Liberals Embrace Science? Yeah, But No

Senator Sinodinos – the Minister for Industry, Innovation, and …  whatsitsname? Oh yes, Science – said in a recent speech to the Press Club:

[I]ncreasingly, there has emerged a lack of respect for the scientific method in some quarters. We see the conclusions of experts being cast aside, in favour of ideological positions and selective use of facts. Denying the threat of climate change is a well-worn example […]

Is this the start of a renaissance in the Liberal Party – something which started around 1300 A.D. everywhere else? Or was Arthur just doing his job, being a politician?

The media immediately reported this speech as signalling a return to fact-based decision-making by the coalition, and a weakening of the climate sceptics in government.

Yeah… but no.

One swallow does not a summer make. At the same time that Minister Sinodinos was busking for Science his Prime Minister and government were carrying on business as usual with ideology and politics to the fore, and science nowhere to be seen.

Craig Kelly, a climate sceptic, was still chair of the environment and energy committee. Scott Morrison had not long before brandished a lump of coal in Parliament. Malcolm Turnbull, pre-empting his own expert report on the electricity industry, had recently said:

We will not be imposing a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme, whatever it is called

A day later, two more scientists quit the Climate Change Authority. One of them said (emphasis mine):

The government’s refusal to accept the advice of its own authority, despite wide support for that advice from business, environmental groups and the community as a whole, reflects the comprehensive failure of its policies on energy and the environment. These failures can be traced, in large measure, to the fact that the government is beholden to rightwing anti-science activists in its own ranks and in the media. Rather than resist these extremists, the Turnbull government has chosen to treat the vital issues of climate change and energy security as an opportunity for political point-scoring and culture war rhetoric.

Now, whom do you think we should believe? A politician talking about scientists, or scientists talking about politicians? Better yet, let’s actually examine some evidence. I’ll hypothesise that both the Party and individuals within the party will arbitrarily accept and reject both evidence and accepted scientific theories on no better grounds than that they are convenient or inconvenient for their current position.

A brief review of statements and decisions from the Liberals and coalition over the last ten years quickly reveals the depth and believability of Sinodinos’ claim about their commitment. Note that this is just a small sampling, there were many, many more.

For convenience I have colour-coded them – red for science-sceptic or anti-science, green for rational. Of particular interest is the change in the Prime Minister’s stance from 2009 to now, which I would suggest is emblematic of the entire Liberal party.

Support for science and evidence-based policy changes with the changing of factional power, not with changes in any actual science or evidence. Science actually means no more to them than focus group results, and they have no more commitment to evidence-based policies than to a donor when the donor stops making contributions.

November 2007 Kevin Rudd wins election, defeats John Howard

July 2009 Tony Abbott “I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.”

October 2009 Tony Abbott “The argument [behind climate change] is absolute crap.”

December 2009 Abbott defeats Turnbull as leader of Liberal Party, becomes Leader of Opposition

December 2009 Malcolm Turnbull “Many Liberals are rightly dismayed that on this vital issue of climate change we are not simply without a policy, without any prospect of having a credible policy but we are now without integrity. We have given our opponents the irrefutable, undeniable evidence that we cannot be trusted.”

January 2010 Tony Abbott “It seems that, notwithstanding the dramatic increases in man-made CO2 emissions over the last decade, the world’s warming has stopped.”

February 2010 Malcolm Turnbull “How can we credibly expect China, with per capita emissions less than a quarter of ours, or India with per capita emissions less than one-tenth of ours, to take our call for global action seriously if we, a wealthy, developed, nation, are not prepared to take action ourselves?”
(on RET) “a slippery slope which can only result in higher taxes and more costly and less effective abatement of emissions”
(On ETS) “best mechanism for combating climate change is a market-based emissions trading scheme such as Labor is proposing”

August 2010 Malcolm Turnbull “despite all of the money and all of the hope that has been put into carbon capture and storage there is still, as of today, not one industrial scale coal fired power station using carbon capture and storage”

August 2010 Julia Gillard wins election, defeats Tony Abbott

September 2013 Tony Abbott wins election, defeats Kevin Rudd

September 2013 Tony Abbott Abolishes Science Minister. For the first time since 1931 Australia has no science portfolio.

September 2013 Cory Bernardi “I don’t, and I have never bought the alarmist hysteria attached to carbon dioxide as driving climate change. There’s no consensus of scientists, I’m afraid.”

October 2013 Tony Abbott “UN Climate Change expert is “talking though her hat””

November 2013 John Howard “Policy makers are faced with attempts to intimidate them with the manta of follow science. […] 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.”

March 2014 Tony Abbottt Scraps the Climate Commission, attempts to scrap the Climate Change Authority

May 2014 Abbott government slashes $110M from CSIRO budget, 1000 jobs lost, climate unit gutted.

December 2014 Tony Abbott adds Science back to ministry (as Minister for Industry and Science)

May 2015 Barnaby Joyce “I’m just always sceptical of the idea that the way that anybody’s going to change the climate — and I’m just driving in this morning and we’re driving through a frost — is with bureaucrats and taxes.”

June 2015 Dr Jensen and Mr Back support a motion at the federal Liberal council meeting which calls for a parliamentary inquiry to examine the evidence of climate change before the Government signs up to post 2020 emissions targets.

September 2015 Malcolm Turnbull defeats Tony Abbott as leader of the Liberal Party, becomes PM

September 2015 Ian MacDonald “This new theory — I often refer to it as a fad, a farce or a hoax — that suddenly, since the start of the industrial age, that sort of change of climate is happening anew, is just farcical and fanciful.”

September 2015 Malcolm Turnbull [rejecting a proposal for 50% renewables by 2030] “What if that reduction in emissions you needed could come more cost-effectively from carbon storage, by planting trees, by soil carbon, by using gas, by using clean coal, by energy efficiency?”

November 2015 A majority of Liberal and a significant minority of National voters believe that climate change is natural, rather than human induced, at 52% and 42% respectively

July 2016 Malcolm Turnbull wins election, defeats Bill Shorten

August 2016 The climate sceptic Liberal MP Craig Kelly is appointed chairman of the backbench environment and energy committee

January 2017 Arthur Sinodinos sworn in as Minister for Industry, Innovation, and Science

February 2017 Malcolm Turnbull, responding to a suggestion that the Finkel report might recommend such a scheme “We will not be imposing a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme, whatever it is called.”

February 2017 Scott Morrison Brings a lump of coal into Parliament to emphasise the coalition’s determination to support “clean coal”

March 2017 Arthur Sinodinos There is a lack of respect for the scientific methods in some quarters. We see the conclusions of some cast aside for selective use of facts. […] Denying the threat of climate change is a well-worn example.”

March 2017 Two more scientists leave the Climate Change Authority. One says “The government’s refusal to accept the advice of its own authority, despite wide support for that advice from business, environmental groups and the community as a whole, reflects the comprehensive failure of its policies on energy and the environment. These failures can be traced, in large measure, to the fact that the government is beholden to rightwing anti-science activists in its own ranks and in the media. Rather than resist these extremists, the Turnbull government has chosen to treat the vital issues of climate change and energy security as an opportunity for political point-scoring and culture war rhetoric.”

Let’s face it, politics, and the Liberal party, is riddled with politicians who have absolutely no respect for science or any kind of expertise if it is inconvenient for their current political position, or for their sponsors and donors. The comparison of Turnbull’s position in 2009-10 and 2016-17 is stark.

So is the current rhetoric just as hollow and expedient as the last ten (or twenty, or thirty) years’ worth, or has the Liberal party finally turned the corner?

Well, yeah, but no, but yeah, but no… No.

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