This book is based on a good idea: climate change activist Anna Rose, in the making of an ABC television program, takes Nick Minchin, former Finance Minister in the Howard government and a noted sceptic about many aspects of climate change, on a trip around the world in an attempt to change his mind about global warming. It could have easily turned into an unpleasant tug-of-war, but the pair get on pretty well, and they certainly encounter some interesting people.
Rose starts off by saying that she has an open mind but almost in the next breath states that she is a firm believer in man-made climate change, based on the science that she learned in high school. However, her first point, that the drought that she saw at a farm in Moree is due to climate change, is not an auspicious beginning. Australia has always had droughts, and the recent one is probably not the worst; that dubious title goes to the Federation drought of the late 19th century. This tendency to jump from a specific, personal instance to a broad, global case is never a good sign, although it is common among activists, especially the environmental variety.
She finds firmer ground when she and Minchin visit a range of scientists, ploughing through temperature data and other detailed information. Rose has the habit of describing those who agree with her as brilliant and charming, and those who disagree as bumbling and abrasive. She also falls back on that old chestnut of the Left, the conspiracy theory — this time, depicting the coal industry as the string-pulling villain. Minchin, for his part, is willing to work through the data, but clearly he is not starting from the same place as his travelling companion.
In particular, the role of feedback mechanisms is a troubling point. It is an area not fully understood, but is crucial to climate scenarios. And this underlines a key difference between Rose and Minchin: she believes that there is already sufficient evidence to warrant radical action; he wants a higher level of knowledge before turning society and the economy inside out. There is probably no way to resolve this question of how much information is enough, but in the examination of it Rose’s stance begins to look more like a quasi-religious mindset than a considered, evidence-based conclusion.
There is an odd moment when they visit a scientist at a university in the US; after that meeting they see a wild-eyed campus preacher ranting that the end of the world is nigh. It sparks some deeper consideration by Rose — not of her beliefs, but of the tactics of the activist forces. She notes that public interest in the issue has fallen off in the past few years: could it be that trying to scare people by shouting at them is counter-productive? In the Australian context, Minchin notes that since the 2007 election the ALP has adopted the strategy of partisanising the climate change issue, and as a result there is no easy way to discuss it without coming down on the side of one party or the other.
Rose might have done well to explore the tactics of the activists in more detail. It is significant that the people she speaks to in support of her cause are all moderate, careful thinkers who value the system of peer-reviewed research. She ignores the more extreme elements, especially people like Clive Hamilton, who has suggested that democratic norms might need to be suspended to deal with the crisis, or Richard Glover, who has put forward the idea that those who do not agree with his position should be tattooed as a means of identification. Jill Singer simply wants them gassed.
Neither does Rose delve into the wilder claims of the alarmists. Tim Flannery (who endorsed the book) famously predicted that Australia should prepare for a situation of permanent drought (that was before the floods); Al Gore once stated that the island nation of Tuvalu had vanished under the rising waves (it is still there). Is it any wonder that much of the public has become wary of new claims of just-around-the-corner disaster?
Then there are various factions of deep Greens who apparently believe that the answer to global warming is a government takeover of the economy. Indeed, it seems that if you scratch an eco-socialist you find a socialist. These people often give the impression that climate change is merely a convenient vehicle for a larger, and not very likeable, political agenda.
Rose sidesteps these problems, although by the end of the book she is beginning to think that a better strategy for winning public support might be to focus on issues such as renewable energy, improved energy efficiency and better use of resources.
Minchin agrees with her on this, although they differ on the timeline for action. Rose believes that Minchin has, by the conclusion of their journey, become more accepting of the idea of global warming, while not being thoroughly convinced (it would be interesting to hear Minchin’s take on this).
Madlands is not a bad book. If Rose gives the impression of selecting and shaping her material, that is probably inherent in the nature of the subject and the approach she adopts. It is unlikely to persuade anyone one way or the other; that point is past. If Rose wants to do some real good, perhaps her next project should be about how the moderates on her side can displace the extremists as the face and voice of their cause.
Derek Parker is a regular reviewer for The Spectator Australia.Tags: iapps