Doomed Planet

The unbearable stench of fishiness

Red herring, n., 1. A dried and smoked herring. 2. Anything that diverts attention from a topic or line of inquiry; including any expression in which a piece of information (or its omission) is, or is intended to be, misleading. 3. Origin: From the practice of using preserved (or rotten) fish, especially herring, to confuse hunting dogs and persons hungry for the truth.

Fishmongers are doing a roaring trade this month. Appearing among the purveyors of red herrings, dodgy analogies, battlers budgets, believability tests, billionaire-bashing, brown trout, green groper, pickled piranha, process-or-principle piffle, presumptions of innocence, plausible alternative explanations, sin bins, slippery eels, stink bombs, serial fantasies, half-truths, crossed lines, cloned phones, ghost personas and parallel worlds, were Chief Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery (aka Flannery of the Overflow) and fellow Commissioner Professor Will Steffen, Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute.

Launching the Commission’s latest state report, they warned NSW is “highly vulnerable to climate change”, with an “increasing risk of hot weather, heat waves, bushfires, and changing the patterns of drought and heavy rainfall”.

Flannery predicted a surge in mental illness with rising temperatures, especially in Sydney’s western suburbs. “People get a little bit confused” when heat stressed, he said. They get angry too, especially when “sitting in a traffic jam when it’s stinking hot outside”; and presumably asking themselves why the Federal Government’s anti-carbon [dioxide] policies were not working.

Steffen also attempted to resuscitate declining climate anxiety with folksy rhetoric. He compared his alarmist colleagues – not to spin- or witch-doctors – but to the family GP. (Is the parish priest next on his list?) He bravely suggested they neither underplay nor overplay future risks and took “exceptional care to be absolutely straight. We don’t use inflammatory language,” he said.

Yet planetary health, however defined, is not analogous to personal health. The family GP fortunately knows – or should know – much more about medical pathologies, causation, diagnosis, prognosis, seafood allergies, etc., than climate scientists do about drivers of global and regional climate change. A GP’s advice is based on experience and real evidence, not speculative “projections” from fallible models. GPs also have a code of ethics and no ideological agenda, unlike some who practise – and promote – “post-normal science”.

As one prominent international climate scientist wrote recently, her discipline “is far from complete, especially in terms of being able to understand and predict climate change on decadal to century time scales”. In science – as in carbon [dioxide] politics – sifting truth from error, prejudice and politics remains a tricky business.

This year’s Roy Morgan Image of Professions Survey ranked doctors as the country’s third most trusted profession, with public confidence in them over 80 per cent. Climate scientists, by contrast, probably rank between Federal MPs (10 per cent) and ministers of religion (43 per cent). Does this explain why there is no reverse-analogy here? GPs never compare what they do with the practice of climate science, or themselves to self-styled planetary physicians.

The Commission’s report reeks with the odour of old red herrings on the turn. This is the “critical decade for action”. “To minimise climate change risks we must begin to de-carbonise our economy and move to cleaner energy sources this decade. The longer we wait the more difficult and costly it will be.”

Even Mark Latham was exasperated with it, accusing the Commission of “fouling its own nest” in an opinion piece on “the folly of climate alarmism” (The Australian Financial Review, May 24th). Flannery had “kicked one of the worst own-goals of the climate-change debate” by “running the mother of all fear campaigns”, and (again) had made himself an easy target for the “right-wing commentariat” and “spoiler-sceptics”, such as Nick Minchin.

As for toning down his “apocalyptic focus on rising sea levels, bushfires and natural disasters”, as Latham suggested, such a volte-face surely would weaken further both his credibility and the alarmist’s so-called “factual case” for action?

Years of government fear-mongering about evil “carbon” and propaganda about “clean energy” have produced a new inconvenient truth: there is no prospect of turning its contrived climate disaster narrative – one it now desperately wants to disown – into anything other than a very expensive fishy farce.

So the game of climate-change subterfuge continues, with the announcement of a $14 million ($22 million budgeted for next financial year) television campaign: The Red Herring Assistance Package: Benefiting those who need it most.

Designed to advertise compensation payments to offset [partially] increased costs after 1 July – when the carbon [dioxide] tax [price] is imposed on energy service providers (aka “polluters”) – the government ads neither mention the carbon tax nor attempt to explain how it will create a benign Goldilocks climate, one just right for Australia.  

Treasurer Wayne Swan denied the government was trying to hide the carbon [dioxide] price [tax]. "This is a laughable criticism," he said. "We have been talking about a carbon price in this country for the past five years. What we’re doing is informing people of what they’re going to see in their bank accounts. The government in no way apologises for doing that."

In a Senate estimates hearing last week, there was an alternative explanation: the public would have been confused by the facts. So the government decided to confuse it even more with the smelliest of all red herrings: one that misleads by omission.

Senator Ryan:

Did the ICC [Independent Communications Committee] provide any advice or otherwise or did it consider the use of the language in the campaign, particularly the lack of the use of the words “carbon tax” or the use of the words “price on carbon”?

John Grant, Department of Finance First Assistant Secretary:

Senator: That was one of the matters that it discussed with FAHCSIA [Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs]. It also … they received advice, and this is my recollection from the researcher, that the objective was to give a very simple message to people who would be receiving money. And that by including too many different elements it was actually quite confusing and consequently accepted that advice.

Something is rotten in the state of Warmerland.

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