Didn’t work then, won’t work now

Australia has an enviable reputation for scientific research, extending long before the hey-day of the CSIRO in the 1950s under the visionary leadership of Sir Robert Menzies and Sir Ian Clunies-Ross. On the hottest and driest continent on Earth, our prosperity would be non-existent had it not been for the enlightened application of science. So it has been of mounting concern over recent years to see governments of all persuasions adopt increasingly anti-science agendas.

The Abbott government is taking anti-science to new heights. Its “scorched earth” approach discards virtually everything not in line with narrow, free-market ideology, centred on sustaining Australia’s 20th Century “dig-it-up and ship-it-out” economic growth model.

The Prime Minister’s supposedly visionary address to the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, outlined this agenda[1].  Free-markets create prosperity, but their full costs have only become apparent in recent years.  Over the last two decades, those costs have negated the benefits – we are actually getting poorer not wealthier [2].  The PM’s “vision” ignored such costs, along with the disastrous outcomes that the short-termism, inequity and corruption of free-markets delivers, witness the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and ICAC closer to home. Markets are important, but they must operate within sensible rules and continual vested-interest lobbying has got rid of those rules.

Official orthodoxy decrees that conventional economic growth take precedence over all else, without understanding that such growth is no longer possible.  In 1945 we had a relatively empty world of 2 billion people; we now have 7 billion. Exponential increases in both population and consumption, have delivered a “full” world, such that humanity today needs the biophysical capacity of 1.5 planets to survive, which is clearly not sustainable.

As a result, we are in the midst of a global discontinuity, where conventional growth has ground to a halt, notwithstanding futile efforts to reboot the system by printing money at will. We will emerge either with fundamentally different concepts of growth, or the system as we know it will collapse.

Excessive consumption has created global limits never previously experienced.  Cheap fossil-fuel energy, which delivered our supposed prosperity, has dried up. Its carbon emissions have triggered global warming which is happening far more rapidly and extensively than expected. The remaining fossil-fuel reserves cannot be used if catastrophic climate outcomes are to be avoided. Water and food security are already badly affected, as witnessed by growing social instability and conflict around the world.

Yet our political and corporate incumbency refuse to “join the dots”, oblivious that global warming is already having a major negative impact on this country, that our high-carbon exports are a significant contributor, in the process destroying our manufacturing and agricultural industries.

They cannot grasp that we have enormous opportunities to prosper in the 21st Century, built around the rapid development of a low-carbon economy.  We have the best low-carbon assets in the world, but to realise their potential, we need a new “vision” grounded, as never before, in science.  On that score we are in big trouble.

Global warming is the greatest concern; it has already changed the context in which every policy in this country will have to be re-thought – from climate policy itself through energy, agriculture, social, health, infrastructure, migration and defence.

The government ignores the leading-edge climate science developed by our Institutions and informed scientific bodies worldwide.  Particularly the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the most extensive scientific investigation probably ever undertaken. All of which point to the need for far more rapid action than acknowledged officially.

The science on an issue this complex is never “settled” as knowledge continually improves, but informed opinion is clear; we face potentially catastrophic risks, risks that are with us now, not one or two decades hence. We disregard them at our peril – which is exactly what the government is doing.

Science has disappeared from the government’s priorities just at the time we need it most.

Greg Hunt’s Direct Action White Paper has no scientific and economic grounding at all, whether from our own Institutions, the IPCC, the Garnaut and Stern Climate Change Reviews or numerous other global bodies such as the World Bank, IMF and the OECD.  It is the climate policy you have when you don’t want a policy.

The work of the former Climate Commission, providing independent, objective explanation of the climate science, has been archived away from public view. Scientific illiterates have been appointed to key climate and business policy advisory positions.  The Budget has gutted science funding in general, further emasculated the wholly inadequate Direct Action policy and rendered the CSIRO impotent.

The response from the supposedly scientifically literate Chairmen and CEOs of our major corporations, at the wanton destruction of their future innovation base, is a deafening silence.

Grandees such as John Howard and Cardinal Pell parade cynical climate denialism before international audiences [3] [4], putting more peer pressure on the current incumbents to toe that line and providing rare insight into the widespread denialist “groupthink” within senior conservative ranks.

Literally and figuratively, we are witnessing a “burning of the science books”, the like of which has not been seen since medieval times.  It did not work for the Catholic Church in the days of Copernicus and Galileo, nor in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  It won’t work today.

Blinkered conservatism is recasting Australia in Donald Horne’s image of “A lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.” [5]. Except that our 20th Century luck has run out and we are fast throwing away our options for a sustainable future.  We need to insist that science is restored as the bedrock of our vision for the 21st Century.

Menzies and Clunies Ross never forgot that “Nature bats last”.

Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a Member of the Club of Rome, a Director of Australia21 and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 2nd June 2014.

[1] Address to the World Economic Forum, Davos, 23rd January 2014:

[2] “Beyond GDP: Measuring & achieving global genuine progress”, Kubiszewski, Costanza et al, Ecological Economics, April 2013: http://www.uvm.edu/giee/pubpdfs/Kubiszewski_2013_Ecological_Economics.pdf

[3] “One Religion is Enough”, John Howard, Annual GWPF Lecture, London, 5th November 2013:

[4] “One Christian Perspective on Climate Change”, Cardinal George Pell, Annual GWPF Lecture, London, 26th October 2011: http://www.thegwpf.org/images/stories/gwpf-reports/pell-2011_annual_gwpf_lecture_new.pdf

[5] “The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties”, Chapter 9, Donald Horne, 1964: http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780143180029/lucky-country