong to say that all of the Australian media are signed up to the alarmist agenda, even though some of them are.
“The groupthink of the ABC on this issue is quiet clear … On this issue it’s signed up, there’s no doubt about that. It’s equally fair to say that sections of the Murdoch press, and particularly the national newspaper the Australian, are more sceptical.”
During his failed bid to win re-election in 2007, Howard advocated an ETS. He said the promise was an aberration necessitated by a “perfect storm” of ongoing drought, severe water restrictions, bushfires and the release of the Stern review and Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. He added that a strong economy made economic arguments against action difficult to sustain. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at the time 73% of Australians expressed concern about climate change.
“The global warming issue helped Labor,” Howard said, “as its views at the time were more fashionable than ours.”
Since being deposed, Howard has reverted to what he describes as “climate agnosticism”. In 2011, he launched an “anti-global warmist manual” written by geologist and climate sceptic Ian Plimer. The book encouraged schoolchildren to question their teacher’s interpretations of climate science.
At the lecture former Liberal leader was forced to defend his decision to read Lord Lawson’s book An Appeal to Reason twice despite not having picked up any other book on global warming.
Asked if that was unbalanced, the ex-PM said he re-read the work as a courtesy after being invited by Lord Lawson to deliver the lecture.
Howard said it was a “counterbalance” to advice previously received from government departments and stressed he’d read “numerous articles” on climate change.
Abbott, often considered a political scion of Howard, has taken a similarly utilitarian approach to climate change policy. He supported Howard’s last-minute ETS in 2007 and Malcolm Turnbull’s carbon trading policy in opposition. But since becoming Liberal leader Abbott has opposed Labor’s carbon tax.
Howard told the audience in London that Kevin Rudd’s vacillation on an ETS was a “foolish” political move, which ultimately lead to both his downfall and the election of Abbott.
Most economists believe Abbott’s direct action approach to curbing carbon emissions will be more expensive than an ETS. But on Tuesday Howard refused to be drawn on his protegee’s policy.
“It’s better for the government that’s proposing the direct action plan to engage in the debate,” he said.
Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council which arose from Abbott’s extirpation of Labor’s Climate Commission, said: “Howard’s comments are out of step with 97% of climate scientists from around the world who have found through years of diligent research that climate change is a significant risk.”
“The earth continues to warm strongly posing serious economic, health and environmental risks for Australia.
“Policy makers should rightly debate what to do about climate change, however, the science is simply indisputable.
She also urged the “need to base climate change policy on sound scientific facts, not opinion and intuition.”