The former prime minister John Howard remains an elder statesman among conservatives so when he’s asked on primetime television if he doubts that climate change is happening, his response is revealing.
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’s climate change?”
Given the decades of scientific inquiry on the subject, the most obvious answer to this question would have been a firm, declarative “no”.
But instead, Howard offered this.
“Well … well … I think some aspects of the debate have become greatly exaggerated,” he said. “Every time there’s any kind of disaster it’s always put down to climate change. In some cases that’s fair and in other cases it’s not fair.”
Howard didn’t say which disasters he was referring to, but those most fresh in the minds of Australians are the devastating east coast floods and the horrors of the Black Summer bushfires.
Climate scientists prefer to carry out studies to carefully attribute the role of rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to natural disasters. It’s not a simple task.
Studies of those 2019/2020 bushfires have shown climate change did increase the risk of those fires happening, and their severity (which one assessment said had killed or displaced about 3 billion animals).
Prof David Karoly, a leading Australian climate scientist, has said the devastating floods earlier this year were an example of how burning fossil fuels had put the climate system “on steroids” and amplified the rainfall.
Burning fossil fuels and chopping 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 by adding heat to the ocean, the influence of the climate crisis on all weather is now inescapable.
Even without specifics, Howard’s position tells us plenty about his understanding of the science, his regard for the risks from global heating 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 of an obsession with identity politics and single issues like climate change”.
Expressing scepticism about the causes of climate change, its impacts or the motives behind calls for action, has become a part of the political identity of many conservatives, particularly in the US and Australia.
Howard was trying to pin the “identity politics” label on progressives.
But by continuing to express scepticism on climate change only seconds later shows how a politician who reached their heights well before the term “identity politics” was invented, can still engage in it.
The IPCC’s hidden agenda?
Howard’s public stance on climate change has flip-flopped over the years.
In late 2006 and under political pressure in the run-up to an election, he said he wasn’t a climate science denier and quoted scientific evidence that rising greenhouse gas levels were “significant and damaging”.
But in a London speech to a climate contrarian thinktank in 2013, he said he had always been “agnostic” on 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 Prof Ottmar Edenhofer, a lead author of a UN climate assessment at the time.
“One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy,” Howard quoted Edenhofer as saying. “This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy any more.”
Revealing his “real agenda”, Howard said Edenhofer had gone on to say: “One must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy.”
This quote has been used over and over by climate science contrarians for years as evidence that the UN’s climate convention represents a hidden socialist agenda to redistribute wealth.
Just last week, Maurice Newman – a business adviser to another former Liberal prime minister, Tony Abbott – used the exact same quotes to make the exact same point in an article in the Spectator.
“At least the leftist Potsdam Institute’s Prof Ottmar Edenhofer has the courage to say out loud what is becoming more obvious by the day,” wrote Newman, not mentioning that the quotes are 12 years old.
The source is an English translation of an interview Edenhofer gave to Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung in 2010.
Edenhofer told Temperature Check the quotes were taken “completely out of context” and had been spread by opponents of climate action “again and 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 distribution struggle for scarce resources, and in such a distribution struggle there are always winners and losers. That’s why it is important to always consider climate and development policy jointly.
“That climate protection would be only a pretext and that it would in fact all be about redistribution from rich to poor is complete nonsense.”
He said that pricing greenhouse gas emissions should indeed penalise fossil fuel use, and any redistribution of wealth “is merely a consequence of the necessity to stop using fossil fuels in order to limit global warming and avoid dangerous climate impacts”.
Climate of blame
In the Netherlands, farmers and their supporters have been protesting against new rules proposed by the government to radically cut the use of ammonia, nitrogen oxides and nitrous oxide.
They’ve been dumping manure on roads and blockading routes, saying the government’s cuts are unrealistic and will see many farms needing to close.
Like several other conservative commentators around the world, Sky News host James Morrow has been keen to lay the blame at the door of climate change policies.
“[Farmers] are being told they are going to have to cut production at a time of global food insecurity to basically follow climate mandates,” Morrow said.
No doubt that cutting nitrogen use would have benefits for the climate, but that’s not what the rules are about. The Dutch government’s efforts to cut nitrogen are aimed at cutting localised pollution threatening habitats next to farming operations.
The head of programs at Dutch environment group Natuur & Milieu, Rob van Tilburg, told Temperature Check: “The reason for the necessary intervention by the Dutch government is the continuing loss of nature that has arisen as a result of exceeding nitrogen standards for years. It’s definitely not the climate.”
He said three-quarters of Dutch nature reserves were affected by nitrogen pollution and the country’s intensive agriculture industry – one that keeps 115 million pigs, cows, chickens and goats in a country with only 17 million people.
The nitrogen standards applied to all countries in Europe, but the country’s highest court had declared three years ago the government’s policies were invalid.
Van Tilburg said: “As a result of this, it’s not allowed any more to issue permits for activities and projects that cause nitrogen emissions. Nitrogen pollution is making the soil acidic and we are losing nitrogen-sensitive plants and animal species rapidly.”